posted 10 Nov 2010 in Volume 14 Issue 2
Brad Meyer on why diversity is a fundamental consideration for effective knowledge sharing
So everyone’s convinced of the organisational (and personal) relevance of sharing their knowledge before, during and after their endeavours. Everyone’s ready and willing to share with and learn from each other. And where there’s a will, there’s a way, right?
I am in a cold Glaswegian board room. I’m witnessing the potential demise of a recently formed team of directors. The team has universally disappointed their managing director (MD) on a continuous basis for several months now. The atmosphere is frigid and words are being spoken through clenched teeth. No one sits near the MD as the chairs at the end of the table where he is sitting are in arm-swinging distance. This MD is physically expressive.
The height of frustration is clearly expressed in the pallor of his skin tone and the sweat on his brow. He waves his arms in the air, calls a halt to the meeting, tells his (also frustrated) directors to leave and asks me to stay behind. This is my first meeting in this board room and so while I’m a little worried about what he might say to me, I am not concerned that it will be about me. It’s clear that the relationship with his directors – not me, the newly hired consultant – is the source of his distress.
He tells me that time and time again, he’s asked his directors for section development updates and strategic planning information. He tosses what he’s been given today across the boardroom table and says: “I ask for explicit information and this is what I get! This is all I ever get from them.” I look across the table and see pages of diagrams and illustrated cartoons. “They’re not taking me seriously at all,” he adds. “This is crazy – half of them are even doodling during our meetings.”
Cutting to the chase, this scene has been replayed many times in this start-up organisation: the MD asking for explicit, bulleted information (as expressed by his body language), and his directors (all hired for their track records of creativity and innovation) expressing themselves visually. The MD instinctively distrusts pictures due to their lack of detail, while the directors see imagery as the only way to convey the whole picture in line with their evolving vision in an efficient manner.
The thing is, the directors really wanted to share their knowledge, insights and ideas. But they were at variance with the MD because they were naturally expressing themselves in their preferred, sensory-specific styles. And while they were very comfortable using diagrams with each other, they were not adapting themselves to their MD’s need to see and read what they had to share in a different way.
As soon as we figured this out, we asked ourselves how we could accommodate the communication gap between the MD and the directors, without compromising their preferred styles of expression and information gathering. The solution in this case was to add bulleted lists to the illustrations; retaining the bigger picture, while adding in the necessary level of detail for the MD to feel that he had what he needed to assess the situation properly and make informed decisions.
Some key messages taken from this experience were:
You haven’t actually shared your knowledge, if no one is watching, listening or reading (let alone using) what you have ‘shared’;
The response you get from others tells you what you are actually communicating to them – intentionally or otherwise;
Others’ perceptions of your intentions may not be accurate, but their responses to those perceptions will create a reality you will have to work with;
You haven’t learned from others, if all you do is continue to show and tell them about your own experiences in your own way. KM runs on reciprocity;
Until you step into another’s shoes, listen through their ears, see through their eyes and feel through their emotions, you are effectively operating in a manner that can be regarded as dumb, deaf and blind by those with whom you are interacting (or not, as the case may be);
A simple solution with immediate impact may be possible – even if there’s a history suggesting the contrary;
Sometimes it takes an external perspective to put things in perspective; and
When it comes to knowledge sharing, developing an inclusive mindset can reveal (and leverage) knowledge and insights from different people.
By the way, the doodling during the meeting was a perfect example of how some people doodle to learn or think more efficiently, while others doodle to distract themselves. You can guess who in the boardroom had which habit.
Brad Meyer is the founder and director of Collaboration Ltd. He can be contacted via his website at www.collaboration.co.uk. This article is adapted from an extract of his book, Being Inclusive in a Diverse World.