Category Archives: Tyranny of the explicit

Tangential creativity

Quite a few people have pointed to John Naughton’s article: Lasers would never have shone if Mandelson had been in charge. Naughton challenges the government’s plans to restrict science funding to applicants that can show “demonstrable benefits to the economy society public policy, culture and quality of life” (the words of the Higher Education Funding Council for England). A lot will depend on the flexibility with which such a mandate is pursued, but I fear it will involve lots of rigid and simplistic tick boxes and score cards.

Naughton uses the examples of lasers, which play a vital role in heaps of current technology – but the people who first experimented with them could not have foreseen that. And presumably could not have got government funding under the proposed regime. Naugthon says

This bodes ill for any scientist or engineer interested in curiosity-driven research.

I like that phrase, curiosity-driven research. It suggests intrinsic motivation, a phenomenon easily underestimated by managerial convention, wedded as it is to the things that can be made explicit, and made explicit now.

Facilitators often come under pressure to get meetings to deliver definite outcomes on a fixed timescale. That approach comes with a hidden cost.

(For more of my thoughts on this, see this post on obliquity.)

The Tyranny of the Explicit

Bob Sutton has an interesting post linking to this New York Times story: After Bankruptcy G.M. Struggles to Shed a Legendary Bureaucracy. A manager relates how the company’s legendary bureaucracy is being cut down to size: his massively extensive performance review has been cut down to a single page. I liked his explanation for this:

We measured ourselves ten ways from Sunday. But as soon as everything is important nothing is important.

My feeling is that what appears to be happening at GM needs to happen in a lot more places. It often seems to me that everytime we experience a crisis, the solution is to write more rules. A child dies due to failings in care, and more forms have to be filled in. In absurd extremes, a council bans parents from entering a play area as they’ve not had a criminal records bureau check.

Alongside this is a creeping extension of the need for academic qualifications, the ability to write clever essays. Social workers will have their initial training extended to four years; nurses will have to get a degree level qualification in future. Soon, psychotherapists will have to get a masters degree in order to practice.

The intention is good, but the practical effect is to engulf people in explicit, complicated systems and reduce their freedom – based on an unconscious assumption that everyone is not to be trusted. We give ascendancy to people who are really great at theory and effectively degrade practice. I think its rooted in the idea that one person or a group of people can effectively oversee a system and control how it works with written instructions.

In order to get things done people have to find elaborate work arounds for the rules, often with anxiety. The result: it’s actually harder to create real trust the human way, using our judgement and instincts.

Of course, language is a wonderful thing, but I see us getting horribly out of balance. I call it The Tyranny of the Explicit. I’ve made that a category here, linking a few related posts on the theme.

The tyranny of the explicit in marketing

I’m continuing to have thoughts in response to reading Herd probably because Mark Earls’ position so often reverberates with mine. There’s nothing like having one’s prejudices supported.

Like me Mark enjoys taking potshots at market research. In particular, the effort to read the minds of individuals in search of the magic insight that will become a lever to engage with the market. I’ve done my share of focus groups where the client sits behind the one-way mirror getting in a twist when the moderator “isn’t getting emotional insights” from the group. It’s as if we can generate genuine insights hygienically, via an intermediary and without the sordid business of emotionally connecting with people. I wonder if we can really get much insight into our fellow man without taking the risk of opening ourselves to him, rather than prodding him like a lab rat. And as Mark says in a comment on his blog, when was the last time you sat in a research meeting and the debrief went essentially: “not really sure what’s happening or why. It’s much more complicated than we thought and indeed than our methodologies can really handle….”?

Related to this, you may be familiar with following notion of how we learn stuff, which I lifted from this article: Smooth your Learning Journey with the Learning Matrix I’m sure this a very useful model, the idea being that we start bottom right and work our way anti-clockwise to bottom left.

But it seems to me a lot of our learning skips the conscious stages altogether, and just skips from box 1 to 4. Vast amounts of what we learn as children and adults is just unconscious copying of what others are doing around us (hence the Herd title of Mark’s book). I contend that most market research values only the stuff that routes via boxes 2 and 3, with a preference for what can be turned into long and clever papers for MRS conferences. The effort to drill down to insights may actually get in the way of really connecting with the audience formerly known as consumers. Of course, as smart beings we can easily conjure up all manner of rationalisations for our behaviour to entertain market reserachers with, but it may not approximate to what’s really going on.



