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Boiling Cabbage – the pitfalls of being overly reductionist

Imagine you go to a party. You spend the evening chatting with old friends and meeting new friends. You eat, drink and dance. You exchange stories about work, family, holidays, hopes, dreams, dramas and gossip. You get to explore the host’s house and garden, see pictures on the wall of his family and friends. You learn he has two dogs who love to be at the heart of the action. You get into a playful yet heated debate about who is the best Bond actor. You spend a little time playing games with other guests, a little time in the kitchen chatting with others, laughing, smiling and allowing yourself to let your hair down a little more than usual. You feel warm, relaxed, alive and happy. You are sad when at 1.40am the host turns off the music to indicate that the party has come to an end. “But before you go” he announces, “get into groups around a flip chart and brainstorm for 10 minutes what your key takeaways from this party are.” Seemingly from nowhere, three or four facilitators appear, shuffling flip charts into the corners of the living room and the kitchen. “So, who wants to start?” they ask. After a short silence a lady, who you had a great time earlier talking to about holidays in Cornwall, says “Well, what I really loved was just having time to forget the troubles of my work and meet some really interesting people and hear about their lives.”Great” the facilitator says and writes INTERESTING PEOPLE on the big white sheet. “I haven’t danced and laughed as much in years” says a man in his mid 50s “I feel 20 years younger! Thanks everyone.” The group laughs. The facilitator writes up DANCING. After 10 minutes the flip chart contains a big list of 20 or so bullet points and as you look around the room you see that the other groups have created a similar list.

OK – 5 minutes feedback” says the host “not everything just the key points”. One by one, seemingly forgetting the hosts appeal for brevity, each group of party guests reads the list verbatim from the flip chart. That feeling of aliveness you had ten minutes earlier is starting to fade into tiredness.

Brilliant” the host summaries, “there is soooo much good stuff here so we’re going to theme it and come up with the overall top 3 things.” You are instructed that you have three votes for what you think were the most important points so you go around the room making a little black mark against the bullets that most closely match your experience of the party.

The facilitators descend on the charts and after a frenzied huddle the host walks up to the flip chart and proudly announces “Thank you everybody. We’ve counted the votes and the top 3 take aways from this party are: INTERESTING PEOPLE, GOOD FOOD AND DRINK and GOOD MUSIC. Thank you all – this is really helpful data in helping me plan the next party. I will type all of this up and send it to you.” It is now 2.05am. You bid the host farewell and head off into the cold night looking forward to a warm bed.

This is a fantasy – at least I hope it is! However, the fantasy is a helpful one to illustrate how inappropriately applying some of our reductionist, problem solving tools and techniques to make sense of improvised human processes (such as a party or an organisational culture), is a pointless exercise. More accurately, it is an exercise that misses the point that the richness of our lived experience cannot be turned into some handy bullet points.

Even though I’ve never been to a positivist party like the one in my fantasy, I’ve attended many business workshops or meetings where a similar process has been employed to try and distill down rich conversations into some neat labels. I was a participant in a corporate World Café event a couple of years back that was looking to help make sense of their organisational culture. The World Café process is a way of really amplifying the conversational, improvised and social nature of our interactions. Delegates were posed some simple, open questions and then engaged in very lively and engaging debate, scribbling insights, questions, doodles and diagrams on the café tablecloths. After each question, the group rotated to a different table and repeated the process. By the end of the 2 hours the tablecloths were a rich tapestry of colour, ideas, questions and insights and the participants were buzzing with positive intent and emotions. I had a big smile on my face as I felt I’d participated in a masterfully facilitated social intervention. However, the lead facilitator then asked the group to look at the table cloths and come up with the top 5 themes. These were fed back and the facilitator ‘affinitised’ these themes into an overall top 5 list – a list that most of us could have predicted at the start of the event. This list was the only artifact of the intervention that was given any further attention beyond the event and so the richness of the conversation, the differences of opinions, the hopes, the emotions, the energy and the spontaneous nature of the interaction was lost forever.

Now, problem solving tools are great, for solving problems. Lean and six sigma are fantastic philosophies for reducing waste and variability in a way that is totally customer focused. Root causing is a brilliant way of resolving recurring problems with machines, processes or procedures. But, as I find myself telling others regularly, I don’t believe these tools work so well on anything that has a soul!!

To put it another way, it seems to me that the over-application of reductionist tools to help us make sense of ‘change’ or ‘culture’ is a bit like boiling cabbage! One might boil cabbage to make it softer, more palatable, more tasteful and easier to convince others to eat! However, the very process of boiling it causes the cabbage to lose it richness, the vitamins, the majority of the goodness. We eat the cabbage and walk away but all the really good stuff is left in the water we pour down the sink. The facilitators of the World Café event did this – walking away with some interesting facts and data that had been drained of their emotion, meaning and intent.

Sometimes we might need to ‘boil cabbage’, sometimes we might not.  I offer this metaphor simply as an appeal to stay awake to the implications of the choices we make as consultants, leaders and human beings in doing this work and whether our need for control and order leads to a habit of being rather too quick to reduce stuff down to a handy label.

Footnote: I am not an expert in cabbage. The nutritional values of, the preparation of nor do I know any good cabbage recipes!
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