Tag Archives: post-modernism

When words are not enough

This is a simple plea for mixed teams and visual tools.

I once asked a friend if he dreamed in colour or black and white, and he said ‘neither, I dream in concepts’.   By contrast with both of us, many post-modernists  seem to believe that thought can only be verbal, but that way madness lies: The only validity of 1+1=2 is as a representation of words, and ‘one plus one equals two’ is a social construct.  Oh dear.

I challenge this doctrine that the Word is god.  When I want to work out how things relate to each other I find words are completely useless. They are are ok for communicating concepts (sometimes) but often I find them bad for uncovering concepts, and they are next to useless for working out how things relate to each other.

Years ago I learned a consultancy or counselling exercise whereby you or the client list(s) all the factors on 3x5s and the client organises them in groups on a table.  It is great for aggregating things together.

The house is a mess, the dog has fleas, the kids are in trouble for losing their home-work, and you’re broke because you’ve been buying lunch at work all month.

Write ’em on cards and put them all on the table along with everything else, and suddenly there’s the Eureka moment: the common thread is being short on time.  Deal with that and the other problems melt away.

But until you get the chance to move them around and play them off against each other, you think you’ve got dozens of impossible little problems, instead of one or two larger  ones.

There are many variations on this, and it’s used formally in a lot of project planning workshops for grouping activities into work-streams and blocking them out in time.

The pure gold in this approach is its value in working out the relationships between things.  You can do  on whiteboards, you can do it with cards, you can do it with post-its.  These days I am lazy, so I do it in PowerPoint or Visio. The point is that it’s a process, you won’t arrive at the finished diagram in five minutes, but the very activity of moving things around, like blobs in a lava lamp, will enable your thoughts to coalesce and clarify.

This isn’t just a post about tools, though. It’s saying that there are some conclusions you will never arrive at if you stick to words.  It helps to understand how your team think.  NLP divides thinkers up between the auditory, the visual and the kinesthetic.  I am increasingly doubtful about this, and find it more useful to place them within a venn diagram with circles for the numerate, the verbal and the visual.

Get one of each on your analysis team and so long as there’s no explosion, you will really be cooking with gas.  And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you get stuck on a problem, change  your tool.

Queuing theory and the Traffic-Jam Oratorio

I have in my time got very annoyed with Post-Modernists the main reason being that I’ve found them to be slippery, self-indulgent, intellectually-dishonest solipsists.  Oh, and lazy.  Add “intellectually lazy” to that list.  And while I’m tacking ideas on to the end of this paragraph, I should admit I had to ask and be told that solipsism means narcisitic or self-centred.  So narcisstic and self-centered while we’re at it.

What has brought this on is the two day course on Research Methods I’ve just come back from which is preparation for writing my dissertation.  And of course Management Studies is particularly prone to wars between the quants on one end of the scale and the slippery, self-indulgent, yadda-de-yah post-modernists on the other end of the scale.  Which is a human construct anyway.  

And enormous fun the whole weekend was too.  

Since there’s almost nothing quotable from Wikipedia’s article on post-modernism let me give you my own definition by summarising it as the idea that there is no reality, everything is a human construct, we are independent actors with free-will and, since all research is subject to researcher-bias, writing a tone poem about the credit crunch has as much meaning and more honesty than tracking the FTSE 100.  I had the following limerick rattling about my head the whole weekend:

There was a faith-healer from Deal
Who said: “Although pain isn’t real
If I sit on a pin
And if punctures my skin
I dislike what I fancy I feel”. 

I’ve come back with my head fizzing with ideas but I’ll leave you with this one for the time being.

It comes down to intent.

 Why are you doing the research you are doing?  What do you want it to achieve?  (A post-modernist would say “but why do you want it to achieve anything?” at which point their cleverness runs up against my premises and the whole thing falls apart in hyperventilation and swearing).

If you want to examine the phonomenon of rush hour traffic jams you can do it in a variety of ways.  

If you take the view that the only reality is subjective experience and we are all free agents whose opinions have equal validity you can interview people to find out how they feel about traffic jams.  Or get them to draw pictures or sing songs about it.  You can create a traffic-jam oratorio of “found sounds”, or a traffic-jam sculpture out of traffic and – er – jam.  (It seems to me that the line between post-modernist “research” and conceptual art is non-existant).  You can make a film of what people do in their cars in a traffic jam or get them to film and record their own experiences.  Whatever.  It’s all valid and all research.   Etc, etc, etc.  And it is.  It IS all valid research.  It’s interesting and thought provoking and rich and informative.  But it doesn’t solve the problem.

