Putting meaning to work

It’s been a couple of months since I last posted, and over the summer a number of things have shifted for me personally and for the team at Visual Meaning.

Our vision as a company has always been the same:  To make the world a more meaningful place.  We do this by visualising complex ideas and systems so people can talk about them.

But recently we’ve started noticing that a lot of what we do has less to do with just picture-making and more to do with meaning-making in general.  For most of our clients, the pictures are great but the thing they really remember is the questions we ask, and the way we structure their answers and feed them back in a more meaningful way.

In principle, making meaning is a simple thing to do:  You figure out what people care about and represent it in a way that everyone understands.  But how do you do that in practice?

Kurt Lewin famously said that there’s “nothing so practical as a good theory”.  Well I’ve spent the last fifteen years doing the reverse – developing theory to explain good practice.  I’ve always had an outline understanding in my head of why what we do is a bit different – connecting with people’s experiences, matching mental models to perceptual schema and so on – but over the summer this has developed into a full-blown model that (it seems to me) just works.  And I think it has huge potential for practical application.

Meaning is a word that exists in many languages and draws together two everyday human experiences – the sense of “I get it” (the “meaning” in a dictionary) and the sense of “I care” (the “meaning” in a deep conversation).  Almost all the literature on meaning at work is purely about the latter sense – it’s just a synonym for “purpose” or “significance”.  But in my experience at least half the problem in most organisations is the former.  How can you care about your everyday work when you don’t really get what it’s for?  How can you feel passionate about your company’s strategy when it’s explained in a strange and abstract language that so many people are only pretending to be able to speak?  How can you find shared purpose with your team-mates when your manager can’t explain clearly what the team’s priorities are and why?

The model we’ve developed integrates both senses of meaning into a coherent whole.  It takes meaning out of the realm of the esoteric, and makes it a real, practical, learnable tool that can be used to make things happen.  Instead of talking about meaning at work, we’re going to be talking about putting meaning to work.

I’m really excited about this!

What this means in practice is that from now on the visual thinking side of this blog will become a subset of the overall subject matter.  And just to be clear, this isn’t because I don’t think visual thinking is important.  I run a visual thinking consultancy!  I still think visual language is the great unwrapped gift for mankind … half of our brain’s resources are spent on visual processing, so it’s crazy that this skill is so woefully under-developed and under-taught.

But it’s not the whole story.

And so, starting next month, this blog is going to be rebranded as www.meaning.guide.  And that’s what it’s going to be:  A user’s guide to meaning.  An exploration of how you can use meaning as an effective tool to build cohesion in your team, make working life more puposeful, communicate more effectively and draw people from different backgrounds together to get things done.  I hope you enjoy it.

There’s no such thing as an “uncreative” person

creativity in business

I posted some thoughts on creativity over on LinkedIn last week – see here.

When I ask a typical business audience whether they think of themselves as creative or uncreative, I usually get a 50:50 split. I find this really sad. In our work at Visual Meaning, it’s one of the biggest challenges we face when coaching and training people. If you believe you can’t do something then you don’t bother practising, so you just don’t get any better.

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed: A visual summary

I was talking to someone over the weekend about Paulo Freire’s influential book from the 1970s, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  I read it many years ago, and because it’s written in quite a philosophical / academic style I remembered making some sketch notes after reading it to help me remember the main themes.

After a bit of digging, here they are!  Freire’s basic idea is that you can’t “teach” people suffering under oppression out of their oppression, at least not using the typical western “banking” concept of education, where I tell you the truth and you have to replay the facts back to me.  Instead you have to create a curriciulum from the symbols that are meaningful to the oppressed people themselves, and engage them in dialogue.

If this sparks your interest then I’d highly recommend reading the book.  Here’s a good extended summary of the main themes.

Stopping jargon before it starts

I just posted some thoughts on the origin of business jargon over on LinkedIn that you may find interesting. In a nutshell, just because the person with the whiteboard marker happens to be socially dominant, you mustn’t stand by and let them produce meaningless jargon that the rest of the organisation is going to have to live with.

