Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category
Welcome to the second post in my conversations series. This time around I chat with my friend and long-time collaborator Paul Culmsee who, among many other things, is a skilled facilitator and a master of the craft of dialogue mapping (more on that below).
In an hour-long conversation recorded a couple of weeks ago, Paul and I talked about the art of sensemaking. (Editor’s note: the conversation has been lightly edited for clarity)
What is sensemaking?
KA: Hi Paul, in this conversation I wanted to focus on sensemaking. From our association over the years, I know that’s a specialty of yours. Incidentally, I checked out your LinkedIn profile and saw that you announce yourself as an IT veteran of many years and a sensemaker. So, to begin with, could you tell us what sensemaking is?
PC: [Laughs] First up, thanks for stalking me on LinkedIn. Well the “IT veteran” part is easy – it’s is what I’ve been doing ever since I left university in 1989. Sensemaking came a while later.
In a nutshell, sensemaking is about helping groups make sense of complex situations that might otherwise lead them into tense or adversarial conditions. A lot of projects exhibit such situations from time to time. Sensemaking seeks to help groups develop a shared understanding of these sorts of situations.
KA: OK, so what I’m hearing is that it is about helping people get clarity on an ambiguous situation or may be, even define what the problem is.
PC: Yeah absolutely…and we alluded to this in our Heretic’s book. It is staggering when one realizes how many teams and individuals (in teams and in organisations) spend a stack of money and time without being aligned on the problem that they’re solving. Often this lack of alignment becomes evident only in the wash, long after anything can be done. In some ways it beggars belief that that could happen; that a project or initiative could go on for long without alignment, but it does happen quite often. Sensemaking seeks to eliminate that up front.
There are various tools, techniques and collaborative approaches that one can use to bring people together to air and reconcile different viewpoints. Of course, this assumes that people genuinely want to see things improve, and in my experience this is often the case. A lot of the time, therefore, sensemaking is simply about helping groups reach a shared understanding so that subsequent actions can be taken with full commitment from everybody concerned.
KA: All that sounds very reasonable, even obvious. Why do you think this has been neglected for so long? Why have people overlooked this?
PC: Mate, I’m glad we’re having beers as we talk about this [takes a swig].
Look I think it is often seen as an excuse to have a talk-fest, and I think that criticism is actually quite fair. I think organisations…or, rather, the people within them…tend to have a very strong drive to move to action. The idea of stopping and thinking is seen as not being a particularly productive use of time.
Actually, if you delve into it, sensemaking has been around for years and years. In fact, pretty much anyone who is a facilitator is a sensemaker as well in that he or she seeks to help people [overcome an issue that they’re facing as a group]. The problem is that a lot of the techniques used in sensemaking are rooted in theories or philosophies that aren’t seen as being particularly practical. To a certain extent, the theories themselves are to blame. For example, the first time I heard about soft systems theory, I had no idea what the person was talking about. (Editor’s note: a theory that underlies many facilitation techniques)
KA: Yes, that’s absolutely right. Systems theory itself has been around for a long time….since the 1950s I think. It’s also been resurrected in various guises ever since, but has always had this reputation (perhaps unfair) of being somewhat impractical. So, I’m curious as to how you actually get around that. How do you sell what you do? (Editor’s note: Systems theory is the precursor of soft systems theory)
PC: By example. It’s really as simple as that. If you take the example of dialogue mapping, which is a practical facilitation approach involving the visual capture of rationale using a graphical notation. Even that…which is a practical tool…is much easier to show by example than to explain conceptually. If I were to try to explain what it is in words, I’d have to say something like “I sit in a room and get paid to draw maps. I map the conversations and facilitate at the same time.” People might then say, “What’s that? Is it like mind mapping?” Then I have no choice but to say, “Well, yeah…but there’s a lot more to it than that.”
So I’ve long since given up on explaining it to people conceptually; it’s much easier to just show them. Moreover, in a lot of the situations where I do engagements for clients, I discourage the sponsor from making a big deal about the technique. I’d rather just let the technique “sell itself”.
KA: Yeah that rings true. You know, I was trying to write a blog post once on dialogue mapping, and realized it would be much better to tell it through a story (Editor’s note: …and the result was this post).
OK, so you’ve told us a bit about dialogue mapping, and I know it is a mainstay of your practice. Could you tell us a bit about how you came to it and what it has done for you?
PC: Oh, it’s changed my career. In terms of what it’s done for me – well, where I am now is a direct result of my taking up that craft. And I call it a craft because it took a damn lot of practice. It is not something where you can read a book and go “Oh that makes sense,” and then expect to facilitate a group of twenty people or anything like that.
How I came to it was as follows: I had come off a large failed project and was asking myself what I could have done differently. In hindsight, the problem was pretty obvious: there were times when things were said by certain stakeholders and I should have gone, “Right, stop!” But I didn’t. Of course, such mistakes are part of a learning journey. I subsequently did some research on techniques that might have helped resolve such issues and came to dialogue mapping directly as a result of that research.
Then, through sheer luck I got to apply the technique in areas other than my discipline. As I said earlier, I’m an IT guy and have been in IT for a long time, but I was lucky to get an early opportunity to use dialogue mapping in an area that was very different from IT (Urban planning to be precise). I sucked at it completely in that first engagement, but did enough that the client got value out of it and asked me back.
That engagement was a sink or swim situation, and I managed to do just enough to stay afloat. I should also say that the group I worked with really wanted to succeed: even though they were deadlocked, the group as a whole had a genuine intent to address the problem. Fortunately we were able to make a small breakthrough in the first session. We ended up doing six more sessions and had a really good outcome for the organisation.
KA: That’s interesting…but also a little bit scary. A lot of people would find a situation like that quite daunting to facilitate. In particular, when you walk into a situation where you know a group has been grappling with a problem for a long time, you first need to make sense of it yourself. How do you do that?
PC: Yeah, well as you do it more of it, you gain experience of different situations and domains – for example, not-for-profit organizations, executives of a business, public sector or what have you. You then begin to notice that the patterns behind complex problems are actually quite similar across different areas. Although I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly I do, I would say that it is largely about “listening to the situation” and “asking the right questions”.
When Jeff Conklin teaches dialogue mapping, he talks about the seven different question types (Editor’s note: Jeff Conklin is the inventor of dialogue mapping. See this post for more on his question types). He really gets you to think about the questions you’re going to ask. It took me a while to realize just how important that is: the power of asking questions in the right way or framing them appropriately. Indeed, the real learning for me began when I realized this, and it happened long after I had mastered the notation.
The fact is: each situation is unique. I approach strategic planning, team development or business analysis in completely different ways. I can’t give you a generic answer on the approach, but certainly nowadays when I’m presented with a scenario, I find that there is not much that is unfamiliar. I’ve seen most of the territory now, perhaps.
