Naming Gone Wrong

The best intentions of mice and men . . .

Naming is a critical task, but also a delicate one. It is easy to lose focus and be seduced by the promise of a quick fix or immediate progress. Unfortunately the consequence is often much less.

Because of our action-oriented business culture, many people start out by speculating on the solution. Often the first discussion of a problem is a debate about potential solutions, not a real discussion of what is going on.

The least common strategy — and potentially the most valuable — is applying some abstract model to the situation to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

False Focus

When we think of what might be linked to a specific symptom, the answer is often endless. Historical background. Personalities. Important contextual variables. Beliefs. Expectations. Market dynamics. Community politics. Fantasies. Even what didn't happen. We usually get overwhelmed before we even get up to half speed. It is no wonder that we often fall back on some common but unfortunate attempts to narrow the field:

  • We only look at elements within a functional category (Let's just look at the Marketing part of the situation first).
  • We only focus on the financials (Can't go wrong if we reduce costs and increase income.)
  • We only consider events for which we have a readily available solution (Isn't there a training program that would take care of this? Or We just spent $1M on our TQM training program; let's put those people on this problem).
  • We only look at the events which are politically correct, personally favorable, or acceptable to the CEO (There's no sense in talking about the "glass ceiling"; he won't hear of it).
  • We only look at symptoms we can address quickly (We need to solve this by quarter's end, so let's not go after world hunger).

These common approaches are so engrained in American business that to argue against them could risk being viewed as irrelevant or incompetent. Yet their impact is to prematurely narrow our focus, or just optimize one part of a larger, more complex system.

In the worst case, our attempts to solve the problem become part of the problem. That is, they reinforce the very segmentation of a complex problem that has led people to short-sighted, localized efforts that only exascerbate the larger problem. For example, attempting to improve sagging morale by getting HR to conduct a survey and set up focus groups may only serve to separate the symptom from the real cause, which could be concern over a weak vision in the face of a turbulent market. If employees see the problem being handed over to HR, it seems like it only worsens the problem.