‘Powerful oversimplifications’ was the term used by Bruce Henderson, founder of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to define the matrixes, templates and models that the consulting firm had created to help frame business problems. The ‘Experience Curve’ and ‘BCG Growth Matrix’ are examples. BCG more or less invented the concept with the obvious aim of tackling complex situations via frames that could be understood, used and remembered.
A lot of business consulting and ‘Management’ followed this approach. There are dozens of books on Strategy or Operations that compile literally hundreds of ready-made models and frames. Management education, exemplified by MBA, became based upon the proficient use of those models. Eventually, ‘consultant’ and ‘template’ was an associated pair, always coming together.
Frames and models are great as long as they remain frames and models, that is, tools. The problem with the ‘powerful oversimplification’ concept is the word powerful. We get carried away by many 2 x 2 pristine matrixes that host a series of logical content in each of its quadrants.
Every single area of management, from strategy to operations, from human resources to culture, can be trapped into the fallacy of the ‘powerful oversimplification’ that is, model or frame first, then we try to fit the reality in, not the other way around.
Combine frames and models (and templates) with solid critical thinking and you will have a solid approach. Don’t have critical thinking and the model, frame, template, or consulting ‘powerful oversimplification’ will take over. job done, great PowerPoint, everybody happy.
So, the models may be good, their use with not critical thinking is certainly bad, and leaving them behind as permanent explanation for everything is ugly.
These ‘oversimplifications’ have a life of their own. It took many years for people to start criticising and pointing to the limitations of Michael Porter’s Five Forces. That was a perfect example of people trying to fit the reality into the model with low criticism. On the other hand, the old Seven S (Strategy, Structure, Systems, Shared values, Skills, Staff and Style) is still today as useful as when presented in the late 70’s by McKinsey consultants Thomas J. Peters (who was still Thomas and not ‘Tom Peters’!) and Robert H. Waterman. Its simplicity has endured.
Thinking tools are brilliant, provided that the word tool does not take over the thinking. In fact, the best thinking tool is the one that you create for yourself to help you think critically. Temporary borrowing of ‘powerful oversimplifications’ (‘one it was made earlier’) could be very healthy. The single word of caution is: beware of the squatters in your mind; they came as visitors, now you can’t get rid of them.