Depth of Meaning

I’m at a leadership conference for my company this week. This is the third consecutive year of this effort to refresh the tactics and energy of our leaders in the second half of the year. It started three years ago as a desperate attempt to salvage the year’s numbers by rallying leaders to brainstorm short cuts to the processes in order to make getting deals over the line easier. Over the time since, the event has become a pep rally, of sorts. Lots of presentations on the various parts of the business and highlighting wins and extraordinary efforts. In short, it’s an expensive caucus of expensive resources to strategize making our revenue targets.

We’re here, ostensibly, to get important information about our corporate strategies and to focus our various efforts to support those missions. But because it happens in the middle of the year, immediately ahead of the busiest and most challenging part of the year, over a few over-scheduled days, I have a relatively low opinion of the value and effectiveness of the event.

This is exacerbated by the proliferation of glib, attenuated analogies, metaphors, and parables that seem to be proffered by every speaker. It’s as if these over-simplified stories and the moral they project, the folk wisdom they preach, are intended to substitute for the specific, detailed, practical information, tactics and tools necessary to achieving the stated goals.

Our COO kicked this off in his opening remarks with a long, rambling account of the Amundsen Polar Expedition in the early part of the 20th century. He covered the epic achievement of this expedition, highlighting how Amundsen was able to mount the campaign, fund it (by tricks and deception and audacity), take it to the field, reach the pole and return with his entire team in tact. Contrast that with the other team who all died on the way back after reaching the pole second.

Let me say first that I absolutely recognize the lessons that can be distilled from epic stories, huge achievements, sagas of Herculean efforts. There are many important reasons that we remember these stories hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years afterward. One of those reasons is that the story of overcoming hurdles bear lessons that we can apply to more mundane (by comparison) challenges.

Let me also acknowledge that there are practical and important limits to the analogies we draw between these epic sagas and the everyday challenges of only tangential similarity. When the connection between the story and the present-day situation becomes attenuated, the message fidelity fails. For example, in the arctic expedition story, the Nationality of the leader was used to explain the choice of tools (dog sleds, skis) for the successful mission versus those (ponies, dog sleds, mechanized sledges, and men on foot) for the unsuccessful one. To these “cultural differences” was attributed the difference between literal life and death. This dire lesson (don’t let cultural bias cause your team to perish on an ice shelf) was then equated to helping sales teams overcome obstacles to selling software.

I have real difficulty seeing a meaningful connection in this case. Because the pop wisdom of “if it worked for [X Folk Hero] to achieve [Y Epic Win], then it will certainly work for us in this non-epic business goal” is not wisdom at all. The lack of depth in this reasoning robs these equivalencies of all meaning, in my opinion.

Maybe I’m just being too critical. Maybe I’m too far gone in motivation to be excited by the easy platitudes found in this re-hashing of morality tales and business-speak buzzwords. But I crave depth and detail and substance. They are the difference between talking about it (whatever it is) and achieving it.

1 comment so far

  1. Widdershins on

    Yaaaaaay! … comments working again! D


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