Stone is a reductive practice. The mason removes material from a larger mass using hand and power tools — gouges, chisels, rasps, files, saws, grinders, sandpaper, polishing compound — until the desired form emerges. It takes much patience and persistence. The larger and heavier the material, the more equipment, and the greater the cost. If a mistake is made and a piece is removed by accident, then the entire work may need to be modified or discarded. The stakes are high. Mistakes are costly.
The stonemason sees a relationship between the way shadows play on one side of a rock and structures the rest of her vision around this emerging relationship; a CEO weighs market reactivity and customer pressure, then makes a far-reaching decision on shifting culture more aggressively toward more sustainable practices. As they work, neither the mason nor the CEO limits their judgment strictly to data or deductive reasoning.
The ongoing conflict between the structure objective thinking provides and openness subjective thinking enables has many facets. Organizations are pulled between strategies that focus on the exploitation of current skills and those that court the exploration of innovation.[i] In self-improvement circles, right-brain and left-brain fans offer conflicting advice on how to achieve well-being and life purpose. While business cares about what will make it most successful, it is often biased toward objective measures as the path to getting there. At the root of this debate lies the dispute of the very definition of intelligence. The mental processes business (and society) choose to value, educate, and reward tend to be objective in nature. We want to be first and be right. We want the job, the house, the title. Subjectivity tends to get sidelined. Embracing horizonal goals makes success hard to gauge.
After over twenty years in technology working to bridge the divide between these two modes of thinking, I have come to the conclusion that to perform with craft, committed practitioners in any realm must rely on both the ability to think both subjectively and objectively. Of the two modes, objective thinking is easier to define, as we all know how to apply data to enhance understanding. We observe speed limits, set meeting times, and pay our bills on a particular cadence. We measure businesses by accounting conventions that determine gross profit and net earnings. Understandably, risk-averse environments add constraints against subjectivity.
We are taught in the sciences (and sometimes even the Liberal Arts) that formulas, diagrams, and experiments are perfect expressions of objective, evidence-based thinking. We pursue problems driven by a measurable, single-answer approach to problem-solving. Formulas enable us to more predictably and reliably repeat our work. They communicate stability, allowing us to speak in precise terms and to share understanding. Methods, measures, and processes help define fairness, rationality and effectiveness. Measurement has such utility and power that it leads us to conflate measurable thinking with intelligence.
Subjective thinking embraces qualities like mood. We observe and sense it but it cannot be perfectly measured. All materials have a certain tone, texture, or flavor. When they come into contact with their environment, they change. We might see a group of people at an event, but the number doesn’t tell us much about their mood or richness of their connections. Additionally, different members of this group might pick up on different aspects, or they may experience the same aspects differently.
Subjective and objective thinking does not have to be at odds. So often these two ways of evaluating our world happily coexist. They are integrated whenever you deal with the problem at hand and a representative model; when you react to a situation with what you know while inviting the unknown; or when you draw upon experience to predict and then modify an action. These are examples when you are flexing your ability to think both objectively and subjectively at the moment.
Although few of us may serve in these specific roles, we take subjective qualities into account every day. Without the ability to subjectively assess, we could read street signs, but would not be able to operate a bike in frequent ebb and flow of traffic. We could celebrate an anniversary with a partner by noting the passage of time, but we would be insensitive to the unfolding stages of a relationship.
The connection between the need to utilize multiple intelligences has a long history, from John Dewey[ii] in the 1930s to and the latest work on emotional intelligence by Donald Schön, Dan Siegel, Daniel Goleman, Dan Kegan, and Lisa Lahey, and Paul Klein. Daniel Pink contributes to this debate in his recent book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, where he states:
..in a world where entire industries can disappear overnight, highly trained workers are made redundant by new technology and outsourcing, arts education isn’t merely a marginally helpful addition to the well-rounded curriculum. It’s an essential rung on the ladder that will lead American workers to full and meaningful employment in fields of the future— a level of preparation that American education does not currently provide.[iii]
Despite the many publications on this topic, the explicit development of abilities emphasizing subjective thinking rarely occurs outside the of certain functions or disciplines. Instead, objective thinking based on measurement and data is still the primary focus of most educational programs through programs like STEM and mandatory testing where public funding is tied to results. More subjective approaches tend to be overlooked, sometimes even avoided. The impact is that these methods are either dreaded or left to those who are willing to embrace more playful approaches or risky experimentation.
For the most part, this makes sense. Assessing is vague, hard to pin down, too subjective and not able to be easily generalized. It can be costlier. A manager’s increase in effectiveness in managing others cannot be directly attributed to training initiatives, for example. Subjective measures are unreliable and inconsistent. There are many variables to consider and it can be difficult to gain agreement on what to measure. Ask potters how they take clay and develop a feel for the material, or how they decide between a pit fire or the kiln to create a certain mood for their piece–you’ll get very different answers. See what a senior executive leading a major change effort has to say about employee engagement, or how an organizational coach gauges engagement or designs learning that motivates. They’ll say that it depends on the person, the group, the topic, and the context. What works for one does not always work for another when qualities are used to guide action. People will not necessarily get the exact same results in another context.
Less tangible qualities, such as personal connection and responsibility, are starting to have real value among people doing practical work where bottom line results were previously favored. My own research of craftsmen and leaders across disciplines indicates that when you dig a little deeper, the interplay of objective and subjective thinking transforms into a dynamic rhythm. The good news is that if you know how to manage this back and forth, you can turn it into a force that fuels action and progress for yourself and your organization.
[i] Gibson, C., & Birkinshaw, J. (2004). The antecedents, consequences, and mediating role of organizational ambidexterity. Academy of Management Journal, 47(2), 209–226.
[iii] Pink, D. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York, NY: Penguin.
This post is part of a series #LookToCraftsmen set for publication in 2019.