By Jonathan Whelan
In this article I follow up on my previous article (Using Models to Create Shared Meaning) on the importance of models to help create shared meaning in transformation initiatives. Again, I include the thoughts of Steve Whitla, the founder of the consultancy ‘Visual Meaning’.
Visualisation builds bridges, and that is good news for those working on transformation initiatives.
It is perhaps surprising that the implementation of business change has not drawn more attention from sociologists and anthropologists, as it provides some fascinating insights into how people get driven apart. Groups of high-functioning individuals come together for a limited time to achieve a common aim, but each group and individual, from inside and outside the organization, has their own language, culture, specialism, prejudices and (often) employer. They are all expected to put their natural biases and allegiances to one side in pursuit of a shared goal.
Most of the splintering arises from how this coalition itself deals with change, because the situation is never static: in terms of people, programme leadership changes hands whenever progress targets aren’t being met, sponsorship is moved as senior executives come and go, and consultancy partners arrive and depart as they come into and out of favour. In terms of content, requirements are constantly re-evaluated, the aim is rarely understood in the same way by everyone, and although everyone desperately wants to succeed, most people know that pretty much no large-scale transformation ever lives up to the hype of its original business case.
In the midst of all this change, everyday human dynamics are playing out. Individual contractors are on day rates, and want to show that they are worth them. Teams will often (consciously or unconsciously) use deliberately vague language in their early reports in order to avoid being tied down to specific commitments later on. If a new team member uses some in-vogue jargon in a meeting, it can be hard to tell if that person is trying to make a serious point, or just wants to sound more like an expert. If it emerges that the programme’s executive sponsor is ill-informed, insufficiently skilled, or misunderstands the issues affecting it, the programme team has to soldier on regardless. Then there are the small-scale skirmishes that occur between projects competing for the same funds or senior leadership favour, between different philosophies (agile vs waterfall, systemic vs reductionistic, user-centric vs enterprise-centric, etc.), or between change managers and technical specialists trying to build relationships with the same key stakeholders.
For our sociologists and anthropologists to truly understand why this situation, established to draw people together, so rapidly drives them apart, they would need to be joined by another group: linguists. Because all of these forces have one effect in common: they fragment meaning – not by design but by consequence.
In a complex transformation involving hundreds of people, where the change itself keeps changing, it is incredibly hard to maintain shared meaning across all groups. It is almost inevitable that shared meaning will fragment down to the level of each participant’s local team, where everyone at least has the shared reference points of common specialisms and common experiences. Over time each team builds its own model of what’s going on, what everyone’s motivation is, who can be trusted, who ‘gets it’, what needs to be done; yet all of these perceptions are expressed and only make sense in the language of the team that generates them.
These kinds of problems are typically put down to lack of inter-team communication, but without some shared reference points to start with, this can have the opposite effect. The meaning of words is a construction of the people who are hearing or reading them, so unless each team member can break out of their prior mental models to see the world from the other’s point of view, interaction across teams can just serve to reinforce prejudices. When projects are under pressure (which they usually are!), the stress and tensions make it far likelier that we will hear what we expect to hear, rather than what the other person is trying to say.
It’s hardly a new observation that pictures can help solve these problems. Everyone, after all, has heard the old adage that ‘a picture tells a thousand words’. Visualisation works because pictures are closer to our experience of everyday life than words, and the fastest way to create shared meaning is to create symbols that connect with shared experiences of what’s important to people.
More often than not the different groups in a transformation initiative are trying to describe the same things and trying to achieve the same things. Perhaps we need to have more humility and more curiosity for those who see the world in different ways to us. What would it be like for a trained graphic facilitator to learn UML and hang out with technical architects? What would it be like for a business process analyst to become fluent in creating rich pictures? What new technologies could be produced if we put shared meaning as a design objective in its own right? Whatever your role, background and preferred language, you may want to explore how others represent change visually, and perhaps your own world will be enriched with new possibilities as a result.
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.
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.