The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the quantity group: fifty pound of pots rated an A, forty pounds a B, and so on. Those being graded on quality, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one – to get an A. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the quantity group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the quality group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
Following the train of comments in the various blogs, this has been a very inspirational story. Perhaps in part because it challenges a commonly held but often oppressive idea: that we need to analyse before doing. Actually, in complex systems (and being human is complex) it’s vital to try stuff before analysing. (see my entry on Dave Snowden)(Or more subtly, it is a mistake to separate the doing from the analysing).
This also resonates with the fabulous book I’m reading at the moment, Changing Conversations in Organisations by Patricia Shaw. This is such a fantastic book I can’t do it justice here, but essentially Shaw discusses
(moving from a) thought-before-action, design-before-implementation, systematic, instrumental logic of organizing, towards a paradoxical kind of logic in which we see ourselves as participatingin the self-organizing emergence of meaningful activity from within our disorderly open-ended responsiveness to one another
Shaw is talking about how we talk to each other, the story is about making pots; they’re both about recognising that it is misleading to think we can entirely separate thinking from doing – an insight that may trouble a great many management thinkers. Anyone who loves Improv work (eg me!) wouldn’t bat an eye though.