Three Ways to Provide Meaningful Context with Questlove

Ever had a new, ingenious idea that was met with a thud? I’m sure YOU haven’t but you’ve probably seen it happen to others. I was speaking with a CEO recently who had been working on an exciting new direction for her company. She had questions about strategy, but what we really should have been discussing was her communication plan when launching it.

At the company-wide unveiling, she eagerly revealed the plan. There were charts and graphs and every other quantifiable measure to support her idea. And then there was silence—a bleak, soul crushing silence.

It turns out that no one, including her leadership team, had any inkling this was coming. They thought they were attending a quarterly review, not a turn-the-world-upside-down upheaval. Change, in itself, can be scary, but what’s even scarier is when you don’t understand the what’s, why’s, and how’s. What my colleague was missing was context.

Context involves our ability to interrelate something you already know with whatever change we’d like to instill. Questlove, a music aficionado, record producer, and drummer/joint frontman for The Roots, recently discussed this on Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin:

No one has ever had success in music without being contextualized in an artistic community. So, you think you like Stevie Wonder, but no, you associate Stevie Wonder with Smokie [Robinson], The Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Motown family… The only people that had success without a family or contextualization are one-hit wonders… Everyone is associated with a movement. Look at The Police. They were part of that post-punk movement, early new wave movement, Talking Heads. Even if they don’t do it by design, we as consumers think that.

Just as no one has ever had success in music without being contextualized, no leader is successful in business without contextualizing their ideas. With context, the leader sets the tone so they can initiate commitment and support for change. It taps into individuals’ established schemas and mental models so they can create the mental links necessary to apply the new information to their construction of reality. If this seems complicated, these three simple techniques can help you provide context to your team.

Know thy audience. Everything is interpreted through someone’s context. It shapes the meaning in all communication. Thus, when your message is delivered in a context that is not compatible with the audience, miscommunication is inevitable. Maintain an understanding as to what your audience already knows and how they are most receptive to learning.

Squash fears. Change is often associated with fear, and fear is often associated with a lack of understanding. So illustrate how the new plan meshes with the current strategy. Explain what, if anything, it is replacing. Describe how it will reallocate resources, job duties, etc. and how it will affect individual employees.

Provide history. Every new concept has a background, a past. It may involve an update, revision, or enhancement to a current concept; a best practice; or a new industry standard…but it didn’t materialize out of thin air. Plot out the history so others can visualize how the project started and why it is necessary.

Very often we assume others can comprehend these connections without explanation; after all, it is so clear to us. However, as in the case of the aforementioned CEO, she had been thinking about her new direction for almost two years before the launch. That is two years of pondering, brainstorming, and intellectualizing. Two years of making the associations she needed to bridge the gap between her vision and the current state of the company. Two years of contextualizing.

Want to learn from her misstep? Inform your team of the issue at hand through a workable framework. Address their concerns. Give them the background information you already possess so they can visualize the decision making leading up to your resolution. It may not seem like much, but it’s the context they need to associate your new Stevie Wonder with their classic Smokie Robinson.