The reason why work can seem meaningless

We’ve all sat in meetings where everyone knows that nobody knows what’s actually going on, yet we plough on regardless.  Sometimes though, this sense of meaninglessness can become pervasive in a whole team or department or across an organisation, with the result that whatever energy there is to make things happen is slowly killed.  Why does this happen and what can we do about it?  In this article I’m going to address the question from a cybernetic perspective, building an explanation from first principles that I think is not just insightful but has enormous practical implications.  We’ll use the model to explain what meaning is, how to recognise it, why it’s so important, and what to do if it’s missing.

Firstly, a quick dip into the arcane world of cybernetics – the study of control systems.  Stick with me if this is unfamiliar, it will be worth it!  One of the central tenets of cybernetics is the Conant-Ashby Theorem, which states that “every good regulator of a system must be a model of that system”.  Or in everyday language, to control a system you have to have a model of how it works.

Conant-Ashby theorem - in a picture

You can see this principle play out in organisational life – the structure of the management team reflects the structure of the organisation, the ERP system has modules for each of the enterprise functions, and even as a consultant coming in to do business improvement work, you quickly build a model inside your head of how the business works.

But what does any of this have to do with meaning?

Well, Conant-Ashby is a description of how system regulation works from the outside – look at any system being regulated, and you will find that the regulator reflects the structure of the system.

Meaning, on the other hand, is what Conant-Ashby feels like from the inside – that is, what it feels like to be a model of a system.  Your body is a system, coupled to an environment, and your brain and nervous system provide the regulatory function for your body.  The experience of meaning-making is what it feels like when your brain is doing a good job of modelling you-in-the-world.

Conant Ashby - making sense of the world

This only makes sense once you appreciate that your experience of the world is not directly what you see and hear – what you get is what has been filtered through your mental model.  There has to be a filtering function:  Your brain already accounts for a fifth of your body’s energy consumption, so there simply isn’t enough computing power lying around to process all of your sensory inputs “raw”.  Instead the brain models itself on the environment as it experiences it (most of which happened in infancy), and uses that model to give us our sense of reality.  Most of the time of course, you don’t notice.  What’s real is just what we experience as being real.  The world is as you experience it.  Until, that is, something happens that doesn’t fit.

The feeling of “what does that mean?” tells us that something potentially significant doesn’t (yet) fit our mental models, whereas the feeling of meaning tells us that our mental model and our sensory inputs are in sync.  Why is this feeling so important?  Well according to Conant-Ashby, if the two get too far out of sync, your brain will not be able to regulate your body, and you will slowly cease to be viable as a system.  Which suggests a biological root for why the sense of meaninglessness can be so distressing, and why the sense of meaning-making can be so energising.

Why is this important?

1) Tapping into mental energy

Firstly, it provides motivation for making meaning in our organisations.  Because in doing so, you tap into a biologically programmed reservoir of energy.  This isn’t just a nice philosophical idea; meaning-making is chemically embodied as a reward circuit in the brain, so when you communicate ideas in a way that connects with your audience’s experience, you will energise them.  You will release happy hormones into their brains.  It’s the same energy that drives scientific discovery, the energy that you see everyday in children because they haven’t built their mental model yet so everything is still new and fresh and interesting … and it’s the energy that corporate life does such a great job of destroying:

making sense of the world of work

Or at least, most of the time:  If you’re at a conference, why is it your brain feels so much happier when you’re listening to a speaker who tells stories, uses pictures instead of bullet points on their slides, and describes complex ideas using analogies you can relate to?  It’s because at a very fundamental level your brain is connecting with those ideas and using them to enrich its model of the world; it’s then appreciating the fact that, as a result, the world has become just a little bit more manageable, or in Conant-Ashby terms, the system that is you-in-the-world has become a bit easier to regulate.

Contrariwise, the reason your brain feels frustrated when you’re listening to a speaker who only uses abstract concepts, lists bullet points without giving examples and never uses an analogy, is that it has no way of knowing whether their concepts are significant or not, because they don’t relate to the background of experience from which your mental model is built.  Too much abstraction and your brain gives up – why waste energy on something that doesn’t make sense?

2) Experientialising communication

Secondly, it gives us a big clue about how meaning is to be made.  If your model of the world is built on your experience of being-in-the-world, then meaning can only be made when the concepts being communicated can be connected to your experience.  That’s why pictures usually carry much more immediate meaning for people than words – they’re that much closer to experience.  That’s why we remember stories but forget lectures – because we experience the world as an ongoing narrative.

It also means that if you want to create shared meaning then the way you communicate needs to connect to shared experiences of your audience, not just your own.

3) Making sense of work

Thirdly, it suggests that anything can be made meaningful.  Do you remember how at school the subjects you enjoyed had at least as much to do with the quality of the teachers as they did with the actual subject matter?  If you’re not sure what I mean, google Malcolm Gladwell talking about spaghetti sauce.  In the right hands, anything can become fascinating.

I said in the last post how meaning is a combination of “I get it” and “I care” experienced at the same time.  As far as your brain is concerned, the more you understand something, the better your mental model is, the more manageable the world becomes, and the more likely it is that you should care about it.  But the more you care about something, the more motivated your brain is to seek out information about it.  And so you end up in a virtuous circle of meaning-making and positive energy.

A lot of the “meaning at work” literature talks about how leadership teams should come up with visions and purpose statements that their people will care about.  But something I’ve noticed as a consultant and thus a perennial outsider is that just about any organisation is fascinating once you start to understand how it works and what makes it tick.  In other words, meaning is firstly about “getting it”, and only secondly about caring.  An organisation may have a noble cause that I care deeply about, but if my day-to-day experiences make little sense to me, then no matter how noble the organisational purpose, I’m still going to find my work life pretty meaningless.

Some applications

So, assuming this is all true, what should you do differently as a result?  Well several things.  But a good start would be to find ways of connecting your communication with your audience’s experience of being-in-the-world, rather than just your own.  This applies to all forms of communication – formal communication, reference materials, everyday conversations.  Ask questions to find out how the world shows up for other people, then use those concepts and constructions in your communication with them.  And don’t just stop with bringing the content closer to people’s experience, bring the medium closer as well.  Use pictures, metaphors, analogies, stories, videos, anything that will reconnect your message back to their experience.

Finally, and most provocatively, judge the meaning of your communication not by what it means to you, and not by the nice things people say to you after you’ve finished, but by the level of energy that’s released as a result, either in a shift in body language (if you’re talking to people face-to-face) or in the level of direct activity that follows.  If nothing happens, then did it really mean that much to begin with?

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.

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  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.