KA: So it’s almost like you’ve got a “library” of patterns which you can find a match to the situation you’re in
PC: Yes that’s right…and I should also mention that the guys I worked with in my early days of using the craft were also sensitive to this, even though they did not practice dialogue mapping. One of my earliest gigs was to develop a procurement strategy for a major infrastructure project. We spent half a day – from 8:30 in the morning to 1:00 in the afternoon – just trying to figure out what the first question should be. It’s conversations like that in the early days, followed by trial and error in actual facilitation scenarios that aided my learning.
KA: That’s interesting, and I’d like to pick up on what you said earlier about the power of asking the right questions. Jeff Conklin has his seven question types which he elaborates at length in his book (and we also talk about them in the Heretic’s Guide). However, since then, I know that your thinking on this has advanced considerably. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
PC: Yeah, if we ever do a second edition of the Heretic’s Guide, I’ll definitely be covering this kind of stuff. But, let me try to explain some of the ideas here in brief.
To set the context, I’ll start with one of Jeff’s question types. An important question type is the deontic question, which is a question that a lot of maps start with. A deontic question asks “What ought to be done?” – for example, “What should we do about X?” The aim of such a question is to open up a conversation.
However, deontic questions can be poorly framed. To take a concrete example, say if one were to ask, “What should we do about increasing X?” – well such a question implicitly suggests a course of action – i.e. one that increases X. A well framed deontic question doesn’t do that. It solicits information in a neutral or open way. (Editor’s Note: For example, a well-framed alternative to the foregoing question would be, “What should we do about X?”)
All that is well and good, and is something I teach in my dialogue mapping courses as does Jeff in his. However, I once taught dialogue mapping to a bunch of business analysts, and of course told them about the importance of asking deontic questions. Some of the guys told me that they intended to use it at work the following week. Well, I saw them again a few weeks later and naturally asked, “So how did it go?” They said, “Hey that the deontic question just didn’t work!”
I kind of realized then, and in fact I had mentioned to them (but may be not stressed it enough), that questions need to be framed to suit the situation. You can ask an open deontic question in a really bad way… or even lead at the wrong time with the wrong question.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are patterns to [framing] questions. In other words, there are ways of asking questions that will lead to better outcomes. As an example, a deontic question might be, “What should our success indicators be on this project?” This is a perfectly valid open question (as per Conklin’s question types). However, in a workshop setting this is probably not a good question to ask because the conversation will go all over the place without reaching any consensus. Moreover, people who don’t have tolerance for ambiguity would be uncomfortable with a question like that.
A better option would be to reframe the question and ask something like, “If this initiative were highly successful and we look back on it after, say 2 years, how would things be different to now?” With that question what you’re saying to people is: let’s not even worry about problem definition, context, criteria and all that stuff that comes with a deontic question; instead you’re asking them to tell you about the difference between now and an aspirational future. This is easier to answer. A lot of people will say things like – we’ll have more of X and less of Y and so on.
On a related note, if you want to understand the long-term implications of “more of X” or “less of Y”, it is not helpful to ask a question like, “What do you think will happen in the long-term?” People won’t intuitively understand that, so you won’t get a useful answer. Instead it is better to ask a question like, “What behaviours do you think will change if we do all this sort of stuff?” Now, if you think about it, the immediate outcomes of projects are things like “increased awareness of something “or “better access to something”, but over time you’re looking for changes in behaviours because that’s when you know that the changes wrought by an initiative have really taken root.
Subtle reframings of this kind yield richer answers that are more meaningful to people. Moreover, when you solicit responses from a group in this manner, you’ll start to see common themes emerge. These are the sorts of subtleties I have come to understand and appreciate through my practice of sensemaking.
KA: That’s fascinating. So what you’re saying is that rather than asking a direct question it is better to ask an oblique one. Is that right?
PC: Yes, and I think that point is worth elaborating. You used the word “oblique” and I know you’re using it deliberately because we’ve talked about this in the past. Essentially I think the “law of asking questions” is that the more direct question, the less likely it is that you will get a useful answer.
Seriously, asking a question like “What should our vision be?” is a completely brainless way of getting to a vision. You’re more likely to get a useful answer from a question like “What would our organization look like three years from now, if we achieved all we are setting out to do?” The themes that come out of the answers to these kinds of question help in answering the direct question.
I’ve learnt that the question that everyone wants answered is never the one you start with. If you start with the direct question, the conversation will meander over all kinds of weird places.
I came across the notion of obliquity in an article (…and I think it was one of the rare times I sent you something instead of the other way around). In the article, the author (John Kay) made the observation that organisations that chased KPIs like earnings per share (for example) generally did not do as well as organisations that had a more holistic vision (Editor’s note: I also recommend Kay’s book on obliquity). One example Kay gives is that of Microsoft whose objective in the 90s wanted “a PC on every desk in the world.” Microsoft achieved the earnings per share alright, but it was pursued via an oblique goal.
Organisations that chase earnings per share or other financial metrics tend to be like the folks who “seek happiness” directly instead of trying to find it by, say, immersing themselves in activities that they enjoy. I guess I observed that the principle of obliquity – that things are best achieved indirectly – also applies to the art of asking questions.
KA: That makes a lot of sense. Indeed, after we exchanged notes on the article and Kay’s book, I’ve noticed this idea of obliquity popping up in all different kinds of contexts. I’m not sure why this is, but I think it has something to do with the fact that we don’t really know how the future is going to unfold, and obliquity helps open our minds up to possibilities that we would overlook if we took a “straight line from A to B” kind of approach.
PC: Yep, and that brings up an interesting aspect to oblique questions as well. You know, some people – especially those trained in a standard business school curriculum will be surprised if you ask them an oblique question because it seemingly makes no sense. They might say, “Well, why would you ask that? What we really want to answer is this”
Well, I’ve found a way to deal with this, and I learnt this from working with a facilitator who is a professor at one of the business schools here (in Perth). This was in a strategic planning workshop that we co-facilitated. Before starting, she walked up to the whiteboard and sketched out a very simple strategic planning model – literally a diagram that said here’s our vision, and the vision leads to a mission, which leads to areas of focus which, in turn, lead to processes…a simple causal diagram with a few boxes connected by arrows.
She spent only a minute or so explaining this model; she didn’t do it in any detail. Then she pointed to a particular box and said, “We’re going to talk about this particular one now.” And I don’t know why this is, but when you present a little model like that (which is familiar to the audience) and say that you’re going to focus on a particular aspect of it, people seem to become more receptive to ambiguity, and you can then get as oblique as you like. Perhaps this is because the narrative is then aligned with a mental model that is familiar to them.
What I’ve learnt, in effect, is that you can’t talk about the wonders of complex systems theory to a bunch of rational project managers. Conversely, when I’m dealing with a group of facilitators (who love all that systems theory stuff) I would never draw a management model going from vision to mission to execution. But when dealing with the corporate world, I will often use a model like that. Not to educate them – they already know the model – but purely to reduce their anxiety. After that I can ask them the questions I really want to ask. It’s a subtle trick: you put things in a familiar frame and then, once you have done that, you can get as oblique as you like.
