Meaning Guide

Whose line is it anyway? Observation and the art of management

I suspect Leonardo da Vinci would have made a truly awful management consultant. He took years to get anything done, was constantly distracted by new ideas, didn’t finish half the projects he started, and as a result left a string of disappointed clients across Italy. 

Here’s a slightly more obscure reason though: he didn’t like lines. 

“Lines are not part of any quantity of an object’s surface, nor are they part of the air which surrounds this surface … the line has in itself neither matter nor substance and may rather be called an imaginary idea than a real object; and this being its nature it occupies no space. ” 

And so he set about creating his unique ‘sfumato’ style of painting, where lines are absent, and edges are represented instead through shifts in colour. Management consultants, on the other hand, love lines. Go into a meeting room that a management consultant has just been in and look at the whiteboard: there will be lines everywhere.  

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The next time you look at a “core model” in a programme deck – a capability model, level 1 processes, strategy framework, programme chart, whatever – stop looking at the words and look at the lines instead. Where did they come from? Which workshop were they drawn in and by who? Who decided that this was the best way to divide up the world? 

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There’s a good chance it was a management consultant.  

I was thinking about this earlier in the year, when I happened to read an article about McKinsey & Company in the Economist, following the ousting of their global lead partner. The article opened: 

“One of the best explanations for the triumph of a ‘solution shop’ like McKinsey was co-written by the late Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School in 2013. When hiring a management-consulting firm, he said, clients do not know what they are getting in advance, because they are looking for knowledge that they themselves lack. They cannot measure the results, either, because outside factors, such as the quality of execution, influence the outcome of the consultant’s recommendations.” 

Notice that description: “They are looking for knowledge that they themselves lack”. What is it like to look for knowledge that you lack? Well, when you get to a certain level of management, the problems you have to deal with typically stop feeling like puzzles that you can figure out. In fact, most of the really knotty problems that float to the top of large organisations tend not to feel like discrete things at all. Russ Ackoff used to describe them as “messes” – situations where things clearly aren’t working, everyone knows they’re not, everyone has a theory as to why they’re not, but the theories are confused and contradictory, and investigating any one part of the situation makes you realise how complex and interconnected it all is. Messes do not have clear cut edges, there are no simple boxes and lines to follows. 

And yet, as a leader, it’s your job to deal with messes. The way ahead may look as blurry to you as it does to everyone else, but you’re the one who has to somehow fashion straight lines out of the blur, stand up and persuade people that you’ve made sense of it, and hope that they’ll follow you. So what do you do?  

Well, it turns out, lines are things that you can buy. They come in the form of “solutions” and, as the Economist article points out, you can buy them from “solution shops”. Of course, they can’t just be any old lines – they need to come from a credible source, and this credibility doesn’t come cheap. 

Not all lines are created equal 

Now, remember what Leonardo said: there’s actually no such thing as lines. Lines are models that we create out of the distinctions that seem important to us. The best place to see this in the drawings of young children, which always have the same “mistakes” – eyes at the top of heads, massive hands, trains with huge wheels and so on.  

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Why is this? It’s because these drawings give a record not of how the world is, but of what young minds care about. Children know from experience that when they look at a face the eyes are the most important part, because they show you how someone is feeling. Foreheads, on the other hand, tell you next to nothing. Which is why most people (not just children) omit the forehead altogether and draw eyes at the top of the head. 

We don’t criticise kids for this, it’s just that observing how things are is actually a skill that you have to learn. Leonardo, for example, also drew lines, but they were a rather better reflection of the way the world actually is: 

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Which lines are important to you? 

And now we get to the point. When you create a business model of any kind, the lines that you (or the consultant you have hired) draw are making a statement about the world – how it is, how you would like it to be, how you propose to get there. When you put words in separate boxes, the lines that divide them are making a claim that there is a meaningful distinction between the concepts. The problem is that when you actually go out and observe the world, there often isn’t, or if there is, the hardness and straightness of the line is obscuring a myriad of significant overlapping details. 

And this is really what I want to get at: drawing lines is easy. Observing is hard. Lines give a visual feel of definiteness, which is what people want when everything is blurry. But when everything is blurry, how do you know you have the right lines? 

For example, organisation design consultants and enterprise architects will draw clear boundary lines around capabilities, services, functions, products, processes and so on, and will give succinct definitions of what each of these concepts mean. It looks great on a Powerpoint slide, but then go and watch what people actually do, and listen to how they describe their work, and you’ll find that the lines are much blurrier: The diagram may say there’s a service management function providing service management capabilities and delivering a service management service, following service management processes and generating a service management product etc. etc. etc., but to someone who actually works in the service management team, they just manage services.  

