back to JOURNAL

Mistaking names for knowledge

April 10, 2018

A few months back, I was sitting in an office with one of my CEO clients, doing a very poor job of communicating to her an idea that, despite being nested in deep complexity, is actually quite simple. (What was the idea? Well, we’ll get to that in a bit, because it relates to the notion of building knowledge as a means to influence preferred dispositional evolution). As my woeful attempt at explanation continued, my frustration grew: it was evidence that I didn’t comprehend the idea as well as I should have. I was yet to have the deep knowledge which enables intuitive and with-ease articulation. And so I did what anyone would do in such a situation: I turned to the words of everyone’s favourite contrarian quantum physicist, Professor Richard Feynman:

“If you cannot explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it”.

Professor Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning iconoclast who, despite having died nearly 30 years ago, speaks to us from the grave via his fabulous twitter feed.

* Feynman’s feed is the complete opposite of the vile cesspit of ego, shameless self-promotion and vitriol that Twitter seems to be these days.

The good Proff.

Although I’m not much of a quantum physicist, many of Feynman’s quotes serve as heuristics* to guide the work I do in the space of contemporary organisational transformation, development and leadership.

* Remembering that a heuristic is a simple means to guide you through something.

Here are a few more of my favourite Feynman quotes:

Teach principles, not formulas
Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts
Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt
You can always recognise truth by its beauty and simplicity
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you’re the easiest person to fool
We need to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know
It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science

But of all of his attributed quotes, the one that truly stands out and guides me and the CEO’s that I work with is this one:

You can know the name of a bird in all the different languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatsoever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. I learned very early on the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

Now, as often happens with quotes from historical and deceased figures, the actual sentence structure and vernacular used have changed over time—they have mutated and evolved, if you will—and so to get a deeper insight into and understanding of the context of this quote, I recommend listening to the original, which can be found in this brief (and gorgeous) excerpt*:

* The full documentary is an absolute treasure trove if you’re interested in understanding alternate possibilities and the inherent and fractal simplicity in complexity. It is now mandatory viewing for anyone I work with, especially its first ten minutes. As an aside, if you were of the generation brought up watching the iconic British television comedy series The Goodies, you’ll appreciate how films such as this were fodder for the likes of Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor!

The point that Feynman makes is that it’s all well and good to know the names of things—especially if you want to impress people—but knowing the names of things has absolutely no correlation with having any real knowledge about the things that you’re talking about.

What Feynman infers—and I wholeheartedly agree with his inference—is that it is all too easy to fool yourself into thinking that you know about something because you have the appropriate language to name that thing; but the question that you really must ask yourself is this: do you actually possess any real knowledge about what it is that you’re talking about?

The importance of knowledge

So why then am I increasingly banging on about the importance of knowledge? To answer this question I must continue with Feynman’s bird name metaphor: it’s because I observe a rapid increase in the naming of birds by individuals, groups, enterprise, the media, institutions et. al. without any corresponding increase in actual knowledge about the birds being named. Why then, do I care so much? I care so much because I think it’s a very dangerous trend and it’s one that’s having widespread impact, not only within enterprise, but at a broader societal level. Mistaking names for knowledge leads to unwarranted confidence and (false) bravado, and this in turn leads to reckless action and often unintended (and unsalvageable or at the very least very-costly-to-salvage) negative consequences.

Building knowledge to increase evolutionary fitness and shift dispositions

If our collective desire is to avoid unwarranted confidence and bravado, reckless action and unintended negative consequences, and instead influence the evolution of organisations—remembering that they are human complex adaptive systems (CAS)—towards preferred dispositions and improved evolutionary fitness, then knowledge about complexity and networks is our friend.

What this means is that if:

(i) you are working on an organisational transformation program in an organisation that currently has limited evolutionary fitness (i.e. its current ‘DNA’ does not express as the traits below); and

(ii) the transformation program identifies any of these following attributes as desired traits post-transformation:

  • networked
  • collaborative
  • agile
  • adaptable
  • innovative
  • responsive
  • flexible

…then you really do need to acquire (deep) knowledge based in the sciences of complexity and networks. Really, you must.

Building knowledge is hard; laziness is the new cultural norm

But the problem of course is that gaining knowledge, especially deep knowledge, takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of discipline. And it requires a lot of sweat. And it’s made even more difficult in that gaining knowledge is becoming somewhat counter-cultural these days. Why gain knowledge when you can so easily just google the web for answers, or just look for news that confirms your current worldview via your social media feeds? It’s much easier to just invent an internet meme such as ‘fake news’ and then build a worldview that confirms the meme; in-fact it would be easy enough to create a meme around fake knowledge, if you wanted to (but please don’t).

