I recently got to attend a conference in which software engineers and product developers discussed the technical ins-and-outs of cognitive computing and all the sub-topics that fall under that umbrella term (AI, deep learning, machine learning, natural language processing, etc). As I am neither a software engineer nor a product developer, my presence in the room was purely in the form of curious learner/technophile/groupie.
What struck me the most was the fundamental challenge facing the programmers and how similar it is to the challenge faced by my reading-teacher Wife: parsing out how meaning is understood, which is so far beyond mere text recognition.
- We ate the pizza with anchovies.
- We ate the pizza with forks.
- We ate the pizza with Joe.
Forget the words ate – pizza – anchovies – forks – Joe. The key to your brain drawing the correct picture of meaning for each sentence requires deciphering the malleable meaning of the word with, which is different in each instance.
Because, just as “sounding out” a word isn’t the same as reading it, neither is knowing the mere definitions of words the same thing as understanding the meaning they are intending to convey. Context is a powerful shaper of meaning, able to bend the by-the-book definitions of words into something either rich and deep or nonsensical and contradictory.
This is an important concept to grasp, for leaders as much as for AI programmers and reading teachers. The context in which leaders communicate matters equally if not more than the words used. As the executives of Wells Fargo have since learned, telling your sales teams to behave ethically is insufficient when those messages are delivered within a broader context of unreasonable goals coupled with the constant pressure to perform or be fired. The message said “sell ethically” but the context said “do so at your own peril.”
Consider the confused meaning between fairly common intended messages leaders often give and the contradictory context in which they are delivered:
- “We need to be bold and take risks to succeed!” … but project failure is punished either overtly (demoted or fired) or covertly (pushed to the side, seen unfavorably by leadership) — Should your people take risks or avoid failure?
- “Tell me what’s working and what’s not.” … but the delivery of bad news is met with anger and intense scrutiny while good news is accepted at face value — Should your people plainly say what needs to be said, or leave it to somebody else?
- “I need you to focus on this and make it a priority” … but it is simply one more “priority,” added to the already long list of “priorities” that are somehow all “critical” — Should your people go deep on a few things and leave others untouched, or spread themselves thinly across the many things so that no one thing is ignored?
Guess which one people pay attention to?