Seek First to Understand

Some enduring conflicts in business are caused by structural or systemic issues.  Another large source of these enduring conflicts we encounter in our working lives are conflicts caused by a lack of shared context. In both cases, we can do better if we start the next debate by seeking to gain better context.

Understanding can be a Solution

Like everyone, I get frustrated when some arguments just won’t go away. That frustration is never constructive.  It can cloud my judgement, cause me to miss issues and never helps resolve the debate. No matter how polite I think are my efforts to explain or convince, that frustration will be in the background and the other party can always sense it. We are finely tuned detectors of the emotional states of others. Anyone who senses frustration in someone with whom they are arguing is highly likely to interpret it as a lack of genuine intent, trust or respect.

Often when one of these conversations has gone on a long while it hits me that I don’t really understand what the other person wants. When I shift my focus from convincing them that I am right to seeking to understand their position, a radical change comes over the discussion. Firstly, I often discover some point of context I am missing or that I have misunderstood their position, concerns or their goals. Secondly, we slowly begin to rebuild the trust and respect that has been damaged by the conflict. Both of these are highly useful in finding a joint path to a solution

Often seeking to understand leads to an even more surprising resolution. When conflicts are caused by a lack of a shared context, some times the other party just wants to be heard. They want you to understand the context that you are missing. There might be nothing to do to fix things other than to listen deeply, actively engage their views and acknowledge what you have learned.

Context can show you the System

Seeking to understand is an important first step in the tricky issue of structural or systemic conflicts. These issues arise when parties are trapped in a system that pushes them into conflict, often without either side realising the issue.  Think of your classic clash between organisational silos. Operations are trying to reduce the cost of the process. Sales are trying to increase revenue. Both parties are right in pushing to meet their KPIs. Both feel authorised to fight on,  but the answer is that the organisation needs a balance of the two perspectives. In this context, it is easy for minor issues to become enduring proxy fights of the larger structural issue. I’ve seen teams fight repeatedly over whether error rates were driving cycle times or vice versa when the real issue between them was a need to better align their two businesses.

Changing the conversation to explore a wider context, to explore each party’s goals, concerns and views will help show the wider system at play in these debates.  Opening up this broader conversation is how leaders can identify often hidden issues like culture clashes, misalignment of incentives or parts of the system working with unintended consequences.

It takes only a few minutes to ask a few questions to ensure you truly understand what the other party is seeking to achieve. The insights from that quest for understand will benefit both of you.


Who translates for your organisation?

The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across’. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.- Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

More than five years of my career in banking can be explained by the phrase ‘he is a banker but he speaks wealth management’. I focused on translation because I was lateral hire into banking and hence an outsider to both cultures. The differences in language and mindset were visible to me. There were all kinds of little shibboleths to distinguish the two businesses. The most common of these distinguishing pieces of language was that the bank had customers and wealth management had advisors and clients.

Keen to learn about the new businesses I became a keen student of jargon and business models. Knowing the language helped build trust and connection. The ability to collaborate across a language boundary made for all sorts of opportunities.

Translators Required

Understanding someone’s mindset and language is an important part of any collaboration. Network Navigators need the capability to speak the local language. Collaboration must be founded on a shared context and effective communication. To collaborate we need to make sense of each other’s purposes, concerns and actions. When there are strong cultures or silos, a translator may be required to help create that common context.

A great deal is lost in organisations when there are not translators able to surface knowledge or opportunities trapped in silos. There are many areas where different languages and mindsets can breakdown collaboration: sales vs marketing, product vs engineering, subsidiary vs corporate, management vs workers, etc. Translators must have practice working across these boundaries, surfacing, sharing and working together on opportunities.

To leverage the knowledge and capabilities of your organisation you will need translators. Do you know who is working these boundaries? What are you doing to give them a larger voice and influence?