I think this is doubly important if you happen to be some kind of visual practitioner. There’s a particular joy that comes with being seen as the creative / designer / right brain in the room, which is that you can play the “naïve artist” card.  The “naïve artist” gets to ask the question “what does that actually look like?” over and over in hundreds of different ways, which is possibly the best way I know of turning waffle into meaning (assuming, that is, there’s meaning to be made).

Steps to mapping society

Many thanks to Daniel Bassill for taking the time to share his thoughts on my TED talk on mapping society.

If you haven’t watched it, the basic idea is that having an accurate and comprehensive set of visual maps of how society (particularly the public sector) works as a system could help us have more meaningful conversations about how we want it to work in the future. As an example I use a map we made of the European Union.

Daniel has spent a lot of time using mapping techniques to a similar end, and in his post he raises three challenges to making the vision a reality. His challenges are very perceptive, and represent concerns I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about over the years, but didn’t have time to address in the talk.

1) The challenge of making the maps in the first place

Imagine waking up in the Middle Ages, inventing maps, and going around trying to persuade the average commoner that they needed one. For the vast majority of people, they wouldn’t understand why. They know their way to the village, they can always ask someone if they get lost, and if they need to go further afield they can just follow the signposts, right?

I sometimes feel like that person!  What makes me persevere is the fact that I have in fact sold an awful lot of maps to an awful lot of people over the years. The thing is, to use the medieval analogy, I’ve been selling them to the gentry, not to the commoners. The gentry have a need for maps because they do things like travel to meet other nobles, launch invasions and argue over property rights.

The buyers for the conceptual maps we make as a company tend to be programme managers, operations directors, CEOs and the like. When a large organisation has a significant need for change they will spend a lot of money on it. Coralling all the involved parties towards a common goal warrants a decent map to explain to people how the business works now and how it needs to work in the future.

My view is that this way of doing change is grossly inefficient. We wait until the organisation is no longer fit for purpose in some way and then do a massive transformation programme. Then wait a few years (or a few months!) and do it all over again. We made an interactive model of this way of doing change last year, which you can see here:

Instead the organisation should be continuously adapting and evolving to the changes in its environment. And I think one of the big reasons this doesn’t happen is that there is no shared model of the organisation, its purpose or its environment, so change becomes a reaction to things going too obviously wrong for people to ignore. Then a programme is launched and business analysts are hired to figure out how the business actually works in order to streamline the processes, implement the new IT system or whatever.

Enterprise Architecture is an attempt to address this problem, but in my experience fails too often because the models it generates cannot be universally understood. What is needed is a set of system maps that everyone can understand and see themselves in, that are continuously updated and are trusted to reflect the reality on the ground.  In other words, maps that look more like this …

… and not just like this:

Now how does this answer the question?

Firstly, if this principle can be demonstrated in the public sector, such that money is saved by organisations engaging in continous evolution rather than costly periodic transformation, then we have a funding stream.

Secondly, the cost of maintaining the maps rapidly diminishes the more of these organisations are on board. The cost of creating a set of maps for local authority number one is expensive; creating the maps for local authority number seventeen is not.

Thirdly, once the maps are created, they open up a huge number of value streams, many of which couldn’t have been imagined beforehand. For example, imagine how much more meaningful a seminar would be between representatives of different public bodies, if each could use their own map to explain the idiosyncrasies of their respective approaches to the same problem.

The point of all of this is that you don’t fund the approach by selling directly to the commoners. You have to find ways to deliver business value and sell to the gentry. Once you have those in charge of public sector organisations on board, you can then turn the maps inside out to show the public how they fit into those systems.

Now don’t get me wrong here. My deep conviction is that meaningful system maps will only find their greatest value once they are accessible and in everyday use by everyone involved in those systems. But you can’t start there – you’re selling maps to people who don’t see the need, let alone have the willingness to pay for them. Which brings me onto the second point.

2) The challenge of motivating growing numbers of people to look at the maps

I get asked this all the time. You spend ages making a nice map of a complex system, but how do you then persuade people to take the time to look at it?

