Common Ground and the Role of Stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 3, 2008
Filed in Anecdotes, Collaboration

Last week Mark and I agreed to each develop a plan detailing how we were going to meet our targets. I opened up Excel and created a spreadsheet showing the number of days I was working with each of my clients. Mark opened Word and eloquently wrote how he was going to achieve his objectives. We both knew what a plan looked like. We just had two different visions of what plan looks like. We lacked common ground.

Patrick Lambe’s recent blog post set me off on this train of thought about how effective teams share common ground. Team members must have a good understanding of what their colleagues mean and a good idea of what they will do. Both comes from working with our colleagues, asking questions and requesting examples that illustrate what is meant. In fact this propensity to second guess our colleagues and infer their motives (sometimes called Theory of Mind) is a signature characteristic of humans that is likely to have resulted in our species collaborating in the first place and through this collaboration outsmarting our stronger, faster and more deadly predators.

But concrete understanding of concepts like ‘common ground’ or ‘planning’ is unlikely to emerge from an abstract explanation of the terms. It comes from first hand experience, and when you can’t get that, from stories, examples that illustrate in detail what’s meant.

Patrick points out that common ground must be cultivated or maintained, much like my grandfather’s obsession with keeping his carrot patch weed free. Periodically teams must work to repair or re-establish common ground because people change, views change, and what’s happening around us shift and warp.

Did you know that US fighter pilots decide whether to follow the instructions of their weapons director based on how competent the weapons director sounds as they barking commands on the communication channel? Common ground can be a life and death proposition. Bringing this idea back to business, have you ever thought how you come across in a teleconference? How competent do you sound? This concept of common ground has been well thought through by Gary Klein, the famed psychologist and decision making specialist and in this video Patrick interviews Gary (I was impressed by the two camera production and editing). They not only explore the concept of common ground but I suspect they are also creating it for themselves (this video is 20 minutes).

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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