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.