Obituary for a friend


This is an obituary for a friend who has gone over to the method.

Let’s call him Danny. Danny used to be a deeply creative guy. He was a joy to work with and a joy to work for.

Working with Danny was like fishing the Grand Banks before the Europeans came in earnest. So many ideas, so thickly packed, you could walk on them anywhere. New found land! Everywhere.

This is not one of those Village of the Damned scenarios or anything. Danny doesn’t have a glassy stare or a robotic gate. No, it’s just that he now plays things by the book. He’s got this method through which everything must pass. It’s an "eye of the needle" thing. If you are rich in ideas, forget it, you’re not getting through.

I don’t know where Danny got the method.  I think it’s a Rube Goldberg contraption that made up with bits and pieces of management theory.  Now every act of creativity takes a Powerpoint deck to choke a horse.  There are lots of lines and boxes and arrows so complicated it reminds me of a radio I broke into as a child.  Man! (Complicated, mind you.  Not complex.  Complex I believe in.  Because complexity comes from simple principles.  But complicated, that’s, what’s the term again? oh, yeah, bad.)

Danny used to believe in beautiful ideas.  And he would tell you, before the method got him, that beautiful ideas were always clear and radically simple.  Yes, you had to roll out lots of supporting data.  Yes, you had to marshal the argument, dotting your Is and crossing your Ts.  But the old Danny treated all of this as the stage mechanics they have at the MET.  It has to be there, but only as a platform.

Danny loves the method I think because he thinks it makes him smarter. And maybe this is true. But the method actually makes it kind of hard to tell whether he’s smart or not. It gives all his thinking a certain prefab quality. This is not a bad thing when we are trying to snow the client, I guess. I mean, if we’ve "got nothing," method supplies a facsimile of something. Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe Danny lost his nerve. Maybe he’s off his game. Maybe the method is smoke and mirrors, bang and chatter, and otherwise deliberately obfuscating of a clear and simple truth: Danny is tapped. (Hey, I’ve been there.)

But I think the method is also a kind of talisman designed to give comfort to Danny and the people who rely on him. "Oh, a method! Hurmph! Here, here!" Suddenly, we’re in a men’s club in Victorian London with everyone nodding in stodging agreement that orthodoxy is always better than just winging it. "I mean, after all!"

"I mean, after all," used to be a phrase we could actually use in conversation. Everyone knew exactly what we meant and what we meant was "let’s hew to orthodoxy because it’s been crafted by people better than ourselves and tested by the ages. Let’s not forget the things we know! Let us come to our senses. I mean, after all."

Those days have passed.  Orthodoxy is sometimes useful.  More often it is a decrepit bridge over a very deep gorge.  It might get us to the other side.  It worked the last time we tried it.  It looks okay.  I’m sure it’ll be fine. 

No one says,  "I mean, after all." much anymore because precedent is no longer always a better bet than its alternative.  Precedent is not even usually better than its alternative.  Precedent should be marked "for use only in an emergency by trained professionals…or Paul" because, as the business press never tires of telling us, "everything we know is wrong." 

Ok, so what’s better than method? Smart people thinking not with method but with messiness. The world got various. Our professional lives stream with novelty. The new comes from every kind of factory, staffed by every kind of creative, driven by the whip of opportunity and the joy of opportunity.

How we might use this "new" is also various. First we have to say what it is, and this is not easy. Is this new an innovation that will take like television or is this an innovation that will fail like smellovision? In the early days of TV, this was technology looking for a purpose and it took several years (and a General) to figure out what that purpose was.

We have to figure out whether and how it might serve as an opportunity, whether and how it might serve as a risk, and to do this we have to shuffle through a deck of interpretive transparencies that help us see it this way and now that way. We have to evoke a series of assumptions and let each of these reveal what it is we might be looking at.

So much for method. This is about intellectual agility. This is about framing and reframing the issue at hand until we find the one that helps make it make minimum sense. Method actually makes things harder. It locks us into one set of assumptions when what we need is to be "assumption agnostic" and capable of a swallow’s flight between assumptions. In Gladwell’s language, it is blink, then blink, then blink, each time supplying new assumptions.

All of us are multiple and in transit. We work for corporations that are multiple and in transit. We live in a world that is multiple and in transit. This makes method perilous, if not murderously at odds with the management of complexity that is now our first assignment, whatever else we are called upon to do.

I don’t know what happened to Danny. He lost his gifting for thinking, his gift for creativity, or maybe he just lost his nerve. He’s still multiple. He’s still in transit. But the method that is supposed to serve him serves him ill. I’m sure he’ll snap out of it. Hope so. I could really use a hand with this smellovision thing.