Tying this back to a question you asked earlier about how I prepare for a facilitation session. Well, I usually try to figure out audience first. If I’m dealing with the public sector I might set the stage by talking about wicked problems, whereas with corporate clients I might start with a Strategic Planning 101 sort of presentation. Either way, I find a frame that is familiar to them and then – almost like a sleight of hand – I switch to the questions I really want to ask. Does that make sense?
KA: Yeah, so to summarise: you give them a security blanket and then scare the hell out of them [laughs]
PC: That’s actually pretty well summarized [laughs]; I like where you’re going with that…but I’d put it slightly differently. It’s actually a bit like when you’re trying to get little kids to eat something they don’t want to eat – you go, “see here’s the choo-choo train” or something like that, and then get them to have a spoonful while their focusing on that. In a way it’s like creating a distraction. But the aim is really to couch things in such a ways as to get to a point where you can start to have a productive dialogue. And the dialogue itself is driven by powerful questions.
From obliquity to directness
KA: By powerful, I guess you mean oblique…
PC: Yeah, the oblique aspect of questions is a common thread that runs through much of what I do now. Mind you, I don’t stay oblique all the way through a session. I start obliquely because I want to unpack a problem. Eventually, though, as people start to get insights and themes begin to emerge, I become more direct; I start to ask things such as who, when etc…putting names and dates down on the map.
KA: So you get more direct in your questioning as the group starts to reach a common understanding of a problem.
PC: That’s exactly right. But there’s the other side to it (and by the way, you should have a conversation with my colleague Neil on this kind of stuff): you typically have a mixed audience, the “left-brainers” who are rational engineer types as well as the “hippies” (the so-called “right-brainers”) who want to stay out in conceptual-land. Both groups like to stay in their comfort zone: the engineers don’t like moving to conceptual-land because they see it as a waste of time; on the other hand conceptual people don’t like moving to action because the conceptual world feels safer to them. So I sort of trick the engineers into doing conceptual stuff while also pushing conceptual guys into answering more direct questions.
Other techniques and skills
KA: Interesting. Let’s talk a bit about techniques – I know dialogue mapping is a mainstay of much of what you do. What are some of the other techniques you use [to draw people out of their comfort zones]? You mentioned soft systems theory and a few others; you seem to have quite a tool-chest of techniques to draw upon.
PC: Yeah well, when I got into mapping, I also looked at other techniques. I was interested in what else you could do, so I looked at various gamestorming techniques, graphic facilitation and, of course, many methods based on the principles of soft systems and related theories.
I use techniques from both the right-brained and left-brained ends of the spectrum…and by the way, I apologize to any neuroscientists who might be reading/listening to this because I know they hate the term left/right brained. However, I do find it useful sometimes.
Anyway, a popular technique on the right-brained end of the spectrum is Open Space, which operates almost entirely in conceptual-land. It relies on the wisdom of the crowd; there is no preset agenda, just a theme. People sit in a circle, there’s a Tibetan bell…an on the surface it all seems quite hippy. However, I’ve actually done it in construction projects where you have folks who have come off a building site, dressed in their safety gear – hard hats and all – and participated in such situations. And it does work, despite its touchy-feely, hippy image.
On the other hand, once you’ve conceptualized a project you need to get down to hard work of getting stuff done. One of the first questions that comes up is, “How do we measure success?” This usually boils down to defining KPIs. Now, I would never dialogue map or open space a conversation on KPIs. You might get a few themes from dialogue mapping, but definitely not enough detail. Instead, one of the things I often do is go to an online KPI library (like http://kpilibrary.com which has over 7000 KPIs) in which you can find KPIs relating to any area you can think of, ranging from project management to customer service to quality or sustainability. I’ll then print relevant ones on cards and then use a card-sorting technique in which I put people in different groups and ask them to look at specific focus areas [that emerged from the conceptualization phase], and figure out which KPIs are relevant to it.
Why do I do that? Not because I think they will find the KPI. They probably won’t. It’s more because such a process avoids those inevitable epic arguments on what a KPI actually is.
A very effective technique is to spend half a day unpacking a problem via dialogue mapping and get key themes to emerge. This “conceptualization phase” is done with the whole group. Then, when you want to drill down into detailed actions action, it helps to use a divide and conquer approach. This is why I split people up into smaller groups and get them to go off and work on themes that emerged from the conceptualization phase. The aim is to get them to come up with concrete KPIs or even actions. If I’m feeling really evil, when there’s only 10 minutes left, I’ll tell them that they can present only their top four actions or KPIs. This forces them to prioritise things according to value. It’s a bit like a Delphi technique really. Finally, the groups come back together and present all their findings, which I then dialogue map. Once that is done, the larger group (together) will turn to the map and synthesise the outputs of what the smaller groups have done. This example is quite typical of the kind of stuff that I do.
Another example: I did some strategic planning work for local government – this was in the area of urban planning. Now, we did not want them to just copy someone else’s community development plan and “cookie cutter” it. So the very first thing we did was a dialogue mapping session geared towards answering a couple of questions: 1) if the community development plan for this organization was highly successful, how would things be different from how they are now? And, 2) what is unique about this particular area (shire)?
Then, in the second workshop we got some of the best community development plans from around Australia and put each one at a different table. We split people up into groups and got them to spend time at each table. Their job was to note down, on flipcharts, the pros and cons of each plan. The first iteration took about half an hour – presumably because this was the first time many of them were reading a development plan. Once the first iteration was done, people moved to the next table and so on, in round robin fashion.
By the end of that exercise, everyone was a world expert in reading community development plans. By the time people got to their third plan, they were flicking through the pages pretty fast, noting down the things they agreed or disagreed with. Then they came back together and did a synthesis of the common themes were – what was good, what was bad and so on.
Finally, we dialogue mapped again, and this time the question was, “Given what we have seen in all of the other plans, what are we going to do differently to mitigate the issues we have seen with some of them?” That pretty much nailed what they were going to do with their plan.
The need to improvise
KA: From what you’re saying it seems that almost every situation you walk into is different, and you almost have to design your approach as you go along. I suppose you would make a guess or some tentative plans based on your knowledge of the make-up of the audience, but wouldn’t you also have to adjust a lot on-the-fly?
PC: Oh yeah, all the time. And in fact, that is more a help than a hindrance. I’ll tell you why…by example again.
Often groups will tell you what they aspire to do. They might say, “as a general principle, we will do this” or something along those lines. For me that’s gold because I can use it on them [laughs].
In fact, I did this a couple days ago in a workshop. Earlier in the workshop they had said, “It’s OK to make mistakes as long as we are honest with each other and upfront about it.” I totally used that on them towards the end of the workshop when I said, “Given that you guys are honest with each other, the question I’d like you to answer is – what keeps you up at night with this project?”
My colleague uses the phrase, “hang them by their own petard” when we do this kind of stuff [laughter]. I guess what we’re doing, though, is calling them out on what they espouse, and getting them to live it. If you can do that in a workshop, it is brilliant. So I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to improvise like that, particularly when it is a matter of (espoused) principle.
