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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Decisions, Decisions...A Theory on the Origin of Writing

[Also available as a podcast]

Decisions, decisions.

We each make thousands of decisions every day. Some studies have indicated that the number is at least 5,000, and possibly up to 35,000 decisions every day. Most of these are small decisions, done subconsciously, or on auto-pilot. 

The conscious decisions we make every day are far fewer - but still easily in the high hundreds. The important decisions are fewer again, depending on the day. Some decisions may not even seem important until later on. But decisions we make, in the thousands, every single day of our lives. Even when you say that you can't make a decision - that is a decision to leave things as they are.

Theory on the Origin of Written Language

I have a theory about the origin of written language. There are many in-depth philosophical, scientific and scholarly theories and analyses on the origin and stages of writing in its various forms, from proto-writing through the various scripts, hieroglyphs and alphabets. 

My theory is not about the how or when of when the various forms of written language were developed as proposed by those theorists. My theory is about why written language was developed in the first place - at any place in the world you like, regardless of the time period, style, method or medium.

So here is my theory, developed over the course of an afternoon, including a short nap:

Written language was developed because of all of the decisions we make. 

More specifically, the important decisions. 

The Purpose of Written Language

The oral tradition of history is a great way to entertain and educate around campfires at night, but it is not a very reliable way of passing a consistent message across generations. Each speaker forgets a little bit, adds a little bit, or embellishes the stories a little bit. With every generation, giants get larger (8 foot! no, 9 foot! no, 11 feet tall!), enemies get more devious, more vicious, and more numerous. Heroes get more and more heroic, until they become larger than life. Details change.

The other problem is that people forget things. How many times have you been told something and then have to ask what it was they said? It may not be because you were not paying attention, it may be there was a long list of things to remember and your memory is not that good (or not as good as it was). You also have more difficulty in remembering specific details about conversations held months before, and this is normal.

Do you go to the grocery store with only a list in your head, and expect to remember to buy everything (and only those things) on your list? Rarely can any of us do that.

Decisions get made, and then they get forgotten, or miscommunicated. 

I suspect that at least this much about human nature has not changed much over thousands of years.

I believe that in every culture that developed a written language, this frustration finally came to a head.

"Enough!" one leader finally would say. "I am tired of repeating myself and having things be misinterpreted. If you can't remember exactly what I am telling you, we need a better way to communicate this. I want my decisions to be clearly understood and carried out by all of my people."

It probably went something like that. Obviously not word for word, of course, as it was not written down yet (!) However, invention often comes as a result of needing to alleviate great pain, and anyone trying to rule a kingdom by the spoken word alone must have had a lot of headaches. You also had to really, really trust the people you sent out with your commands to get it right and not change it, and remember it as best they could.

So a great project would begin - to design some form of written symbols to represent the spoken language. Everyone who formed part of the communication network would have needed to be trained in the reading of the symbols, and the trusted few would be trained on inscribing the symbols. 

The other benefit of a written language is that the King could expand his empire and maintain consistency of his rule - just look at the expansion of the Roman Empire as an example of what could be accomplished.

Most of the population would not have been trained in reading or writing of the symbols - it would have required a lot of effort to do so, and being able to read and write was an elite skill that formed part of the power structure. Carry the written word (symbols, hieroglyphs, script) from the central point of decision making, and then read out those words in the outlying regions - exactly as they had been inscribed at the source.

Written language symbols would have most likely been used primarily to record edicts and legal matters - important things, specifically, important decisions. Various mediums would have been tested and used - bark, cloth, animal skins, silk, reed fibre mats and others. Some were obviously more portable than others, and some more durable; some messages were of such significance that they were literally "written in stone" on rock or clay tablets, intended to last for a long time.

Babylonian legal tablet in stone envelope (Source: Wikipedia)

If you look at the various forms of written communication that have been unearthed, many of the less durable materials have decayed, but the more durable (clay tablets and stone) remain readable today. And what do we tend to find on those tablets? Decisions! Royal edicts, legal matters, business records. All outcomes of important decisions.

Very few people recorded shopping lists on stone tablets, but you can be sure there were a lot of those too, on less permanent materials. And what are shopping lists but recorded decisions of what you need to buy?

Note that literature and "pulp fiction" came much, much later - once the printed word became more accessible to the masses through the invention of the printing press.