A small investment in fostering the work of translators may reap great rewards in collaboration and new opportunities for your organisation. Critically, the work of translators is also a great way to spread connection, collaboration and shared context

You choose your philosophy of translation just as you choose how to live: the free adaptation that sacrifices detail to meaning, the strict crib that sacrifices meaning to exactitude. The poet moves from life to language, the translator moves from language to life; both like the immigrant, try to identify the invisible, what’s between the lines, the mysterious implications. – Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

We need shared context

If you are struggling to get your message across it might not be the message, it might be the context.

You are an expert.  You might be an universally recognised expert, have some special qualifications or you just might be the person who best understands your job, your customers or a problem.  That better understanding of some context, however narrow, makes you an expert.

Any form of work or collaboration will require you to use your expertise. That expertise can also be a barrier to communication and collaboration.  Your challenge is that others don’t share your unique context.  

Unless you share a context, others won’t be able to understand what you are doing or what you want to share.  If we don’t share enough context, we can’t see things, trust or understand what experts tell us.

Here’s a simple example.  Start working with a new group of people and you will find people are speaking incomprehensible new acronyms or using buzz phrases you don’t know. The group knows their history and you don’t. That group has a context and you are not part of it. Until you learn enough of their context and share enough of your own, you won’t be able to follow conversations or contribute.  The friction and surprises will undermine your confidence and potentially your trust in the group.

So how do you make sure others share your context & your expertise?

  • Work aloud: Sharing what you are seeing and doing with your connections enables them to pick up your context.  You don’t need to push it on them, but they can pull what you share when needed
  • Ask questions: The questions that you ask will be some new ones and obvious ones.  The fact that you are asking will enable you to explain a little of your context in response.
  • Be curious and generous: There is no right or wrong context.  Explore the context others have. Ask them to tell your their stories and share your own in reply.  Learn more in the process about what you may not have seen and also how your expertise can help others

Too United We Fall

Uniting the like-minded agents of change is a common first step in creating change. Too much unity of the like-minded is also a path to failure.

Undoubtedly change agents benefit from connection, collaboration and collective force. The life of a change agent can be a lonely one. Having others to share the load matters.

Building an overly united collective of people equally oriented to change has its dangers for the success of any change:

Shared Context: People embrace ideas when they share sufficient context to understand them. Uniting a group of change agents can rapidly accelerate the sharing of knowledge within the group. Soon that group will have lost some shared context with those that need to embrace change.
Us & Them: Silos are inevitable in any attempt to draw a ring around a group united in purpose. Without great care, unity will also come at a cost of factionalism as people seek out those who hold views of those closer to their own. All of this connection is in the opposite direction to the external engagement that drives change.
Grand Plans: United we dream. We plan lots of steps without engaging those who must join us in the changes. United we dream. Dreams inspire, but don’t deliver.
Power of Conflict: Interaction, debate and conflict helps keeps ideas evolving and relevant. Flaws appear when ideas are challenged and when ideas are tested by diverse views. Unity will reduce conflict. No change prospers by talking only to the converted.
Compromise: Surrounded by those equally convinced, compromise can feel weak. Standing ground against the system looks like an option and is commonly raised. This gesture of pulling rank on the system may come with a giddy sense of opportunity but is actually a failure, alienating others and preventing further progress to change. Opting back-in later is always challenging.

So how do you get the benefits of greater connection without the risks?

Share your story: Work out loud. Keep putting ideas out and discussing them widely
Keep the doors open: Constantly engage with new people, both like-minded, neutral and opponents. Any time your ideas are not being disturbed once a day you are in an echo chamber.
Favour unity of purpose & action over dogma: People only need to be agreed enough on the direction to work together. The change agents don’t need to agree each last point of implementation yet. Details will come in time.

The One Characteristic of Great Leaders

One characteristic makes great leaders stand out. The characteristic is not their performance. All leaders, good and bad can drive performance.

So what defines a great leader?

Great leaders make you better than you are. Great leaders make you better than you think you can be. They connect people with purpose, provide context and grow capabilities. They lift people up and help them realise potential.

The best leaders in my career helped me understand the context, challenged me to live my purpose and the organisation’s purpose, coached continuously and shared their experience, wisdom and lessons. They were also the most ruthless in providing feedback and setting stretching targets. They expected more and trusted you to deliver.

