‘The exercise was very rich, everybody participated deeply, the walls were full of flipcharts with stuff. So many ideas floating around! It proves that, when we ask people, there is no shortage of innovation in their heads. We have very bright people in the company; we are blessed with that.
Many angles were explored. In particular, the guy from Sales in the South brought fresh thinking about the competitor situation, a complex one. We ended with a full complex, new picture of the enormous challenges we face, and I have never seen so much fresh and good material coming from the participation of everybody.
Due to the time constrains of two hours, we asked two people to give us the two key points coming from a maximum of two flipcharts. Each point could have max two bullet points. And here is the attachment, 2MB’.
And the above paradox repeats itself a hundred times per second in meeting rooms across all corporations. The fear of not capturing a rich world (and above all to be seen as unable to do so by others) leads to a simplification and reductionist exercise that inevitably focuses on the most tangible and concrete, the most manageable and the most consensual. To put stickers on the wall and rank statements is easy. To grab the unexpected, the un-categorised and unmanageable is difficult.
Over the exercise, the richness of the origins gets progressively slimmed down to a manageable version of life which is more comfortable, predictable and more easily associated to an action bullet point. I have never, ever been part of any of these ‘sessions’ that ended with ‘and for this, we don’t know what to do with it’. The horror of the unclassified and the irritatingly undefined leads to ‘closure’ at any cost. This is what traditional management thinking has told us to do.
What is left behind in that immense intellectual idea-graveyard of the flipchart is perhaps written down as ‘other points’, if lucky. What we take with us to the car park is a summary.
If you marry a summary, you’ll breed bullet points. Life is much easier, if hardly real. But it can pay the mortgage and even give you a promotion. We manage organizations with unreal pictures, filtered realities and dwarfed versions of issues. There is a title in traditional management education that helps you to avoid this.
These two positions may be part of the solution: ‘Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler’ (attributed to Einstein) and ‘It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away’, by Antoine de Saint Exupery. We, in management, have a long way to go to reach a reasonable point of critical thinking in which we acknowledge the complexity and resist the reality on a diet.
I wish leaders could stop requesting ‘the summary’ and start asking for ‘your enlarged version of things’. That would be a bit disruptive. If longer.