I enjoyed Nick Smith’s latest post Don’t just do Something Stand there! Here’s the nub of it but I recommend the whole thing.

By valuing thinking over awareness we mistake knowledge for understanding, and therein lies our downfall. It is thinking that gets us so fixated on the world of form that we mistake it for reality – we see the surface form and overlook the energetic wholeness that animates the whole show. We see effects and become blind to causes. Not knowing any better we try to fix what we see, but we keep failing because what we see is merely the effect of a process that starts with us. Our frustration at our inability to fix our world just drives up the anxiety and fear as we feel more and more like powerless victims, and then this grotesque self-image becomes the breeding ground for yet more fearful thoughts which then just add to the chaos and confusion we seem to see ‘out there’.

But when we embrace stillness a miracle starts to happen. We begin to feel and recognise the connection that exists between us – some call it Presence.

I like the connection Nick makes between stillness and presence. What Nick says here also goes to the heart of something I’ve become increasingly aware of… that there are important aspects of our experience, I might say of life itself, that cannot be put into language. We can sense them, but when we attempt to verbalise them we lose the connection. As Nick describes, if you find yourself in a state of flow, the moment you start thinking “this is great”, you break the flow.

Much of our thinking about how groups of people work together deals in the things we can make explicit. So, for instance, it’s accepted as a truism that a group of people can only function effectively if they agree on a common goal. That’s why we hear so much about the value of mission statements/visions/values and so forth.

But I don’t think that notion is actually all that true. Scratch most groups of people, high or low functioning, and I doubt you’ll find more than a superficial degree of agreement about the group’s explicit goals, values etc. I question the impact of laboured efforts to get folks to agree to those statements.*

I’m rather more intrigued by what I suspect is the real agreement, which is essentially the one to go on together, at least for the time being. Loads of organisations carry on working with staff who spend time thinking about leaving… but for the time being, have made the choice to stay. I actually don’t think that is such a terrible thing. I’m not a huge believer in alignment; I think diversity is more interesting and healthy.

Working with groups, I sometimes experience a kind of stillness where I think people become more present to that subtler and deeper sense of connection and belonging. It’s the sort of silence that transcends the efforts of efficiency experts.

(I’ve written a few other posts that relate to this, referencing the notion of the tyranny of the explicit).

* That’s not to say that well-written statements of intent or belief are without value; I know they can often be inspiring… so I’d say, let them inspire people without turning them into contracts.

UPDATE: I love Chris Corrigan’s visual response to this post:

Mirror, mirror….

A big hat-tip to Stefan Liute for his post The biological hardware for culture. He points to this article from the NY Times: Cells that read minds. Here are a few morsels of the Times piece:

“We are exquisitely social creatures, ” Dr. Rizzolatti said. “Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others.”

He continued, “Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.” …

Until now, scholars have treated culture as fundamentally separate from biology, she [another scientist] said. “But now we see that mirror neurons absorb culture directly, with each generation teaching the next by social sharing, imitation and observation.”…

When you see someone touched in a painful way, your own pain areas are activated, he [another researcher] said. When you see a spider crawl up someone’s leg, you feel a creepy sensation because your mirror neurons are firing.

NB that notion of understanding by feeling, not thinking.

And here’s a snippet that I particularly liked:

Mirror neurons work best in real life, when people are face to face. Virtual reality and videos are shadowy substitutes.

There’s no substitute for a real meeting. And all this reinforces my experience that a huge amount more happens between us when we meet than the mere exchange of words. When I’m working with groups, I try not to overemphasise laborious flipcharting of “what we’re learning” as I think it tends to devalue a lot of what we’re learning unconsciously.

Note to self: more grist to the mill of challenging “the tyranny of the explicit”.

The great return

I’m thoroughly enjoying Rob Paterson’s bold series of posts on the theme The Great Return.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

Well illustrated forthright, thought-provoking and wise.

I was struck by this observation in Part 2

The book over experience is a particularly dangerous idea. Julian Jaynes has made the case that when we learned to write we also lost our connection to the intuitive. Over time reason triumphed over innate understanding. In short, as we became enthralled with our intellect, we became clever but lost our wisdom. So today mothers worry about child rearing, read many books, but are closed to their innate wisdom.