My first answer is a very simple and short one: You make the maps resemble the world they represent. The more closely a conceptual map corresponds visually to our experience of the world, the more meaningful it will be, and the more likely people are to become interested in it. Learning to do this well is the whole point of this blog.

The second point is much subtler and needs a bit of explanation. The short answer, is you don’t target them all at once. Let’s move away from the medieval metaphor of gentry and commoners, and talk about Middle Earth instead. In case you haven’t read the Hobbit, it starts off with a hobbit called Bilbo being visited by a wizard and some dwarfs and shown a map with treasure and a dragon. Against his better judgment Bilbo goes off with the dwarfs to follow the map and steal the treasure. Everyone else in his village things he’s mad to do so.

It strikes me that most of us are a bit like hobbits. We like the idea of adventure and challenge and danger, as long as it’s in a story and we don’t actually have to be involved ourselves. What does this look like in organisations?

I think in the rank and file of an average organisation there is a smaller number of people – say 5% – who are Bilbo-like. When a change programme comes along, they volunteer to join the programme team. When something isn’t working, they scour the staff directory looking for someone who may be able to help figure out what’s going on. When someone has a great idea, they hack their way through the organisational bureaucracy to find a way to operationalise it.

These people are gold. To the extent that the organisation adapts to its changing environment, it tends to be as a result of their hidden endeavours, most of which seem to go unnoticed and unrewarded. In fact sometimes these can be really annoying when everyone just wants to stick with the status quo.

I don’t think many of us are like this naturally, but I think all of us have the potential to be. The lesson I get from reading the Hobbit is that something as simple as a map can go a long way to unlocking that potential. I know this was the case for me. I grew up in a poor family, so we never travelled abroad. But we had this 1962 Readers Digest atlas of the world that I scoured week after week, imagining what it would be like to go off and explore. It was beautiful, with bright vivd colours to stir the imagination. The things is, in a world with no maps, I wouldn’t have even known that any of these places existed except through hearsay, just as the average medieval villein never travelled more than a few dozen miles from their manor and village, and just as the average office worker knows nothing of the world outside their particular silo.

It’s surely expecting too much for an employee with a complex process problem and an unsympathetic manager to go off trying to find someone working in an unknown department who could help solve it. But if the process is mapped out in a way that that person can understand, and the map is accessible to everyone, then he/she can trace back to see who the relevant person is on the map, and maybe even link straight through to their profile on the internal directory. The map both contains the anxiety of the unknown, and invites exploration to find out what different parts of the organisational universe look like in the real world.

In my view, the vast majority of major organisational problems occur not within organisational units but in the no-man-land between them – the parts that no one understands. These problems can’t be solved unless there are enough people working outside their comfort zones, exploring, figuring out what’s falling between the cracks and bringing those things to managerial attention.

Now, let’s just say I’m right and the “change agent Bilbo Baggins organisational explorer” type personality represents 5% of a given population, and that these people have a disproportionate effect on the rest of the organisation’s ability to adapt and thrive in a changing world. Then the objective is not to get everyone looking at the maps, but to get the maps into those people’s hands. If you do this then I think two things happen: Firstly these people will become way more effective because they’ll be spending a lot less time lost in no-mans land. And secondly, you will slowly start to recruit more Bilbos, because the existing Bilbos now have a resource with which to trigger their colleagues’ curiousity.

And to be honest, even if making these maps only gets the 5% proportion up to 8% or 9%, that’s probably a big enough shift to change the world in some pretty substantial ways.

3) The role of network-builder, facilitator, mentor and teacher

I think I’ve just half-answered this question. The Bilbos of the organisational world are usually the ones building the biggest networks, because they’re the ones who cross boundaries and meet people. But facilitation, mentoring and teaching are a different kettle of fish. Facilitation alone is a skill many people claim but very few have mastered.

The thing maps do though, is to raise the “base” level of conversation before you even get into the need for facilitation. Think about it – if you’re a group trying to plan a route for a long distance car journey or a hiking expedition, how much harder would the conversation be if you didn’t have a map to act as a shared reference? Provided everyone trusts the map, you at least don’t need to argue about where you are, where you’re going, and what’s between the two. In most organisations (let alone society at large) people’s mental models of these three things can be alarmingly different.