There are many times when I’ve been in workshops where the corporate values are hanging on a wall – in a boardroom, right - and I’m witnessing them get completely trashed in the conversation that’s happening. So I like to hold people to account to what’s stated…and these are sneaky little subtle ways in which one can do that.
KA: I’m sure you come across situations where a certain approach doesn’t go down very well – may be people start to get defensive or even question the approach. Does that happen, and how do you deal with that?
PC: I’ve never had a situation where people question the approach I use. I guess that’s because we’re able to deal with that as it happens. For example, if I’m going a bit too “hippie” on a group and I see that they need more structure then I’ll change my approach to suit the group and then gently nudge them back to where I want them to be.
I also co-facilitate with other people…and sometimes they’re the ones who design the workshops, or I co-design it with them. Often it is their tolerance for ambiguity that can be a roadblock. One facilitator I work with loves emergence. This is my crass generalization, but anyone who thinks complex systems theory is just it will be happy to let a group get mired in ambiguity. The group might be struggling, but as far as the facilitator is concerned that’s OK because he or she believes that ambiguity is necessary for an emergent outcome. What they forget is that not everyone has the same level of tolerance for ambiguity.
On the other hand, I also work with highly structured facilitators who follow a set path – “we’ll do this, then we’ll do that and so on”. This approach might not go so well with people who prefer more open-ended approaches.
These sorts of experiences have been handy. When designing my own workshops, I’m the ultimate bower bird: I cherry pick whatever I need and improvise on the fly. So I tend not to worry about the risks of people not finding the workshop of value. That probably comes from a level of confidence too: we’re reasonably confident that we know our craft and have enough experience to deal with unexpected situations.
Coda – capturing organisational knowledge
KA: Thanks for the insights into sensemaking. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to switch tack and talk about something that your organization – Seven Sigma – is currently involved in. I know you guys started out as a SharePoint outfit, and you’ve been doing some interesting things in SharePoint relating to knowledge management. Could you tell us a bit about that before we wrap up?
PC: Sure. To begin with, dialogue maps are a pretty good knowledge artifact. Anyone who has used the Compendium software will know this (Editor’s note: Compendium is a free software tool that can be used for dialogue mapping). I’ve used it extensively for the last five years and have an “encyclopedia of conversations” that I have mapped. When I go and look at them, they’re as vivid to me as on the day I mapped them. So I’ve always been fascinated by the power of dialogue maps as a visceral way to capture the wisdom of a group at a point in time.
Now SharePoint is a collaborative platform that’s often used for intranets, project portals, knowledge management portal and so forth. It’s a fairly versatile platform. The Compendium software on the other hand, is not a multi-user, collaborative platform. It’s more like Photoshop or Word in that you use it to create an artefact – a map – but if someone else wants to see the map then he or she has to install Compendium. And it can be a bit of a pain in the butt to install Compendium as it is a freebie, open source product that doesn’t really fit in an enterprise environment. We’ve therefore always wanted to have the ability to import maps into SharePoint and my colleague Chris [Tomich] had already started writing some code to do that around the time we first got into dialogue mapping.
However, my own Aha moment came later; and come to think of it, the fact that we’re having beers in this conversation is relevant to this story…
I was dialogue mapping a group of executives about 4-5 years ago; it was a team-building exercise built around a lessons learned workshop. The purpose of the workshop was to improve the collaborative and team maturity of this group. [As a part of this exercise] the group was reviewing some old projects, doing a sort of retrospective lessons learned. We got to this one project, and someone complained about an organisational policy that had caused an issue on the project. Now as it happened, there was this guy in the group who knew how this policy had come about (I knew this guy, by the way, and I also knew that he was about to retire). He said, “Oh yeah, well that happened about 30 years ago, and it was on so-and-so project.” He then proceeded to elaborate on it.
Well, I knew this guy was about to retire. I also knew that the organization does this “phased retirement” thing, where people who are about to retire write documentation about what they do, mentor their successors etc. before they leave. I remember thinking to myself, “there’s no way in hell that he would have written that down in his documentation.” I just knew it: he had to be in that particular conversation for him to have remembered this.
Then my next thought…and as I’m mapping, I’m having this thought … “man, someone just ought to give him a beer, sit him down, and ask him about these kinds of old projects. I could map that video…how hard could that be? If one can map live conversations then surely one can map videos.” In fact, videos should be simpler because you can pause them, which is something you can’t do with live conversations.
So that was literally the little spark. It started with me thinking about how great it would be if this guy could spend even half his time recording his reflections…and this could take different forms, may be it could be a grad asking him questions in a mentoring scenario, or it could be another person he has worked with for years and they could reminisce over various projects. The possibilities were endless. But the basic idea was simple: it was to try to capture those sorts of water cooler or pub conversations, or those that you have in conferences. That’s where we get many of our insights – it’s the stories, the war stories through which we learn. That kind of stuff never gets into the manuals or knowledge-base articles.
Indeed, stories are the key to those unwritten insights about, say, when it is OK to break the rules. That kind of stuff can never be captured in the processes, manuals or procedures. One of your pieces highlights this beautifully – it’s one of the parables you’ve written I think, where an experienced project manager suggested to the novice that he should be listening to the stories rather than focusing on the body of knowledge he was studying. And that is completely true.
So that was, to coin a pun, the “glimmer of an idea” – because the product is called Glyma. The idea was to capture expert knowledge by mapping it and storing the map in SharePoint. SharePoint has a great search engine and we already knew that dialogue maps are a great way to capture conversations in a way that makes it easy to understand and navigate rationale (or the logic of a conversation). If we could do dialogue maps live, then we sure as hell could map videos. Moreover SharePoint also offers the possibility of tagging, adding feeds etc. – the kinds of things that portals these days are good at. It occurred to us that no one had really done that before.
Sure, there are plenty of story captures, say where people capture reflections on video. But because the resulting videos tend to be quite big, they are usually edited down to 15 minute “elevator pitch” type presentation. But then all the good stuff is gone; indeed, you and I have had many of these brief conversations where you’re summarising something terrific you’ve read and I’ll go, “Yeah well, that doesn’t sound so interesting to me.” The point is: you can’t compress insight into a convenient 10 minute video with nice music. So our idea was – well, don’t do that; take the video as it is and map it. Then, if you click on a node – say an idea node or a question node –Glyma will play the video from the point in time where the idea or question came up. You don’t have to sit through the entire thing. Moreover, when you do a search and get a series of results, you can click on a result and it plays that bit straight away.
So that was really the inspiration for Glyma…and it will see the light of day very soon.
Actually we’ll be putting a beta site out early next week (Editor’s note: the site has since gone live; I urge you to check it out). By the way, Glyma has been four years in the making. One of last things on our bucket list of things to do while running a consultancy was to put an innovative new product out and to see if people like it. So that’s where we are going with that.
KA: That’s sounds very interesting. The timing should work out well because this conversation will be posted out in a week or two as well. I wish you luck with Glyma; I’ve seen some early versions of it and it looks really good. I look forward to seeing how it does in the market place and what sort of reception it receives. I certainly hope it gets the reception it deserves because it is a tremendous idea.
