Making Models More Meaningful

In Business Architecture, Business Process Management, Change Management, Enterprise Architecture by IRM UKLeave a Comment

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As a kid I always loved making models. Every square inch of the ceiling in our attic was covered in Airfix kits, and I remember as a teenager wondering whether making models of things was something you could do as a career. It turned out it was, though nothing like what I’d anticipated back then. I now run a company making models of how businesses work, and how leaders want them to work, but unlike most model-makers (enterprise architects, business analysts, systems engineers etc.), our focus is on making models that people find meaningful.

Steve Whitla, Director, Visual Meaning;
Steve will be speaking at the Enterprise Architecture & Business Process Management Conference Europe
22-25 October in London on the subject, “Making Models Make Sense

In short, we take models like this:

And turn them into models like this:

I think there’s a potential revolution waiting to happen once we grasp the potential of models that are more meaningful to more people.

Meaning is the feeling we get when we understand something and care about it at the same time.  These two things tend to get split apart – model-makers (business analysts, architects etc.) tend to focus on understanding what’s going on, while HR and change managers try to get people to care.  You can tell when the two have been split apart because business meetings start to feel a bit like Shakespeare plays – everyone is feigning an emotional connection to the content, when no one really knows what anyone’s talking about.  It’s hard to care about things we don’t understand, just as it’s hard to understand things we don’t care about.

An elegant model with great predictive power might help the management team make the right decisions, but if no one understands it then it’s not going to inspire change.  A complex architectural model may have a high level of accuracy, but if no one can read it except the person who created it then it’s probably going to end up collecting dust once that person moves jobs.

So how do you create a meaningful model?  The two strands of meaning – caring and understanding – are bound up in our mental models of what work means, which are built up from repeated patterns of experience in our jobs.  Models are only meaningful to the extent that they connect to experiences that we have found important.  Put this together over a whole organisation and you arrive at this basic principle:  We create shared meaning in organisations by building models that connect with shared experiences of what’s important.

What does that mean in practice?  Here are two principles to get started with:

  1. Ruthlessly cut out anything in the model that doesn’t matter
  2. Make models look more like the things they represent

This is really hard.  It’s hard because it means using the language of the audience we are seeking to engage, rather than the language of the model-making community associated with our preferred framework or approach.  It means asking difficult questions about what concepts might look like in the real world, when we’d rather keep the model abstract and “pure”.  It means testing models by asking people what they think they mean without telling them first.  It means confronting the reality that when someone without our technical training actually understands our model, they might tell us that it’s completely wrong.

It’s hard.  But unless we can get away from creating models that are only meaningful to certain individuals, we risk creating apathy for everyone.

Steve Whitla is the founder and director of Visual Meaning, a company that combines systems thinking and visual thinking to help large organisations make sense of complexity during transformation. After being raised by artist parents and reading music at Cambridge, he took the unexpected step of joining KPMG as a management consultant. In the twenty years since, his unique blend of creativity, curiosity and business acumen has been in constant demand from programme teams trying to make change intelligible to those involved. Steve lives and works in Oxford, is a fellow of the RSA, a member of the CMI, and regularly teaches visual thinking and system mapping in both academic and non-academic settings. He blogs about meaning and visual language at, and you can follow him on @swhitla.

Copyright Steve Whitla, Visual Meaning

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