Mutual Knowledge

I believe most people are wrong about the primary value of meetings. If this sounds boring to you let me assure you this isn't really a post about meetings. But the way in which people misunderstand them manifests across a range of media so they serve as a useful place to start.

Meetings are seen as mechanisms to verbally exchange and modify information. That is certainly how they work but it misses what I think is a more fundamental purpose. I posit that if we held a meeting and everything that was said was already known by every individual, the meeting would still be immensely valuable. After such a meeting everyone now knows that everyone else knows the same thing that they do. This is what linguists call mutual knowledge and it is perhaps the most powerful concept I have come across to describe what is required for successful collaboration.

In a state of mutual knowledge, people can speak frankly to advance the state of that knowledge. It serves as a platform to build upon. They can also act with greater independence trusting that they know where their team stands on an issue. By contrast, without mutual knowledge the bulk of time spent in conversation is wasted either speaking indirectly or catching up on cursory details.

If you accept the importance of mutual knowledge, there are a few important implications:

Stable groups matter. I am conservative about varying the membership of meetings or groups because each person gained or lost resets the entire group's confidence that they are on the same page. Attendance matters a great deal for the same reason. Other attendees can come and go but there must be some core group that identifies as such and shows up consistently. This is why I create a Workplace group (or named email distribution, or slack channel, or whatever) for any recurring meeting I have; to reinforce a sense of shared identity.

Pairwise discussions are costly. Sharing information in successive one on ones can be effective because it allows you to subtly adapt the message to each audience. However, in addition to the tremendous cost in time, it has the much more pernicious cost of denying participants a mental model of others. Information is much less useful when you don't know who else has it. When people do finally connect around the information, entropy will cause subtle mismatches in their understanding which will undermine their confidence in the information itself and in the leadership they got it from.

Transparency is critical. One of the more dangerous things that can happen is for people to incorrectly believe they are in a state of mutual knowledge. Surprises are bad and information is naturally subject to entropy so keeping an active channel open allows people to maintain their confidence in the state of mutual knowledge. If I have something that I think is relevant to more than one person in the group I share it with everyone. If people recognize their own mental model has changed, it is critical they update the group.

Narratives are important. In many ways, sharing information so that everyone has a copy is not the biggest challenge. It is versioning that information. We must ensure that your copy and my copy are in sync when both are regularly changing. In my experience, maintaining mutual knowledge as the knowledge itself is changing requires us to create simple narratives. First I describe what the previous state of my knowledge was, then I describe what changed, and then I describe what the current state is.

Mutual Knowledge isn't about agreement but rather a precursor to it. We cannot hope to agree if we don't understand the mental model of those we wish to align with. The larger the organization, the more intentional we must be to ensure we will arrive at a state of mutual knowledge.