The Tower of Babel

After a restful, productive break, I hit the ground running on my first week back at work: I went straight into a 3 day, 20 person workshop. Overall it was a pretty good use of time and even better I didn’t have to travel to attend it (although sometimes travelling for things that are going to consume your whole day can be easier). I learned a few new things about the way our business works, met a few good people I didn’t know before and came away with a few things to get done. While the outcome was positive, there were a few points where I had to laugh (so I wouldn’t cry).
The phenomenon driving my fits of laughter is familiar to anyone who has been involved with any large group. It’s symptoms include relatively smart people that spend a lot of time talking past each other.  Both of them have good things to say, but they aren’t actually talking to each other. Fortunately we were able to work through it in the workshop last week, but far too many times groups find themselves on various floors of a corporate Tower of Babel.
Many of the ancient religious traditions have some form of a Tower of Babel story (interesting side note: the phrase “Tower of Babel” does not actually appear in the Christian Bible  / Jewish Torah).  For those of you too far removed from Sunday School, the basic story is that a bunch of people got together to build a tower.  Various motives, depending on the source of the story, are ascribed to the folks building the tower.  Whatever the reasons though, God (insert religion specific name  for big guy/gal in the sky if you are reading a source other than the Christian Bible) doesn’t like the tower, but rather than destroying it (guess he felt bad about the whole flood thing earlier) he tosses a monkey wrench into the tower building machine: one morning everyone wakes up  and speaks different languages.
While most discussions of the Babel story focus on the Icarus like aspects, I think there are two more interesting angles.  First, it’s awfully hard to get anything done when you can’t communicate.  That’s what I was seeing last week in my workshop.  It took some time for the people in the room to establish a basic grammar so that when we used a word, we all had the same concept of what that word meant.  This was the part that was making me crazy – how could a bunch of smart folks that all work for the same company not have the same ideas about what specific words mean?
And that is the second interesting angle: why does language (grammar) fragmentation happen in the first place?  Not to take anything away from any cosmic power reference in the original story, I think grammar fragments because of our drive to optimize – first on team size and then on communication efficiency.  A team of one is limited is certain ways, but a team of 40 is limited as well.  To get things done it seems that a team of as few as 5 to as many as 12 seems optimal.  Once a team forms and gets to work one of the seemingly natural side effects is the creation of a team specific shorthand.  I’ve been on teams that create their own acronyms or stories that once developed can be referenced with a few words to communicate quite a bit.
I imagine it was the same for the guys trying to build an ancient version of the Sear’s Tower (I know it’s not the Sear’s Tower anymore – but it will always be that to me).  They clustered into “top floor” teams, “rock moving” teams and “rock mining” teams.  As each of these teams worked together, they developed their own specialized grammar, loosing the general grammar that allowed them to communicate with each other.  Their drive to optimize ended up dooming the whole project.
So what to do?  My first reaction of irritation made me think that we’d all be better off if we avoided grammar fragmentation.  Think of how great most workshops / meetings would be if you didn’t have to spend so much time getting on the same page.  But of course the only way to do that is to have a company that never gets bigger than 5 to 12 people.  Or (even worse) to let the company get larger but have everyone involved in every project (of course that company wouldn’t be around for long).  That approach also ignores some of the good things that can happen as a result of grammar fragmentation (great read from TC BTW – even better / deeper read on the topic from the original post from DFW here…just learning about this guy, but damn he was a smart one!).  It seems that just as having everyone on one big team saps innovation, so does having everyone using the same language.
I think the answer lies (like the answer to most things) in balance.  Enable optimal teams clusters to form.  Let them form their own special grammar.  The are the basic functions that let you be productive and innovative.  But I also think that you have to have some things that will keep your teams from becoming too insular.  And most importantly, you have to recognize from the outset that those things will not appear to be efficient.  Your high performance teams will be less so when they have to talk to each other.  They will spend a lot of time explaining themselves to members of other teams, which will seem so ineffective compared to how frictionlessly they are able to work with other members of their team.  But remember, we’re not trying to only have the best top floors nor the most efficient rock moving or mining.  We’re trying to build the best tower.
Last week’s workshop was a chance to build a better tower.  Once I understood it in that context my irritation faded into the background.  I also realized that if I had to experience a modern analog of an old testament story, the tower of babel was one of the better ones.  At least there weren’t any saline columns.






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