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)

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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

4 thoughts on “Podcast: The tyranny of the explicit

  1. Ivan Webb

    Great podcast… thanks. I guess there are two main reasons that the explicit is attractive. If a manager is not part of the action, the explicit is all they are able to work with – the tacit is only verifiable/valid in the moment of action and in the actual context at that moment.

    Secondly, the explicit helps us know how to behave so that we are found ‘not-guilty’ regardless of the outcome:- Tell me how you will measure me and I will tell you how I will behave.

    Dave Snowden had a great anecdote in his KM Hong Kong 2010 podcast. It was about finding oil in the North Sea – when they made the process highly explicit they stopped finding oil because the explicit displaced the tacit knowledge of those who had been finding oil for years.

  2. IdeaFestival

    “Tyranny of the explicit”

    Facilitator and “improvateur,” Johnnie Moore, released his latest podcast on the “tyranny of the explicit,” which I highly recommend. It’s often important to approach a goal indirectly, and as you will hear in the brief podcast, numbers can get in…

  3. The Social Enterprise

    The Tyranny of the Explicit

    Johnnie Moore has a great podcast episode talking with Viv McWaters and Roland Harwood on how an undue focus on metrics can get in the way of real thought and understanding. I see this frequently myself, too, when people…


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