PC: Well thank you; I appreciate your saying that…and we’ll see if you still say that once you’ve mapped this video because that might be your homework. [laughs]
KA: [laughs] Alright, great mate. Well, thanks for your time. I think that’s been a really interesting conversation. We’ll chat about Glyma further after it’s been out for a while.
PC: Yeah absolutely.
KA: Cheers mate.
PC: See ya.
Flexibility is one of those buzzwords that keeps coming up in organizational communiques and discussions. People are continually asked to display flexibility, without ever being told what the term means: flexible workplaces, flexible attitudes, flexible jobs – the word itself has a flexible meaning that depends on the context in which it is used and by whom.
When words are used in this way they become platitudes – empty words that make a lot of noise. In this post, I analyse the platitude, flexibility, as it is used in organisations. My discussion is based on a paper by Thomas Eriksen entitled, Mind the Gap: Flexibility, Epistemology and the Rhetoric of New Work.
Background – a bit about organizational platitudes
One of the things that struck me when I moved from academia to industry is the difference in the way words or phrases are used in the two domains. In academics one has to carefully define the terms one uses (particularly if one is coining a new term) whereas in business it doesn’t seem to matter, words can mean whatever one wants them to mean (OK, this is an exaggeration, but not by too much). Indeed, as Paul Culmsee and I discuss in the first chapter of The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, many terms that are commonly bandied about in organizations are platitudes because they are understood differently by different people.
A good example of a platitude is the word governance. One manager may see governance as being largely about oversight and control whereas another might interpret it as being about providing guidance. Such varying interpretations can result in major differences in the way the two managers implement governance: the first one might enforce it as a compliance-oriented set of processes that leave little room for individual judgement while the other might implement it as a broad set of guidelines that leave many of the decisions in the hands of those who are actually doing the work. Needless to say, the results in the two cases are likely to be different too.
Flexibility – the conventional view
A good place to start our discussion of flexibility is with the dictionary. The online Oxford Dictionary defines at as:
- the ability to be easily modified
- willingness to change or compromise
The term is widely used in both these senses in organizational settings. For example, people speak of flexible designs (i.e. designs that can be easily modified) or flexible people (referring to those who are willing to change or compromise). However, and this is the problem: the term is open to interpretation – what Jack might term a flexible approach may be seen by Jill as a complete lack of method. These differences in interpretation become particularly obvious when the word is used in a broad context – such as in a statement justifying an organizational change. An executive might see a corporate restructure and the resulting changes in jobs/roles as a means to achieve organizational flexibility, but those affected by it may see it as constraining theirs. As Eriksen states:
Jobs are flexible in the sense that they are unstable and uncertain, few employees hold the same jobs for many years, the content of jobs can be changed almost overnight, and the boundaries between work and leisure are negotiable and chronically fuzzy.
Indeed, such “flexibility” which requires one to change at short notice results in a fragmentation of individual experience and a resulting loss of a coherent narrative of one’s life. It appears that increased flexibility in one aspect results in a loss of flexibility in another. Any sensible definition of flexibility ought to reflect this.
Consider the following definition of flexibility proposed by Gregory Bateson:
“Flexibility is uncommitted potential for change”
This deceptively simple statement is a good place to start understanding what flexibility really means for projects, organisations …and even software systems.
As Eriksen tells us, Bateson proposed this definition in the context of ecology. In particular, Bateson had in mind the now obvious notion that the increased flexibility we gain through our increasingly energy-hungry lifestyles results in a decrease in the environment’s capacity to cope with the consequences. This is true of flexibility in any context: a gain in flexibility in one dimension will necessarily be accompanied by a loss of flexibility in another.
Another implication of the above definition is that a system that is running at or near the limits of its operating variables cannot be flexible. The following examples should make this clear:
- A project team that is putting in 18 hour workdays in order to finish a project on time.
- A car that’s being driven at top speed.
- A family living beyond their means.
All these systems are operating at or near their limits, they have little or no spare capacity to accommodate change.
A third implication of the definition follows from the preceding one: the key variables of a flexible system should lie in the mid-range of their upper and lower limits. In terms of above examples:
- The project team should be putting in normal hours.
- The car should be driven at or below the posted road speed limits
- The family should be living within its income, with a reasonable amount to spare.
Of course, the whole point of ensuring that systems operate in their comfort zone is that they can be revved up if the need arises. Such revving up, however, should be an exceptional circumstance rather than the norm – a point that those who run projects, organisations (and, yes, even vehicles) often tend to forget. If one operates a system at the limits of its tolerance for too long, not only will it not be flexible, it will break.
Flexibility in the workplace
As mentioned in the introduction, the term flexibility keeps cropping up in organizational settings: corporate communiques exhort employees to be flexible in the face of change. This is typically a coded signal that employees should expect uncertainty and be prepared to adjust to it. A related manifestation of flexibility is the blurring of the distinction between work and personal life. As Eriksen puts it:
The term flexibility is often used to describe this new situation: Jobs are flexible in the sense that they are unstable and uncertain, few employees hold the same jobs for many years, the content of jobs can be changed, and the boundaries between work and leisure are poorly defined.
This trend is aided by recent developments in technology that enable employees to be perpetually on call. This is often sold as a work from home initiative but usually ends up being much more. Eriksen has this to say about home offices:
One recent innovation typically associated with flexibility is the home office. In Scandinavia (and some other prosperous, technologically optimistic regions), many companies equipped some of their employees with home computers with online access to the company network in the early 1990s, in order to enhance their flexibility. This was intended to enable employees to work from home part of the time, thereby making the era when office workers were chained to the office desk all day obsolete.
In the early days, there were widespread worries among employers to the effect that a main outcome of this new flexibility would consist in a reduction of productivity. Since there was no legitimate way of checking how the staff actually spent their time out of the office, it was often suspected that they worked less from home than they were supposed to. If this were in fact the case, working from home would have led to a real increase in the flexibility of time budgeting. However, work researchers eventually came up with a different picture. By the late 1990s, hardly anybody spoke of the home office as a convenient way of escaping from work; rather, the concern among unionists as well as researchers was now that increasing numbers of employees were at pains to distinguish between working hours and leisure time, and were suffering symptoms of burnout and depression. The home office made it difficult to distinguish between contexts that were formerly mutually exclusive because of different physical locations.
It is interesting to see this development in the light of Bateson’s definition of flexibility: the employee gains flexibility in space (he or she can work from home or from the office) at the expense of flexibility in time (organization time encroaches on personal time). As Eriksen states:
There seems to be a classic Batesonian flexibility trade-off associated with the new information technologies: increased spatial flexibility entails decreased temporal flexibility. If inaccessibility and ‘empty time’ are understood as scarce resources, the context of ‘new work’ thus seems to be an appropriate context for a new economics as well. In fact, a main environmental challenge of our near future will consist in protecting slow time and gaps from environmental degradation.
In short, it appears that flexibility for the organization necessarily implies a loss of flexibility for the individual.