If we’re all looking at the same map of a system and if (big if!) we all agree that it’s an accurate depiction of how the system works, then we end up having much more meaningful conversations, we disagree about the things that are worth disagreeing about, and we’re much more likely to avoid getting lost in misunderstandings due to our differeing silo languages and mental models.

A final thought

Daniel raised three great challenges to the vision of universal system maps. For what it’s worth, I’ll raise one final challenge that Daniel didn’t mention, but I think might be the biggest, and that’s the challenge to remain neutral. If maps are going to bring people from different perspectives together, then they those maps can’t have a hiddenn agenda. I want to avoid any hint of didacticism in my system maps, because I know that the people coming to use them will have enough prejudices of their own. As soon as they sense they’re being sold a line they disagree with, the map becomes as worthless in their eyes as an advertising campaign.

Sadly, complete neutrality isn’t possible. Every representation we create is biased in some way to our own particular view of the world. But we can at least be aware of this and hold on to the ideal. The bigger challenge is trying to spot and avoid vested interests in the people who are giving us the content for the maps. We often find that content owners explain their part of the pictures in ways designed to sell themselves, protect themselves, or push along a particular hobby-horse. As an outsider, how do you know the difference? It’s not like being a cartographer, where the hill you’re trying to map stays still!

Unfortunately I don’t have a good answer to this final challenge beyond the need for constant checking and iteration. I am however very encouraged by the history of geographical maps. It may have taken 5000 years, but we no longer argue about what’s on the other side of the ocean, or how high the mountain is. Hopefully the same journey for conceptual system mapping will not take such a long time!

Beauty is not a substitute for meaning

“Allowing artist-illustrators to control the design and content of statistical graphics is almost like allowing typographers to control the content, style and editing of prose.”

– Edward Tufte

I’ve been re-reading Tufte recently, and this comment jumped out at me. Although the subject is data visualisation, the same is true for any kind of visualisation. If you’re going to create a meaningful representation of concepts, then you have to understand what those concepts mean. And if you’re going to understand what they mean, then you’re going to need either a lot of prior knowledge or the ability to ask a lot of really good questions.

Beauty is important, but if your intention is to communicate then it is not a worthy substitute for meaning.

Show don’t tell: A simple way to be more impactful

“You make meaning for people by connecting with their experience.”

I remember the first time I realised this. John Kotter’s book “Leading Change” had just come out, and there was an example of a procurement guy who wasn’t getting any traction with the board, so he got a pair of every type of workglove used in every factory in the company. When the board showed up for the meeting, there were 424 pairs of the same type of gloves on the table, each with a price tag ranging from $5 to $17.

Everyone was speechless – in an instant, an abstract commercial problem had become real, and his business case was signed off.

As it happened, I was doing change and comms on a procurement programme myself at the time, so I gave it a try. I spoke to all the category team leads and got them to find the most ridiculous purchasing examples they could find, and send them to me. It wasn’t hard. Purchasing were ordering on behalf of the business by SKU number rather than description, so they didn’t actually know what they were buying. Suppliers could literally charge whatever they wanted. Here are a couple of my favourites:

1 x cable tie = £32 (actual manufacturer’s price 4p)

1 x hardened RF BNC connector = £150 (actual manufacturer’s price £17)

… and so on. We took these objects on roadshow around different sites and got people to guess how much they thought they cost, waited for their jaws to come back up from the floor, and then got them engaged in the changes the programme was making.

What this demonstrates is the power of showing rather than telling. Pictures work well because they’re closer to experience than words, but if you can find a way to do it, avoid symbols altogether and go straight to the reality you’re trying to convey!

Another example. I took my kids to a science fair last summer, where an anti-smoking charity had a jar sat on their table (I see these are now available for sale). This is the amount of tar that an average smoker takes into their lungs each year. My 7-year-old picked it up, asked what it was and said “eeww that’s gross!”

