Dave Snowden

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7: The dangers of categorisation

The great dystopian novel  Brave New World foresees a future state in which humans are decanted into categories for a well ordered society.  Current literary criticism is starting to suggest that Huxley intended a Utopia but I leave that for the judgement of others.   The novel also includes some of the then progressive ideas of control through drugs, sleep learning and the like.

In one telling passage the pneumatic Lenina says:

Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly color. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.

Now that passage always reminds me of people after a Myers-Briggs assessment, they are using categories to define limits and allow their assignment like widgets in a manufacturing process. It’s no coincidence that the growth of psychometric techniques of this nature coincides with the growth of process models of the organisation and the excessive use of the manufacturing metaphor within organisations. Something I have already addressed in this series. Now Myer-Briggs has little academic credibility but provides the same utility as astrology. Anything which helps people describe things from different perspectives can have value if it is well administered and hocus-pocus of all types can be useful. There are a myriad of experiments that show that telling people they have (or have not) certain characteristics can modify their behaviour regardless of any innate quality.

The problem with categories is that things are made to fit within the boundaries, or anything on a boundary can easily be wrongly categorised. This means that threat and opportunity are too easily missed. We’ve seen similar errors in defining key customers, core business and the like. Creating simplistic categorising models is cool in stable fully know situations but in complexity or uncertainty environments it is dangerous. With people it means we can damage personal development, we can also miss completely capabilities that we didn’t know we needed at the time of the categorisation. The whole move to competences rather than capabilities with has dominated HR over the last few decades inherits a lot of these problems. Marketing is limited in a socially mobile society by categorisation and so on.

Now as it is the new year, I plan with each of six posts in this half of the series to talk about positive alternatives as much as to criticise. The alternative to crude categorisation is instead to think about clusters not categories. The picture shown to the right is a narrative landscape of attitudes to health and safety within an organisation from a recent SenseMaker® project. It shows a very strong pattern of attraction in the bottom right and looser or less tightly coupled clusters elsewhere. Within a tight cluster I have consistent behaviour so the tools and techniques of categorisation work. However when I approach the boundaries I need to be less prescriptive, more careful, more open to emergent and unexpected possibilities. The visualisation is simple, the source data complex and our ability to interact with it is very different. Even within a strong cluster we understand it my reading (or listening to) the fragmented narratives that have created the pattern in the first place.

Categories are static, clusters (in this sense of the world) are dynamic. Static models can give certainly and consistency but inappropriately applied they increase vulnerability and threat precisely because of the certainty they appear to offer. I’m now surprised to see the recent resurrection of old style boston matrices in strategy; a common response to uncertainty to try and gloss over it, pretend it does not exist. Reality requires a different approach, a willingness to ride the flows of uncertainty. But that is for tomorrow.

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