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Concept pioneering


Permalink 01:11:34 pm, by admin Email , 1711 words   English (US)
Categories: General

Concept pioneering

This past week, our Team Leader Team has met twice to talk about Coaching (with a capital "C", which means it's a Platonic ideal, or academic discipline, or a system, or maybe a product). What is it? How do we do it? What does it look like at Amor Ministries? It's a new concept for most of us, and even for those who have some experience with Coaching, we're having to work at it, trying to collaboratively map the "Coaching at Amor" space.

During the conversation, the topic flowed over into Performance Reviews (paraphrased):

A: What are we saying? If part of Coaching is "building relationship", 
   how do we avoid crossing over the line from Coaching to counseling?
B: We stick to talking about "performance".
A: But then we won't be addressing our company's values. One of our
   values is that work will be fun. If I'm only being talked to
   about my "performance", I'm given license to be grumpy every
   day as long as I get my tasks done.
B: That's why our Performance Reviews have 3 components: company
   values, core competencies, and meeting your goals (what most
   companies call "performance").
C: I know that's what mattered in my last job: bottom line--did you
   get those tasks done?
A: But again, if I can only talk about "performance", I'm not
   addressing the other two components.
B: Sure you are. They're all "performance".

Did you catch it? We just obliterated a concept—maybe two. Nuked, taken off the map. If you don't immediately see how, let me tell you another story:

Big Sur

Map of Pine Ridge Trail

Last year, I wanted to go backpacking in the Los Padres National Forest, just south of Monterey, CA. I hadn't ever been there, and was interested to see what coastal backpacking was like (it was great!). But before you can hike the trail, you have to choose the trail, and the Ventana Wilderness has several. We chose the "Big Sur" trailhead on the West side, but I was just as interested in the "China Camp" trailhead from the East. Both of them provide access to the "Pine Ridge Trail"; they are its endpoints, about 15 miles apart.

But imagine for a moment that Bill is the first English speaker on the Pine Ridge Trail. He only knows about the "Big Sur" trailhead, and as he walks (or creates) the trail, what does he call it? Taking the path of least resistance, he probably calls it the "Big Sur Trail". From his point of view, it's only got one endpoint, so there's very little difference between "Big Sur" (the trail) and "Big Sur" (the camp at the head of that trail).

Now, imagine a second person, Chris, starting at China Camp. She's going to call her journey the "China Camp Trail". After they each thoroughly walk and map the territory, they meet by chance in the middle. Will they decide on a common name for the trail? Perhaps, perhaps not. But if they do, what will it be?

What happens if Bill "wins", resulting in the common name being the "Big Sur Trail"? There are many repurcussions of this decision, but the one I want to focus on is this: the name "Big Sur" does not mean what it did before their meeting. Reread that until it sinks in. Oh, in Bill's personal world, it seems nothing has changed, but Christine doesn't see it that way—the name "Big Sur" is brand-new to her. But there's an important third party we haven't thought about yet, and that is "everyone else". Now that they've decided on names, chances are that those who follow in their footsteps will use the same names, and those names will confuse them. Here's how:

Confusious say...

Those people who follow Bill will have no problems. They can use the term, "Big Sur" as he did, to mean "the trail that starts at my trailhead"; that is, "Big Sur" refers to the trail and the trailhead at the same time—they are not divisable.

Those people who follow Christine have no problem, because "Big Sur" means the trail, and "China Camp" means "my trailhead". They never use the term "Big Sur" to talk about the opposite trailhead, because they never use it.

But those people who follow both of them, who are equally familiar (or unfamiliar) with both camps, have a problem. When I talk to Bill and Christine about "Big Sur", they mean different things:

Me:    So, I'm planning to hike Big Sur this weekend.
Bill:  Great! Make sure you get a good picture of the ocean.
Me:    Oh, I won't have time. I'm only going for one day.
Chris: Makes sense. You might get a good picture of the South
       Ventana Cone, though.
Bill:  Huh? The cone's at least two days of hiking.
Chris: Huh? It's only a day from China Camp.
Bill:  Oh, I thought you meant "Big Sur".
Chris: Huh? That's what we're talking about. "Big Sur".
Me:    Huh? I'm lost, and I haven't even left yet.

