Using Models to Create Shared Meaning

By Jonathan Whelan

In this article on digital transformation, I include the thoughts of myself and Steve Whitla, the founder of the consultancy ‘Visual Meaning’, on the importance of models to help create shared meaning in transformation initiatives.

As the corporate world changes, so too does the world of ‘change’ itself. In the past, any significant change would generally involve a large-scale, top-down transformation programme. These large-scale programmes are now increasingly seen as single points of failure. Waterfall is out, agile is in. ‘Design’ is no longer just a downstream activity driven by strategy – strategy itself is increasingly led by design thinking. Leaders, feeling that they are falling behind the pace of change, are attracted to Scrum practitioners who promise ‘twice as much in half the time’. What all these practices have in common is that they put the organization’s users and customers at the heart of the change, designing products, services, processes and ultimately strategy, with users and customers rather than in isolation from them.

The reason these agile approaches have become popular is that they work! The reason they are controversial is that they only seem to work consistently on a relatively small scale. There are plenty of consultancies, frameworks, white papers and blogs proposing the means to scale the ‘agile mind-set’ from teams of ten to organizations of tens of thousands, but the results are too often inconclusive.

Why is this? Why is it that the larger organizations become, the less agile they tend to be? Why do older organizations find it harder to change? There are lots of valid answers involving culture, leadership, clarity of purpose, organizational design, environmental couplings, legacy IT systems and so on. The answer that this article focuses on involves models, in particular the visual models people create to make sense of change and to describe change, along with the mental models these visuals reflect and inform. The focus on visual models is because visual models have the power to create shared meaning, and shared meaning helps to make businesses more agile.

All organizations want agility, but any agile response presupposes a level of shared understanding and concern among employees and stakeholders as to what needs to happen, when, how and why. Better models have the potential to allow the large organizations of tomorrow to reflect more of the agility of the small organizations of today.

Models break down complexity to help everyone involved and impacted by change get ‘on the same page’. Sometimes these models are explicitly written down and distributed, sometimes they are tacitly assumed, and sometimes they may be unconsciously embedded in the collective psyche, but without being shared to some degree, co-ordinated change isn’t possible. Or to put it another way: all other things being equal, the winners in a competitive market are more likely to be the organizations whose staff have aligned mental models of what’s going on and how they are going to respond. It’s no use having the perfect solution to a business problem if it only exists in the mind of one person.

This explains why business innovation comes almost exclusively from small organizations, be they start-ups or ‘skunkworks’ within larger organizations. If you’re in an organization of a dozen people working side-by-side, then it’s hard not to have a detailed shared model of what’s going on. Scale this up to 60,000 people and it becomes almost impossible. It’s also why design-led approaches have become so popular. If your change process has the customer/user at its heart and involves rapid iterations of ideas and prototypes to solve a problem, then it’s very hard as a small team not to have a shared model of what’s going on, because the customer is constantly telling you! The problem arises when you need to scale up your solution to be delivered by an enterprise for which that shared model doesn’t exist. Shared models will arise organically in any well-functioning small team but, humans being human, that’s often as far as they go. For large organizations to match the agility of smaller ones, we need to find ways to create models that travel across silo-boundaries.

If models are an important contributor to successful transformation, then an obvious question is: “Can we not do better than we do?” For example, can we not develop modelling tools – that is, the software tools that are used to create and maintain models – that are more suited and accessible to more people? Can’t we design modelling languages that break silos down rather than reinforcing them? At the very least, can’t we find ways to be respectful and curious about models that are made by different people and look different to the ones we might create ourselves?

Of course, shared meaning is not the only essential or desirable quality for models; they also need to be accurate, relevant, appropriate and so on. But when it comes to achieving business transformation, shared meaning seems to be the crucial factor that is most often overlooked.

Also, ‘shared meaning’ does not mean everyone is thinking the same thing! Without a diversity of perspectives and opinions, organizations struggle because they cannot adapt to changing circumstances. The point is that without some shared model of what’s going on, divergent opinions themselves make no sense. You may have an ingenious solution to a customer problem for example, but we can’t have a meaningful conversation about it unless we have a shared model of what that problem is.

In conclusion, by visualising what we mean, we connect abstract concepts to shared experiences and in doing so build bridges of shared meaning. This is not just true for enterprise architects, business analysts, etc. talking to change consultants, but also for representatives of different organisational departments, different employers, different specialisms, different job grades, different backgrounds. Indeed, it’s not just true for organisations and organisational change, but for change at all levels across the world.

Jonathan is an established business transformation specialist who has over 34 years’ experience in change-related roles. His commonsense approach to addressing complex business problems and shaping practical, sustainable solutions has been fundamental to the success of many transformation programs.Whelan book

In his spare time, Jonathan writes about business transformation, especially in relation to the issues and opportunities associated with information technology. His latest book, co-authored with Stephen Whitla and published by Routledge, is titled Visualising Business Transformation – Pictures, Diagrams and the Pursuit of Shared Meaning.


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