Going forward to the present day, you will see that legacy remains - most of the written word revolves around decisions, even in fictional stories. You read about the lead-up to decisions, how people wrestle with difficult decisions, the decision as it is made, the outcome of the decisions, the justification for why they made bad decisions, and on it goes. A single book contains thousands upon thousands of decisions, and even dry textbooks describing new concepts to you are the result of others deciding what was important to tell you about the topic. 

Contracts are just another form of written decisions - what has been agreed to with respect to who is going to do what, who will pay whom, and what any penalties will be for non-conformance, and so on. Requirements documents? Recorded decisions about what they want you to do.

There may be some exceptions, in some poetry perhaps, but the primary focus of the written word is still wrapped in the legacy of decision-making and recording the framework of decisions.

But is this any surprise, considering each one of us makes so many decisions, every single day?

So there is my theory. It might not even be original, as many ideas are variants of other people's ideas, but I think you will agree there is some merit to it anyway.

Your Project and Decisions

How does this apply to your project? Well, in every project, there are many decisions made every single day. Some are minor, some are major and some are of great significance, either to scope, budget, time frame, or what needs to be done in order to accomplish the project goals.

Depending on the size of your project, you may have a formal Decision Log that records the disposition of major decisions that are made by the appropriate stakeholders; in your Responsibility Assignment Matrix you will have identified all of the stakeholders and project team members. A subset of these people, usually the Project Sponsor and a select group of stakeholders will be the key decision makers for your project, and you may possibly have a Change Control Board as well.

Make sure that you accurately track all of those major decisions and their outcomes, not only for the project audit, but to help ensure that everyone gets the same message about what those decisions were during your project.

For less major decisions, you may not need the Project Sponsor or the stakeholders involved; you may have these only at the level of your project team.

The decisions may relate to the scope of the project, costs, time frame, or any number of technical details regarding the execution of your project.

However, the key and important message here is to write things down. Most decisions may be arrived at through verbal discussion, but the decision and it disposition (and contributing factors) need to be recorded. This may be on paper, electronic documents or in emails, but get the information into a written form.

Don't forget to communicate the outcomes of those decisions - again, in written form. You may talk about them as well, when explaining them in front of a group, but there is more weight when things are written down.

Again, we all make thousands of decisions per day, but some need to be recorded, especially as they relate to the project. A good rule of thumb to use is if it materially affects the direction or outcomes of the project (cost, scope, timeline) or is anything that someone may come back to ask you about later on, write it down. Or type it in a log somewhere you can easily find it.

This is important because people forget, and their memories of events change and differ over time. If you write it down, both parties can review what was recorded; end of dispute over who remembered what best and who was "right"; often neither of you remember correctly.

If in doubt, write it out!


Ever since High School I have written things down. You will usually find me with a notebook nearby; however these days I am able to record notes and emails on my phone, so no extra baggage required if I am out and about. But I still use a paper notebook while I work. The interesting thing I have found is that the more I write things down, the better I remember them. And if I do get fuzzy on the details later on, I know that I wrote something down about it a few months (or years) back, and am able to find the reference in a notebook. Sometimes all I write in my notebook is something to jog my memory, or a reference of where the full details are recorded elsewhere - in a document or an email. But even with that small note, I find that I am able to recall the event in detail.

Many years ago now, a customer encountered an issue that seemed familiar to me. I knew I had seen it before but could not remember the specifics or the solution - but I knew I had written it down, and approximately which month of what year (three years before). Within 10 minutes I was able to find the reference and recount the full scenario and the solution. It impressed my colleagues and the customer, but it was really a matter of making a habit of writing things down, especially the important things.

The only times I have been stuck, unable to recount the full details or an event or decision was when I neglected to record a note in my book. I may have been tired that afternoon and not felt like writing things down...and often, that would come back to bite me. So I still record notes in my notebook - and I have a closet full of them, numbered and going back many years. Of course, I use email and documents for most of my written communication these days, but the principle is the same - I can search through emails, and I will usually remember the year and month when I sent or received it as well.

Many ancient societies spent the intense effort to develop various forms of the written word, which have evolved into the various written languages we have today. And they did it all for you - and future generations, so that you can read about past decisions, and record yours for future generations, or at least for communicating within your project team (and for the project audit).

Honor the efforts of those many generations and millions of people who labored to develop the written forms of language (just for you!) - and write the important stuff down.

Good luck with your projects, and keep good notes. You'll need them for later on.

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