IT’S COMPLEX! IT’S USELESS! IT’S NEW!
My heart always sinks when I take on a new piece of work and am told that the client is expecting some ‘new and fresh thinking’. Not because I don’t like to do things differently (just in case you’ve actually read my website), but because I have a couple of concerns about this mania for novelty.
For one thing, the clients who are most keen on new and fresh thinking seem to be the ones who’ve never managed to implement the old way of thinking, and are therefore hoping that this time they’ll get a magic wand that will make everything work perfectly. It’s the business equivalent of going on a different diet every few months, assuming the reason the last one didn’t work is because the diet was faulty, and nothing to do with the fact your calorific intake exceeds your expenditure. All the effort that I might put into creating something fresh, new and different might be better applied finding a way to reinforce something old, gnarled and boring so that it actually works. Clients tend to resist this because, like frustrated dieters, they make an assumption that every failing fad makes the next one statistically more likely to be the one that works.
The other problem is that, most of the time, there isn’t actually anything new to offer. Creative thinking is an interesting case in point. When I am due to run a creativity workshop I inevitably panic about the fact that I seem to be using the same techniques I used a few years ago. On such occasions I go rushing around libraries looking for the radical, stunning new approach I’ve missed. I haven’t found it yet. But I live in fear nevertheless; after all, a client might reasonably expect that a discipline devoted to newness might have come up with a new way of achieving it. But what is it we’re actually talking about? Having an idea for something, and making it work. A better thing to do, or a better way to do it. It’s hardly rocket science. Why should it have to be dressed up in a new complex framework before people will take it seriously?
The fear of not being seen as ‘leading edge’ haunts consultants. That’s why our one-page biographies are always so hideously hyperbolic. You know the kind of thing: “Phil is regarded as a thought leader by countless global blue chip clients in numerous industry sectors within a five mile radius of his home in Runcorn. He is qualified in NLP, DCF, IBS and a wide range of TLAs. He has written articles as numberless as the sands of 50,000 Ganges, and has personally reversed the direction of the Earth’s rotation on more than one occasion.”
Interestingly, a recent book brought to my attention by one of my readers (thank you, LP of London) summarises a seven-year academic study which proves than non-experts are consistently better than experts at making predictions within the experts’ fields of expertise. Quick, rewrite that bio: “He wanders into organisations, hazards a shrewd guess as to what might work for them, and has a go at doing it.”
An alternative to newness comes from those gurus who follow the ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed’ school. Some of the most useful organisation and personal development books prove to be those which take a complex field and come up with an elegantly simple way of summarising it that people can actually use. Two that immediately spring to mind are Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. Covey’s book is a useful contraction of just about every personal effectiveness theory ever devised, his only error being arguably one habit too many (and about fifteen too many slushy stories about bonding with his son).
De Bono, though, gets my vote for his cunning way of getting managers to dress up in daft headgear to discuss a work project in the belief that this will make them leading edge. What a surreal world consultancy can be! (“What did you do at work today Daddy?” “Well, today I got a group of highly paid people in suits to wear different coloured hats. What’s more, they paid me to tell them to wear them.”). There’s nothing leading edge about this kind of stuff – but there’s an awful lot of organisational value in coming up with an accessible and utilitarian format for a bundle of problem solving techniques.
So, I’m considering rewriting my biography to say “He peddles the same old stuff you’ve seen before. But he makes it work.” Mmm, I don’t know though. Not very fresh and different, is it?
© Phil Lowe, 2006. All rights reserved.