Things to note the next time you go on training or listen to a management thinker…

An old dog at a conference

I once watched an experienced executive talk about his division’s strategy and reflect on its execution at an industry conference. I was familiar with the executive and the topic that was being discussed. Something bugged me about the presentation. It was an inside-view; only someone inside the company would fully understand what he was talking about. For example, he talked about “Agile Development” as if companies operating in different contexts (size, industry, etc.) implement agile the same way. The presentation had a superficial feel to it.

I asked myself: what are people listening to this presentation getting out of this? How much of the information conveyed is useful for their respective contexts?

Transferrable learning

I’ve been mentoring someone who’s just started their career. A question that inevitably comes up is “how long should I stay in this job or with this company?” A simple response is: “As long as you’re learning!”.

Learning what though?

Not everything you learn at a company is transferrable to other contexts. Think about the IT system that only this company uses. You can transfer some of what you learned from using that system (maybe related to a generic process, e.g. purchasing), but in the main, a significant part of the investment in learning you make at a specific company is “sunk” and you cannot benefit from it in other contexts (think of all the acronyms that your company uses.)

So if you implemented “Agile” at a company then only part of learning from that experience is transferrable to other contexts and the more different the context (size, structure, IT systems, etc.) the less transferable the learning becomes.

That isn’t what you write on your resume though, is it? It is also unlikely that you’d admit that when presenting on Agile at a conference.

Unpacking suitcases

Marvin Minsky coined the term “suitcase words” that referred to words that have multiple meanings packed into them. For example, the term Artificial Intelligence when unpacked can point to things like machine learning, robotics, machine sensing, and natural language processing. There might be multiple reasons for the proliferation of suitcase words including the need to market concepts by business schools and management consultants who use them to promote their services.

A lot of management thinking and corporate-speak is done in suitcase words (think of words such as Agile, Strategy, UX, Transformation, Change Management, etc.) However, these words only mean something concrete when unpacked and are discussed in a specific context (i.e. how do you implement the discipline of your UX at your company? What tools do you use? What challenges do you face?).

You need a common language to facilitate learning across domains / between people. But the actual terms used need to be well defined (as does the context). Otherwise, we’ll all hear what we want to hear.

Next time you go on training…

It strikes that when you are attending a knowledge-sharing event (conference, webinar, training, etc.) in a management context, one of two things is happening:

  • Either the information shared is focused on transferable knowledge and a lot of the burden of figuring out how to adapt it to a specific context is left to the attendee (To their credit here — the presenter worked to distill the transferable knowledge).
  • Or the information is shared using “suit-case” words and concepts and then basically a lot of the information is open to interpretation and therefore has limited value.

Keep that in mind the next time you are at a management or industry event and let me know what you think

Un-strategic thinking

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Sari O Alghoul

Sari O Alghoul

Un-strategic thinking

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