Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Human Systems

Following the recent financial crisis, a long-serving banking acquaintance of mine made the point that out of all the complexities, innovation, regulation and technology of the global financial system, the most critical aspect to understand was that the financial system is dominated at any one time by one of only two behaviours – fear or greed.

Be it financial meltdown or polar ice cap meltdown, the one common factor in the behaviour of the complex systems of business, markets, government, and society is, of course, us - the human.

As humans, it’s said that we each look for evidence to support our own view. So it’s hardly surprising that we seem to have a fair degree of difficulty separating out the individual meaning we make from what’s actually so.

It’s not just when editors from different newspapers view the same event very differently, or members of the management team interpret the operational data to show what they want it to show, where different and individual meaning occurs. Even a well known fact such as the distance between two cities, is, perhaps, less of a fact and more of a consensus of independent thinkers. The distance from London to New York is approximately 5,500 km. Fact or no?

Well, whatever perspective we each might have on the matter, rather helpfully, should we ever find ourselves disagreeing on what a metre is at some point in the future, we can always start by visiting the platinum-iridium bar at the French Academy of Sciences together. The bar has 2 marks on it denoting 1 metre (which was originally designed to represent 1⁄10,000,000 of the distance from the equator to the North Pole through Paris).

From money to countries to the value of goods and services to systems of government, we’ve made everything up ourselves through the observations we make and through agreement – and, or course, disagreement.

The distinction between the information ‘outside’ that everyone can see from the individual meaning we give it is an often overlooked, yet critical to understand, aspect of human systems. Another is that a lot of the information processing we do as humans is automatic. Fortunately, we don’t have to manually sort and file all the information we come into contact with – we’d hardly have time to do anything else if we did!

However, combine automatic information processing with the tendency to assume our view represents the reality, and we face somewhat of a communications double whammy. First, when somebody speaks and we listen, our meaning making filters are already automatically set to seek out evidence to back our own views. In a sense, we’re often not really listening to the other person at all. Second, when we communicate, we can omit the really important aspects to conveying the meaning we want; aspects critical to enabling tension points to be identified and addressed, to enrol people, and to aid defining real solutions for shared problems or opportunities.

Business and societal transformation requires mass consensus. Yet sometimes it’s hard enough to get a few people to agree on how to address a mild issue.

But I believe there is innovation we can bring to human systems, to aid communication, and so help us work more smartly together.

When something happens, we, independently, make it mean something. When we communicate an idea or a plan, we attempt to convey what we mean, but the meaning made of it by the recipient is theirs alone.

Imagine, then, that we are each independent meaning makers - Autonomous Meaning Making Machines if you will. External information is all around us, and we each make our independent meaning from it.

When something happens (an event), or something is communicated (some content), our sense making filters kick-in. The meaning about the information we come into contact with for a given situation, the decisions we take and our resulting behaviour is influenced by these sense making filters.

Leveraging the information systems and communications framework of VPEC-T developed by Nigel Green and I, there are six sense making filters which have a significant bearing on how we create meaning from the information around us, and our resulting behaviours:

- Our Beliefs justify our perspectives and behaviour
- Our Goals define our perspectives and behaviour
- Policies, the ones we have chosen to adopt at least!, direct our perspectives and behaviour
- The Events we observe trigger behaviour; often we actively look for events to reinforce the perspectives we already hold, and tend not to notice events which are contradictory
- The Content we access informs our behaviour and the perspectives we make
- And our Trust relationships tend to dominate our behaviour and how we interpret information. Further, as we trust each other more, we'll tend to more authentically talk about our own beliefs and goals.

Combined with other ideas of human systems, these sense making filters help shine a light on the behaviours we each adopt, and how these behaviours combine in the behaviour of the multiple human systems we participate in as we go about our daily lives.

When we want to communicate a suggestion, plan or idea, or look to collaborate around a problem, remembering that information is relative, and holding these filters front of mind or using the six words to describe situations from the perspectives of different participants, can really help us better understand each other and convey the meaning we really want to.

By using the ideas of human systems and the six words of Beliefs, Goals, Policies, Events, Content and Trust, I believe we can find genuinely new ways to communicate; to come together and resolve the underlying tensions within the human systems in which we all participate – our business, market, government, societal systems. By tuning into our information sense makers and remembering that information is relative, new possibilities for human communication is perhaps available to us.

If you like the ideas, there’s nothing like trying them out to see how they might work for you.

If so, here's an invitation; try taking a major issue you are currently dealing with, and holding front of mind that information is relative, consider what the beliefs and goals of the other people or groups of people involved in the situation are. Beliefs tend to justify our behaviours, and goals define them, so it’s a good way to start to understand where everyone is really coming from. Think about how you might express your own beliefs and goals about the situation too, and from this place see if better collaboration or even breakthroughs on the issue can start to take place.

In the end, each of our perspectives on any given situation is ours to hold.

If we can understand better how to understand the other’s perspective, we might discover better ways to express ourselves. And if we can do that, we might get to solve more of the thorny, interesting and high-value business and societal problems together. Or if we can’t, at least we might have more certainty on what our disagreements are really all about.