The problem

In a nutshell, this new cultural norm speaks to the HUGE problem inherent in the current de jour approach to all things organisational (but in particular transformation, which as you may recall from this piece I wrote last year, is so hot right now).

In case it’s not obvious what this huge problem is, let me break it down for you:

1. human existence is becoming increasingly complex as a result of:

(i) the increased connectivity between people and people, people and things, and things and things; and

(ii) the increased speed of connectivity between people and people, people and things, and things and things.

2. increased complexity manifests as increased uncertainty and increased non-linearity (i.e. where system inputs and outputs are not proportional, which lays waste to traditional cause-and-effect logic; or, if you prefer, where the tiniest of inputs can rapidly amplify via order of magnitudes and spread quickly throughout systems).

3. many political and organisational leaders do not have the experience nor disposition to adequately understand the sciences that underlie this increased complexity; rather—to revisit the Feynman bird metaphor again—their preference is for knowledge of bird names but not knowledge of actual birds, and thus, their tendency is to defer to ‘experts’ to provide solutions.

4. many of these ‘experts’ do not have the experience nor disposition to adequately understand the sciences that underlie this increased complexity; rather their preference is to do one of two things:

(i) continue to fester in unadulterated laziness and sell the complicated domain based solutions they’ve always sold which, despite being highly profitable, are not suitable to the complex domain; or

(ii) facing the threat of imminent extinction, bother to gain knowledge of bird names but fail to bother to gain any knowledge of actual birds, which leads them to repackage their complicated domain based solutions and then sell them as complex domain solutions, which they are not*.

*A phrase about mutton being dressed up as lamb, but one that uses birds, would probably be appropriate here.

Fine, call me repetitive and annoying—because let’s be honest, this ain’t the first time I’ve done this—but somebody’s gotta call out what is currently happening in the space of organisational transformation, development and leadership. There are so many birds being spoken about at the moment that I’m starting to think that I should be a twitcher*, and not whatever it is that I do**. There are so many people out there naming birds with pretty plumage and intoxicating calls, but there are so very few with any actual knowledge of any birds.

*A twitcher is someone who likes to identify rare and exotic birds. I have a dear friend who is a twitcher, and he has a better dress-sense than you might expect. For example, he doesn’t wear fingerless gloves.
**I work with intelligent and discerning senior folk who are helping to evolve their organisations, and hence society, for the better. Although once somebody accused me of doing nothing of value whatsoever. Each to their own, I guess.

An assemblage of twitchers waiting to sight the latest genetic mutation of the bird Agile agilista

In case you’re wondering which birds I’m talking about (better I name the birds, rather than the names of the people doing the naming, as that would get me in trouble), here’s three which are currently getting a lot of air-time, no pun intended:

  1. any codified and abstract process used and/or sold as a means to transform an organisation that attempts to scale-up small team practices such as Agile to an enterprise-wide level e.g. SAFE (Scaled Agile for Enterprise)
  2. any abstract process (codified or otherwise) that references agile (note lower-case ‘a’), responsive, adaptable et. al. and which is used and/or sold as a means to transform an organisation
  3. any abstract process (codified or otherwise) used and/or sold as a means to transform an organisation that takes practice-informed theory* (e.g. Reinventing Organizations, Holacracy) or theory-informed practice (e.g. Team of Teams)**
*Practice-informed theory is theory developed upon a process of deliberate and repeated testing and application in specific contexts AND grounded in knowledge. It’s something of a science-based approach, and it’s something of a rarity. Theory-informed practice on the other hand is practice developed from a theory which has been devised in isolation from its application. It’s not science-based because it’s not tested. An overwhelming majority of organisational transformation ‘stuff’ fits into this category. And just because the author suggests it’s been tested e.g. Jim Collins and From Good to Great, that’s not necessarily the case. It’s very easy to confuse causality with correlation—it’s something almost every leadership book does. Arguably, mine included :).
** “Ah!”, I hear you say, “I’ve heard you use these three books as examples of new ways of working before, so how can you be knocking them now?”. Umm, not quite. Codified processes such as Holacracy and abstract approaches such as Reinventing Organisation and Team of Teams are useful examples (some more-so than others). But it is incredibly dangerous to take a theory or practice developed in isolation or developed in an entirely different context to your own and apply it and assume that it will have the desired impact.