7 thoughts on “Obituary for a friend

  1. Tom Guarriello

    When I was in graduate school at Duquesne University (here in Pittsburgh where I coincidentally find myself today) we studied psychology from a different perspective than the American mainstream. Since Wundt’s laboratory in Leipzig, psychology had aspired to become a “science” by emulating physics, the grandaddy of all sciences. We believed that was a mistake because approaching human experience as an object has consequences. The way we spoke about it was to say that approach drove method and method drove content.

    So, for instance, if you approach consciousness as an object, it follows that the method of choice would be the scientific method (the preeminent method for studying objects). Consequently, the content (data) that emerge from using the scientific method are those amenable to quantification. So, psychology decided that the only things it could study scientifically were things that were quantifiably measurable. Unfortunately, that omits everything interesting about human life, putting all those things outside psychology’s purview. Want to study love? Sorry, can’t be measured. But you can study the galvanic skin responses of people viewing images of people they say they love.

    What fun!

    What the phenomenologists did (the folks we oddballs at Duquesne based our work on) was to say, well then, we better get ourselves another method, one more in keeping with the kinds of data we’re interested in, which is, human experience *as lived by real people*, not lab rats.

    Seems to me your friend’s problem wasn’t so much that he had *a method* but that he had a method not well-suited to the domain he was interested in studying.

    Or, to put it more simply, I mean, after all, if all you’ve got is a hammer…

  2. Tom Asacker

    Oh, I think it’s much simpler than that. Method preserves status in hierarchical organizations (a.k.a. c.y.a.). Throw Danny into the entrepreneurial waters and he’ll drop his pad and pencil and start swimming with the rest of us.

    And btw, I never trusted anyone who referred to a PowerPoint presentation as a “deck.” Except for you, Grant. 😉

  3. Victor Lombardi

    Tom, would you consider an approach like Grounded Theory a better method for Danny?

    In some ways I can empathize with Danny. I meet many people who mentally check out when confronted with the rich ideas, but can accept a method. They want help, and I want to help them. Perhaps I can, starting with a method, then gradually introducing ideas, similar to martial arts in which one begins by repetitively practicing simple exercises, later combining them using sophisticated improvisation.

  4. steve

    It all depends on the what you mean by a “method.” If a schema just gives you a lot of hoops to jump through without yielding insight, or systematically distorts what you’re thinking about, it’s bad.

    The problem for all methods in business analysis is that it is difficult to strike a balance among a) enough generality to cope with the wide range of situations out there, b) enough specificity that at the end you’ve usefully narrowed down the problems/solutions, and c) enough simplicity that you can use the method under reasonable constraints of time, attention, and data availability. I try to make advances in these areas in my own research, and it isn’t easy.

    Bad methods with sprouting boxes and arrows holding ill-defined and equivocal concepts are a curse in management. A cheap diagnostic when confronted with one of these is to see if the same problem element belongs under multiple headings withing the same schema. This approach can often reveal the essential vacuity of something like SWOT analysis (which is far from the worst thing in wide use).

    Incidentally, if one of these things is quantifiable, you’re way ahead of the game. It becomes relatively easy to see what it’s claiming and what it’s missing. You have *units* to work with, and you can think about whether they are appropriate to the task at hand.

    Non-quantifiable methods are much harder to debug. Another cheap diagnostic when faced with purely qualitative methods is to check whether some attribute cued by the method is even ordered over the set to which it is supposed to apply, e.g. “centralization” over the set of organizations.

    It turns out that for many, many realistic situations if you look at two organizations you can’t say which one is more centralized than the other (the set is only partially ordered becaause there are lots of dimensions of organization where centralization can come in). Yet people constantly act as though this is a simple ordering. I bet a lot of the boxes and arrows in Danny’s method contain similarly non-ordered measures masquerading as unproblematic measures. Think about something like “authenticity” or “convenience” in a marketing context.

    In the end,though, even divergent thinkers like Grant use methods to weed out bad ideas. These may be implicit or tacit, but they amount to some kind of theory-in-use. Heck, I seem to recall a very useful post (and even a book) on methods for interviewing people properly. If someone comes up with a “grounded” idea based on crappy interview techniques or focus groups, I expect Grant to use his method to reject it.

  5. steve

    I’ll assume Doug is kidding and try to keep it briefer in the future…

  6. Grant

    Steve, sir, for Steve Postrel the sky is the limit, or not the limit, actually. Don’t let Doug discourage your reflections. They make this blog. Best, Grant

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