Saturday, May 25, 2013

Proverbial Failures

Do it well, or not at all...
In the past, I have expressed my dislike for the use of proverbs (also known as idioms) as a tools for decision making in business. Don't take me wrong, I think that, when used timely, proverbs can break the tension of a difficult board meeting, for example. But in general, proverbs are of little value.
A problem with proverbs comes from their enhanced and undeserved credibility. Who could disagree when someone says do it well, or not at all? Out of thin air, this proverb lends credibility to the person saying it. Some how, it seems like he thought deeply and extensively about the problem at hand before uttering the proverb. Unfortunately no time was spend at all. Proverbs are quite shallow and very portable. Anyone can dish them out anywhere and at any time with out much effort.
photo image of a person on a suit from behind. the person is making a hand gesture indicating that it is uttering a lie.
So I'll ask again, who disagrees with do it well, or not at all? Well, another proverb does. The half a loaf is better than none proverb directly contradicts it. Both make assertions of comparative value. The first one assures that the question is binary in nature and that we must chose between all or nothing. It implies that anything in the middle is inferior to nothing. The second proverb, on the other hand, concludes that the middle is better that nothing. In isolation, both seem credible. Together, there is a clear contradiction.
Someone could make the argument that both are correct albeit during different occasions. But since these proverbs had no instructions on when to deployed them, the argument about time-relativity is inadequate.
In short, managers should never allow proverbs within the business environment. Their overvaslued nature will make them a distraction. People will listen to proverbs and waste valuable mental processing resources when catching one of these grenades.
There is plenty of evidence supporting the use of a two part methodology for solving complex problems. First, clearly identifying the problem; something that requires clearing the noise created by things like proverbs. Second, let the reptile brain do the heavy processing. To accomplish this, we start by understanding the problem, follow with consciously thinking about every contextual aspect of the problem and finish by "sleeping" on the problem. We don't actually have to sleep. We just walk away from the decision and let the subconscious process the data in the background. The limbic system of the brain has demonstrated to be much better at processing complex relationships that the neocortex (the part that separates us from other animals). This is why we get eureka moments when we least expect them. The limbic system had continued to work on a problem until it suddenly found a solution and made the rational part of the brain aware of the news.
I bet that, when you started reading this post on proverbs, you had no idea that we would end up describing the parts and function of the human brain. We went from a trivial topic to a dry and serious one. Be assured that this was by design. You see, allowing the use of proverbs within the business environment is, in my opinion, serious in nature; just as serious as brain anatomy.
illustration of the brain and its various functional sections
Reptilian Brain and Neocortex

PS: I will leave you with these two proverbs. See if you think that either is more right than the other.
  • You can't teach an old dog new tricks
  • It is never too late to learn

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