The meaning curve: Where do you need to be?

Sometimes back-of-an-envelope drawings take on a life of their own.  Here’s one I drew a few months back that keeps generating more and more interesting conversations.

We’ve christened it the “meaning curve”, and I think it neatly describes why organisations (and individuals) struggle to have the sorts of conversations that could lead to positive change.

The graph shows what happens when you take your communication, decide how many people are likely to understand it and care (y-axis – “shared meaning”), then plot that against how well it reflects reality (x-axis – “accuracy”).

What you find is that there’s usually a trade off.

The more accurately you try to represent or describe reality, the more complex and hard to understand your depictions tend to be, so you find a certain group of people camped out at the bottom-right of the curve: Engineers, solution architects, scientists, analysts, specialists.

On the other hand, if your job is to create things that make sense to people, you’re going to find it hard going if you’re not allowed to (at the very least) make some broad generalisations.  So at the top-left of the curve you tend to find salespeople, marketing agencies, PR professionals, speechwriters etc.

There’s a lot to be said about the other two quadrants as well, but for now let me just use the model to make a simple point:  The two ends of the curve represent not just different types of communication, but different attitudes to life.

In my fifteen years of consulting, it has never ceased to amaze me how uninterested some people can be in whether or not what they are saying is true, and equally how uninterested other people can be in whether or not anyone understands what they’re saying.  The sort of widespread, meaningful, reality-based conversations that could lead to change do not happen because these two dispositions just don’t get where each other are coming from.

So, for example the system engineer creates an amazing model of the organisation that explains all kinds of complex phenomena, but it never sees the light of day because they lack the ability to explain it (let alone sell it) to upper management.  The programme manager commits to a ludicrously optimistic timeline, because they don’t have the time (or the patience) to get to grips with the complexity that each of the project managers keep introducing to the planning process.  The solitary genius who makes seminal discoveries deep in the bowels of the organisation, but only gets to continue their work because they have a “minder” who provides a human interface for the rest of the business.  The marketing manager who doesn’t want to listen to the product designers explain why their preferred strapline doesn’t accurately reflect the capabilities of the product.  And so on.

Do you see any of these patterns around you?  If so, maybe try drawing the curve on a whiteboard and asking your team whereabouts they see themselves.

Unless the conversations start to meet up in the top right, the chances are that nothing positive is going to shift.  The challenge is that this requires compromise on both sides.

POSTSCRIPT:  After I first wrote this, it triggered a very healthy debate in the office.  We intend this article, as with all our work, to be an example of top-right quadrant communication (both highly meaningful and conforming to reality).  What we learned was that if you are of a bottom-right corner disposition, you are likely to take issue with how loosely I have defined terms – isn’t “accuracy”, for example, conflating veracity and precision?  If you are of a top-left corner disposition, you are probably thinking this post was long enough without a postscript containing terms like “veracity” and “precision”.  And therein lies the moral of the story.

The power of shared meaning

Few things in life are as satisfying as the sense of meaning – understanding what’s going on and caring about it.  It’s a great feeling at an individual level, but at a group level it can change the world.  As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Now transplant those sentiments into a typical meeting in your organisation, and ask yourself how much shared meaning there is.  I’m not talking big picture here – whether or not people buy into the mission statement, whether there’s a shared organisational vision or anything like that – I’m talking about the simple everyday going to a meeting with other people and talking about work.

I was chatting to a client in IT this week who told me about a meeting where colleagues from different parts of the business were having a heated disagreement about how to manage metadata, when he suddenly realised they were talking about completely different things.  What seemed like a simple concept had very different meanings, and it wasn’t that some were wrong and some were right, they just had different perspectives.

Next time someone says something unexpected about something you know something about, don’t just think “that person doesn’t get it”.  At the very least, take the opportunity being offered to see the world from a different perspective.