Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 37;   September 14, 2005: FedEx, Flocks, and Frames of Reference

FedEx, Flocks, and Frames of Reference

by

Your point of view — or reference frame — affects what you see, and how you experience the world around you. By choosing a reference frame consciously, you can see things differently, and open a universe of new choices.

You've probably seen the FedEx logo, and by now, maybe you know that in the negative space between the E and the x is a rightward-pointing arrow. The arrow is there by intention, says Lindon Leader, who designed the logo. But if you know the Roman alphabet, you probably don't see the arrow unless you already know it's there.

FedEx logoThe difficulty of seeing it comes from the frame of reference that readers habitually use when they see writing or printing. They look at the letters, not the spaces between them. People who are unfamiliar with Roman letters have much less difficulty seeing the arrow.

And when we see flocks of birds, we see the flocks, rather than the individual birds, and not the spaces between the birds. This habitual choice of reference frame is perhaps part of what makes many of the etchings of M.C. Escher so fascinating. He calls upon us to look at the individual birds in the flocks, and at the spaces between the birds.

When we choose our frame of reference consciously, we can see many things that would otherwise escape our notice. Consider the business meeting. For many, the reference frame of choice is the content of the discussion and how we're doing personally in the often-competitive tussle to control it.

Sometimes meetings need
contributions beyond
mere content
A useful alternative frame is that of the group. In that frame, we can ask, "How's the group doing?" Here are questions we can ask in that frame.

Energy level
Are people engaged? Do they arrive on time and stay through till the end? Is there a good amount of laughter? Or are they disengaged? Are they fiddling with their Blackberries? Doodling?
Coherence
Does the group maintain focus? Can they stay on topic, or are they whipsawing from one irrelevant point to another? Can they converge to conclusions, or do they often fail to reach decisions?
Contribution rate
Do people offer contributions at a reasonable rate? Or do they interrupt, over-talking each other or raising their voices? Or do they sit silently when someone poses a question, too fearful to risk offering a comment?
Viewpoint multiplicity
Does the group welcome diverse perspectives? Does it seek fresh views proactively when they aren't in evidence?
Polarization
Has the group evolved into a set of "political parties" whose composition and positions are rigidly consistent? Are they unable to reach joint decisions? Can you reliably predict who will ally with whom on a given question? Is one individual a designated pariah?

To make meetings more productive, groups sometimes need contributions that reach beyond mere content. If you change your frame of reference, and you notice what contributions the group really needs, you might find new ways to contribute to the meeting, to help lead it towards true achievement. Go to top Top  Next issue: My Boss Is Driving Me Nuts  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

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We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.

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