Winter 2004, CSE 403 - Software Engineering

Speech Acts

An important aspect of being a professional is to be able to make requests and fulfill requests.  The following model of requests can help you do this.   

All of these speech acts revolve around the issue of making commitments.  Yes, "commitments."  Many people don't like the "commit" word, so choose whatever word you want as long as you keep the meaning: when you commit to doing something, you are promising that, given your current understanding of the world and your capacity and capabilities, you wager that you will be able to fulfill that commitment.  This includes factoring in reasonable risks, such as the chance that other demands will arise between now and when your commitment is due.  

Each request has at least four acts.

Act I: Making the request

A request involves two people: the person requesting (consumer) and the person being asked to do (producer).  Before you agree (or not) to the request, make sure you understand what is being requested of you.  Listen to your consumer.  Ask for clarification.  Figure out how you (and they) will know whether you have successfully fulfilled the request.  Propose alternatives, since they may be more attractive than the original request.  The more shared understanding you two have, the higher the chance of success.

A request needs to specify:

Without a common and sufficient understanding of these parts, the request is un-grounded.  Some people can reach and keep this understanding without any written artifact.  Especially if they have been working together for a while.  However, the more people involved and the more tasks being managed, the higher the chance of misunderstanding if the request is not recorded.  The trick is to include just enough details.

Thus, a request needs the following information:

Act II: Responding to a request

Part of the producer's responsibility is to make sure that they understand the request, as described above.

Then the producer has the choice of making one of four responses:

Act III: Working on the request

During the process of working on completing the request, the producer may discover something that changes their understanding of what is possible or desirable.

If you are the producer and you realize along the way that your commitment is at risk, you have several responsible choices:

  1. You can minimize the risk, by reducing the chance the risk will happen.
  2. You can mitigate the risk, by reducing the impact if the risk does happen.
  3. You can transfer the risk to someone else.
  4. You can ask for help.
  5. You can make a counter-offer.
  6. You can revoke your commitment.  Tell your customer you will not fulfill the request.  Clearly, this will have a cost with respect to your relationship with the consumer.

If you are the consumer and you realize along the way that your request is no longer what you want, you can:

  1. Live with that.
  2. Revoke your request, and then enter a new request cycle.  Note that this may appear less rigid than this wording applies.  For instance, if you re-negotiate your request, you are in effect revoking your original request and then negotiating for a new request.  But you might not say the word "revoke."

Act IV: Finishing the request

A request is not completed until:

  1. The producer has informed the customer that it is done.
  2. The consumer has informed the producer about whether they were satisfied with the result.

Common myths about requests

I can't say "No" to my boss.  I can't ask for outrageous or impossible things. 

A closing note

This is a model, and as such may appear more formal than what you will see in practice.  For instance, there are many ways of saying "commit" or "revoke" without using those words.  The appropriate wording and dialog depends upon the situation, cultural norms, etc.