Flexibility is in the eye of the beholder: an action to increase organisational flexibility by, say, redeploying employees would likely be seen by those affected as a move that constrains their (individual) flexibility. Such a dual meaning is characteristic of many organizational platitudes such as Excellence, Synergy and Governance. It is an interesting exercise to analyse such platitudes and expose the difference between their espoused and actual meanings. So I sign off for 2013, wishing you many hours of platitude-deconstructing fun :-)
The hierarchical structure of many workplaces tends to constrain or even stifle open exchange of ideas and information. This is particularly apparent in communication between employees who are at different levels in a hierarchy: people are generally reluctant to speak their minds in front of their managers, even when assured that it is perfectly OK to do so. There is good reason for this: managers often “talk the talk” about being open to other points of view but contradict their words subsequently (see my article entitled, the paradox of the learning organization, for an example of this).
In this post I draw on this paper by Max Visser to describe some of the tactics or patterns of miscommunication which managers employ to sideline, devalue or even completely dismiss employee viewpoints.
Those who toil in the lower echelons of an organisation’s hierarchy can easily sense the gap between managerial talk and intent. One setting in which this gap becomes particularly evident is in group meetings, where a manager’s words may say, “speak freely” but his body language or responses may append an unspoken “be aware of the consequences” clause.
As I have discussed in this post, communication is just as much about context (e.g. manager-subordinate relationship within an organisational setting) as it is about content. This point of view is central to the interactional view of communication that originated in the work of Gregory Bateson and Paul Watzlawick. According to the interactional view, communication operates at two levels: the spoken or written meaning (content) and the situation/relationship (context). Among other things, this view focuses on the ways in which the content of a message – such as “speak freely” – may be rendered ambiguous by signals that appear to contradict it. In the remainder of this post we’ll look at a few ways in which managers do this via verbal communication. We’ll also take a brief look at the different ways in which employees respond to such behaviour.
Patterns of miscommunication
The best way to describe these patterns is through an example. Consider the following situation:
An employee presents a business case for a new CRM system to his manager. In the presentation, the employee describes the rationale for implementing a new system and then evaluates a few products based on agreed financial, technical and other criteria. Finally, he recommends a particular product, System X, based on the evaluation and then seeks feedback from his manager.
The manager, who does not want to commit to a course of action may choose one of the following strategies to devalue the employee’s work:
In this case the manager makes a statement that acknowledges the employee’s message but ignores its content and intent by saying something like:
“So how long have you been working on this?”
By going off on a tangent, the manager avoids giving a relevant response.
There are four types of disqualification
This occurs when a manager avoids giving a response by changing the topic. For example, the manager might glance at his watch and saying:
“Oh is that the time? I have to go, I’m late for a meeting with my boss.”
The difference between tangentialisation and evasion is that in the latter, the manager does not even acknowledge the message.
Sleight of hand
Here the manager appears to acknowledge the message, but then switches the topic. An example of this would be a response along the lines of:
“Yes, you enough data for a Phd thesis here [laughs]. I think we’re drowning in data.“
The point here is that the manager initiates a discussion about a side issue – the volume of information presented in the business case rather than its relevance or veracity. Moreover this is done in an apparently light-hearted, yet somewhat demeaning way. Thus although the manager avoids giving direct feedback, he still makes it clear he does not think that the employee’s work is up to scratch.
Here the manager switches the focus from the message to the messenger. Usually status disqualification is accompanied by insinuations regarding the messenger’s competence. A typical example of this would be a comment like:
“It’s clear you have not done these kinds of presentations before!”
Without saying it explicitly, the manager is implying that the employee has not done a good job and therefore no further discussion is necessary.
This is where the manager lobs the ball back in the employee’s court by asking a question that implicitly challenges the employee’s conclusions. An example would be:
“[smiles knowingly] I see, but does your data justify your choice of System X?”
Such a question signals the manager is not convinced, but without explicit disagreement. The onus is now on the employee to justify his conclusions.
Here the manager changes the context of the discussion altogether by saying something like:
“Let me tell you something about CRM systems.”
Here the manager changes the frame of the discussion – it is now about educating the employee rather than evaluating the product. Of course, in doing so he also insinuates that the employee’s analysis is not worthy of a response.
Employee responses to managerial miscommunication
When faced with any of the above tactics, the employee can respond in one of the following ways:
- Meta-communication: Here the employee understands the manager’s tactics and attempts to point out the inconsistency and double speak in the manager’s response. This is a risky course of action because the manager may view it as a direct challenge to his or her authority. However, if done right, the manager may actually become aware of the incongruence of his/her response and change behaviour accordingly.
- Evasion: Here the employee withdraws from the conversation by ignoring the manager’s message altogether. One way to do this is to offer no response at all, but this might not be possible as the manager may well insist on a response.
- Acceptance: In this case the employee accepts the content of the manager’s response, but ignores the non-verbal signals (derogatory tone, looking at watch etc.). In doing so, the employee effectively accepts the manager’s criticisms.
- Countering: Here the employee counters the manager’s message by using one of the tactics of the previous section. This generally leads to a verbal escalation as the manager will view such a response as a direct challenge to his authority and thus respond in kind.
Because of the nature of the manager-employee relationship and the fear of challenging authority, I would hazard a guess that majority of employees would respond by acceptance or (more infrequently) by evasion. In an ideal organisation, of course, they would respond by meta-communicating.
In this post I have described some common patterns of miscommunication between managers and the managed in organisation-land. The common element in all the patterns is that the manager acknowledges the message at one level but responds in such a way as to leave the employee confused about how the response should be interpreted. In effect, the miscommunicating manager avoids giving a response.
The interactional view of communication tells us that context and relationship are more important than the content of a message because what is not said is often more significant than what is. The patterns listed above make this amply clear: managers who miscommunicate are asserting their positional authority rather than saying anything of substance or value.
Successful management consultants are often seen as experts and trendsetters in the business world. The best among them are able to construct convincing narratives about their expertise and experience, thereby gaining the trust of senior managers in large organisations.
Have you ever wondered how they manage to pull this off?
In a paper entitled, The Invincible Character of Management Consulting Rhetoric: How One Blends Incommensurates While Keeping Them Apart, Jonas Berglund and Andreas Werr discuss how consultants, unbeknownst to their clients, often draw from two mutually contradictory forms of rhetoric to construct their arguments: rational (scientific or fact-based) and practical (action-based). This renders them immune to potential challenges from skeptics. This post, which is based on the work of Berglund and Werr, is an elaboration of this claim.
Background and case study
Typically management consultants are hired to help organisations formulate and implement strategic initiatives aimed at improving organisational performance. On the ground, such initiatives usually result in large-scale change initiatives such as organisation-wide restructuring or the implementation of enterprise systems. Whatever the specific situation, however, consultants are generally brought in because clients perceive them as being experts who have the necessary knowledge and practical experience to plan and execute such transformations.
