Category Archives: Tyranny of the explicit

Conversations in layers

I stumbled on this crude graphic that I blogged back in 2004. I was making a point about a specific piece of marketing jargon, “brand architecture”. I think the same idea would apply to many of the fancy terms bandied about in organisations.

Whatever the intention, it strikes me that any communication has its surface meaning but it also carries other less explicit signals. The subtexts. And these all have their impact as well, in particular on our sense of status. It’s why efforts at “precise communication” are likely to be doomed.

I particularly like that line about the guy at the top feeling “powerful but strangely lonely”. That captures the paradoxical discomfort of people who have captured at least the semblance of power but know something’s not quite right. It’s a discomfort that often leads to abuse.

And it’s another reason why I am keen on people physically performing as part of training. And why there’s only so much value in learning from a book.

Transcending language

Andrew Sullivan quotes Christian Wiman:

I don’t think you can spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality. At some point, you have to believe that the inadequacies of words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them. You have to believe that poetry has some reach into reality itself, or you have to go silent.

I think there is wisdom here for more than poets.

Steinbeck on writing

Maria Popova spots this great comment from John Steinbeck.

If there is a magic in story writing and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it.

I feel the same applies to vast swathes of human experience which business books reduce to apparently precise formulae.

HT a tweet from Haroon Bijili via Syamant

The perils of the complicated

Chris Corrigan has a good post on how complicated models masked the complexity of the financial system – and made the perpetrators very rich at everyone’s else’s expense.

In these times, we need more honest leadership. Not leadership based on clever imaginings about how the world works but leadership based on a collaborative approach to being in the emergent messiness of the world in every time. Of course there is a time and a place for models, but when we become addicted to them such they they take us into a complexity domain without the right thinking, we set ourselves up for catastrophic failure.


Tyranny of the Explicit


Following up on yesterday’s post, a second of our tyranny coatpegs it the Tyranny of the Explicit. Viv talks about it here and it’s something I’ve referred to a few times before.

Bureaucracies tend to be better at adding rules and procedures than taking them away. Adding rules tends to reduce excpeptions which can eliminate error but also reduces innovation and starts to undermine motivation.

In improv, it’s quite common when introducing a game to get lots of questions to elaborate the rules. It’s usually better to push past them and just start; people tend to figure it out as they go along and that process is itself quite fascinating. Viv points out that it’s often better to commit than to stall with questions. As with any activity, there’s an imprecise art to giving instructions and giving too many in an effort to avoid mistakes can be a mistake. (Chris Corrigan explore this eloquently here.)

(Picture by our friend Milan Colovic)


The divided (and interconnected) brain

Towards the end of this RSA Animate video, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist quotes Einstein:

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant.

McGilchrist suggests we now honour the servant trapped in a left brain mode of thinking the emphasises exactitude over the intuitive. It’s a good update of thinking on the left-right brain divide, which is more complex than some older models suggest.

Puts me in mind of what Viv and I call the tyranny of the explicit.

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

We’re all talk radio hosts now…

Jonah Lehrer suggests thinking can often serve to confuse us. He reports research where students had to rate different jams. They managed to come out with similar preferences to expert jam tasters. Then a similar group got the same exercise but with questionnaires to complete so they had to explain their decisions. They came out with a quite different set of preferences, the worst jam suddenly coming first. Apparently this effect is repeated with many other preference tests. Our capacity for confabulation – basically inventing rational explanations of our behaviour that have little to do with reality – is one of the most remarkable things about humans. I loved this comment by Lehrer:

We like to believe that the gift of human reason lets us think like scientists, so that our conscious thoughts lead us closer to the truth. But here’s the paradox: all that reasoning and confabulation can often lead us astray, so that we end up knowing less about what jams/cars/jelly beans we actually prefer. So here’s my new metaphor for human reason: our rational faculty isn’t a scientist – it’s a talk radio host.

As I’ve said before, we’re really rationalising rather than rational creatures. Of course it would just be confirmation bias for me to cite this in support of my view that far too many bits of coporate process exhibit far too much of this over-cleverness. (Don’t get me started on procurement processes).

