The Meaning of Words

Ward and I had an amazing interview this last week with Carrie, a science teacher from Dayton High School. She participated in our pilot of the Agile Partnership Program that we just completed with New Relic .

This pilot sprang out of a talk I gave at an innovation conference that New Relic held last spring. After that talk, in which I shared the story of Innovate Oregon, I was approached by several managers who asked how they might support our work to re-imagine education.

We quickly spun up a six-week pilot which matched five agile managers from New Relic with five Innovators from Dayton. We wanted to see if it might be possible to build authentic partnerships through weekly check-ins, in much the same way that Jami and I have done over the last three years.

Carrie was matched with Brent. After the launch event, where the New Relic team came down to meet their partners, they met, over a Hangout , once a week for 30 minutes to talk. To listen. To learn together.

After the 6 week sprint, the Dayton teachers came up to New Relic's offices in Portland for the Retrospective .

Something Carrie said in that meeting sparked Ward and my curiosity. When she shared her experience, she pulled out a sheet of paper on which she had quickly jotted down twelve things she had learned. She touched on a few, but what about the others?

We talked with her in the reception after the retro and asked her if we could arrange a time to do a video chat with her so that we go deeper into what she had learned. We then quickly realized that every participant in the sprint likely had a story to tell that was a deeper, more personal one. We quickly asked the group if we could also set up follow-up calls for deeper reflection with each of them.

Our hope was that by listening more deeply to their stories, we would be able to start to identify shared words and shared insights that we could begin to capture and connect as patterns that illuminated the shared meaning of the experience.

We started with Carrie. This was not by coincidence. I have always trusted Carrie when trying something new. She is an amazingly courageous, compassionate, and thoughtful educator. She was the teacher Jami and I went to when we first partnered with an outside organization, the Oceans of Data Institute , for a sprint pilot. She was the first teacher we went to to vet the idea of doing this partnership pilot with New Relic.

Ward challenged me to think about how we were going to structure our interviews. I drafted something up - a structure that synthesize some new ideas he had introduced in our discussions about building resilience within organizations that managed complex systems. The idea of story telling. The concept of the Five Whys . I then looked at it from the context of objects and messages within a pattern language paradigm.

The result was a simple set of tables that provided a conversational structure. We would listen to the story of the experience. Ask to identify the three key insights, then explore each of those three insights by asking "why" three times, to dig deeper into the meaning of that insight. We are calling this narrative a 3x3 Reflection.

As the interview was drawing to a close, we shared the notes with Carrie through a screen share. We then reviewed them together, walking through each of the cells, in order, highlighting the words or phrases that best articulated the meaning of each thought. By walking back through the interview through these key words, a path of meaning began to form, a meta-reflection, that provided a deeper level of insight for all of us.

One of the my key insights from this conversation with Carrie was something she said about the importance of vocabulary. The power of words as containers of sublime meaning. Meaning that connected us to each other through shared experiences that were beyond language. And, in that connection, there is a feeling of deep understanding. A joy springing from something that cannot be named.