Of course, a real example scenario would be much longer. It might take several days for one of the participants to realize that we aren't all using the term "Big Sur" the same way. Explaining to (and even convincing) the others that this is so is a lot of work. It's so much work that it usually doesn't occur; if I'm the one with the epiphany, then I've solved the problem "for me" and can go on my hike, shaking my head at how silly Bill and Christine are with their parochial uses of the term "Big Sur". Obviously, the term means "the trail" or "the trailhead", but never both. Bill always means both, and Christine always means "the trail".


Fortunately for us, the powers-that-be called the actual trail, "Pine Ridge". They used a name that is different from the name of either trailhead (but there is a camp in the middle of the trail called "Pine Ridge", on a ridge called "Pine Ridge"). So Bill and Christine and I can all talk about it safely now, without saying, "Huh?" every other sentence.

But our fictitious example happens just as often in reverse. In our "Big Sur" example, the name of the part was inflated to also be the name of the whole. Often, we can find the name of the whole coming first, and then being subverted to mean one of the parts. Take the word "politics" for example. Its "original meaning" can be localized around the phrase "the profession of governing". But to hear the word as many people use it today, it can mean "giving up something in order to gain something else", or it can mean, "all talk and no action":

Joe: We sure needed a liberal judge.
Sue: Yes; but in the end, it was "just politics". Good thing,
     too, or we might have ended up with a conservative.
Joe: Huh? We did end up with a conservative judge. It was
     "just politics".
Sue: Huh? No we didn't. It was a political decision.
Me:  Huh? Isn't it all politics?

The meaning of the term "politics" has therefore been changed, from "governance" to a technique or facet of governance. This is no less of a problem than our "Big Sur" example.

Back to performance

Let's wrap up and return to our first conversation. What concept did we nuke and how? If you recall, speaker B said, in effect, that they were defining the word "performance" to mean "the whole": all 3 parts of the Performance Review. This differed drastically from person A's definition: that "performance" only meant one part, and even if Person A could be swayed, Person C had a lot of history backing up the use of the word "performance" to mean only the one part.

If person B somehow convinced them all to use the term "performance" to mean the whole, then we have a new problem: what do we call the part that we used to call "performance"? If we continue to call it "performance", then we've landed in Big Sur country. One name refers to both the part and the whole, and persons A, B, and C will struggle mightily to be understood in every future conversation about performance. Those who follow person B may never know what "performance" used to mean, and may never be introduced to that concept; simply by re-using just one word to mean something larger, we've potentially wiped out the old, smaller meaning—nuked it. If our people are really on the ball, they might notice this and choose to call the part by a new name, maybe "accomplishment of goals" or "completion of tasks", to distinguish it from the "performance" whole, and let it live on.

Big sigh.

But that's not good enough. Although we may be exploring this space for the first time, we're not true pioneers. Someone else has been here before, has already staked their claim to these ideas and terms, and has told everyone else and sold lots of maps and travel guides using these names. Consider: if we redefine "performance" to include corporate values and core competencies, we have now introduced a perpetual translation step. Whenever we bring in a Coaching expert, we will all become confused when they use the word "performance" differently than we do (this happened to us recently when we brought in a process-management expert—total communicative disconnect in both directions). When we hire a new employee, we will say, "I care about your performance" and they will hear, "I don't care about you, just outcomes".

Given the large body of literature on "performance" and the widespread common meaning, we would do ourselves a great disservice to redefine "performance" at Amor to mean something larger than its commonly-accepted meaning. Thankfully, our conversation turned elsewhere immediately, and person B used the word "performance" from that point on as we had always used it. I don't think anyone is going to start using "performance" in the broader sense.

But I was sweating bullets, there, for a little while. Let's hope the question, "what does Coaching 'look like' at Amor?" does not reach a similar point.


Comment from: Ruth [Visitor]

I get what you are saying but if I was speaker B, Ouch!!!

02/14/06 @ 14:31
Comment from: Susan [Visitor]

Seems a bit like Bible translation to me... going from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English. Ah, yes! What fun!

02/28/06 @ 06:30

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