Written By Donald McNaughton

‘Commitment without understanding is a liability.’ — Oliver Wight

One of the many things that my mentor George Palmatier repeatedly impressed on me was the importance of clearly communicating what we mean and meaning what we communicate.

George would say ‘words have meaning.’

If you consider the word understanding, used as a noun, understanding is defined as the ability to understand something (comprehension) or a mutual agreement not formally entered into. When used as an adjective, understanding is defined as sympathetically aware of other people’s feelings, tolerant, and forgiving. The context of words makes a difference.

As I work with clients, I listen intently to the words they use when describing their afflictions, aspirations, and ways of working. Initially, I am trying to learn and understand the keywords they use and compare them to the words I use. Frequently I discover that there are differences between the terms and definitions we are using. It is common to find that there are also differences amongst people within the clients’ business.

An excellent example of this is the word plan.

As I talk to people, they will refer to ‘the plan,’ I will then ask them ‘which plan are you referring to?’. People frequently give me a puzzled look, so I elaborate by saying, ‘are you referring to the long-range plan, the annual plan, the quarterly updated plan, the monthly updated Integrated Business Planning (IBP) plan?’ This elaboration results in the person saying ‘Oh, now I understand’ and then they go on to explain to which ‘plan’ they were referring.

Almost every time after this exchange, the person will comment on how enlightening the question ‘which plan are you referring to?’ was to them. Then they tell me how often there is miscommunication within the business because people are not on the ‘same page’ as to which ‘plan’ they are talking about, comparing, or working to.

For a business to operate in an aligned, integrated, and synchronized manner requires a foundation of common understanding to be in place.

The phrase ‘common understanding’ is essential. Using the definition we talked about earlier, we should think of understanding as meaning comprehension, so we are looking for common comprehension.

Now let us address the common part of ‘common understanding.’ As an adjective, common is defined as shared by, coming from, or done by more than one. Using this definition, we should think of common as meaning shared, so we are looking for shared understanding.

An alternative phrase to ‘common understanding’ could be ‘shared comprehension.’

The notion of ‘shared comprehension’ raises the questions, shared by whom? And the comprehension of what? Of course, the answers to these questions would depend on the situation at hand; however, I have learned some guiding principles over the years applicable in most cases.

For a business to achieve the necessary level of alignment, integration, and synchronization to achieve its stated objectives and goals requires this ‘shared comprehension.’

Suppose a business is going to hold its people accountable to operate in this manner. In that case, business leaders must ensure that their people are aware of what is required of them and that people are able to perform as expected.

Awareness is about ensuring that people are educated and informed; ability is about ensuring that people have the resources they need (authority, training, tools, time, people, budget, etc.) Only when you have made people aware and able can you hold them accountable.

‘Seek first to understand and then to be understood.’ — Stephen Covey

As you approach establishing ‘shared comprehension,’ it is crucial to do so with humility and respect. Recognize and acknowledge the knowledge, experience, and achievements of the people with whom you are working. Communicate that the objective is ‘shared comprehension.’ There will likely be more learning required by some people than others based on their prior knowledge and experience related to the subject at hand. Encourage those with more knowledge and experience to share what they know with the group, enhancing the learning experience for all.

As you develop a learning plan to achieve the necessary ‘shared comprehension,’ I have found it essential to distinguish between education and training. To me, education primarily provides the foundational ‘what’ and ‘why,’ training provides the ‘how’ and putting the education and training into practices provides the ‘hands-on experience.’ Education and training are not the same things, ‘words have meaning.’

‘The greater our level of understanding, the harder the tests become.’ — Muhammad Ali

It is one thing to put a learning plan together to achieve ‘shared comprehension’ in service of a specific objective and the associated goals; it is quite another thing to make learning a cornerstone of a business’s culture. Research has shown that only 10% of organizations have a robust learning culture.

Research has also shown organizations that effectively nurture people’s desire to learn are at least 30% more likely to be market leaders in their industries over an extended period.

‘I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.’ — Winston Churchill

Effective learning within organizations has never been more critical; up to 65% of the jobs that Generation Z will perform do not even exist yet. Up to 45% of the activities people perform today could be automated using current technology.

Most people would agree that we are moving from the information age to the intelligence age; I believe that a second parallel shift is occurring where talent is overtaking capital as the key driver of organizational success.

As adopting the new ways of working accelerates, having a learning culture will help attract, hire, develop, and retain talented people. Organizations need people with the desire and ability to evolve and adapt their skills to remain valued contributors to an organization’s mission and the achievement of its objectives and goals. People need organizations that nurture their desire to learn by creating a learning culture.