Meaning matters

I sit on boards for a couple of organisations and therefore have to read what I would call conventional paperwork. More often than not I struggle with this. Not that I can’t read the words but that I can’t for the life of me work out what they mean, what the story is behind them.

The possibility of an alternative is what I find so exciting about the use of blogs in business. The way you can string together multiple perspectives on a topic. The way topics can be covered obliquely and in passing rather than in an attempt to provide a definitive version. And the way you can use rich context to help determine meaning.

Meaning matters.

This moving passage is from the wonderful Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and is from his grandmother’s explanation of her attitude to food:

“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”

“He saved your life.”
“I didn’t eat it.” ….
“You didn’t eat it?”
“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”
“Why?”
“What do you mean why?”
“What, because it wasn’t kosher? ”
“Of course.”
“But not even to save your life?”
“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

I struggle with this, to me, arbitrary meaning but am humbled by the strength of conviction behind it. Humans seek out and cling to meaning – even in the most adverse circumstances.

What a shame we have sanitised meaning out of so much of our communications. Wouldn’t business be more exciting, and more effective, if we sought more meaning and got better at expressing it?

8 thoughts on “Meaning matters”

  1. Really interesting thought Euan. I have often thought scientific papers would be better with a section called: "What this really means," or "Where this is going," or "Do you realise what this will mean if I am right?" In that section, isolated in the same way as Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion, they would be free to speculate and enthuse.Very often people hide behind apparent objectivity by removing emotions, but in fact, in real human beings, they are the very thing that most powerfully convey meaning. And also there is not a single scientist ever born who was truly objective – we can't be by the influences from our backgrounds and upbringing. So better to get those thoughts out in the open so we can se them clearly.

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  2. I, too, have sat on boards and when the directors' package arrives trying to sort out the underlying story is always a puzzle. Yet, without it, I can't do what a director is there to do: long-range strategic advice.I would love to see all papers — from memoranda to scientific papers — start with a narrative. (Eventually we may stop writing the rest as if we don't exist.)

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  3. This seems to be an extension of our Western penchant for analysis; for breaking things down into their constituent parts and trying to make sense of them absent their relationships to and with each other. Your "part", as a member of The Board is to study other "parts", the end result of which is expected to be an understanding of the whole.I agree the use of blogging, including micro-blogging or status sharing (also the use of wiki and other forms of collective or collaborative authorship), holds tremendous potential for everyone to collectively create a better narrative, hence a better, clearer understanding of what the meaning of their organization is and how well it's achieving its goals and vision. It can move us from analysis to synthesis and a better understanding of the whole, as opposed to merely understanding its parts.

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  4. I suppose there's always the possibility that "sanitizing" out the meaning is a vehicle for controlling the conversation toward a desired outcome. I see that in organizations I work with all the time. Those who prepared the material may very well have an agenda — or at least a hoped for, self-protective outcome. Consciously or otherwise the material is woven to shape and polish the "information" they contain, leaving the decision-makers brutally routine decisions. Of such, later scandals are made.

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  5. I guess the problem is in the word "controlling" Dan. They would get on so much better aspiring to increased influence rather than clinging to ideas of control!

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  6. I'm in total agreement, Euan — the problem is control, and behind it the avoidance of of vulnerability. It reminds me of a senior team meeting I attended one day. The topic was a major shift in the organization, though I can no longer actually remember what the shift was about. Quality maybe. The CEO asked the SVP's to communicate the need for the shift to their reporting functions. The SVP's were nervous, wanted a script to be drawn up that they could read from for consistency's sake. The CEO replied, "Look, raw is better. The point of your sharing the need for change is to create dialogue. Will there be inconsistencies? Yes, and you'll hear about them, but every one will be another opportunity for people to talk about the shift with you and us to talk to each other." (Or something very much like this). The CEO clearly intended that this be a conversation, not an announcement. I think this is a good example of what you are talking about, the journey from control to influence, which involves risk, responsibility, and deeper commitment to an open exchange rather than the self-protective, sanitized alternative.

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