It’s a broader problem than you think

Of course, this propensity to speak about the names of birds without actually knowing anything about them is not just prevalent in the organisational transformation space—it is happening at a much broader societal level. For example, cast your mind back to December 2017 and you might recall the hype around the near daily atmospheric increases in various cryptocurrencies—it was hard to escape. But here’s the thing: most of the commentary was about the different names of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, with very little commentary being on the theory and technology which actually enable cryptocurrencies. Everybody was fantasising about how much money they could’ve made (but not lost, mind you) trading cryptocurrencies, and deliberating whether or not to buy any, and if so, which type of cryptocurrency to buy. Few people, however, were talking about the concept of distributed ledger, which underpins blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies, and about the significant impact that distributed ledger is going have on the world, especially the world of enterprise*.

* Don’t believe me? Sure, it tanked, but check out DAO.

This propensity for bird naming at the expense of bird understanding is, I think, a very common ‘western’ problem—our disposition is to view objects in isolation, as discrete and categorical entities. Viewing objects in isolation serves you well if you are, let’s say, an ornithologist interested in studying the anatomy and individual organs of a single bird—go for your life and get your taxidermy hat on—but if you’re interested in studying how a population or an assemblage of birds interacts with and influences each other and their surrounds, then this approach will fail you. And the same thing obviously goes when studying and working with organisations. It leads us to ignore the interconnectivity and relationships of these discrete objects with other objects and with other non-object things*. And in a world of increasing complexity derived from increasing levels and speeds of connectivity, this disposition is a very dangerous disposition to have.

* By non-object things I’m talking about things you can’t see but do exist e.g. air, energy, language, ideas, concepts etc.

Which, FINALLY, brings us back to the beginning of this newsletter, and the complex idea that I was struggling to communicate in simple terms.

Different worldviews for understanding complexity

The idea was about philosophical origins and how these origins impact the way people and societies view the world (and in turn, the impact that this has on approaches towards organising and organisational transformation). You might recall my earlier piece about western and eastern philosophies and Professor Michael Puett’s book The Path—where my intention was to not only enable you as the reader to challenge numerous assumptions, but to also enable you to understand the importance of the connections between things as much as the things themselves—and this idea serves as an extension to that piece of writing.

Following on from that earlier piece, and being suitably guided by Feynman’s names don’t constitute knowledge heuristic, I began a deeper exploration of different western and eastern philosophies, focussing in particular on the idea that these different philosophies might actually shape the way that we see the world and make sense of it.

This eventually led me to the exceptional work of Professor Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, and his book, The Geography of Thought, in which he provides a substantial empirical case for the collective and interdependent nature of eastern society as being consistent with its broad, contextual view of the world as highly complex and determined by many factors, and the individualistic and independent nature of western society as being consistent with its focus on objects in isolation from their context and its belief that the rules governing an object can always be known. Nesbitt argues that these different philosophical approaches include vastly different social relations, views about the nature of the world, and thought processes, and that each of these philosophies have become self-reinforcing systems, where the social practices promote the world views, the world views dictate the appropriate thought processes, and the thought processes promote the worldview and support the social practices.

Let’s consider Nisbett’s approach a little deeper, by following the below logic (or, just as importantly, by letting your intuition guide you).

Firstly as it relates to the western perspective:

  1. the ancient Greeks had a very strong sense of personal agency: that is, a sense that each was in charge of their own lives and was free to act in their own best interests.
  2. because of this strong sense of personal agency, a strong sense of self-identity emerged: that is, identity of the self was more important than identity of the collective.
  3. a combination of strength in both self agency and self identity fuelled a tradition of logical, subjective debate: that is, one’s ability to construct, present and defend their logical argument was of the utmost importance.
  4. the tradition of logical and subjective debate fuelled a thirst for objective knowledge and understanding: that is, one’s ability to debate depended upon their ability to search for and obtain knowledge, and then to reduce this into objective knowledge with categories and models from which systematic rules could be deduced, which in turn informed logic.

The Great Aristotle.