The thing is, it’s not a particularly difficult problem to solve: you model the traffic-jam mathematically using queueing theory and then adjust the cycle on the traffic lights or alter the speed limit and get rid of the traffic jam.

Vodpod videos no longer available. 

The thing is, while I’d love to be sitting in a car listening to a traffic-jam oratorio of “found sounds” on Radio 3, I also want my town planners to be doing the maths so I don’t have to.

Buzzword Blingo

Why do people express such a hatred of jargon?

Recently the new CEO of the organisation I work for said Strategy is a word I dislike. I hope it is the word he dislikes and not the concept, otherwise the organisation will end up as a case-study in business school textbooks and I’ll end up looking for work.

The main reason for disliking jargon is that one does not understand it. Here is a list of words I can never remember the meaning of, even though I looked them up in Wikipedia to write this, and even though each has been explained to me more than once:

I guess that tells you as much as you need to know about my interests and my pragmatic approach to them.

A second reason for disliking jargon is that the writer may not understand it. Problematic is an excellent example of this. Does the writer mean beset by problems or do they mean improbable and unlikely? An outcome can be certain but beset by problems – the plane’s crash-landing was problematic, or it can just be unlikely – the question of whether Blair will resign gracefully is very problematic. You end up having to decide whether or not you trust the writer to limit themselves to words they actually understand.

It gets doubly frustrating when one is dealing with concepts for which there is currently no single-word synonym, such as meme, ideolect, dystopia and, yes, strategy. I have read more than one rant recently against the use of the word ‘meme’. Yes, it is over-used. Yes, it is often used by people who don’t know what it means. But there is no other word which means the same thing.

There is a third reason for being afraid of jargon: this when words are used so loosely that anyone can use them for just about anything. This can happen with odd and unexpected words such as percent. I’ve previously mentioned my naivete in thinking that 20% should always mean one fifth of the total, instead of turning up decoratively as the second part of the 80/20 rule.

The main danger, though, is when it is used about abstract and fashionable concepts such as post-modernism and democracy. In fact, each of these denotes an overlapping group of concepts, like a venn diagram of glass-rings left on a pub table at the end of an evening of drunken pontificating. This gives rise to confusion: I might mean a consensus process where all involved have the opportunity to contribute to the debate and the final decision is a compromise agreed by all parties; and you might mean whatever it was that went on in Florida in November 2000. These are both valid uses of the word, but they refer to different processes and outcomes and are based on different assumptions.

Dangerously, Christianity and Islam are two other examples of these. You might understand Christian to refer to someone with mental health problems so confusing that they believe they hear the voice of Jesus in their head, and I might use it when talking about my elderly widowed neighbour who organises jumble sales.

It gets worse: Democracy and strategy are unchallengeable sacred cows, they are universal get-out-of-jail-free cards. It is impossible to criticise any positive statement including the word democracy, and it is almost impossible to challenge any positive statement including the word strategy. To do so is like saying that you think seal-clubbing is a worthwhile and pleasant way for a student to spend their gap-year, or that you think the Queen Mother was a vindictive and sanctimonious manipulator. Those are concepts which are so far outside the perceived wisdom as to be oxymorons, and impossible to think. This, of course, is how Bush and Blair got away with invading Iraq – they used words like a strategy for democracy, put the pea under the cup and swizzled the cups around around a bit and when the one in the middle was lifted we discovered that there never were any WMDs and that there are 3000 civilian deaths there each month now.

Finally of course there are words which are just too seductive not to use. My personal list of these includes: methodology, landscape, domain, and paradigm. I’d like to say I use them in an ironic post-modern kind of way, but unfortunately I have no idea what that particular phrase means. Even more unfortunately, I use them as a kind of short-hand, because if I am talking to colleagues it gets my meaning over quickly and effectively. The thing I like the most about paradigm though, is the way it is spelt.

The challenge to us as communicators is to balance the downsides of using jargon: turning people off, confusing them, irritating them and just plain failing to communicate at all, with the upsides of using the one and only word which sums up our meaning elegantly and accurately without recourse to a sentence or so of explanation.

I guess our CEO feels the same way about strategy as I feel about post-modernism and democracy, that these are Humpty-Dumpty words and because they mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean, they end up meaning nothing at all.

You might enjoy fooling around with the following sites. Having spent a couple of hours messing around on them I feel mentally and physically queasy. Entertained, but queasy.

And because only nonsense is nonsense:

Finally, you can lose hours of your life in subversive thought provoking ways here: