Knowing to Acting–playing it out matters.

Hmm? What do I know? What should I say?

We know what we tell and tell what we know.

So we tell what we understand AND what we remember?

Recently, I wanted to illustrate a few points on how reminding people of a story can help them change their thinking, invoke the power of their own critical thinking skills and experience to make better choices by leveraging collective knowledge.  I call this process Framestretching.

The process differs from the wisdom of the crowds model, though I invite people to share their knowledge; I don’t  expect consensus or majority opinion to decide what’s best.  It’s also not a brain storming activity in which people throw out their ideas as they naturally emerge.  In this first of a series of reflective posts on Framestretching, I invite you to tell me what it does or doesn’t do,  whether it does or doesn’t work.  I don’t think I’m inviting people to tell me what they think about a subject out of the blue, or am I?

Judge for yourself and then share your thoughts.

Before I forget.  Take a moment.  What do you know about Christopher Columbus? Hold the thought for a second, or scribble it down as I promise you will need the reference shortly.

What we know

Why don’t organizations find it easy to innovate,  adapt or change?  There are numerous explanations for what stops us and surprisingly it is not because we don’t know better.  You can pick examples of company after company who may have been fast-moving and innovative in one era and then find themselves bested by competition they didn’t see coming in another era.

I read a lot of CEO surveys from the big consulting firms who repeatedly have placed a priority on innovation  or feel an urgency to be able to adapt quickly  changes in their environment and yet they don’t.  The resistance it turns out isn’t surprising when you think about the nature of belief and the frequency in which we don’t do what we say.  Our behavior is a product of our experience and our beliefs, the representation or meaning we make of our experiences.

So it’s not surprising that we may not act on what we know, though we may tell what we know.

What we say and the words we use  bring to our consciousness  or awareness things we know.  The process of telling links together thoughts  not formerly associated or stored together.  Every conversation or interaction informs and adjusts our personal sensibilities and changes our awareness of our capabilities.  What we know includes both what we can, and can’t do; as well as what you can and can’t do, will or won’t do.  What we know is the sum of a lot of parts played out in different settings by different players at different times.

All of these experiences form ourbeliefs and frame our understanding about the way things happen. We rely on these beliefs in our selves and how other things and people  behave  to navigate our surroundings and  get what we need for whatever reason.

In every moment of life, new input modifies  our self-referencing frames or the scripts we’ve established for ourselves and know work in specific settings.    We depend on experience to trigger the right response when subtle distinctions in environmental cues or social norms appear.  Naturally, this allows us to adjust our behavior  without awakening or disrupting the thoughts in our head.  To act without knowing or telling.

Disruption as puzzles challenging what we know

Questions naturally awaken our consciousness.  They don’t have to be verbal.  A scent, a scene , a sound,  any sensation  runs up against our instinctive checklist.  If  the question fails to arouse our fear, desire or hunger , the brain starts to sift through what it knows.  Any break in expectation , or a gap in  the match between prior experience and present cues make us more alert.

Our script, or experiences gained in similar situations will determine our next action.

So Why the Story? Or Why Columbus?

Remember when I asked you about Columbus a few paragraphs back?

Do you remember how you felt? Were you skeptical? Maybe you just began to wonder why I asked that question? I invited  professionals who attended the Chicago Booth Alumni consulting roundtable recently the same question.

I was too busy to see what all 52 people did after I asked the question. I  do know that some waited, in spite of my specific instructions to jot down their answers on the  post-it note and pen passed out in advance,  while I told them I would continue to tell them what would follow.  When I finished  my brief description, I asked if everyone was ready.  That’s when someone piped up, “are we supposed to write our answer now?”

The distribution of their written output follows, parsed into more discrete chunks, with some phrases broken into  multiple elements capture the variation.

How does your response align?


In the live session, attendeess exchanged post-it responses.  Less than 10% of  the audience raised their hands when asked if  the thoughts they had written matched the thoughts on the paper they were now reading.

Does the variation in responses surprise you? It’s a simple story, isn’t it? Admittedly, Columbus had a long history so the enormous amount of possible facts to draw upon should produce lots of answers. The chart’s  responses however provide some other points worth noting.

It so happens that the story of Christopher Columbus is culturally common and easily referenced by anyone schooled about America. [Yes, that’s north and south.  The single “I don’t know” response in the tally supports the story’s notoriety, in spite of 1/3 of the participants being non-caucasian,  likely received the bulk of their early schooling outside of the US.]

Direct questions about culturally common stories draw out our curiosity, activate internal resources similar to those that help us solve puzzles. It’s very improbable that knowledge of a story that you learned in childhood rests at the tip of your tongue.  You have to retrieve what you know and that takes a little time.  The more you know, a secondary question emerges “what should I say or tell?”

This second question requires us to assess the situation more carefully, comb the environment and seek to infer why I have asked this question.  The brain then uses this information to find the most relevant response.  Sometimes the second questions get voiced, and we answer one question with another question, as in “Why do you want to know?”  Or, “ why is Columbus relevant?”

If what we know, we tell, what we tell signals what we know or understand.

Do you see the puzzle?

Insight: Listen to what people tell and ask yourself why did they say that? With practice you will be able to infer something about their experience, their perspective, their perceptions. Even if they are delaying their response as they struggle to find a relevant response.

Look over the stem leaf distribution of answers. Do you recognize  internal wrestling or struggles reconciling what we know, what we understand and our interest in understanding the relevance in the open-ended responses to the reminder question I posed? Do you see an underlying  desire to be “right,” correct? What about a wish to assert authority by adding knowledge associated with our professional acumen?

Statistically, only 34% of the respondents mentioned  America, or its pseudonym ( the new world or even USA).

32% mentioned discover, credited or first person discovery

22% mentioned the year of discovery as 1492 (one person initially said 1492, then scratched it out to say 1692).

There’s a lot more to be gleaned from the activity, but you’ll have to stay tuned for the next post.

For now, I hope will take a moment to share your reactions that reading this post may have unleashed?  Questions?  Any new thoughts emerge?

Please do share your thoughts and stay tuned.  More posts to follow in this series shortly.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.