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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Good Ideas from Flaky Sources

There are some institutions and practices that, for various reasons, always trigger a negative response whenever they are mentioned.
  • Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)
  • Rand Corporation
  • Tavistock Institute
  • Warfare
I happen to believe that we can take some really useful ideas and techniques from all of these places, as long as we are careful to remain aware of the possible scientific flaws as well as the ethical issues.

NLP has evolved into a highly commercial and apparently superficial set of practices, but it has respectable antecedents in the systems world (via Bateson and his associates). Furthermore, the founders of NLP were far more aware of its scientific and ethical limitations, than their present-day followers appear to be. I happen to find most of the recent literature tediously monotonous, but I have found some fascinating ideas in some of the early books, including concepts like reframing.

Researchers at the Rand Corporation and at the Tavistock Institute made significant contributions to our understandings of complex sociotechnical systems. However, both organizations have been accused of ethically questionable activities, and are frequently mentioned in conspiracy theories. Even if these accusations were accurate (which I don't know), I can't see that this prevents us drawing on their work.

Finally the whole defence thing. On Twitter recently, @david_harvey complained (in reference to an article suggesting we can learn something about agility from the marines) that "someone else has "discovered" the military metaphor. There's a reason this stuff appeals to (male) execs!"

I agree with David that crude parallels are often tedious and unhelpful (as David says, there are books with titles like "The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan" and endless management books about Sun Tzu). but I don't agree with his implicit suggestion that we can't learn anything from the military unless we're covert militarists.

Surely there are always going to be military innovations that have peaceful civilian applications. The military has always experimented with both technology and organization, and much of the technology we have today might not have been possible without initial military funding. Just as a vegetarian may refuse to kill an animal to wear its skin, but may be happy to wear the skin of an animal that has died a natural death, so even the most fervent pacifist is not necessarily going against his principles by stealing ideas from the military. (Remember that Gandhi's most successful protest was formulated as a march.)

Don't miss an opportunity to steal ideas, even from people whose beliefs and values you don't share. I'm not endorsing NLP when I acknowledge that I've found one of its ideas useful; I'm not affiliating myself with Rand or Tavistock; and I'm not a secret militarist. I just appreciate good ideas.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Richard, thanks for the namecheck! For the record, my comment was not about rejecting ideas from the military or indeed other areas: I'll take good ideas where I find them, and we can certainly learn about agility from the marines. I'm just (1) amused at the regularity with which these ideas are "rediscovered" (as Don Reinersten commented, Warfighting was published 20 years ago); (2) noting that the military analogies seem to go down particularly well with a certain style of executive; and consequently (3) concerned that the identification with the military promotes a "business is war" metaphor which isn't the only - or even the best - way to look at businesses, organisations, markets.