What does it mean if you tell someone in your department that a project is due Monday? Does that mean first thing Monday morning? Close of business Monday? End of day Monday?
If I tell my students a paper is "due Wednesday" in this age of digital assignment submission, what do I mean? Before class on Wednesday or Wednesday by 11:59 p.m.? It might seem like conventional wisdom to assume I mean the former, but it would be hard to argue with a kid who interpreted it to mean the latter.
I see situations like this surprisingly often in my consulting work as I'm reviewing documents for clients. Consider this: “X will be completed by May 2018.”
I flag it as problematic. Here’s why:
Interpretation 1: It will be completed by the end of the last day of April 2018—the last moment in time that occurs before May, thus occurring “by May.” So, on the morning of May first, it should be ready to roll, with all the initial wrinkles worked out.
Of course, in some contexts, this might not matter. But in others, it could matter a great deal. What if the CEO understands interpretation 1, but the department manager understands interpretation 2? And, for an entire year leading up to May, neither the boss nor the manager even knows it?
In that case, it's going to be a bad day in the office on May first. It would be hard to say who was wrong. They'd both have a perfectly valid case. Either way, nobody wins. Of course, we'd hope some simple communication in the interim would have flagged the problem and clarified the expectations, but sometimes projects just don't get talked about vertically until they're very close to deadline.
This confusion can be avoided by taking a little more time with precision of language. Just adding “by the end of” or “by the beginning of” clears it up.
Now, it’s important to remember something: Sometimes ambiguity is intentional because it affords flexibility. There are times when this is an essential strategic decision. Sometimes. But I’d argue that more often than not, the potential liability incurred by the potential for differing interpretations will outweigh the benefits of such non-specificity.
This occurs in everyday settings, too. If you say you’ll “do the grocery shopping by noon,” do you mean you’ll leave for the store at noon, or be home from the store by noon? It’s reasonable to assume you mean it will be complete before noon, but that’s not really what you’ve said, is it?
Simple takeaway: When it comes to timelines, be sure that ambiguous phrasing doesn’t set the stage for problems.
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