If you spend your life in meetings and Powerpoint slides, the danger is that after a while the lines on the screen become your reality, making it much harder to see – let alone relate – to the distinctions that matter to the people who actually perform those activities. As evidence I would cite the large chunks of capability model and operating model and business model that seem to get mysteriously copy/pasted from one organisation to another, NDAs notwithstanding.  

Here’s another example. Have you ever noticed how often arrows on diagrams are unlabelled? Next time you look at a Powerpoint diagram, look away from the words, and ask yourself what exactly the arrows and lines between them mean. What patterns of experience does each correspond to? Is it causality? Sequence? Dependency? Classification? Movement? 

And if you’re a UML-type language user, feeling proud that these kinds of distinctions are defined in the specification (even though none of your stakeholders will recognise them – though that’s another point!), how do you judge which of the myriad lines in your model are significant in the real world? If you have four equally weighted lines going into a box, are they all equally important? And if so, important to whom and to what end? If some lines are thicker than others, what does that weighting mean? Are these lines more significant, more prominent, have more bandwidth? If the lines have different colours, does this signify a real-world distinction, or was someone just trying to brighten up the slide? 

And just to hammer the point home, if these models are supposed to accurately represent an observed reality – why does no one ever seem to ask these kinds of questions in the management meetings where they are displayed and reviewed? 

It’s the same brain 

It might feel like the comparison between lines in art and lines in business models is just an interesting analogy and nothing more. But it isn’t just an analogy. It’s the same brain processing visual stimuli, in the same way, in both cases. Edge detection is a basic function of your visual cortex, because edges give us the most information we need about what objects are and what we can do with them. Try to imagine a basic shape – a square, a hexagon, a circle – without its edge, and you realise it ceases to be a shape. Lines are our mental shortcut for edges – they don’t exist in the world, they are a model of what we believe is important about it. 

And that’s why this comparison with Leonardo is really interesting. For him the lines were the start of the process, not the end. His notebooks were supposed to be private – they were artefacts of an ongoing process of observation. Whereas in business, the lines are always the end point. Once the report is written and the diagram is created, it becomes a truth. The truth then informs the business case, which funds the programme, which delivers the change, and only once the project work begins is the distance between the diagram and reality discovered, because the diagram was never actually based on real observation

Observation-powered change 

What would a world be like in which organisational change was the result of ongoing, meticulous processes of observation? What would it be like to even see this as a kind of discipline in its own right? The quotation I opened with – about the absence of lines in the world – is not the sort of thing an average person would observe. But Leonardo was not an average person, he was an extraordinary observer.  

One of our regular practices at Visual Meaning is observational drawing sessions, which we conduct not so much for the practice of drawing as for the practice of observation. It’s a chance to observe how we are observing – to notice the ways our minds interject between our eyes and hands to make claims about how things “really are”. We believe this discipline, and our reflections on it, then carries over into the way we conduct meetings and interviews and workshops. We want to notice when we are being distracted by the lines that other people have drawn. We want to test our assumptions by actually observing what people do, not just accepting the job descriptions. We want to ask what it is in the world that the lines correspond to, and then check that the two line up. 

I thoroughly commend this to you as a practice. It has attractively low barriers to entry – you just need a piece of paper and a pencil. I also recognise it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and not everyone’s job centres around visual language. But I hope, whatever your discipline, that this little essay might act as a provocation, to ask yourself what your equivalent practices are?

What do you do to improve your ability to notice and validate your own assumptions? How do you spot the lines that you, or other people, are drawing just because you’ve always drawn them? How do you notice the implicit categories underlying what people are telling you? To what reality are you comparing the structure of your documents and presentations? How do you see past the schema the data is reported in? 

In other words, how do you observe your own observation? What is your equivalent of Leonardo’s notebook, and who gets to look at it? How do you test it? So that when you present your finished work, you can be comfortable that it corresponds to the shared reality of the people you are there to serve? 

1 comment

  • I remember being in a meeting where an academic was presenting a model and someone asked him what the arrows meant. He looked a bit non-plussed for a moment, then recovered himself and said ‘the diagramming is from the ‘Harvard Business Review school of diagramming – the arrows don’t mean anything specific…’
    And we can be easily be supercilious about that, but it does make me wonder is that looseness much different to Leonardo’s using soft edge rather than hard line depictions? they are both forms of fuzziness.

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