« »
July 19, 2004 » 4:14 pm

Learning Dougspeak: The Importance of Shared Language

I worked with Doug Engelbart in various capacities from 2000 through 2003, and I often retell lessons and stories from those experiences. My favorite — untold on this blog so far — is how I almost wrote Doug and his ideas off early in my exposure to him. It’s a tale of one of my most significant transformative experiences and of the importance of Shared Language.    (1VF)

I had known of Doug’s inventions for many years because of my interest in Computer History, but my first exposure to his ideas about bootstrapping and organizational improvement occurred in 1998, when I attended a talk he gave at BAYCHI. I was hoping to hear stories about working at SRI in the 1960s and his perspective on usability today. What I got was an abstract lecture on organizational knowledge processes and cognitive frameworks. I walked away very confused.    (1VG)

A year later, Institute for the Future organized a day-long seminar at Stanford to mark the 35th anniversary of the mouse. It consisted largely of testimonial after testimonial from people whose lives and work had been touched by Doug, as well as hints of his larger, more humanistic goals. I was struck by the tremendous intellectual and emotional impact he had had on so many people’s lives, many of whom had gone on to do important work themselves. Both the speakers list and the attendees list read like a who’s who of the history of Silicon Valley.    (1VH)

In 2000, Bootstrap Institute organized a followup colloquium at Stanford. It was a 30-hour (over 10 weeks) seminar on Doug’s ideas, taught by Doug himself and featuring an impressive list of guest speakers. Naturally, I enrolled.    (1VI)

The first week’s session was great. Doug outlined his big picture, which was mind-blowing in and of itself, then marched out several guest speakers who provided some real-world context for Doug’s work.    (1VJ)

The second and third weeks were not as good. Doug began drilling down into some specifics of his framework, and it was starting to feel redundant and irrelevant. I was also getting the feeling that Doug was unaware of what had happened in the world over the past 30 years. “We know all of this already,” I thought. I wasn’t gaining any new insights.    (1VK)

After the fourth session, I had coffee with my friend, Greg Gentschev, who asked me how the colloquium was going. I told him I was going to stop attending, that the content was worthless, and that Doug was a kook. Greg, knowing little of Doug or his work, asked me to explain.    (1VL)

So I did. I started describing Doug’s conceptual universe. I explained his larger motivation regarding the complexity of the world’s problems and mentioned scaling effects and where humans and tools fit in. I translated some of his terminology and threw in some of my own examples.    (1VM)

As I talked, I had an epiphany. I had learned something significant over the past four weeks. I had spent 40 hours mentally processing what I heard, and when I finally had the opportunity to describe this stuff to someone, I realized I had a rich language for describing a powerful conceptual framework at my disposal. Doug wasn’t teaching new facts or force-feeding his opinions. He was rewiring our brains to see the world as he did.    (1VN)

That conversation with Greg convinced me to stick out the colloquium, which led to me getting to know Doug, which eventually led to what I’m doing now.    (1VO)

I recount this story here not out of nostalgia but because of the value it reaffirmed. Language is critical to learning, and Shared Language is critical for collaboration.    (1VP)

The first phase of an MGTaylor workshop is known as a Scan phase. It often consists of explorations of themes that have seemingly nothing to do with the topic at hand. Even worse, those explorations are often kinesthetic and quite playful. People don’t feel like they’re doing work at all, much less the work they think they’re there for. Many people get upset after the first third or half of an MGTaylor workshop.    (1VQ)

That usually changes in the end, though. That first phase is all about developing Shared Language. Once that language has been developed, the work (or “Action” phase) is highly accelerated. People are more productive working together than ever before.    (1VR)

Every effective facilitation technique I’ve seen incorporates this Shared Language phase at the beginning. Allen Gunn‘s tends to be more directed. Jeff Conklin‘s is entirely about developing Shared Language — he comes in for a few hours or a day and facilitates Shared Language via Dialogue Mapping. MGTaylor‘s is particularly effective with large, eclectic groups. However, it’s also critical that people stay for the entire event, despite their frustration. Otherwise, they miss out on the epiphany.    (1VS)

People get frustrated with meetings when they’re all talk, no action. The problem is that people then think that meetings are a waste, that they want all action, no talk. This type of thinking gets you nowhere. The problem is that the talk phase is not effective. People are not going through a conscious Shared Language phase. Once you develop Shared Language, you are now capable of acting collaboratively.    (1VT)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

« »

Leave a Reply