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I was inspired by a piece that an AI programmer named John Salvatier wrote a while back, about the ‘surprising detail of reality’.

In it, he relayed a story about how he and his brother used to work with their dad, fitting out houses. One day they were left alone to figure out how to build a staircase.

Reflecting on how it went, John said that he said that even though doing something like making a staircase sounds simple, there’s far more to it than meets the eye:

  • Each of the stair boards have to be cut at exactly the right angle
  • Because the wood dries a little after it is cut, it’s not exactly straight
  • And there is an exact order to the tasks that need to be done to make sure the angle of each board matches up properly to the next.

He observed of the experience that:

 “Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality.” 

In other words, the detail and the nuances are often what makes up the learning content.  And the detail is “surprising” because you don’t know what it is until you discover it.

John’s dad could have taught him and his brother what the details were so they didn’t have to discover them, but we don’t always have that option.

In terms of learning in the workplace, inside organizations: every workplace, every team, every person, and every situation is unique.  We’re not building staircases, we’re dealing with trying to actualize conceptual, ambiguous and changing ambitions in dynamic, diverse, and complex contexts.

What’s crucial in here is that understanding what the plan is and figuring out the details of how to implement it always involves multiple people – and this is where alignment comes in.  Alignment is about getting up close and personal with the shared reality between multiple people, which is far trickier than just one person dealing with the topic or task at hand.

People don’t always know when they are misaligned.  They can talk at cross-purposes with each other, they find it difficult to resolve conflicting views with one another, and they can attribute different meaning to the same terms. The primary means of managing this is to ‘have a conversation’, which is simply inadequate without supporting tools or structures.

John goes on to observe that:

  • Once you know the details, they seem obvious – which makes it even more unlikely that people will recognize the alignment gaps between them: they often won’t think to tell each other what they learned once it becomes ‘normal’
  • Different people notice different details or miss important details – which means there’s a lot we can learn from each other’s perspectives if we ask the right questions.

And that’s exactly where the alignment process starts. With the right questions and a robust alignment tool, these gaps can be discovered.  And with some effective dialogue, we can deal with those gaps and different perspectives using appreciative enquiry and constructive challenge.

Find out more about alignment tools and processes with Mirror Mirror.