Murphy’s been quiet for a while. Nothing surfaced until last week in a remote and tiny village in north central Newfoundland. It was there that some children unearthed a small strongbox at an adit in an abandoned gold mine first opened in the late 1870s in the Mings Bight area of the territory. In that box, they found a yellowed, but otherwise well-preserved scrap of paper that simply read:

“The degree to which one offers ambiguous instructions is directly proportional to the amount of time that the one receiving those ambiguous instructions will spend on interpreting them and doing the wrong thing no less than three times in the course of executing the ambiguities contained therein.”

— I.M. Murphy

It’s unclear why Murphy felt the need to even write that down, let alone preserve that thought in a strongbox. Maybe Murphy knew I’d have writer’s block this week and was kind enough to provide some fodder for me.

At any rate, Murphy had a point. I seem to spend a lot of time sortin’ through instructions offered by those from outside the confines of the company. Sometimes, if one of my cohorts gets the memo first, they’re able to filter things and help me along. If someone has been dealin’ with someone else for a number of years, they can cut through the haze pretty quickly. That’s a GGO right there inn’t Timmy? But it certainly helps the rest of us.

So how specific do we need to be with our instructions? I reckon that depends on a lot of things.

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

First, you gotta know who you’re instructin’. Consider their level of their expertise. And not just in the scope of whatever industry you’re in, but with the tools to be employed. I’ll use myself as an example here.

In the context of web design and development, I’m a lot more comfortable with WordPress than I am with Joomla. I’ve worked on a lot of sites built with the Gantry framework in Joomla which for me, isn’t all that intuitive. Seems like there’s nine kinda ways to get there from here and I’m never sure which way is best. So I do a little more diggin’ with those kinds of sites. And things are often hidden behind a layer or two. More specificity is better for me in this case.

With WordPress – while I’m no guru – I can generally muck my way through the most of it. General directions and I’m good to go.

Now let’s consider some of the instructions that come from the outside that don’t get filtered prior to smackin’ me upside my head. I look at some of these emails and assignments and I just go blank as confusion overwhelms me and the ringing in my ears increases to decibel levels rivaled only by the crowd noise at Arrowhead Stadium during an AFC Championship game. And I’m really not that easily confused Timmy.

THINK BEFORE YOU WRITE

To compound the chaos, many instructions are encapsulated in 7-layer emails. Degree of Difficulty x 3 and I’m reduced to slicing through the noise to even find the directives. And when I do find them, well, sayin’ a lot of them are ambiguous is bein’ kind. Clear as mud comes closer. Not that this is intentional by any means. A lot of times, I think people figure others are as close to a project as they are, and that everyone understands facts not in evidence.

For instance, maybe the person issuin’ the instructions has referred to a page as the “123 Do This” page because that’s what they’ve always called it. But when someone like me – completely unfamiliar with the site – looks at the backend and sees 259 pages – none of which have anything to with “123 Do This” – well, we’re off to a rocky start Timmy. A URL would have been a lot more helpful. Even then, if folks don’t use logical naming conventions for aliases and such, it can take a while to figure just what page we’re lookin’ for.

Okay. Let’s say after 15 minutes of rootin’ around and an email or two, we find the page. Back to the instructions. They not-so-clearly state that the buttons need to be the same green as the buttons used on the “ABC Whatever” page. Wuf. A huntin’ we will go.

Once we find that page, hmmmm. There are three different buttons and two shades of green. Whilst I’m tempted to toss a coin, I know a 50/50 shot is half times wrong, so another email.

Again, you may think I’m exaggeratin’ but trust me when I tell you this happens way too often. I waste a lot of time chasin’ my tail, tryin’ to wade through instructions that are unnecessarily ambiguous. Time is money Timmy. And I’m not gettin’ any younger.

IF YOU TRUST MY JUDGEMENT, I QUESTION YOURS

Now let’s talk about the instruction that includes the phrase “Just use your own judgement.” Okay. That’s so fraught with peril I can’t even chart it. If I had a nickel for every time my judgement didn’t line up with the person’s utterin’ that ultimate ambiguity, well I could go to Disneyland for like a month. And ride every ride. Hundreds of times.

Of course, when you’ve worked with someone long enough, trusting each other’s judgement is a good thing. It actually ends up savin’ time more often than not.

Not quite as bad, but well within the bounds of ambiguity is when someone tells me to “just use a nice blue.” Next time I hear that, I’m gonna ask if Nice Blue is a Pantone color or what range of hexadecimal values it might fall into. That’s the crochety old man in me breakin’ free again. I know Timmy. I can’t say that out loud.

While I kinda make light of all the ambiguity swirlin’ about, it does become drainin’ in fairly short order and can easily suck us into the Abyss of Utter Despair. Especially when it comes at us from all different angles. I think most of you can relate.

And whenever I hear “Let me be clear” – especially from a politician – I know somethin’ is goin’ sideways pretty quick and I’mma headin’ for the hills.

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