Whenever the subject of smoking comes up now, she mentions the jar … just think how much stickier that is than someone telling her “don’t smoke when you’re older because the tar is bad for your lungs”.

I’ve noticed this technique has become ever more popular in mainstream presentations. They’re often a feature of the highest rated TED Talks:

Jill Bolte Taylor producing an actual brain and nerve stem to talk about strokes (2:32):

Bill Gates releasing mosquitoes into the crowd to talk about malaria prevention (5:02):

Jamie Oliver turning over a wheelbarrow of sugar to talk about school meals (13:17):

The pattern is the same in each case: If meaning is connecting with experience, then the ultimate way to make meaning is not to talk about things but to let the audience experience them directly.

* Health warning before doing this in a commercial environment *

One last thing. The most interesting thing about my procurement campaign was the difference in reaction. Among leadership and among the rank and file, everyone loved it. Among middle management it was divisive. Many people said it would reduce morale, that it might be perceived as a slight on the teams who had made the purchases, that it could turn into a witch-hunt, and so on.

I find this fascinating, because it tells me a lot about why corporate communication is the way it is. If people are driven primarily by fear then obfuscation is a great defence. Stick to words, preferably jargon-laden words and no one will complain. Connect with reality and you might just find you’ve trodden on a hornet’s nest. This is the double-edged sword of meaning – handle with care!

Start with when

When people see our conceptual maps for the first time, they often ask “Where do you start?!”

It took us a few years to notice that we actually always start in the same place.  When we’re trying to figure out the underlying structure of a visualisation, the first question is not actually “where” but “when”.

Here’s the outline of a typical transformation story.  I’m going to illustrate the point using a drawing, but the same logic would apply to any type of diagram or map or slide you want to create:

“We’re constantly spinning plates – we spend more time trying to get IT to work than we do serving clients, and the chasm between them and us keeps getting wider.  The competition is getting smarter, so If we don’t do anything it will be so easy for them to steal our business.  Once the new IT platform is built, we can re-train staff to get them spend more time with clients.”

So if you were going to draw a picture of this, where would you start?  If you’re a graphic recorder, you’re probably already picking up on the metaphors of spinning plates, chasms, stealing etc.

But this is like building muscles when you don’t have a skeleton.  You need to get the structure right first.  And the key to doing this is to start with time.

What are the timezones here?  You’ve got the current state (“we are spinning plates”), the future state with a new IT platform (“we can re-train staff”) and the future state doing nothing (“competition steals our business”).  What each element looks like is a secondary consideration – first of all you have to delineate the areas that they will appear in:

The structural challenge of visualisation is that you’re trying to condense the four dimensions of everyday experience into two dimensions of a static image.  You can use perspective to trick the eye into seeing the three dimensions of space, but what do you do with the fourth dimension of time?

The answer as ever is to go back to experience.

Experience is hierarchical.  Right now I am sat on a chair, in a studio, on the third floor, in an office building, in Oxford city centre, in Oxfordshire, in England, in the United Kingdom etc. etc.  But no matter how many degrees of spatial containment I extend the hierarchy back to, time as I experience it will always be a dimension “outside” of these spatial ones.  The people outside the window are in a different space, but at the same time.

What’s slightly confusing is that we do use metaphors to reify time (i.e. treat it as a thing) – “time is passing slowly”, “we’re running out of time to do this” etc. – but these are descriptions of subjective experience – even if time appears to be moving slowly in here, we don’t believe everyone outside is in the future!  We assume that the outermost frame boundarying our collective experiences is a shared timeframe.

What’s the significance of this?  It means that when you’re mapping anything that involves some kind of change of state, you need to start by figuring out what the time zones are that the content exists within.  This applies just as much whether you are mapping a complex system, graphic recording, making a mindmap or composing a Powerpoint slide.

The use and misuse of metaphors in organisations

The history of employee engagement is littered with inappropriate metaphors.  I remember a client once insisting that we structure a big picture about financial services around the metaphor of a nuclear waste processing plant.  It did make me wonder about their culture. But the bigger problem I think is not so much inappropriateness as lack of clarity – what does the metaphor mean?