And then from the eastern perspective:

  1. the ancient Chinese had a very strong sense of collective agency: that is, a sense that each individual was part of a greater community, and was required to act in the best interests of the community.
  2. because of this strong sense of collective agency, a strong sense of group-identity emerged: that is, identity of the community was more important than identity of the individual.
  3. a combination of strength in both collective agency and group identity fuelled a tradition of consensus-seeking: that is, one’s ability to be harmonious was of the utmost importance.
  4. the tradition of consensus-seeking debate fuelled a preference for simple practicality over objective knowledge: that is, group harmony depended upon simple and practical solutions that would benefit the whole community, with knowledge only being useful if it had practical and beneficial applications*.
*I can hear you asking, “But wait a moment—don’t the eastern philosophies favour practicality and action over knowledge? Don’t they suggest that knowledge for the sake of knowledge is pointless? Isn’t that counter to the very argument you’re making about the importance of knowledge?”. Quite right—but here’s the thing: most organisations have evolved through traditional complicated approaches to such an extent that they have near zero evolutionary fitness; knowledge is the only way to increase fitness and that’s all that matters when extinction is nigh.

Confucius says.

How then, I wonder, do these different worldviews constrain and enable us in a world that is becoming increasingly complex as a result of the increased connectivity between things? And how, in particular, do these different worldview constrain and enable those of us working in the space of organisational transformation, especially when the desired post-transformation state* for organisations is to be more agile, flexible, adaptable and collaborative by using small, self-directed but still connected teams?

*Noting of course that a post-transformation end state is a misnomer, because there is no end state or homeostasis, only dynamism and evolution.

My own experiences and observations from nearly two decades of working for and within organisations inform my understanding of the western worldview as being a brilliant enabler for organisations when operating in the simple and complicated domains, but a significant constraint for organisations when operating in the complex domain. Most importantly, my experiences and observations show me the significant constraint that the western worldview has on one’s ability to comprehend that increased connectivity is changing everything.

By focusing on objects in isolation from their surroundings, there can (by definition) only be a lack of focus on the relationships and connections between these objects. An approach based on self agency, self identity and independence, and  subjective debate to obtain objective knowledge, will inevitably be blind to the connections between things (both people and ideas). An approach focusing on individual and discrete objects and the nature of those objects from which levels of abstraction are ascertained, categories assigned and rigid rules and hypotheses developed is going to be blinded by the unexpected nature of complexity’s non-linear outputs (remember Taleb’s Black Swans). An approach that attempts to reduce the world’s complexity into the knowable and the formulaic is going to be blinded to the potential to work with and move through the complexity via pragmatism and common sense*.

*Indeed, Confucianism is often referred to as the religion of common sense. Scottish philosopher Donald Munro once noted, “In Confucianism there was no thought of knowing that did not entail some consequence for action”. Whereas the Greek philosophy leads to abstraction as something unto itself, the Chinese philosophy leads to knowledge that has practicality.

Let’s look at some real world examples

Here are three recent global examples which I reckon speak to the limitations of the western worldview in terms of understanding how increased connectivity is changing everything:

  1. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 to remove the Saddam Hussein regime: the logic underpinning that action was very linear (i.e. if the regime has developed weapons of mass destruction (an assumption later proved to be false) –> then the regime must be removed –> and then the threat posed to the global community by Iraq will be removed) and viewed the constituents of the system as discrete and additive/subtractive in nature (i.e. threat = system plus regime plus weapons of mass destruction, therefore no threat = system minus regime minus weapons of mass destruction) and used reductionist thinking (i.e. Iraq is a nation state (it’s not, it’s way more complex than that, or if it is, it is in name only)), discrete categorisation (Iraq was a member of Dubya’s ‘axis of evil’ and was inherently bad) and rigid rules (a dictatorial regime should always be replaced with a democracy). Now consider some of the (at least in some way related) unexpected and non-linear outputs of the intervention into that very complex system: Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS, the Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria, the European refugee crisis, Brexit, and the election of Trump.
  2. The popularity and dominance of Facebook: the logic underpinning Mark Zuckerberg’s naive assumption (in the early days of Facebook and even to this day) that “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”, whilst using the language of connectivity, was actually very linear (i.e. if barriers to connectivity and the spread of information are removed –> then the world will be a better place), discrete and additive/subtractive (i.e. a better world = system minus barriers plus freedom of information plus freedom of connectivity) and reductionist (social media is inherently good) in nature. Now consider some of the (at least in some way related) unexpected and non-linear outputs of the application of Zuckerberg’s utopian logic: the proliferation of online bullying and self-esteem issues in children and teenagers, the live-streaming of suicides and murder, the role of Cambridge Analytica in Brexit and the Trump election, and the unwanted visibility in your feed of that insufferable and banal person you accidentally once befriended.
  3. Ongoing regulatory responses to the 2007-2009 Global Financial Crisis/Great Recession: the logic underpinning many government responses was very linear (i.e. recession must be avoided at all costs –> then economies must be stimulated via central bank intervention of running budget deficits, printing money, lowering interest rates and cheapening debt –> then people and businesses will spend and economies will recover) discrete and additive/subtractive (i.e. economic recovery = system plus budget deficit plus printed money minus interest rates) and reductionist (i.e. recessions are inherently bad) in nature. Now consider some of the (at least in some way related) unexpected and non-linear outputs of these regulatory interventions: negative interest rates, cheap debt leading to grossly over-inflated asset prices, and the executives of the banks who caused the financial crisis using federal government bail-out finds to pay themselves outrageous bonuses (when they should have been locked up in jail).

