There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

The Importance of Personal Backstories

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High bandwidth communication is communication that is both clearly understood and contains a high amount of information per transaction, as opposed to low bandwidth communication which is usually less clear and contains much less information. How can one achieve high bandwidth communication?

By understanding the key elements of high bandwidth communication we can devise ways to improve the bandwidth of all of our communication. The most important element, in my experience, is how much shared context the two parties have. The greater amount of shared context the higher the bandwidth of their communication.

When two strangers meet they have an unknown amount of shared context. They may in fact have a lot of shared context, but until they start actively seeking out areas of shared context its as if they have virtually no shared context. The fastest and easiest way to discover shared context is through the use of labels.

Labels let us tag ourselves and each other into categories that we expect are similarly understood. Labels can include a wide variety of things, including job titles, nationalities, religions, hobbies, etc. If two strangers can establish that they are both fans of baseball they have discovered a potentially large area of shared context, avoiding the detail work of establishing all of the particulars of what being a fan of baseball specifically means. In this way labels can be helpful. But labels can also be counterproductive.

Someones sex, the color of their skin, or religion, and a variety of other labels, have been deemed so counterproductive that laws have been passed specifically disallowing their use in areas of voting, housing, employment, etc. Labels can easily be subverted because an individuals association with a label does not explicitly mean the individual has all of the traits associated with that label. While labels are fast and easy as way to create shared context, they are rife with problems and should not be relied upon. So then what?

Personal back-stories are the best way to establish areas of shared context.

Your personal back-storyis just that, the story of how you became to be who you are. Like any good story, the key is not giving the every little detail, but knowing which are the key plot points that best convey the person you are now. Note that this is not about conveying the professional you are; you are more than who you are at work, and to be truly powerful your personal back-story should include elements outside of your day job.

Imagine that you are defined by a sheet of paper. One the front side is your work resume, including all of the stuff that defines your professional self. This alone is important information. But imagine on the back side is your personal story, with information that is no less important when it comes to understanding who you are, even though it has nothing to do with your work life. You are both sides of the sheet of paper, knowing only one side results in a skewed view of who you really are.

When two people interact in the work place they often start out relying on some key labels from the front side of their respective pieces of paper as the way to understand their shared context. Someones’ job title, and/or their position in the management chain, often ends up being the labels we rely upon. This may be enough to allow some communication, but on its own won’t lead to the kind of high bandwidth communication that can really drive success.

Sharing ones personal back-story has the effect of offering a variety of points for possible connection between two people. Not every point offered will result in a connection, but by offering enough of the really meaningful points the chances of finding a lot of shared context goes way up. Adding the back side means a more complete story is being told, improving the chance that greater shared context will be found.

No one should be asked to share things they are unwilling to share. I found that those that gave the most freely got the most benefit in return, which served as a good example to those that tended to withhold information. Encouraging people to share more of who they are by demonstrating the value others got from sharing is far better then requiring folks to share (which I see as not within the spirit of the overall effort).

There are a number of activities that I have used over the years to help demonstrate the power of personal back stories. In a future post I will present several of them.

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Written by joshuahoward

August 14, 2009 at 9:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Nice post. You’ve left me curious to read your follow up posts on the activies that demonstrate their power. 🙂

    A few questions though – do you propose that people include “back story” information when applying for job positions? It seems to me that the need for a back story when engaging so many people out there has already been addressed by the invention of site like Facebook and myspace. What’s the need for a more formal story on paper when we have the all powerful Google at our fingertips?

    Jeremy Hutton

    August 18, 2009 at 8:20 pm

  2. The approach I prefer when folks are applying for a job is to start with the resume, but use interviews as a chance to speak more about ones personal back story. Going so far as including some personal info in the resume, serving as a teaser to an element of ones personal backstory, has been a successful approach I have seen.
    Good hiring managers know we hire people, not positions or job titles. I want to know more about the person I am interviewing, but don’t believe most of the world fully appreciates this point of view just yet.

    joshuahoward

    August 20, 2009 at 9:34 am

  3. […] of how to encourage a team to share their personal back stories, having already discussed how personal back stories can play an important part in supporting high bandwidth communication within a…. In this post I will present two examples, one that works when you need to introduce a whole group […]


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