If you are a leader, don’t put up the drawbridge, drop down a ladder. Focus on how your people can stretch and grow. Build a strong pipeline of successors. Become an engine of talent for the business.

If you aren’t yet a leader, look out for the leaders who develop their people and grow their opportunities. Who you work for can be more important than the role in advancing your career. Ask yourself if you can begin to develop others in what you do now.

The knowledge revolution needs an assembly line

The industrial revolution was transformed by technologies like that of the assembly line which dramatically changed productivity and redefined the industrial model for a century. What will be the assembly line of the knowledge revolution?

From an era of mass manufacturing

Mass manufacturing arose when innovative manufacturing processes, such as the assembly line, arose to take advantage of the required capabilities like consistent & efficient power sources, better transportation, better communications and other technological advances. A number of large social changes came with the arrival of the era of mass production in the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries:

  • A shift from artisan manufacturing to factories & loss of power in the guilds (an end to skill as power) 
  • The management of work inputs in the right context and at the right time with less waste by bringing work to the worker, reducing work-in-progress & reduction of the manual effort through assembly lines and other manufacturing changes 
  • Specialisation and reduction in the task of the worker 

These changes also had a wider impact as the productivity and value created further social change, particularly as it drove a culture of mass consumption and the rise of the knowledge and service economy. Importantly, the development of this industrial revolution was largely guided by a purpose of shareholder return. With a few rare exceptions, employee engagement and fulfilment, environment or social purpose and other purposes often played a deeply secondary role.

Further phases of the mass manufacturing model whether robotics, lean/kaizen, logistics or outsourcing have been evolution on the basic revolution that began when production shifted from task oriented workshops to process driven factories. To a lesser extent, these efforts have sought to address broader social purposes.

To an era of mass collaboration

We are likely facing into a transformation of knowledge work on the scale of the industrial manufacturing. We are beginning to see new models of knowledge work and collaboration coming to life in our increasing social and digital information capabilities.

We now have the information storage and processing power, the mobility solutions and the social context that can drive insights and low-cost sharing. The coming together of these technologies offers us the opportunity to deliver information to knowledge workers when they need it (leveraging mobile and the cloud) with insight & context (from data analysis and social).

From entrepreneurs to large corporations the focus of innovation in the future of knowledge work is on how to develop new ways to leverage this technology. However for all the innovation we may not yet have seen a defining innovation on the scale of the assembly line. It cannot be far away.

By analogy, knowledge work will change dramatically in an era of mass collaboration:

  • Shifting the work from a knowledgeable expert to an digital algorithm, social network or most likely both (an end to knowledge as power) 
  • Reducing the search for information, the cost of sharing information and bringing knowledge to the worker as and when required for the task 
  • Provision of information in a richer more relevant context and with greater insight enabling new methods of the discovery, use and dissemination of knowledge, which is likely to mean new knowledge itself. 

Shaping purpose and outcomes

Managed with a focus only on shareholder value creation, this transformation could be massively disengaging and alienating for the knowledge workers of the global service economy. Managed with a focus on purpose (taking account of social value and economic value), this transformation could deliver massive productivity improvements, increased discretionary effort and an era of increased engagement and meaning in work.

Component parts of this transformation are being created now with innovation in enterprise social & cloud solutions, new mobile capabilities, big data and other innovations. The time to influence the direction and breadth of purpose of this innovation is now. The challenge that surrounds us is to develop the management innovations that will leverage these new capabilities to great social benefit.

The new era of knowledge work calls for its entrepreneurs and the simplicity & power of an assembly line for knowledge.

Do you agree? What would the assembly line for knowledge work look like? Can a broader and more balanced purpose guide this innovation in knowledge work? Which paths will we take as the knowledge revolution develops?

Concepts in this post borrowed from:

  • Richard Sennett, The Craftsman and Together
  • Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus 
  • Gary Hamel, The future of management 
  • Umair Haque’s HBR blog