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.

2 thoughts on “The meaning curve: Where do you need to be?

  1. Good graphic analysis. I’ve been in the lower right segment for many years and have depended on generalists who think like the upper left to help communicate my ideas in simpler terms. I’ve persisted in what I do with the belief that the Internet makes if possible for a few people, out of the 7 billion in the world, to find my ideas and spend time trying to understand them, based on their own concern for the same things I focus on. I realize this is looking for a needle in a haystack.

  2. Hi Daniel

    I think it works in both directions. The Apple computer was invented by Steve Wozniak (bottom right), but it took Steve Jobs (top left) to invent Apple Computer Inc. It’s usually the salesperson who gets remembered, but it always takes both dispositions to get something off the ground.

    Similarly, there are lots of really creative people who feel morally conflicted because the only viable commercial outlet they can see for their skills is doing agency work (top left), while there’s a raft of fantastic world-changing ideas floating around out there that never see the light of day because people don’t have the time or inclination to understand them (bottom right).

    So here’s a thought: Is there, or could there be, a kind of modern day equivalent for ideas of what the Homebrew Computer Club was for computing, where ideas and design get together, become fruitful and multiply? As with the two Steves, could it become a forum in which people with completely different mindsets develop the curiosity and mutual respect to work together for the greater good?

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