And now let’s hone in on the space of organisational transformation, development and leadership, and consider these three current Australian examples (two specific, one general) which reinforce the limitations of the western worldview:

1.ANZ, Australia’s 3rd largest bank by market capitalisation, going all in on Scaled Agile for Enterprise: the logic underpinning this “whole new” complete management restructure evident in this video interview with CEO Shayne Elliot appears to be very linear (i.e. old ways of working (hierarchy and silos) are not exciting and are bad–> so old ways of working will be replaced with new ways of working (collaborative and self-directed teams) which are exciting and are good–> then employees will be empowered and engaged–> then the business and its customers will benefit), discrete and additive/subtractive (i.e. better business = existing business structure minus old ways of working plus new ways of working) and reductionist (i.e. old ways of working are inherently bad, new ways of working are inherently good) in nature. Now what do you think some of the unexpected and non-linear outputs of this complete management overhaul and restructure will be? Who knows, but hopefully they are of the positive and not negative variety of Black Swan**.

*Here’s a fun game to play: watch the video and count the total number of different names of birds that Elliot speaks about. And here’s another one: consider how this approach stacks up with the ‘start with where you’re at, start with what you’ve got, and go about it with minimal fuss’ heuristic.
**Don’t get me wrong, I find it refreshing that large traditional enterprise is prepared to commit to different approaches, so good on ‘em—but Elliot’s repeated assertion that it has been “tried and tested” at scale with other large enterprise such as Spotify speaks to a serious lack of understanding about the nature of human complex adaptive systems and the not-insignificant risk associated with assuming one type of CAS (i.e. Spotify’s) is the same as another (i.e ANZ’s).

2. Myer, Australia’s 100 year-old retailer, sacking it’s CEO mid-transformation: the logic underpinning the actions of the self-proclaimed “incredibly impatient” Chairman Garry Hounsell evident in this radio interview* appears to be very linear (i.e. shareholder returns are not what we expected halfway into this organisational transformation–> so we need a fresh approach–> so we’ll sack the CEO–> then the business and its shareholders will benefit), discrete and additive/subtractive (i.e. better business and results for shareholders = existing business minus current business transformation minus CEO plus new CEO) and reductionist (i.e. the CEO is what determines the success or otherwise of the business) in nature. Now what do you think some of the unexpected and non-linear outputs of this action will be? Who knows, but my money’s on them being of the negative variety of Black Swan.

*I mean seriously, here’s a guy who admittedly never shops online and who is now the executive in charge of an organisation in an age-old industry that is experiencing unprecedented systemic change. Good luck!

3. The fundamentally-flawed notion that a desired organisational culture can be identified and then created: the logic underpinning this notion (and this notion is RIFE in corporate Australia right now) is very linear (i.e. culture can be built—> so we need to identify a desired end-state—>then everyone will behave accordingly*), discrete and additive/subtractive (i.e. better business = existing business minus current bad cultural traits plus new desired cultural traits) and reductionist (i.e. again, culture can be built) in nature. Now what do you think some of the unexpected and non-linear outputs of this action will be? I’ll leave this one for you to answer.

*As an anthropologist, I’m telling you that it doesn’t happen that way!

At last! A conclusion!

Well, not so much a conclusion as a pause, because I need to go and lie down now. Probably for quite some time.

But before I do, of these six examples given above, can you see any real evidence at a structural and strategic level of an understanding of the complexity of these situations, and the potential significant non-linear outputs connectivity of the constituent parts, and non-linearity?

I cannot. Time to go get some knowledge.

back to JOURNAL