For some people the diversity of interpretation is actually the whole point.  As long as the picture gets people talking then does it really matter what’s in it?  If the conversation is entirely exploratory then maybe that’s true, but in my experience that’s not why most managers are using visual language.  Most managers want to catalyse conversation that is relevant to their outcomes.  And most managers want the core elements of their story to be interpreted in a consistent way.

So how do you avoid metaphors blowing up in your face?  Metaphor theory has been a hot topic in linguistics for a few decades now, as academics have started to realise just how pervasive a phenomenon it is, and how basic it is to all of human thought.  If you’re like me then it was just another figure of speech you were taught in English class, alongside similes, oxymoron, alliteration and so on.  But on a more basic level, metaphor is really just saying something is like something that it is not.  And if you think about it, from this perspective all of language is metaphorical, because the words we use are not like the things the words refer to.

The reason we think of some phrases as being more metaphorical than others is that some comparisons are more obviously “wrong” than others.  To say “this project is miles off course” is just as metaphorical as saying “this project is a hamburger”.  If all speech is metaphorical to some degree, then the key for avoiding subjectivity in interpretation is to choose metaphorical expressions that accord most closely with universal experiences.

Joseph Grady has called these more basic associations “primary metaphors”.  Grady’s idea is that there are experiences that are so baked into normal human development that we can effectively take their interpretation for granted.  We’ve made a series of cards that we use to teach this idea in our training – here are a few examples:

Ideas like “power is up” or “time is motion” are not novel, linguistic creations.  They are hard-baked into our experience from childhood.  It’s really hard to imagine someone saying “our relationship has cooled” or “we have moved further apart” and interpret that as meaning that the relationship has got stronger, because our experience as babies is that our primary caregiver provided warmth and closeness.  The metaphor is baked into the language, and makes sense to anyone with a normal upbringing.

So rather than just completely embrace or completely castigate metaphors en masse, we find it more helpful to distinguish between creative metaphors on one end of a spectrum (“the project is a dragon boat”) and primary metaphors on the other (“the project is big”).  If you want to avoid subjective interpretation then stay toward the primary end.

Is there a place for creative metaphors in business?  Absolutely!  But their natural fit is for sensemaking and innovation, not for communication.  Think about it – metaphors are a way of drawing comparisons between disparate concepts, so asking a question during a group session that explicitly demands a metaphorical response (“that’s like what?”) is going to reframe the content through a new lens for the whole group.  In a situation that is ambiguous (or equivocal, as Karl Weick would say), using creative metaphors increases the chances of someone coming up with a new way of describing the situation that yields better insights / makes more sense / points to a solution.

The story above about project dragon boat is facetious, but this sort of thing happens all the time.  The thing is, it’s only a joke for the people outside the room.  For the people inside the room it feels really good.  Even a completely ridiculous metaphor will feel good if it helps you make sense of your situation, because making sense always feels good.  It’s only once it moves out of the environment in which it was created, and in which it made sense, that you start to have a problem.

This isn’t to say that a creative metaphor can’t be used on a broader scale.  The Walt Disney Company is famous for using a studio metaphor across the company, with employees as cast members and so on.  But if you’re going to attempt this then you need to be really sure that your metaphor is going to generate the feelings and associations you expect, and you need to invest massively in making the metaphor ubiquitous, not just across comms materials but job titles, department names, marketing strategy, internal brand etc etc etc.  But we’re now well outside the realm of visual language.

To summarise, if you’re thinking about metaphors as something you might choose to use in your picture making, then think again:  Metaphors are pervasive, whether you like it or not.  Instead, think about them as a spectrum between primary associations (power is up, time is distance, stress is pressure etc.) and creative associations (power is a mustard seed, time is a honeypot, stress is a hamburger etc.), and stick to primary associations unless you’re prepared to deal with the fallout of having your imagery interpreted in a multitude of different ways.

If you’re new to these ideas but find the subject of metaphor intriguing, then you might be interested in exploring the young discipline of Cognitive Linguistics – this is the book most people start with.