In a world of choice, there’s a comfort in being offered options. Too much choice – like a badly designed software interface, or an enormous supermarket – can be stultifying as easily as it can be liberating. That’s one reason so many of us are drawn to numbered or bulleted lists: it shepherds life into manageable portions. It’s reductive of course – they don’t call it ‘whittling’ because anything gets bigger – but the scale of human activity long ago surpassed our ability to deal with all of it. So we narrow down the possible options to a shortlist. And, because we have a sense of humour, we call this ‘rationalisation’. Even when we apply to something as important as our futures.

There are lots of objections to this human tendency, mostly to do with lack of nuance. Those of us that work in English work with one of the most sophisticated and subtle tools humanity has devised, yet business communication usually urges us to strip back as far as possible. (If employers did that with our desktop software – greying out 75% of the options – we’d be upset, no?) Soundbites have their place and purpose, but they do encourage us to give into the temptation to be facile. (Oddly, we’re also implicitly rewarded for something that’s actually easy to do: most of us can quip. Just because the world’s our oyster, there’s no need to overcook it.) But there’s a more subtle argument about the ‘bullet list’ approach, for which we need to turn to a Canadian father and son.

Marshall McLuhan may be a familiar name to some: he popularised the concept of ‘the global village’ and the often misunderstood cliché that proclaims that ‘the medium is the message’.  His son, Eric, has continued his legacy, publishing a book called Electric Language: Understanding the Message that, 12 years on, reminds an intelligent and instructive read for anyone truly interested in communication and presentation. Now that we mostly have email, we write far more than we used to. But, if our novels are anything to go by, our sentences are getting shorter and shorter. The McLuhan’s have noticed something else too.

One-sentence paragraphs are all the rage.

As a consequence, they argue, the traditional one-sentence paragraph has lost its role of transition or dramatic impact. Ideas are no longer developed in paragraphs. And this has impact in more ways that one. In the words of Joe Phelan, an evolutionary biologist who teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles:

 I spend a lot of time identifying what works in lectures. It’s not about a content transfer from the teacher to the other person. The students have the information. It’s something else that gets conveyed in a good lecture. That gets lost when you use PowerPoint.”

Most organisations would, of course, protest strongly that the trend towards simplified lists of options – be they bulleted, numbered, lettered or laid out in matrices – is not intended to be lethal, even in the most metaphorical manner. And no doubt they have a point. But I’m thinking of two apparently irrelevant things. The first is the Wall Street Journal’s review of Atul Gawande’s “The Checklist Manifesto: How to get things right”, and specifically a section about the astonishing safe-landing of a commercial airliner on the Hudson River:

Dr. Gawande closes “The Checklist Manifesto” with the story of the crash landing on the Hudson River, in January 2009, of a US Airways plane that had lost its power in both engines. It was undoubtedly a good thing that every member of the crew had been drilled in various procedures. But the “miracle on the Hudson” happened because Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger focused on flying the plane, not a checklist on how to fly the plane. As William Langewiesche put it in his account of the incident, “Fly by Wire”: “There was no time for the ditching checklist. . . . Across a lifetime of flying, Sullenberger had developed an intimacy with these machines that is difficult to convey. He did not sit in airplanes so much as put them on. He flew them in a profoundly integrated way, as an expression of himself.”

The second is the drinks machine in Douglas Adam’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Engineered to within an inch of its metaphorical life (and not much further away when it came to the tastebuds of its user), no matter how carefully the user prescribed what they wanted it remorselessly served up something not just unsatisfactory, but vile. But we still have a faith in picking a winner from a list of options that has more place in the betting shop than the office.

A colleague recently commented that most organisations approaches to succession planning and talent management boil down (pun intended this time) to three options:

  • Nurture anyone worth retaining
  • Define and ring fence a talent pool
  • Identify a few ‘stars’ and nurture/develop/pamper them.

Obviously, developing staff is a cost. (But then, according to most organisations, so are staff anyway.) But each of these approaches has drawbacks as well as strengths. The first option is expensive and may dilute effort too widely to have an impact if costs are to be contained. The second implicitly assumes that previous performance determines future potential, and that by point ‘x’, anyone with potential has shown in; late developers or those whose talents have had no chance to surface are left a view of the exit door. And the third assumes even greater foresight in the ability to identify future winners, and offers no greater assurance that the stars won’t find a better heaven to shine in.

Like Adam’s Arthur Dent stood in front of the Sirius Cybernetics Nutrimat, the organisation more or less knows what it wants – to develop the next generation of leaders and managers who will ensure at least its survival, and hopefully ever-greater success. And like Arthur Dent, what winds up in the cup when it presses Button A, B or C could well be almost but not quite entirely unlike that. And they will, no doubt, blame – or even kick – the machine.

But for a fuller flavour, they might contemplate a blend of these options rather than a single brew. Talent is a not free-standing: it happens – and is demonstrated and developed – in context. High performers translated in the context of a new employer may deliver all it was assumed that might promise, but they might not: where they don’t, their new employer is unlikely, sadly, to consider the impact of the new environment on that ‘failure’.

Talent is rather a process: we develop through practice, through exposure to new ideas, to rises to challenges – especially so where we are supported by others while we do so. It’s not the learning in itself that delivers the difference, it’s the transfer and application. The rewards and recognition belong to those that deliver, not to those that are undeniably ‘talented’ but achieving little with it. But the responsibility doesn’t just rest with them: as the key factor in delivering performance, the line manager’s role is critical. Without both support and opportunities, talent cannot develop or be fully implemented. This requires the pressing of more than one button: if we are to have a real and meaningful ‘culture of talent’, it requires a real and meaningful talent for culture – and rather more besides.

And that’s a more complex, subtle – and satisfying – brew.

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