Rob’s not repudiating reason and rationality, but he’s putting it in its place. This really resonates with me, and it’s why one of my favourites phrases is “the tyranny of the explicit”. In fact, I’m tempted to write a book with that title (which would be nicely ironic).

If you’ve got time, check out what Rob’s written. I think it’s awesome.

City branding

Katherine Stone is underwhelmed by Atlanta’s new tagline (Atlanta: Every day is opening day). Christina Maynard at Ricksticks feels the same about the new logos for Toronto and Atlanta.

I’m yawning too.

My two (maybe five) cents: when people talk about advertising and branding they often focus on a few examples of stuff that seems to work. Katherine likes Las Vegas’ “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”, which has a lot more impact than the Atlanta offering. Most of us can reel off a few TV ads we really love. But let’s not forget that most of what we see is achingly mediocre.

So if I were advising a city, I’d ask: what makes us think we’re so talented that we’re going to be the one in ten thousand cities that comes up with a snappy tagline or clever logo that actually achieves something? And who exactly are we to think we have the ability to summarise the complex virtues of where we live in a few short words?

I can’t help thinking this is another manifestation of the tyranny of the explicit: if we don’t make explicit, however trivially and boringly, some USP for a location, we’re somehow missing a trick. God forbid that we let the people who live here, and those who visit, tell the story in a million more modest, less consistent but much more credible ways? Ah, but that would put a few branding experts out of a job I guess.

Group unconscious

I’ve been reading this: The Group Unconscious: A Synthesis Paper (pdf), which its author Alok Singh shared with me. It’s real brain food and not a light read but it echoes strongly with me.

Alok explores the idea that groups of people amount to a great deal more than the sum of the parts, for good or ill. The notion of a collective unconscious makes considerable sense, although it’s often pooh-poohed in a culture that tends to see us only as individuals.

Exploring the unconscious feels like a risk, and requires a different way of thinking about conversation.

I think we’re accustomed to the idea of conversation as discussion (same root as percussion) in which competing explicit ideas and egos battle it out in a supposed survival of the fittest. Moving beyond this, to a space where we risk less certainty and more vulnerability, can be quite a shift.

(Folks are so attracted to certainty. I watched a commentator this morning, woefully wringing his hands at the result of a German election. The terrible uncertainty of a hung parliament would be bad for the German economy, blah blah. The notion that the opposing parties might have to engage in a constructive conversation and that there might be some good in this was excluded from consideration; in his eyes much better the “certainty” of one political grouping being “in control”.)

I liked Alok’s observation:

What I particularly notice is that breakthroughs in the depth of conversation happen when the group becomes more conscious of itself in the process of conversation itself.

He then relates some fascinating research by the physicist Henri Bortoft who compares “authentic and counterfeit wholes”. This strays into fairly mind-bending territory – it’s a characteristic of the phenomenon we’re trying to explore here that it doesn’t lend itself to easy explanation in words. But anyway, here are a few words:

Bortoft says that in any natural or human phenomenon, the Whole is of a different order to the Parts, and is thereby not the same as the sum of the Parts… there is an ‘essential irreducibility of the Whole’; while we can put Parts together, we cannot put together Wholes.

If you think of times when you’ve been part of, or maybe witnessed, a great team, or indeed found yourself sucked into a mob, you’ll have experienced this sense of something beyond the agglomeration of individuals.

The paper uses the iceberg metaphor to suggest that only a small fraction of what is going on in groups is conscious. (See my post about the Tyranny of the Explicit for more iceberg thoughts) Alok puts forward a variety of interesting thoughts about how groups work, if what’s largely going on is the working out of issues and conflicts that are known but not being talked about (the elephant under the table)… or even more interesting, unknown and not talked about (the elephant under the elephant?)

A good example is a group which keeps cycling back to some familiar conflict, apparently resolving only to revive it again. What’s interesting when this happens is to enquire into what’s beneath the superficial conflict.

Alok has some great insights about the difference between a highly functioning group (increases the level of consciousness) and a mob (reduces consciousness, so that the individuals merely lose themselves).

In Mobs, which develop through Deindividuation, group members bury a large part of their personal identity and replace it with the identity of the group-as-a-whole. Group members lose their moral compass, as the complexity of their many identities is submerged and denied… In Synergistic Groups, which develop through Individuation, group members become more aware of their complex identities, and start to take ownership of aspects of their identity that they have previously disavowed.

