The Obviousness Trap: Double Yellow Lines And The Danger Of Unrecognised Misunderstandings

Progressing change is an inherently human endeavour.  It doesn’t really matter how slick a change ‘process’ is, if people aren’t on-board with a common understanding of what needs to change then the initiative is unlikely to be as successful as it otherwise could have been.

One challenge that we face when working with others is communication.  It’s very easy to discuss something with a group of stakeholders and appear to reach a consensus, only later to find that everyone in the room had a slightly different understanding of what was being discussed.  Precise communication is difficult even amongst professionals who supposedly have a shared professional language, and words and symbols can be interpreted subtly differently leading to vast misunderstandings.

This might sound crazy, so let’s take an example.  I suspect many people reading this blog will have a driving licence, and many people reading this will have a driving licence issued within a country that allows them to drive a car in the UK.  Even if you don’t, you probably have a vague awareness of the meaning of road markings and signs.  So, here’s a quiz for you, what does this set of road markings mean?  It’s not a trick question, I promise, so go ahead and shout the answer at the screen!

Double yellow lines
Double Yellow Lines: But What Do They Mean?

This question seems so simple, so obvious and if you’re a UK-based driver you’re probably shouting something like “it means no parking!”. 

But does it mean that?  What if I were to tell you it doesn’t… or rather it doesn’t always mean that and that it’s actually more complicated than it looks…

Things Are Often More Complicated Than They Appear

The answer to the question of what the lines mean, if there is one, is “it depends”.  There actually isn’t enough information contained within the picture for us to know for sure what the road markings mean.  That sounds like a typically annoying BA ‘get out’ clause, so let me explain my understanding (disclaimer: this is not parking or legal advice 🙂 :

  • Double yellow lines generally mean ‘no waiting’ at any time. (so ‘no parking’ is a pretty good approximation for most situations). 
  • However, loading and unloading is permitted on double-yellow lines, with an accepted convention being 20 minutes is permitted for most types of drivers.
  • Also, the meaning of the road markings can be altered by signs which state the times or seasons in which they operate.
  • Allegedly, if the terminating ‘T-Bar’ has not been drawn (or has worn off) at the end of the markings, then they may be technically meaningless and unenforceable 
  • Although, some local authorities have passed bylaws to overcome the ‘T-Bar’ loophole, so don’t risk it!
  • If you’re a driver with a blue (disabled) badge, you may be able to park there if there aren’t any signs to the contrary.

What’s more, the meaning of the lines can be subtly changed with other road markings.  Take this example:

Double Yellow Lines With Double Horizontal lines On Kerb
Notice The Difference?

Notice the horizontal lines on the kerb?  This alters the meaning so that loading and unloading is not permitted.  There’s a lot of nuance conveyed by a few simple road markings.  And even though many of us have passed a common ‘certification’ (the driving test) we might have subtly different understandings of what these road markings mean, which could lead to us interpreting them differently (which leads us to act differently).

If we can’t reach agreement on what two painted lines mean even with fairly prescriptive publicly available guidance, no wonder there are misunderstandings on projects and change initiatives.

Moving From Tacit To Explicit

The beauty of a symbol like a set of double yellow lines is they can convey rich meaning concisely, it’s like sending a broadcast ‘message’ to road users.  The danger is, without a common understanding of what that meaning is we can end up miscommunicating. The ‘sender’ of the message might have a very precise meaning in their minds, but this has to go through the eyes, brains and ‘filters’ of the receivers who might draw very different conclusions over what the message means. 

This example illustrates a set of implications that are relevant for what we do as business analysts and change professionals. It goes some way to explaining some of the misunderstandings that inevitably happen on change initiatives, those situations where people think they agree but they are agreeing to different things.

A question I find myself asking more and more is:

“Can you help me understand what exactly you mean by X?”

This is a question I probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable asking earlier in my career—it could be interpreted to show vulnerability—however I’ve found this curiosity crucial in moving towards shared understanding.   I’ve even been known to collate the responses and play them back to the stakeholders, highlighting that different understandings and expectations exist.  What better way to illustrate the point?

Modelling and diagramming can help us ensure that we are on the ‘same page’ too, particularly if those we are collaborating with were part of creating the diagram or model.  The danger with using diagrams with people who weren’t involved is they might have a different understanding of the symbols and semantics of the model.  If you’ve ever shown a detailed BPMN model to a stakeholder, you probably know what I mean (how many types of intermediate event?!).  BPMN is great, but creating the right ‘view’ for the right set of stakeholders is crucial.  

Assuming nothing, asking questions, co-creating and drawing pictures moves us closer to a common understanding.  Beyond all of this, curiosity is crucial, and it’s important that we dodge the ‘obviousness trap’.


What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com

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