Having often worked in the ‘creative’ end of organisations, I guess I’m excused for having spent part of the last weekend in the Institute of Contemporary Arts. If you’re not familiar with the venue, the last paragraph of an old BBC news item explains that “The ICA describes itself as ‘a public playground’ for presenting and experimenting with new and challenging art and forging innovative ways of thinking about culture.” (Scroll back up in that article for more on a colourful moment in its history involving its sometime ‘millionaire insurance tycoon’ Chairman, also covered at the time by The Guardian – which also commented on the role of leadership in the presentation of contemporary art to the broader public. We, meanwhile, regret no-one took the opportunity to explore leadership as a conceptual art, and apologise for everyone else’s language.)
Having once worked at the Arts Council (and I will spare you one erstwhile colleague’s expansion of the acronym ‘ICA’), I can cope with a little pretension. But in life as in art, I do tend to have to consciously lower my hackles when I’m faced with anything that I struggle to comprehend without needing to read someone else’s interpretation. (At which point, feel free to insert your own joke about ‘dancing about architecture’.) Which was why I was intrigued by one exhibition – Poor.Old.Tired.Horse (it’s free and runs till 23 August if you’re reading this in time: here’s The Independent’s review). The exhibition starts with the concrete poets of the 1950s and 60s and looks at how fine art has used language – good old fashioned text – as its raw material. I was fascinated on several grounds – as a calligrapher who’s tried pushing a craft into fine art territory, it’s interesting as art; as someone who edits, writes and presents text on paper and on screen, it’s refreshing to see different approaches.
As a mere human being – well, it was the weekend – I left musing on how even fragmented sets of words can communicate. And how they can fail to communicate. While an artist’s fragmentation and concatenation of words is intended to amuse or provoke – and I think we’ve all met a few ‘suburbandits’ in our time – it is intended to be responded to at the audience’s own pace in the quiet contemplation of a hushed gallery. Their ambiguity, their need for unfolding interpretation and their potential inscrutability are part of the audience’s potential pleasure – and the artist’s probable intention.
But I don’t work in art galleries any more, and you probably don’t either. Despite this, there’s a pretty high chance you’ve been on either the receiving or delivering end of some fairly fragmented, incomplete or ambiguous communication. You might have caught the mood, you may have comprehended – or conveyed – a passion or an urgency, but the meaning may have been less than certain. It had to be done now (sorry, make that ‘NOW!’), but what was it, and how?
Our urge to get things to happen can blindside us to our failings in how we go about requesting them. “Eggs, milk, season, stir” might cover it to you, but if your colleague hasn’t cooked before then mentioning the cooking technique would have helped. Mentioning which seasonings and what kind of pan would have been more specific. And perhaps you could have mentioned the oven? And when you wanted them? Or the need to shell the eggs?
Opting for “Beaten, stirred, quickly” gets a sense of real urgency into the request, but doesn’t even mention the eggs. Yet a surprising number of ‘briefings’ contain the kind of level of adjectives and adverbs that should carry some kind of dietary warning sticker, but this style of communicating requirements is widespread – if not necessarily actually popular.
As a developer of website specifications and copy, for example, my output can only be as good as the combination of my creative skills and my interpretation of the client’s requirements. I’m in their hands as much as they are in mine – and in terms of fulfilling their objectives for the project, arguable more so.
But the number of items I’ve been ‘briefed’ to make ‘sexy’, ‘compelling’ or ‘dynamic’ is quite shocking, especially given the objects in question. ‘Sexy’ is particularly worrying. Have you ever come across sexy uninterruptible power supply units? Or caravan parks? Or sexy cigarette carton manufacturing machinery? One spoken caveat – “We mean ‘sexy’ in the broadest sense, of course” – hindered rather than helped, and boggled more than it bettered. Unless we stop to check other people’s understanding of what we are expecting of them, can we be sure our crystal clarity isn’t actually not just ambiguous but borderline surreal?
Most objectives come with a degree of tolerance, and that degree can be narrow or wide. But if our objectives are going to be realised by those we are managing or leading, we do need to communicate them. There’s no point telling people to go to work on an egg (so to speak) if they don’t know the route. The familiar – dare we even say mature – SMART model (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound – or a number of variations on these) of objective setting still provides a handy self-checker, even if it’s time in the spotlight on the timeline of management has gone: as models go, it’s long past its “best before end” date. (If you’re hungry by now, and have a taste for both metaphors and an understanding of evolution of management thinking, A Management by Objectives History and Evolution will shed more light by way of cake baking and basketball.)
But I still think SMART has two things to remind us: if we’re not sufficiently specific, our objective can’t be measurable, achievable, relevant, or time-bound – or, for that matter, significant, meaningful, action-oriented, results-focused or trackable. And I know CSMART added ‘challenging’ as an additional dimension, but the challenge should surely lie in the execution of the request rather than the understanding of it?
So, an idea for noughties given the fashionability of the suffix: iSMART. Just remember ‘i’ doesn’t mean ‘individual’, or ‘interactive’ or ‘Internet’ – although ‘Google it and pray’ is probably an increasingly popular office tactic – but ‘intrepretable’. There’s no need to undermine esteem or initiative by spelling out every last detail – and you’d be surprised how contentious scrambling eggs can be – but assessing the ability of those you’re requesting things from and instructing them accordingly isn’t so hard, surely? And who wants to end up arguing about whose face the egg is now on?