Large tip of hat to Katie Chatfield who is becoming one of my favourite aggregators of novelty.

Podcast: The tyranny of the explicit

Yesterday I recorded a conversation with Viv McWaters and Roland Harwood on the theme of The Tyranny of the Explicit. We explore how the need for certainty in an uncertain world the over reliance on metrics and the demand that learning be made explicit, can often kill energy in meetings and get in the way of innovation.

(This has been a theme of mine for a while: here are various related posts over the years. In fact, it’s one of three tyrannies Viv and I will explore further in our upcoming Crumbs! workshop.)

Here’s the podcast and some show notes:

Click to Listen Download the Podcast (22m, 9MB)

Podcast RSS feed

Show notes

This isn’t a transcript, just a rough guide, with all the pitfalls that go with trying to summarise a human conversation in text.

0.00 Introductions

0.10 Johnnie paraphrases Woody Allen ( the exact quote is “My heart’s desire is to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. And then see if I can get them mass-produced in plastic”) … and introduces the subject of the tyranny of the explicit: how we take the sublime/complex and try to make it into something measurable/deliverable/saleable. How as a facilitator he sees this often killing the dynamism of meetings

1.20 Roland: Recognise desire of organisations to pin things down in numbers. “The only metric I use is one of time”. Getting away from trying to sum up nebulous agreements/measures

2.00 R: there is a need to be explict at some point but most organisations try to do it much too early

2.20 Viv: Calling it a tyranny names “this process that absolutely drives me nuts”; refers to post by Roland about conversations, then relationships, then transactions. “All the numbers in the world aren’t worth anything… unless you’ve built relationships.”

3.30 R: There is value in giving something a name… so there is a role for the exlicit.

4.00 J: Yes, it’s a paradox. There has to be a role for naming the elephant in the room; the thing is to avoid addiction to the explicit at the expense of the vague, the uncertain and the implicit. Pressure in meetings leading to “premature encapsulation” – lots of post it notes and the next day, no-one wants to actually implement any of them.

5.25 R: Dealing with large organisations, they crave Return on Investment. They want to start there, so we can begin with that but as conversation develops you tap into what the real issues are, which are often political and social.

6.35 V: The numbers start to take over from everything else. eg in Australian education system’s league tables leading to false comparisons. Unintended consequences, it’s become a monster.

7.55 R identifies with that and relates his experience as a parent looking at all the school performance data but then exercising judgement. Chooses a school he thinks is brilliant despite some test scores not being so good. Those data are often based on very limited interaction. Can’t use metrics to abdicate responsibility.

9.40 J: Nothing wrong with measures but we must create a space in which that data is held, judged, reflected on.

10.40 V: The dangerous allure of certainty. Relates it to this TED talk by Barry Schwartz about the peril of having too many choices: We fall back on numbers to cope with choice overload.

12.00 R: Excited by the way, with economic downturn, the experts are proving so massively to be wrong. Moving from an age of certainty and metrics to one where people might take more responsibility for their decisions.

13.15 J talks about the pitfalls of insisting on having models for everything. The downside of making all learning explicit (echoing this post)

15:10 R talks about how he responds when people ask him how NESTA measures its effectiveness. Usefulness and helpfulness. Poss dangers of having no hard metrics.

16.25 V has a go at the trend for increasing numbers of “accreditation programmes” for eg knowledge managment and accreditation. She and J look at the pitfalls of this aspect of explicitness.

20.00 R talks about the Newtonian, cause-and-effect worldview and the new physics of uncertainty. “It’s not about certainty, it’s about responsiveness and responsibility.”

21.40 Closing

21.50 End

Bureaucracy, targets and pseudo-surveys

Mark Fisher picks up some fairly grim examples of bureaucratic bullying in the public sector and the abuse of targets and surveys. Just reading the absurd form-filling required if a student arrives late to a lecture makes me want to weep.

And it’s good to this example of Sussex students boycotting the National Student Survey as a sop to genuine consultation and a trojan horse to justify cuts. Far too much money gets wasted on this kind of shallow quantitative research.