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 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.

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).

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.