Today’s post is by bestselling author Seth Kahan. It’s an excerpt from his book Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out. You can learn more about him and his book at the end of the post.
In 1996 I was working on my first large-scale change initiative at the World Bank. I was part of the small team that won international recognition for the World Bank’s Knowledge Management (KM) effort. Working on this program was like driving on a racetrack that was changing its course while you steer: the course and the environment were always changing, but we made incredible progress.
In two years we went from an unfunded idea in a back room to $60 million in annual allocations, from no resources or incentives to every staff member receiving two weeks to dedicate to KM as well as having a component of their annual evaluation dedicated to it, from no recognition to international awards.
To make this happen we had to answer questions like these:
– How do you penetrate the conflicting demands and mental clutter that are part of everyday business life in the twenty-first century?
– How do you penetrate the assorted messages the media constantly bombard everyone with?
– After you have gotten through this confusion, how do you get people’s attention?
– Once you have their attention, what do you do with it to get people engaged, involved, and contributing?
– How do you coordinate this activity when you have no formal authority?
We were able to answer these questions, and we were highly successful as a result. But, it took a major reframe of the way we communicate. To illustrate, let’s first look at the prevailing misunderstanding of how communication works, and then I will show you a much better way to think about it.
Most people intuitively use a communication model that originated in 1948 and was published by Shannon and Weaver in 1962. Although this model was great fuel for the information revolution, it is completely inadequate when it comes to person-to-person meaning making—which is what drives the rapid spread of new ideas.
In its own domain, the Shannon-Weaver model is extraordinarily useful and can be credited with initiating much of modern information theory. It has been called by some the “mother of all models.” It states that you have an information source that develops a message that is sent using a transmitter. The signal travels and encounters noise on its way to a receiver where the subsequent message is delivered to a destination.
The unquestioned assumptions that percolate in the minds of a typical communication team betray their use of this model. They go something like this:
We will talk to our president [Information Source] and craft a message that is easy for people to understand [Message 1]. We will place this message in various media including newsletters, posters, e-mails, Web sites, and town halls [Transmitters]. If we can get people to stop and read what we wrote, take the time to attend our events and listen to what we say, they will be exposed to our concepts and ideas [Signal]. Although they are uninformed, distracted and overloaded [Noise], they will hopefully read our writing when it appears in their inbox, come to our events, and listen to our presentations [Receivers]. They will then interpret what they have read and heard (Message 2) and understand what we are about. We will have reached them [Destination].
Although the Shannon-Weaver model is great for sending digital signals, it is horrible for people trying to make sense of their world. We thinking humans are just not as simple as this model.
Making meaning is a much more complex task. For example, we don’t just decode information and understand it. If we did, you could pick up any book in a university library, read it cover to cover, and fully absorb what the author intends. But you cannot. You also need teachers and other students.
The reason we need teachers and other students is that we construct meaning socially, through interactions. We need the input of others to help us develop our ideas, place them in context, and make them relevant to our world, our experience. It is a collective project. This is called social construction.
We construct our understanding of the world through our relationships. As human beings we thrive on liaisons and partnerships. Social construction gets to the heart of how people make meaning together. It opens possibilities for reaching people who understand the world very differently, creating collaboration among diverse participants.
It is also a humane way of looking at communication, enabling compassion and kindness. Importantly it makes it possible to extend these qualities to technical and business-oriented interactions, bringing people together and generating esprit de corps even when people are from widely differing cultures. This is a critical milestone in communication.
Most importantly by engaging our stakeholders using social construction you will be able to:
– Penetrate the demands and clutter that are part of business life.
– Break through the assorted messages the media constantly delivers.
– Get peoples attention and move forward to help them engage, get involved, and begin contributing.
– Coordinate this activity without formal authority.
Traditional communication efforts
|Purpose||Articulate and defend a position||Create a movement|
|Modus operandi||Build a rationale and deliver it||Bring people together to think and discuss a new set of ideas|
|Core activity||Generate marketing collateral and IP: PowerPoint, spreadsheets, documents||Events: town halls, coffees, brown bags, conversations, interactions|
|Support for core activity||Events||Documentation|
– This is an excerpt from Seth Kahan’s bestseller, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out. Seth is a recognized thought leader and exemplar in change leadership and has worked at the highest levels of organizations that include the World Bank, Peace Corps, Royal Dutch Shell, Prudential Retirement, Arent Fox, and over 50 other organizations. He can be reached through his website, www.VisionaryLeadership.com.