A typical consulting engagement consists of many interactions between consultants and diverse client-side stakeholders. Berglund and Werr begin their paper with a description of an example of such an interaction drawn from their fieldwork in a large organisation. In brief: the example describes a workshop that was aimed at redesigning business processes in an organisation. The two-day event was facilitated by the consultants and involved many stakeholders from the business. I reproduce their description of the event below so that you can read it in its original form:
The event begins with a plenary session. The 25 participants—a selection of key persons on different levels in the organization—sit around a u-shaped table in a large room. Three consultants sit at one end of the table. One (a bit older than the others) is Ben, the project manager.
At 9 am sharp he rises and enters the stage. A nervousness is reflected in his somewhat impatient movements and way of talking. This is an important presentation. It is the first time since the ‘kick off’ of the project, that it is being delivered to a larger audience. Ben welcomes the participants and briefly introduces himself: ‘I am a consultant at Consulting Ltd. My specialty is BPR [Business Process Reengineering]. I have worked extensively with this method in the telecom industry.’ He also briefly introduces the two colleagues sitting at the end of the table. But the consulting team is not complete: ‘We are waiting for Alan, a portal figure and innovator concerning BPR.’
Ben suggests beginning the seminar with a brief introduction of the participants. After this has been completed, he remarks: ‘we clearly have a massive competence here today’. Thereafter, he leaves the floor to Ken, the CEO of the company, who says the following:
‘There are many reasons why we are sitting here today. The triggering factor has been the rapid growth rate of the market. But why should we start working with BPR? I have worked a lot with process improvement, and I have failed many times, but then I heard a presentation by Alan and everything fell in place. I saw the mistakes we had made—we focused on the current situation instead of being creative.’ Following this introduction, the importance of the project is further stressed. ‘The high growth rate of the market demands a new way of working . . . The competitive situation for the company is getting harder; the years when the customers just came to us are over. Now we have to start working for our money . . . The reason for this project is that we want to become the best from our owners’, customers’ and employees’ perspective.’
After this presentation, Ben takes over the floor again: ‘I have something to tell you. I want to report what we have done in the project so far . . . We have worked in four steps, which is a quite typical approach in reengineering’, he says, showing a slide headed ‘Method for Implementation’, which depicts four project phases arranged in the form of steps from the lower left to the upper right. The more detailed exploration of these phases, and the related activities occupy the group for some minutes.
Thereafter, a sequence of transparencies is shown. They describe the overall situation of the company using well-known business concepts. The titles of the slides read ‘Strategic Positioning’ (the model presented under this title has strong similarities with the BCG [Boston Consulting Group] matrix), ‘SWOT Analysis’, ‘Core Competencies’, and ‘Critical Success Factors’.
I expect many readers who work in organisational settings will be able to relate elements from the above extract to their own experiences with management consultants.
Although the case-study is dated, the rhetoric used by the consultant is timeless. Indeed, in such plenary sessions, the main aim of consultants (and client-side senior management) is to justify the proposed changes and convince client-side staff to get involved in implementing them. This is as true now as it was a decade ago, the rhetoric used has hardly changed at all. What’s more interesting, though, is that their arguments taken as a whole are often inconsistent. To see why, let’s take a closer look at two kinds of rhetoric employed by consultants.
The rhetoric of reason
Consultants often legitimize their proposed actions by claiming to use “established” or “proven” methods. At the time of the case study (remember this was in the 90s), BPR was all the rage and, as a consequence, there were a number of contemporary books and articles (both in research and trade journals) that consultants could draw upon to legitimize their claims. Indeed, many of the articles about BPR from that era delved into things such as critical success factors and core competencies – the very terms used by Ben, the consultant in the case study. By doing so, Ben emphasised that BPR was a logically justifiable undertaking for the client organisation.
However, that’s not all: by referring to a stepwise “method for implementation,” Ben makes the process seem like a rational one with an “if we do X then Y will follow” logic. Of course, real life is never that simple, as evidenced by the statistics on failed BPR projects. Consultants often confuse their clients by presenting the map which is the idealised process as being equivalent to the territory that is organisational reality.
The rhetoric of action
To be sure, those who run organisations care more about results than models or methodologies. As a result, consultants have to portray themselves as being practical rather than theoretical. This is where the rhetoric of action comes in.
Ben’s reference to his “extensive experience in the telecom industry” and his invocation of “Alan, the portal figure and innovator” are clearly intended to emphasise the consulting organisation’s experience and “innovative approaches” to implementing BPR initiatives. Notice there are no references to reason here; there is only the implicit, “trust me, I’ve done this before”, and (if not that, then), “trust Alan, the portal figure and innovator.”
Ben’s spiel is backed up by the CEO; consider the CEO’s line, ” …I have worked a lot with process improvement, and I have failed many times, but then I heard a presentation by Alan and everything fell in place. I saw the mistakes we had made…”
The boss heard the BPR Gospel According To Alan and had an epiphany; everything just “fell in place.”
The short case study illustrates how consultants shift back and forth between two essentially incompatible modes of rhetoric when speaking to clients: a rational one which assumes the existence of objective management models and a normative one which appeals to human behaviours and emotions. This enables them to construct narratives that, on the surface, seem plausible and convincing, and more important, are hard to refute.
Although the rhetoric of reason refers to an idealised world of management models, its power and appeal cannot be overstated. As the authors state:
The belief in experts and their techniques is firmly anchored in the modern belief in rationality. In our culture ‘the notions of ‘‘science’’, ‘‘rationality’’, ‘‘objectivity’’, and ‘‘truth’’ are bound up with one another’. Knowledge is power, and formalized knowledge is praised as the only legitimate form of knowledge, offering hard and objective truth in correspondence to reality.
Indeed, consultants play a huge role in the diffusion of new knowledge and models in the wider business world, thus perpetuating the myth that management models work.
On the other hand, consultants must show results. They have to portray themselves action-oriented and hence Ben’s attempt to establish his (and his organisation’s) credibility via credentials. This mode of rhetoric downplays scientific-rational thinking and highlights wisdom gained by experience instead. As the authors state:
The chain of argument usually goes like this: merit always prevails over privilege; management knowledge is often contrasted with scientific, theoretically informed knowledge, which is regarded with suspicion by managers; and a persons’ track record and ‘hands-on’ experience is regarded as more important than expertise in general management skills acquired through extensive education.
Another facet of the rhetoric of action is that it emphasises the uniqueness of each situation. This is based on the idea that things in organisations are subject to continual change and that the lack of a stable configuration and environment makes it impossible to employ management models. The implication being that the only way to deal with the mess is to create a sense of collectivism – a “we’re in this together” attitude. The concept of organisational culture plays on this by portraying an organisation as this unique, wonderful place in which everyone shares the same values and deep sense of meaning. As the authors state:
The management literature discussing corporate culture is filled with religious and magical metaphors of the leader stressing the less rational sides of the organization, emphasizing the role of ceremonies, rituals, sagas, and legends (to mention only a few), in creating a system of shared values in the organization.
Seen in this light, the CEO’s references to Alan’s epiphany-inducing presentation, the “competitive situation,” and the need to “start working for our money” are attempts to generate this sense of collectivism.
