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What does X look like? A Fundamental Question of Reality


A header image of a computer screen with a Shared Understanding diagram and shells in the background

The first time I heard the question “What does ___ look like?” I was hooked. There was power in this fundamental question. It helped us get deeper and got us to a shared understanding.


Whether it is a chore you are performing at home, a dish you are cooking for your family, a team event you are trying to make more effective or as a leader guiding an organizational objective — this question applies.


When we get clear about an outcome we want to achieve, we build a shared understanding. The question — “What does ___ look like?” helps us get there.


Why don’t we ask this question more often? What is stopping us? Could it be the lack of knowing what shared understanding is and how it benefits us?


An image of scattered shells thinking and working individually. Then a detailed shell with the caption work as a collective

Individual or Collective


Build a Shared Understanding

What does Shared Understanding look like?


Shared understanding is “when we both understand what the other person is imagining and why”. It brings us together as a collective.


It involves 3 steps — 1) visualizing, 2) evangelizing and 3) breaking it down to make sure it’s understood.


The quality of the conversation & the degree of inclusivity matters here. In a conversation with yourself & others it is important to honor all ideas, build upon them, clarify & challenge them to get to a shared understanding.


Shared understanding is a direct consequence of information flow. So, pay attention to how the information is flowing.


A diagram of Shared Understanding. 1. Visualize It 2. Evangelize It 3. Break It Down

3 Step Process to Enable a Shared Understanding


Visualize It

When you unpack the question “What does __ look like?” in your context, you create an invitation to go deeper. As you engage in a conversation with yourself or others about what you see next, your vision becomes clearer.


Goal: Let us take the example of a team wanting to improve a Backlog Refinement team event.


Questions to ask: What does good look like? How will improving this event help the team?


  • A Backlog Refinement is an event where a team writes, reviews, and refines user stories (i.e., work items) to build a ready Backlog.

  • Before a team takes on this goal, they need to understand what an effective Backlog Refinement looks like & how it will help the team.

A clear vision helps you get rooted in “your why”. This is imperative because knowing your why will give you motivation and energy to meet your goal.


Evangelize It

Once you know “your why”, you need to evangelize it so you and others can rally behind it. Reflecting and renewing your commitment to your goal is important to keep the motivation going.


Goal: Let’s revisit the goal of improving a Backlog Refinement event.


Questions to ask: Does everyone believe in the goal of improving the Backlog Refinement event? Who else needs to be sold on the idea?


  • It is important for all members of the team to understand the why & work towards making the event effective.

  • Maybe there are team changes, and the new members need to be oriented to the goal & the importance of it.

  • Re-iterating the why behind the goal helps everyone stay committed to the goal.

In a world filled with distractions, we need to be reminded of what is important to us and why so we can stay focused on achieving it.


Break It Down

You know what your goal looks like & you are committed. Now you need to create a path, break it down into measurable steps to make progress.


Goal: Let’s revisit the goal of improving a Backlog Refinement event.


Questions to ask: What do we want to improve about the Backlog Refinement event? How do we know when the event is running effectively?


Let’s get specific about our goals by understanding what our needs are:

  • Improve the preparation before coming to the event so everyone’s time can be used more effectively.

  • Ensure the event is held consistently and there is a recurring meeting event on everyone’s calendar

  • Re-design the meeting to increase participation and engagement

To stay focused on the goal you need a realistic path & know how to measure success.


How does Shared Understanding help?

To summarize, “What does __ look like?” asked in any context helps us build a shared understanding. Having a shared understanding not only feels good, but it also helps us get to meaningful outcomes.


  1. Builds Connection: We go deeper and connect with what we are doing. Having a connection with our work makes it a joy and increases our motivation to do it well.

  2. Builds Alignment: We build alignment when we have a shared understanding. Alignment without shared understanding is temporary and short-lived. It helps us effectively row forward towards the goal.

  3. Builds Resilience: We become resilient when we have a shared understanding. With a clear vision in mind, it helps us creatively problem solve so we can get to the desired outcomes.

The next time you have an opportunity to build a shared understanding slow down and take the time it takes. Work as a collective instead of working individually. Follow the 3-step process to 1) visualize it, 2) evangelize it and 3) break it down.


Why stand in the way of building a shared understanding when we know it gets us to better outcomes?


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