Sometimes just the smallest little change to an existing way of doing things can have enormous — and unexpected — positive consequences. Here's one of my favorite examples of this phenomenon.
One of the most significant but unheralded communications developments of the past 1,500 years is the adoption of spaces between words.
Notice the words you’re currently reading. They are separated by spaces, written in lower case letters, and easy to read. Prior to approximately the eighth century AD, however, Latin and Greek were written in capital letters in a “run on” fashion — that is, without spaces between the words. Here’s an example:
As you can see, this type of writing slows you down. In ancient times, though, Latin and Greek texts were almost always read out loud. (This method is known as “reading by ear.”) Ancient readers, sufficiently familiar with their own language, easily identified words by sound instead of sight, and had little difficulty. Thus, word-separating spaces were considered unnecessary.
Such familiarity wasn’t the case in later times. Eighth century AD priests, living at the periphery of the former Roman Empire, had a weaker grasp of Latin, and so couldn’t always determine where one word ended and the next one began when reading Mass. The priests solved this problem by inserting spaces between the words to serve as a recognition aid.
Over time, the addition of the spaces created an unexpected benefit: faster reading. That’s because if you can see the beginning and ending of a word, you'll recognize it more quickly; moreover, the brain can sight-read words in much less time than it takes to speak and hear them. By the twelfth century, most of the literate world had adopted spaces, and sight-reading became widespread.
Question to think about: Think of a current project you're working on. What can you do (in this project) that would be the equivalent of adding spaces? How might that make it better?