Meaning Guide

What is Shared Meaning and why does it matter?

I started using the phrase “shared meaning” a couple of years ago to describe the outcome we were focusing on in the organisations we were working with, but I wasn’t prepared for just how quickly the phrase came to be taken up by clients, colleagues and the world at large. It became the subtitle of the book I co-wrote earlier this year, and the more I talk about it, the more I hear it in other people’s conversations. While I ponder how on earth to find time to write another full-length book on the subject, here’s a short summary of what I mean by shared meaning, and why I think the world needs it.

Shared meaning is two things: one is the outcome we are seeking to achieve, and the other is the discipline that seeks to achieve that outcome. The outcome is defined at greater length elsewhere on this blog, but as a quick reminder:

If meaning is what it feels like to experience the following two sensations at the same time …

Meaning at work - I get it and I care

… then shared meaning is what it feels like for the same thing to happen within a group:

When this happens, there’s a release of energy, as the group identity forms around the meaning created.

How do you achieve this? It might just look like the outcome of effective communication: convey a message about something a target audience will care about, in a form they will understand. But communication is more than just information transfer. As organisational, societal and global problems became more complex, what we need is not more targeting by audience, but more building of bridges between diverse audiences so that they can talk to each other. As has always been the case, it is people coming together that has the power to change the world.

So the more we have experimented at VM with different ways of achieving this end, the more firmly we have come to believe that Shared Meaning needs to be seen not just as an outcome, but as a discipline. But what would that discipline entail? We see it as the coming together of three strands, each pertaining to something shared: the perspective we take, the symbols we create, and the way we think (corresponding, in a sort of Piercean triad, to the content, representation and audience of the shared meaning). I’ll take each of these three in turn, then look at the value that arises from drawing them together.

Strand 1: Shared perspective

This strand is about content i.e. what the shared meaning is about, which is a question of what you have trained yourself to be able to see; the central discipline here is therefore that of taking a systemic perspective on the world.

Most of the time, the easiest way to understand something is to break it down into smaller parts. In organisational terms, we break organisations down into departments, capabilities and processes, which we observe, document, measure, then re-engineer / lean / automate. Each part represents a different community of people, with a different perspective on what’s going on.

The systems perspective, by contrast, is to “zoom out” to see the whole, then try to understand how that whole has arisen not from the behaviour of individual parts, but from the patterns emerging out of the relationships between the parts. There is an inherent sharedness in the systems perspective, because the mental act of metaphorically “zooming out” necessarily distances oneself from one’s own assumptions about how things are, and causes one to try and understand why other people might see them differently.

The systems perspective is an essential component of shared meaning practice for two main reasons:

  • Firstly, it retrains us to see the recurring patterns that we share participation in. It stops us from trying to force our perspective onto other people. Forcing a perspective is really selling, not finding shared meaning.
  • The second reason is subtler, but just as important. Taking a systems perspective forces us to make a commitment to reality. We are constantly trying to understand the way things are, rather than the way one particular group or individual (including ourselves) wants them to be. This is a practical rather than a philosophical point: reality is how the world shows up, but for who? By depicting shared experiences that can be empirically verified regardless of who you are, we seek to create shared meaning for a greater diversity of people.

Strand 2: Shared symbols

This strand is about representation, i.e. the symbols we choose to depict the systems perspective. The depiction of systemic content is not something that’s had much attention over the years. Systemic models have historically tended to be spaghetti-type affairs, not nice to look at, and very hard to understand unless you happened to be involved in making them. This is changing – I’ve noticed several references to systems thinking coming up in mainstream service design and design thinking conference sessions, and Donella Meadows is starting to pop up as recommended reading in design circles.

This is great, because the full forces of visual design need to be brought to bear to solve the problem of shared meaning. I like to think of this in terms of Ashby’s Law, that “only variety can destroy variety”. Variety is a measure of complexity: if your content is complex, systemic, and involves multiple perspectives, then in order to make it tractable to people you’re going to need a requisite amount of representational variety in the way you choose to depict it. Design professionals, illustrators and artists have this in spades, but up until now it has very rarely been connected with content arising from a systems perspective.

One further point here: why emphasise the visual? I think the main answer is just another application of Ashby: which of our senses can absorb the most complexity? Vision is our primary modality, and with half of our mental energy being expended on visual processing, it’s by far the quickest way to capture and communicate the kind of complex, non-linear content that tends to arise from taking a systems perspective on a problem. But it’s not the only modality, and while I think the visual will always be the core mode of representation for systemic content, I can’t wait to see what happens when Shared Meaning becomes a movement that attracts creatives from other disciplines to experiment with other forms (music, story-telling, creative interactions, other sensory experiences) that could augment and compliment it.

Strand 3: Shared cognitive processes

This strand is about the audience we are trying to build shared meaning among, or specifically, the way that audience thinks. The mind is a fascinating thing, and none of us think in exactly the same way. While this neurodiversity is something we should rightly embrace and celebrate, it’s also true that the vast majority of our cognitive processes (most of which are unconscious) are remarkably similar and, more to the point, that these similarities have been studied and documented. The point of this disciplinary strand is that the more we understand the cognitive processes we all share, the more we can use this knowledge to represent shared perspectives in ways that will mean similar things to different people.