I also liked Alok’s summary of the qualities a facilitator needs to work with groups in a way that respects the great amount of non-rational, non-explicit stuff that is going on… self-awareness, presence and what he calls neutrality but I would call openness.

Fascinating stuff. And not easy to blog about.


No Flipcharts

I would like to propose an International No Flip Chart Week. During this period no one will leap up in the middle of meetings and attempt to capture what’s being discussed on a flip chart (or any high tech equivalent).

This often feels like a form of premature conceptualisation. A way of focussing too much on the explicit and measurable at the expense of the subtle stuff that happens when we allow ourselves to explore ideas together. Whilst on one level it appears to be a way of acknowledging ideas, at a deeper level I think it’s a way of containing them, boxing them and avoiding being influenced by people.

Further reading: The tyranny of the explicit

Pitfalls of explicit learning

pede.jpgOnce upon a time a millipede met a management consultant. (These insects do sometimes run into each other.)

The consultant admires the amazing walk of the millipede and says “That’s a remarkable skill you have there, the way you coordinate all those legs so beautifully. What a marvellous metaphor for organisations! Will you let me model it? Then I can sell the idea to my clients and transform the world of work!”

So the consultant spends hours with the insect, making it examine the minute details of its actions. After which, the consultant has a massive best-selling book and training course with which to amaze and mystify his clients: “The Seven Management Secrets of the Millipede – Maximising Profits for 21st Century Organisations.” Meanwhile, the creature is so stressed at the sudden realisation of how complicated its legs are… that it can’t walk properly anymore.

This story came to mind reading a fascinating observation from the website of Dr James Willis, drawn from a review of his book, Friends in Low Places

The author quotes a wonderful piece of research which found that people are half as good at remembering a face in a photograph, if they’ve tried to describe it when they first see it. If we only trust our innate and wordless ability to remember a face, we are twice as likely to remember it: a metaphor for general practice. Doctors are being constrained not to rely on their hard-won experience, knowledge and skill, their unarticulated sense of what needs to be done. But instead always to use their conscious brain function to work out a solution. Thus quite possibly reducing their effectiveness by half.

Jack Vinson – who spotted this fascinating item – comments

When a person knows their work so well, they don’t need to articulate how they know it. This blurb suggests that in some cases, asking someone to explain their thinking actually reduces the value of their unconscious knowledge by forcing them to consider how it is they know something.

Taking this a bit further, there’s a popular model of learning that looks like this:


With the idea that we start at bottom left and proceed clockwise to bottom right. Quite a reasonable model but I think it ignores a whole lot of stuff that skips straight from 1 to 4 and doesn’t trouble with going into the world of the explicit at all. Including most of what infants learn from their parents. Or if I think of learning to fly, some of my learning did follow a clockwise path, but a lot was not like that at all; it was more intuitive, picked up as I went along but not an explicit process.

Outside the temples of the explicit

Of course, it often very interesting to bring to light hitherto unconscious processes. But it can’t be the whole story. It strikes me that most business bookshelves are temples to the explicit, articulating an assumption that somehow if we get explicit knowledge, all will be well.

I think a pitfall of the ways we assess training and faciliation is to depend too much on feedback forms and respond to the pressure for people to leave the room “with a clear idea of how things will apply to their daily lives”. But what if they learnt a whole lot implicitly? ..if they did, then our demand for “proof” may actually undermine what was learnt.

I leave the last words to the same review posted on the James Willis website:

We are trapped in a culture in search of certainty, seeking to abolish uncertainty even. We are in a culture which attempts to deny and abolish the wonder and glory of chaos and serendipity and chance ? in the education of children, in the care of the sick. We are trained by the media, by our masters, to have zero tolerance of risk due to a belief that the end of uncertainty is in sight. This leads to the horror expressed by our masters that half of all doctors are of below average performance, and to their instruction that everyone and everything must show excellence. We need a few lessons in the use and abuse of the English language.

I would add: we are a culture which has lost its spiritual base, and is therefore trying to construct one out of shaky models. Those in control make models. They then constrain us to live and work within those models. The model becomes the master. Oh dear, I?m getting as worked up as James does himself.

[Thanks to Richard Gayle for his part in linking to this]