A model or a practice?

I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between business based on a model and based on a practice. And I think I want a practice not a model.

I’ve been wanting to write a super-coherent essay about this but I’ve noticed that nothing happens when I set that goal. So instead I’ll just blog a few of the ideas associated with this in the hopes I might later make them a bit more coherent. Or maybe one of you will!

I’ve been influenced a lot by two books. Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness and Phil Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect. Gilbert gives a cook’s tour of many of the ways in which we delude ourselves about our experience. He does this in the context of finding out what makes us happy, and suggests we’re actually rather bad at figuring it out. Rosenzweig does something similar for our understanding of organisational success: basically, we’re prone to a whole series of delusions about what actually works.

We end up massively overstating the influence of heroic leaders and failing to understand the influence of context: what appeared to work in one situation simply doesn’t map easily to another. We busily try to “train” people to do things based on some deeply imperfect understanding of what actually works. (There was a nice story – I can’t source it at the moment – about Andre Agassi teaching someone how to serve based on his own mistaken sense of what his secret was. Only stop motion photography revealed to Agassi that what he thought he did when serving was not what he actally did.)

Now there are some big incentives to having a model for business. In the training/faciliation area, if you have a model, some people find it easier to spend money. They get a list of confident bullet points about “what you will learn”. They think they’re actually buying something real. (Ironic, really). And of course, if you have a model, you can industrialise it: you can licence it, get others to teach it and you make money in your sleep etc. There’s some connection for me to the choice between open source and conventional software: do you try to make money from freezing ideas and selling them, or from your ability to continue to develop them and make them of service to people?

Here’s a few related thoughts I might explore further later.

– As Mark argues, a lot of human behaviour does not change in response to instructions or programming. We’re not computers. A lot of our behaviour seems to be based on copying. If we practice what we believe it may be more impactful than going round telling people what we believe. (And, as hinted above, what our rational explanations of our behaviour may be pretty dodgy anyway).

– The idea of practice gives me permission to fail and learn. We all the know the saying that life isn’t a rehearsal. I think I prefer to think of it all as rehearsal, all a chance to try things and see what works.

– I often feel that folks with models, whether Myers Briggs or NLP or Shareholder Value Analysis are always going to be filtering for what fits their model. They’ll see the model but not the people; the safe and secure but not the new life and emergence.

– Research on what works in therapy seems to suggest that the relationship between client and therapist is crucial, and that the model is secondary.

Hat tip to Chris Corrigan who’s really into the notion of practice.

4 thoughts on “A model or a practice?

  1. tim kitchin

    Great, provocative post.

    I buy the idiocy of models-based evolution Johnnie….

    But not the wisdom of practice-based learning…

    Copying practice, without understanding motivation and intention is the stuff of cults…however well-intentioned…

    This is my basic gripe with the blogosphere at large.

    Confusion of means and ends…

    Any thoughts on a third way? Timbo 😉

  2. tim kitchin

    Hi Tim, thanks for your comment. You say “copying practice, without understanding motivation and intention is the stuff of cults” I’m confused.

    I don’t think I’m advocating “copying practice”. For me practice is about paying attention to what I’m doing, reflecting on it, learning and staying open to change. I’d say this is very far removed from copying.

    Maybe you could elaborate on what you’re getting at, perhaps with some examples? (I’m wary of the notion of the “blogosphere at large” as if it’s a big amorphous blob).


    Not sure I meant that much. Certainly I leapt to the end of my thought sequence rather than laying it out. Try this:

    1. A model would be ‘carbon footprint reduction’, based on a series of lifestyle changes: reduce, reuse, recycle. A practice would be recycling.

    Recycling, without the embedded context of a carbon reduction strategy is more or less irrelevant as you have not means of judging what, whether and how much to recycle. Equally having a lovely model does not, I agree imply the adoption of effective practice.

    2. Turing to the learning element, it is relatively easy to spread thoughts (memes) and fairly easy to spread behavioural ‘ticks’ (bemes). But it is very difficult to spread impact.

    So to me your quandary is: does embracing practices give us a better vessel for connecting common context (the world of models) to personal context (individual needs)? I’m really not sure. Practices are hard, timeconsuming to learn and are often adopted and absorbed context-free – like recycling. They support cultishness – witness the social approbium of not recycling.

    3. My point re blogosphere is my familiar gripe. I don’t believe the ‘neutral technology’ argument, and tend to think that the blogosphere nurtures a form of idea replication which, by virtue of speed and simplicity tends to be devoid of context, of both types…

    I don;t think it’s an amorphous blob. I do think as a medium ‘it’ (the set of communications and connecting tools it comprises) tends to connect people in social pathways that splinter rather than aggregate our sense of self.

    Any clearer?

  3. Johnnie Moore"

    Thanks for the elaboration, Tim. I think the notion of practice means different things to different people. I think I was using it more in the sense of “be the change you want to see in the world” but probably wasn’t clear enough.

    You may have picked up an alternative idea of practice, which might on a bad day mean “just doing things without thinking about the context”. So it’s very useful for me to be aware of that interpretation.

    I think we’re on the same page about seeing things in their context. And I sense we’re both sensitive about not oversimplifying.

    I’m going to pass on further discussion of the blogosphere for now!


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