I attended a formal dinner recently and sat next to a woman who told me that, in her hometown, quite a few fourteen year old girls were pregnant. You might think that’s quite shocking – as might be the news that they were also married at that age. Indeed, it might cause you, understandably, to reach for your phone and send the police and child protection agency around; it’s against the law and surely those girls need help? But hold on. First let me tell you the rest of the conversation.
Miriam, the lady I was talking to, originally came from a small West African state. Life there was quite challenging, to say the least, and life expectancy – by European standards – was short with many not living much beyond forty. Consequently, girls married young and had children quickly. That was the norm. It was a matter of survival and sustainability for the society they lived in.
Recognising the distinction between Content and Context can provide another slant on problem solving in an increasingly complex world.
This is rather a stark example of how Context changes everything. What we fill our lives with – the Content –can have no meaning until we define the Context. And this applies to all things – personal relationships through to business conversations. If meaning is derived from Context, it follows that we need to be really clear about that Context if we want to properly understand any situation. When we communicate, we need to appreciate the Context within which our message will be heard otherwise it is unlikely to have the desired effect. The military understand this principle well. When planning actions a military officer will talk in terms of Tactical, Operational and Strategic levels of warfare. Moreover, there can be links between levels, with a Tactical action able to have Strategic effect. In other words, something done at a local level by a small number of people, while not appearing to be particularly significant in their Context, can have major implications at a strategic level. For example, the shutting-off of a small diesel pipeline by two soldiers, while being a Tactical action can have Strategic effect if that pipeline supplied the enemy’s entire army with fuel.
Recognising the distinction between Content and Context can provide another slant on problem solving in an increasingly complex world. If, when we’re trying to make sense of something, we pause and shift our focus from Content to Context, it gives us access to another way of understanding what’s going on. Those of us who have teenage children may often struggle to understand what they’re doing or why they’re behaving in a certain way. One approach is to look at the situation through the teenager’s eyes – their Context; it’s then likely that what they’re doing makes at least some sense (indeed, people rarely do anything that doesn’t make perfect sense to them when they’re doing it). So, instead of just trying to make sense of the Content, it can be helpful to identify another Context within which new meaning can emerge.
Understanding this can offer insight into how people can be influenced or their perceptions changed. Indeed, for a business, new possibilities and opportunities can be created when, rather than changing what they do, they shift the Context within which they operate. Overnight, everything is different. This occurred for a client of ours who realised that they were consultants rather than just an agency. Just that change of a single word enabled them to see things very differently – to be different. Nothing else has changed – just the Context – and yet that has opened up massive new opportunities for them.
Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the earth was the centre of the universe. Five hundred years ago everybody knew the earth was flat… Just imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.
Given all the different Contexts that exist it’s sometimes useful to reflect that there is one all-encompassing, overarching Context within which everything operates – and that is Time. Something that makes sense at one point in time can seem totally ridiculous years or decades later. I always think that a quote from the film ‘Men in Black’ sums this up rather nicely: “Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the earth was the centre of the universe. Five hundred years ago everybody knew the earth was flat… …Just imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”
If we can’t make sense of something today, given Time it can come into focus. During his day, Leonardo da Vinci had ideas that many didn’t understand at all; now people can appreciate his real genius. And by the way, one only needs to go back a few hundred years to find that the average age of mothers in London was also fourteen.
So, what role does Leadership play in all of this? Leadership is about defining the Context within which a business operates. That Context, which is closely related to the organisation’s Why or higher purpose, creates meaning for both those who work for the company and for their customers. Leadership’s job is to set the Context; indeed, Leadership is Context.
Next time something doesn’t make sense or lacks clarity – either at a personal or business level – rather than trying to change what it is, try shifting the Context instead. Challenge the assumption of the Context you’re in. You might be surprised by how clearly things come into focus.