Meaning Inc. Book Review
Meaning Inc: What does it all mean?
Meaning Inc came out about a year ago now, and is basically a manifesto from business psychology consultancy YSC. Although its stated author is YSC’s CEO Gurnek Bains, judging from the Acknowledgements it was very much a collaborative effort. The models and case studies (not to mention cover recommendations) are evidently drawn from client history. This isn’t problematic, although the content does sometimes wander into sales-pitch territory, and I think awareness of potential clients reading the text has probably watered a lot of it down.
There’s a long line of purpose / values / culture books that started with Peters & Waterman and Rosabeth Moss Kanter in the early eighties, all stressing the importance of motivation through vision, values, culture and so on. The question is, is YSC’s “blueprint for business success in the 21st century” genuinely new, or is it the same old ideas re-packaged with new labels? The authors raise this question themselves by making a big deal about the year 2000 as a reference point for change, saying that “what worked in the 1980s and 1990s is not working any longer”. So do they have a different answer?
What is meaning?
The whole package revolves around the central concept of meaning, a word that I imagine will scare off quite a few people right from the off. So what do they mean by it?
“Here is a broad, yet precise, definition of the term: essentially the meaning of any word is directly related to the other words it connects with or the external reality to which it relates. It is the sense of connectedness with something that lies at the heart of meaning in a literal sense … Meaning is experienced when we are able to connect our thoughts or activities with something else in a way that creates a sense of relevance or context.” P79
“(Meaning Inc.) refers to companies whose success is founded on creating meaning for their employees, as well as for their customers and other stakeholders”. P15
So meaning, at its simplest level, is connection. As the quote suggests, this is most obvious when we talk about the meanings of words, but it applies to other forms of meaning as well. For businesses, meaning arises “when people are able to connect what they are doing to things that matter to them”. The connection idea may seem a little abstract, but it’s actually a really helpful concept. Firstly, as the authors suggest, it matches what we know about the way brains physically work. When we make sense of something, the wiring in our heads actually changes, making new connections to reflect the new learning. Secondly, it gives leaders a simple mental picture about what meaning creation looks like: Somebody somewhere is connecting whatever they’re seeing reading / hearing / overhearing to something that’s important to them. Similarly, meaninglessness is disconnection. Think of the average corporate conference – lots of slides, lots of presentations, but no meaning if people can’t connect what they are seeing and hearing with the things they care about.
The book proceeds to cover the various ways that leaders can help their employees create meaning, which can be summarised as follows:
- Articulate the “why” – not just the what and the how. To do this, leaders need to be more authentic, which means doing one or two things really well rather than trying to be all things to all men.
- Move the company’s purpose beyond either simple metrics (the “we will be number one” mentality) or an existence rationale (“we make great widgets”). You need to “place employees as players in a wider social narrative”.
- Help employees connect to the organisation’s history and values, creating meaning by locating themselves in an ongoing story. Everything else may be moving, but the “corporate DNA” has to stay consistent.
- Base the brand on the corporate DNA, and make sure it’s lived from the “inside out”. Brands “find life in the behaviour of people”.
- Help people have an impact, by giving them clear outcomes and the freedom to achieve them creatively.
- Promote employee growth – both professionally and personally. As with leadership, this means turning “spikes” of competency into “towering area of distinctiveness”.
- Help people feel “liked, accepted and validated” in order to create a sense of belonging.
- Take work-life balance more seriously.
But why “meaning”?
This is a great list. My problem is, exactly the same content could be (and has been) written many times without needing to talk about “meaning” at all. All of the above activities are supposed to create meaning by connecting what people do with things that are important to them. I’m not saying for one minute that they don’t, but surely the question is how? Because the exploration of meaning itself is so shallow, the question of how never arises … all the practical chapters could be re-written without reference to meaning at all. I suggest there are two foundational building blocks missing, which would cast the list above in a new light:
Firstly, the relationship between meaning and personal experience. Things are more meaningful to us when they are more closely connected to our experience. If a child wants to know what a word means, I need to explain it to them in light of what they already know. So I explain the meaning of “horse” to a four-year old in relation to “cow”, not in relation to “mammal”, because I can connect to their experience of cows, not mammals.
The problem in business is that most leaders try to connect what they are saying to their own experience, rather than the experience of their people. “Profitability” and “competitive threat” may be highly meaningful to a chief executive, but probably mean nothing to a fork-lift truck driver.
Secondly, the relationship between meaning and representation. Meaning doesn’t exist in a vacuum. All the “components” of meaning the authors describe – purpose, strategy, values, “corporate DNA” and so on – are described in the abstract, but they are things that people have to represent to themselves in some form if they are to have any meaning. The strategy has to be written down. The business plan has to be drawn up.
This makes it astonishing to me that there is virtually no discussion at all about communications. The main way in which leaders attempt to pro-actively make meaning for their people is through communications. I think most of those attempts fail because – as I said before – people can’t connect the abstract content they hear and read with the physical experience of their everyday lives.
So, in conclusion: There’s little here by way of practical advice that I haven’t read before. That doesn’t mean the book won’t be hugely valuable as a stimulus and source of ideas. But to my mind there’s a much fuller popular analysis of meaning yet to be written, that could cast new light on the problems this book addresses.