What you think when you’re not thinking

I spend a lot of my time training people in management. One thing that always surprises me is the ease with which people stop thinking about what they are doing and start to introduce key phrases that are simply shortcuts to failure.

So, if you hear others – or yourself – using any of these words & phrases, something’s very, very wrong…

‘Pragmatic’But for many in business, being pragmatic is itself the highest ideal. It’s strictly an ideal for people who want their inability to think beyond their noses to look like a virtue. If they are being ‘pragmatic’ they are preparing for mediocrity – if they’re lucky.

But when you describe yourself as ‘pragmatic’, what do you mean? ‘I have no principles’? ‘I’d settle for second-best’? ‘I’m willing to do things I don’t believe in’? ‘I have zero vision’? Or maybe ‘I’m making this up as I go along’?

You only have to glance at Wikipedia to have a bad feeling about pragmatism. There it is defined as ‘behavior which temporarily sets aside one ideal to pursue a lesser, more achievable ideal’ – which is only to say, pragmatism decides in advance to settle for second best.

‘Hopefully…’Hope is indispensable to life, but a poor basis for delivering results.Relying on hope alone is like driving into dense fog and assuming that there’s nothing in there you will regret smacking into head-on. As soon as you substitute the word ‘hopefully’ for specific thoughts about exactly what it is that is likely to derail your hopes, you have more or less committed yourself to failure. Regretfully, but quite hopelessly.
‘Obviously…’For example, the Earth is obviously flat, it obviously stands still, and the Sun obviously goes around it once a day.

If you are relying on the obviousness of things to save you, then you are ignoring the fact (obvious enough) that the whole point of most useful effort is to deal with fact that what used to be obvious doesn’t make sense any more.

‘It’s only common sense…’Common sense is what we think when we are not thinking. It was common sense that got us where we are today. If common sense were enough, we wouldn’t be trying to change things.

I once had to manage a supplier to whom we were paying £16 million to deliver a major new system. He was useless, and perhaps the clearest sign of his uselessness was the fact that he would defend all his recommendations with the words, “It’s only common sense”. Eventually it got too much for me, and I told him that if we weren’t going to get anything better than common sense for our money, he could go. The project was a massive failure, not least because it turned out he didn’t have any ideas that weren’t common sense.

Of course, it’s hard to resist common sense, since you have to dig it up by the roots and deny that a lot of things we all take for granted are worth anything. Even worse, common sense is what Antonio Gramsci called ‘the practical ideology of the ruling class’ (sorry to intrude politics into management) so when you attack it you will usually find that you are stepping on someone’s toes – someone bigger than you. Make sure you have lots of equally big friends when you do this!

‘But in the Real World…’But if you are starting out on any undertaking of any consequence, the ‘Real World’ is the problem! The Real World doesn’t work. I’ve been to the Real World, and I can tell you, it’s six inches too small on each side, the light is bad and it has a slightly cheesy smell you would not want to live with if you didn’t have to. So don’t accept it just when you have the chance to change it!
‘That’s all very well in theory, but…’The underlying problem with ‘But in the Real World’ often seems to be the far more destructive idea that ideas are ‘just’ theories, and theorising is no more use than navel-gazing. Even worse, too much thought is widely believed to stifle action.

Which will come as news to what are probably the two most productive activities humanity has ever devised, namely science and mathematics. The latter is nothing but theorising, and the former is only happy when it has a good theory at its centre.

In fact, if you don’t have a ‘theory’ about what you are going to do and why, then you don’t know what you’re doing. Literally.

In summary?

  • A mirage is not a vision.
  • A wish is not an objective.
  • A slogan is not a plan.

By |2018-06-13T15:15:30+00:00Wednesday, May 14 2008|Categories: All, Innovation, Language, Principles|0 Comments

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Chief Architect, Agile201.com.

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