I believe that the single most important role an advanced collaborator can play to ensure value capture is to stay focused on the difference between signal and noise; between the ideas and insights that could have potential long-term value and other observations that cloud the vision of those charged with implementing better outcomes.
Let’s be honest: our work creates a lot of noise. Our job is not to find the shortest path from A to B but to open up a world of possibilities and help the people we’re facilitating to converge on a very small number of those possibilities. We then help them dissect the surviving ideas and draft them into road maps that might sketch out the way towards creating value. That journey is full of dead ends and blind alleys. A lot of great ideas have to fall away in order to reveal the even better idea that is worth pursuing once the event is over. As the noise gets louder and louder, we help the participants identify the signal – the gem of potential value – that lies within.
Following work in 2009 for Cisco, the networking giant, we created the noise that video was going to be a big deal online (duh). Cisco took it so seriously that they bought webcams for the entire division. However, even the networking giant itself wasn’t prepared for video bandwidth at every desk. So the webcams got tossed onto tables in the middle of the cubicles as a reminder of the ‘noise.’
However, this wasn’t for nothing, as it opened almost all employees’ minds to the potential of video. They proceeded to buy Flip Video, the small action cameras that recorded to a flash drive that were all the rage at the time (until mobile phone video became more convenient and Cisco closed down the division in 2011). Not to lose heart though, Cisco have succeeded massively with Telepresence and WebEx where millions of people continue to exchange video together. Cisco got the signal of video for the long run, but acted on the noise far too rapidly on multiple occasions.
We are outside the system that we are improving collaboration with. This distance offers us a distinct advantage in distinguishing the signal from the noise. Our participants are usually inside the system and thus often fail to challenge or even identify the assumptions that underpin the functioning of that system.
Fortunately, the very skill that we advanced collaborators employ to shape a conversation – amplifying constructive signals and attenuating destructive signals – is the same skill that increases the chance of value capture. As these constructive signals begin to stand out from the noise, our job is to provide new perspective and new language so that participants can make use of them. When we help participants find a novel way to describe an insight, that new description is likely to make its way back to the day-to-day. In fact, it is only when an image or a metaphor or a neologism or a story becomes associated with a constructive signal that this signal has a hope of standing out from the noise.
This ability to use language to distinguish between signal and noise during a project becomes even more important once the work is over. Thus the facilitator’s role to increase the chances of effective value capture is in detecting these signals and giving them the linguistic power to survive the onslaught of noise that awaits them once the event is over.