Buried in a recent meeting, I looked around the room and imagined how much the meeting would change if everyone was wearing a clown head but saying the same things. All those facets would change even more dramatically if we were meeting in a burning building. A swimming pool. Had I been paying attention I wouldn’t have realized that I was thinking about context.
What Context Is
Moreso in the English language than any other, additional information changes the meaning of words and situations. Words and situations change the meaning of thoughts, concepts, and laws. In business and politics it forms motivations and biases.
Stiles Roberts, good mentor once pointed out to me that the meaning of a sentence can change based on a single emphasis (I don’t know where he got it but I am stealing it from him). For example, Mary had a little lamb. Who cares, right?
Mary had a little lamb. She did?
Mary had a little lamb. Did she lose it?
Mary had a little lamb. Just one?
Mary had a little lamb. Was it premature?
Mary had a little lamb. And I bet the doctor fainted!
As you can see, the difference in one word of emphasis is enormous. Change the setting. Add a siren. Or a business calendar with looming deadlines. All our words have context and we have to claim it for our own understanding as quickly as possible.
It’s a broad, tangle of messyness that can fill the room and be completely invisible to the casual observer.
In another meeting, anxious and serious professionals sat in a circle making big sweeping plans and proposals. An intern had been invited to the meeting and began by interrupting actual producing adults and asked them for a status. I laugh at the image but management types are like that, too.
So, she tried to gain a footing by pretending she was somehow involved with taking charge. A healthy alternative would be to observe. Participate at a distance. I learned a heck of a lot in a work session by offering to man the parking lot(a specific dry-erase board) until I knew enough to speak to the project, a little thing called OS/2.
Here’s a secret for the up and coming PM. Find the support phones. Hang out in earshot and listen. This is a brilliant move if you are responsible for process improvement, LEAN, or any efficiency changes.
The context isn’t found in the issues, tho. Those are numbers, metrics and such that rarely communicate the who? or the why?
Are we meeting about a contract? An investigation? An opportunity? Is Christmas buying season next week? Is there a sniper on the building? Are we engaging China as new market?
After answering Who and Why you will be surprised how many goals you can put on the board. The perspective you gain will drive your risk management, prioritization and planning sessions.
You know you are ready to use context because of the natural questions that spring into the conversation.
Can we get a legal specialist for the contract?
Who’s our lawyer?
Can we buy the device maker before Google does?
Who is making this year’s Furby?
Each question that comes up is probably a meeting, a list, even a project. Fill those deliverables with precision.
Now that you know the context, you are set to rock and roll. However, it is very easy to forget the people that work with you and for you may remain as much in the dark as you were to begin with.
Other people you communicate context to: your boss(the one who takes a status during urgent activity). Your customer. And for God’s sake, tell marketing.
Observe. Listen. Act decisively.
By knowing the context you can move yourself and your project with great foresight. Use the context to shape your team and resources. Wisely try not to shape the context.