Looking for something that works

It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.
— Epictetus

images-3.jpgA week ago, I sat in on a lecture by Roger Martin, dean at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. The talk, sponsored by the Portland branding/design firm Ziba Design, was in the open atrium/auditorium at the Wieden+Kennedy headquarters in the Pearl District. There were W+K and Ziba people in the audience, but lots of other people, too. I noticed the head of a Portland arts organization, for example, and a couple of members of a prominent local law firm.

The epigraph above comes from the beginning of Chapter Six of Martin’s book, The Opposable Mind, which was on sale in the atrium and doing a brisk business with the crowd, it seemed, though perhaps less brisk than the table of pastries. It’s a nice quote, and above all a practical quote. Which describes Martin’s book, too, because it describes a practical approach to problem-solving.

And that’s what I found so interesting. We have reached a point of such bureaucratic stasis in our national life (both business and government and everything in between), of such stalemate in our way of thinking about problems, that what be commonplaces to followers of good old-fashioned John Dewey pragmatism, are taken now as new developments, creative breakthroughs. Martin’s idea is that our most successful leaders are able to look at competing ideas, take the best elements from them and come up with a newer, better idea.

Martin, then, says things you know (or suspect) to be true. He does so briskly and clearly. He has a schematic worked out for the stages of what he calls integrative thinking. He challenges his readers to get beyond the powerful, competing models that govern their decision-making. Through a series of case studies, he shows how several intelligent business leaders (Jack Welch and A.G. Lafley, of GE and Procter & Gamble fame, as well as some less well-known but also successful CEOs) have used the approach he describes to solve a variety of vexing problems.

images-2.jpgI found that his four-step process was easily adaptable to problems in feature writing — in fact I brought him up in a feature writing group I attend. The writing and reporting project is more complex than his diagram, and so is running a major multi-national corporation, I suspect. But his advice — to throw out a broader net for data, analyze the data to establish relationships among the pieces, develop an architecture for the solution to your problem that includes as much of your research as possible and refuse to accept bad tradeoffs in your solution? Hard to argue. And then he spends several chapters explaining how it might be possible for you (too!) to employ the methods of the masters. Which is where the Epictetus came in (another quote Martin might have chosen: “If you want to improve, be content to be thought stupid and foolish.”).

I’m not an expert on Dewey (that’s him above, courtesy of Andre Koehne and Wikipedia). I’m interested in his aesthetic ideas (in Art and Experience) and through Richard Rorty, his political philosophy. But one of Martin’s central ideas, the simple notion that no “model” is perfect, every model can be improved, is straight out of American pragmatism and Dewey. Martin did briefly mention Charles Sanders Peirce, with whom Dewey was aligned, though, and at the lecture said that Peirce, an overlooked American genius (1839-1914), figured prominently in his next book.

images-5.jpgThe most interesting thing Martin said at the lecture was in the Q&A session, when he was asked about the conflict in organizations between linear and creative thinkers, and here he cited Peirce (at left, again courtesy of Wikipedia’s Creative Commons program). Martin said that our organizations are organized around the idea of reliability, and the high proof standard that reliability requires. For some sorts of activities, reliability is a fine standard. But not for predicting the future. CEOs are better off looking for validity when they are trying to solve their most difficult problems — arguments about future events are never airtight, the future never flows in one direction, we can never take EVERYTHING into account. So validity, which can only be proven in the future, is the only standard we can reach.

Which gets us to stasis, which is so often caused by the demand for certainty in proposed changes. Of course we aren’t static for long: Deterioration quickly sets in.

Art Scatter isn’t an avowed center for the study and application of American pragmatism to our current condition! But that isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be, and certainly those ideas are inescapable in much of the writing you find here. And it might be interesting to make them more explicit when they pop up.