The foregoing discussion highlights how consultants and their allies draw upon incompatible modes of rhetoric to justify their plans and actions. This essentially makes it difficult to refute their claims: if one tries to pin them down on logical grounds, they can argue based on their track record and deep experience; if one questions their experience, they can point to the logic of their models and processes.
…but we are all guilty
Finally, I should emphasise that management consultants are not the only ones guilty of using both forms of rhetoric, we all are: the business cases we write, the presentations we deliver, the justifications we give our bosses and staff are all rife with examples of this. Out of curiosity, I re-read a business case I wrote recently and was amused to find a couple of contradictions of the kind discussed in this post.
In this post I have discussed how consulting rhetoric frequently draws upon two incompatible kinds of arguments –rational/fact-based and practical/action-based. This enables consultants to present arguments that are hard to refute on logical grounds. However, it isn’t fair to single out consultants: most people who work in organisation-land are just as guilty of mixing incompatible rhetorics when attempting to convince others of the rightness of their views.
This post is inspired by a comment made by my elder son some years ago:
“Dad’s driving” he said.
A simple statement, one would think, with not much scope for ambiguity or misunderstanding. Yet, as I’ll discuss below, the two words had deeper implications than suggested by their mere dictionary meanings.
The story begins in mid 2010, when I was driving my son Rohan back from a birthday party.
I’m not much a driver – I get behind the wheel only when I absolutely have to, and then too with some reluctance. The reason I was driving was that my dear wife (who does most of the driving in our household) was pregnant with our second child and just a few weeks away from the big day. She therefore thought it would be a good idea for me to get some driving practice as I would soon need to do a fair bit.
Back to the story: as we started the trip home, my son (all of seven and half at the time) said, “Dad, you should go by North Road, there’s a traffic light there, it will be easier for you to turn right.”
“Nah, I’ll go the shorter way.”
“Dad, the shorter way has no traffic light. It has a roundabout, you might have trouble making a right turn.” He sounded worried.
“Don’t worry, I can handle a simple right turn at a roundabout on a Sunday evening. You worry too much!”
As it happened I had an accident at the roundabout…and it was my fault.
I checked that he was OK then got out of the car to speak with the unfortunate whose car door I had dented. Rohan sat patiently in the car while I exchanged details with the other party.
I got back in and asked again if he was OK. He nodded. We set off and made it home without further incident.
My wife was horrified to hear about the whole thing of course. Being pretty philosophical about my ineptness at some of the taken-for-granted elements of modern existence, she calmed down very quickly. In her usual practical way she asked me if I had reported the accident to the police, which I hadn’t. I reported the accident and made an appointment with the a smash repairer to fix up the damage to the bumper.
A week later my wife summoned me from work saying it was time. I duly drove her to the hospital without incident. A few hours later, our second son, Vikram, was born.
I pick up the story again a few days later, after we had just got used to having an infant in the house again. Sleep deficit was the order of the day, but life had to go on: Rohan had to get to school, regardless of how well or badly Vik had slept the previous night; and I had to get to work.
Soon Rohan and I had our morning routine worked out: we would walk to school together, then I would catch a bus from outside his school after dropping him there.
On the day Rohan uttered the words I started this post with, it was raining heavily – one of those torrential downpours that are a Sydney characteristic. It was clear that walking to school would be impossible, I would have to drive him there.
My wife gave him the bad news.
“Dad’s driving,” he said, in what appeared to be his usual matter of fact way.
However, if one listened carefully, there was a hint of a question, even alarm, in his words.
Given the back-story one can well understand why.
According to the most commonly accepted theory of truth, the validity of a statement depends on whether or not it is factually correct – i.e. a statement is true if it corresponds to some of aspect of reality. Philosophers refer to this as the correspondence theory of truth . There are a few other well known theories of truth but it would take me too far afield to discuss them here. See my post on data, information and truth if you are interested in finding out more.
Of course, it is true that Rohan’s statement would in retrospect either be true (if I did drive him to school) or false (if I didn’t). But that was hardly the point: there was a lot more implied in his words than just an observation that I would be driving him to school that day. In other words, his meaning had little do with any objective truth. Consider the following possibilities:
There was a hint of a question:
“Dad’s driving?” (…”You do remember what happened a couple of weeks ago, don’t you?…”)
or even alarm:
“Dad’s driving!” (I could almost hear the, “ I’m not getting in the car with him”)
Whatever the thoughts running through his head, it is clear that Rohan saw the situation quite differently from the way my wife or I did.
Indeed, the main problem with correspondence theories of truth is that they require the existence of an objective reality that we can all agree on – i.e. that we all perceive in the same way. This assumption is questionable, especially for issues that cannot be settled on logical grounds alone. Typical examples of such issues are those that are a matter of opinion – such as which political party is best or whether a certain book is worth reading…or even whether certain folks should be allowed to get behind the wheel. These are issues that are perceived differently by different people; there is no clear cut right/wrong, true/false or black/white.
There are other problems with correspondence theories too. For one, it isn’t clear how they would apply to statements that are not assertions about something. For example, it makes no sense to ask whether questions such as, “how much is this?” or “how are you?” are true or false. Nevertheless, these statements are perfectly meaningful when uttered in the right situations.
This brings us to the crux of the matter: in most social interactions, the meaning of a statement (or action, for that matter) depends very much on the context in which it is made. Indeed, context rather than language determines meaning in our everyday interactions. For example, my statement, “It is sunny outside,” could be:
- An observation about the weather conditions (which could be true or false, as per the correspondence theory)
- A statement of anticipation – it is sunny so I can play with my kids in the park.
- A statement of regret – it’s going to be a scorching hot day and we’ll have to stay indoors.
To find out which one of the above (or many other possibilities) I mean, you would need to know the context in which the statement is made. This includes things such as the background, the setting, the people present, the prior conversation, my mood, others’ moods …the list is almost endless.
Context is king when it comes to language and meaning in social situations. Paraphrasing the polymath Gregory Bateson , the phenomenon of context and the closely related phenomenon of meaning are the key difference between the natural and social sciences. It is possible in physics to formulate laws (of say, gravity) that are relatively independent of context (the law applies on Jupiter just the same as it does on earth). However, in the social sciences, general laws of this kind are difficult because context is important.
Indeed, this is why management models or best practices abstracted from context rarely work, if ever at all. They are not reality, but abstractions of reality. To paraphrase Bateson, all such approaches confuse the map with the territory.
I started this post almost three years ago, around the time the events related occurred. All I had written then were the lines I began this post with:
“Dad’s driving” he said. A simple statement, one would think, with not much scope for ambiguity or misunderstanding. ..
The lines lay untouched in a forgotten file on my computer until last weekend, when I came across them while cleaning up some old folders. At the time I had been reading Bateson’s classic, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and had been mulling over his ideas about meaning and context. With that as background, the story came back to me with all its original force. The way forward was clear and the words started to flow.
Bateson was right, you know – context illuminates meaning.
My thanks go out to Arati Apte for comments and suggestions while this piece was in progress.