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.

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).

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.

Visualising the journey of transformation

Here’s a great visual tool we made this summer for anyone who wants to get people talking about organisational change.  Just click on the link and use the interface to pan and zoom in like you would with Google Maps:

The Transformation Journey interactive rich picture

We’d like to develop this tool further, so do please give us your feedback on what you’d like to see in future versions.

What’s the cost of bad communication?

Can you afford the time to bring your content to life?  Or can you afford not to?

crowded train platformI’m writing this stuck on a train, and it’s struck me what a good analogy train delays are for bad communication.  This whole blog is effectively about using visual language to hack system 1 – that is, to make complex things make sense quickly and intuitively.  But what is the cost of failing to do this?

You see, communication problems have a compounding effect.  If someone doesn’t understand what you’re saying after ten minutes, then you’ve wasted ten minutes of their time.  But if a roomful of people don’t understand what your saying, then you’ve wasted ten minutes x 200 people, the equivalent of 30 hours.  Then there’s the knock-on effect – if the content was important, then all those people will go out wasting more time trying to figure out what it was you were trying to explain to them.

So next time you’re planning a presentation, writing a document, creating an instruction manual, building a user interface or whatever, imagine yourself as a train driver and your audience as the passengers.  Then ask yourself:  How many people are on board, and how important is it that they get to their destination?  It doesn’t matter if it’s just a 5-minute pre-read e-mail or a 5-minute presentation – if there are a 1000 people on board, then the potential compound delay is not 5 minutes but 1000 x 5mins = 3.5 days.  With great communication comes great responsibility.