I remember the first time I realised this, which was when I first encountered the field of cognitive linguistics, one of the many subdisciplines within the sprawling field of cognitive science. Cognitive linguists use language as a window into understanding how the mind works. This was probably fifteen years ago, when I was working in communications, and I just couldn’t understand why the insights these people were coming up with weren’t being put to practical use in organisations. If there are things we know that are universally true of how people use language (typicality effects, conceptual blending, frame semantics, polysemy chains etc.), then surely we should be using those? As it turns out, advertising agencies, propagandists and spin doctors were using them, but that’s another story.

The point for us is that there are things we can know, that have been demonstrated, about how meaning creation actually works at the level of the individual human. We can use this knowledge to work “with the grain” of how humans naturally make sense of the world. The knowledge itself is neutral – we can use it to influence, to sell, to divide and to coerce, but we can equally use it to draw people together into a shared understanding of shared reality, by creating better depictions of shared perspectives.

Drawing pairs of strands together

I’m sure there are other strands people will want to raise, but after spending so many years consciously engaged in this as a practice in its own right, I’m pretty confident these three are pretty central. However, they are only ingredients: it’s when they come together that things become interesting. At this stage I don’t think I’ve said anything terribly original, and even when we start blending pairs of fields together, we will find interesting inter-disciplinary communities of practice that already exist. But each of these blends seems to me to be missing a third strand, and its only when they all come together that I think we get something genuinely different and new.

I now want to go round each of the three pairs of disciplines, and describe what happens when it’s missing the third strand.

The first pairing of strands is about modelling, which in this context is the creation of symbols from a systems perspective. It’s hard to find a self-described “systems practitioner” who doesn’t spend a lot of time making models, but I’m including here all the other disciplines that zoom out and try to model complexity: enterprise and business architects, business analysts, systems engineers and so on.

The problem that all these disciplines share is that most of their outputs have a tendency to be, frankly, unintelligible and unappealing to the  people who didn’t make them. Which isn’t necessarily a problem; what drives most modellers seems to be more the desire to understand, rather than the desire to share, explain and create meaning. The cognitive component is missing: the art, the skill, and the commitment to build models that go “with the grain” of how humans make sense of the world.

There’s then the domain of design, which does have this commitment, but tends not to naturally take the systems perspective (though as I’ve said above, I think this could be changing):

Good designers are obsessed with how their users interact with the content, products, layouts etc. that they create. They may not have much formal knowledge of cognitive science, but they have a huge amount of practical knowledge of how humans work, having spent years observing them over and over again. Graphical interface design, for example, is a perfect example of a shared meaning problem, because the designer’s task is to ensure that everyone interprets the meaning of the symbols in a sufficiently similar way that they get the job done with the minimum of hassle. This mindset is noticeably absent from the vast majority of systems practice communities.

The final overlapping pair is probably the most interesting, and perhaps the most contentious. Over the last few decades, the most radical developments in cognitive science have for some reason all involved the letter “E”: Emergent, embodied, extended, enactive … and what they all have in common is that they see cognition as itself a system in the world. Minds arise from the interaction of living things with one another and their environments, not as separate models sealed off inside people’s heads. There’s a huge overlap here: the ideas associated with second order cybernetics in systems theory and enactivism in cognitive science are very similar indeed.

The philosophy that comes along with these theories is at least questionable (are life and cognition really two sides of the same coin?), but the practical point for shared meaning is hard to gainsay, which is that meaning-making is an inherently social process. We can understand how to model systemic patterns, and how to make highly evocative symbols to represent those patterns, but neither the patterns nor the representations have any meaning outside of a social context. Language evolves to reflect the concerns contained within evolving patterns of relationship.

What this means in practice is that without a commitment to mastering the art of dialogue (not just rhetoric, or argument, or even discussion), our shared meaning enterprise simply won’t work. It will become one-sided like advertising, or background noise like management-speak, or worse. Curiosity, humility and skill are required to create spaces that facilitate going on together, and it’s from these spaces that shared meaning will arise.

Once again though, it’s not enough. In my experience, the communities with the deepest commitment to the art of dialogue (coaching, facilitation, therapy, OD …) often have the least interest in the creation of enduring symbols to represent the meaning that arises, beyond the spoken and written word. This creates an incongruence, because the more complex the systemic pattern that’s being explored, the more important it is to have a shared representation that is not in a linear form. Dialogue spaces can remain places of warmth, acceptance, and curiosity, while participants remain oblivious to the fact that the words they are sharing in conversation are connecting to very different mental models of the world.

Bringing the three strands together

In conclusion, I see plenty of evidence of people pursuing these strands individually and in pairs, but I think the real magic will happen when we can bring all three together at the same time. People who do so are clearly pursuing shared meaning as an outcome, and I think that it makes sense to start talking about establishing Shared Meaning as a discipline to draw us together into a shared community of practice.

1 comment

  • Delighted to be reading this! I felt I was a lone-pioneer in this area – would love to chat.

    We like to use the phrases

    Shared mental models
    Shared reality
    People alignment

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