Learning from the Matrix

You’ve seen the film?  A fictional reality is superimposed on life and humans accept it.  The alternative truth is hideous and many choose not to see it.  But it’s only a film right?  This doesn’t happen in business?

Ah, but it does..

I recently facilitated a discussion about how medical insights gained out in the field could be integrated into an organisation’s business strategy.   One of the participants, Mary, had been to a conference and observed that a competitor was demonstrating leadership and publishing ground breaking research for her area of patient care.

Mary’s company perceived itself to be sole leaders in this specific area of patient care.  Mary’s field observations and experience at conferences suggested differently.  “So you believe your competitor is now leading in this field of patient care, and your company is no longer number 1?” I asked.  “Yes, but I wouldn’t dare say that to our managers” she said.

Again I reflected back to her: “Your manager requests you gather insights from the field, claims to value your insights, but in fact doesn’t want to hear them if they differ from their own perception of the situation.”   She nodded unhappily.

We went on to discuss the impact of the manager’s “perceived reality” on strategy, and what might be different if the division tested her hypothesis and  verified her experience.   Finally we explored what would make it safe for her to share her view with her manager, and how to do so in a non-threatening way so that he could hear it.

It is not uncommon that observations of field staff interacting with customers are ignored by managers or business leaders who are not at “the coal face”.  It is, however, short sighted.

Different worlds are being experienced.  A bridge between the two needs to be forged and a fresher joint reality agreed in order to ensure that meaningful and productive communication occurs, that staff remain engaged, and that the business keeps pace with changes in the marketplace.

As a leader you can play around with this concept of different realities in order to stimulate discussion, identify issues, and encourage creative solutions.  You could for example, divide your team into two groups: one representing management, the other field staff.  (Or marketing v operations or research) Put two flip charts back to back.  Each group silently creates (pictures, words) their “reality”.  This could be around a particular topic, issue, or recent success story.   No talking is allowed in either group so charades and sign language add to the humour and playfulness of the exercise.    Each group reports back (outloud!) their “reality” to the other.  They can then identify common themes and contradictory perceptions to contribute to the thinking around a particular topic or issue.

Many managers I coach initially say they don’t have time for experimentation and are too busy to play games.  Those that do take the plunge and spend time in preparing for and including meaningful, playful ways of exploring business relevant topics say things like: “We’ve never had that type of conversation before” and “We realised that what we thought was reality, was in fact fiction, and vice versa”.    This exercise is most effective when there is a non-judgemental, curious approach to the realities that each group puts forth – rather than a right V wrong way of thinking!

All names are anonymised