Clarity and humanity live at the center of our vocabulary when we talk about people. Automattic prefers a friendlier approach to the typical jargon for talking about staffing, hiring, and moving people. We avoid ambiguity by using a specific word or phrase to communicate the exact need.
Untying the knots of language begins with seeing that whenever something is said, other communication is carried along with it. Sometimes the sender is aware of the unsaid, but often they are not… The unsaid but communicated includes assumptions, expectations, disappointments, resentments, regrets, interpretations, significance…
The message of the impact of clarity in language from the book The Three Laws of Performance by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan hit home to me this week. I often find myself “bound by the knots of language” in work and in life.
No matter how smart or insightful people are, we are all prone to being hijacked by what is unsaid — especially the unsaid about which people are unaware.
To misunderstand or not listen or prejudge is to be human, and yet I’m frequently surprised about the assumptions and judgements I bake into my own words. Resentment is there; disappointment, too. Sometimes simply saying the words out loud, and getting feedback from other people, reveals everything.
The process starts with becoming aware of what people are not saying but are communicating. The unsaid and communicated but without awareness becomes linguistic clutter. Thinking about cluttered physical spaces offers insight into what happens in situations where people are bound by the knots of language. Such situations occur as tiring chaotic and unfinished. The key to performance is not pushing new conversations about strategy or reorganization into an arty cramped space. Instead, it is about clearing out the clutter. Almost universally, it is the unsaid that is cluttered for individuals, groups, and organizations. Before anything you can happen people need to do the linguistic equivalent of clearing out closets. This means moving issues into the light of discussion, saying them, and examining them in public. When people can address and articulate the unsaid, space begins to open up.
For the full context of these quotes, see the source: Three Laws of Performance Review (PDF) by “The Business Book Review” (Copyright 2009 EBSCO Publishing Inc.).
With a nod to my colleague and friend Ian Stewart who wrote on the wisdom of duplication this week, here’s a duplicated audio version of the context for the quotes (reading from the PDF).
In a brainstorming exercise with my group at the altMBA, I expected to dive deep into the work, tuning our understanding of business models while working under pressure to create as many ideas as possible in a short time. We did just that, relishing our creativity and ingenuity.
Yet the most satisfying outcome wasn’t how deep or wide we ranged as much as the practice of creating the right space for it to happen. Allowing discovery, allowing the best work to shine through. The moment created by the creative space was the true prize.
In our session there grew a playfulness and a natural building up of ideas as serendipitous intersections occurred where a concept, channel, or stream could be cloned to adapt to a new business idea. Growing, it created momentum and provided a sense of space — room to roam.
The diversity of the team made for richer output as we kept exploring. Ideas born from one member cloned rapidly into new ones by tapping into our backgrounds, affinities, and environments. Though we started together pitching and editing out loud, it was slow going. The pace accelerated only after a 45-minute switch to brainwriting, writing solo to bring more life to the list. We successfully avoided the problem of “one loud voice” by taking turns narrating and typing.
Creating the space to run together started with finding a format that built enough structure without slowing us down. We later dubbed this the napkin sketch for its simplicity.
The napkin sketch technique produces a great number of ideas without too much detail. Just enough to explain a business idea or “micro” business model to a friend in plain English.
Here’s how it works:
Outline and pitch the business idea.
Detail the basics only: value proposition, market, costs, and revenue.
If you feel a spark, clone the sketch and adapt it.
Repeat until you run out of ideas.
If you freeze an idea too quickly, you fall in love with it. If you refine it too quickly, you become attached to it and it becomes very hard to keep exploring, to keep looking for better. The crudeness of the early models in particular is very deliberate. — Jim Glymph, architect
Jim Glymph (Gehry Partners, architects 1990–2007) explains the value of crude early models—what my altMBA group called “Napkin sketches.
Originally posted on Medium—and if Matt’s reading this, it’s required for the course. 🙃
When I come to a conversation without technique and provide the space to listen, I do so because I’ve failed at this a thousand times. I’ve planned and schemed and got lost in my own mind — missing the conversation, missing the moment, missing the person on the other side.
This time I’m going to do it differently.
I’m going to pause, give enough time and space to see other person first. Listen deeply so I can adjust my effort to the situation. If it’s the right moment, share what has worked for me. Later, I can ask how I’m doing to measure success.
Posting this as a personal bookmark because it comes up often in conversations with new leads. When I talk to people new to management I highlight the mindset change from “just you” to “the team.” The context of an outward mindset is important — you don’t own your time when you manage more than your own time. Keeping track of everything changes drastically when you start paying attention to more that just your own time and tasks.
This explains the frustration of a work day gets cut short — which can happen if something comes up unexpectedly or you’re continually interrupted. The resulting “short period” of time for making or creating is essentially lost. The big project, like the essay or talk you need to start on, don’t get attention because you don’t have the time for deep work.
Another clue for discovering the maker-vs-manager mindset is how you view your calendar. By month — and not by week or day — means you could be in maker mode. If you care more about every hour or 15-minute interval, you’re likely in manager mode.
A visual note to illustrate this concept:
Meetings can be disruptive to makers, says @phil_wade on Twitter. This ties into the concept of “flow state” made famous by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others. If you’re curious to learn more, search that name (hard to spell!) for his talks and books — and read my thoughts on the flow fallacy.
A mental model that keeps coming up for me is “the unscripted dance.” This captures the idea of going into a situation knowing you can rely on your skills to adapt to the other party. Even without knowing ahead. Even without preparing for each move, each step, or each word you’ll use.
In a work setting, this could be a 1-1 chat with a direct report or a quarterly check-in with your boss.
When you’re dancing with an accomplished partner, you may allow the moment to unfold because you trust that a script is not necessary. If you’re dancing with an unaccomplished partner, you may use a script to start with because it helps guide the dance until once again, it becomes unnecessary.
Conversations at work can be like a dance when you are there “in the moment” — so attentive that you are aware of yourself and your partner at the same time — moving in and out of sync. My mind says, “When I don’t have to mold the conversation, it leads to nice possibilities.”
My leadership coach, Akshay Kapur, calls this “Listening” with a capital L. It can be quite fun, but also scary, especially if you’re used to always having things planned out ahead of time. The “Listening” also means not allowing other thoughts to take over my mind; those next questions or points that need to come up in the conversation. When that happens, I’m no longer listening — I’m just following my original plan. That’s when I miss out on insights and understanding.
The unscripted dance helps to improve my communication. To be more open and aware. Especially in established relationships with long-time colleagues where we can naturally move across topics.
I used to try to move the conversation in a certain direction, or get something out of it — my agenda for the conversation. Now I try my best to let the other person drive it. If they don’t have anything to share or ask about, I’m ready with a short list of topics or questions, just in case.
A short thought experiment to kick off Friday and the weekend. Can you work without technique? Without naming who, what, where?
Not everything we work on needs a label. Sometimes working without technique or a plan means we discover new things. Pathways emerge. Without naming it you can break free of limitations and boundaries.