Distinctions - the shadow side LO1083

John R. Snyder (jsnyder@bga.com)
Sat, 6 May 1995 03:09:29 -0600

The thread on distinctions highlights contradictory impulses within the
Organizational Learning "movement." On the one hand there is a impulse
toward holism, a valuing of things as organic unities. On the other hand
there is an impulse toward analysis -- even reductionism -- a desire to
create subtler and subtler distinctions that divide the lived world into
increasingly smaller units with clearly defined relationships.

As Chris Argyris has taught us, the problem with our personal distinctions
is that we experience them as true (Model I). They tend to become reified
and are taken to be "the way things really are." Even harder to see
through are the distinctions we inherit from "Mother Culture," to use
Quinn's phrase. Our language is sometimes wiser than we are. We speak of
"making distinctions" -- and then we promptly forget that WE MADE THEM.
When we take our distinctions to be more than provisional and pragmatic,
they become the Berlin walls of the mind, blocking us from other ways of
"worlding" lived experience -- and blocking us from understanding those
who "world" things differently than we.

In my view, the Western educated classes (and certainly I include myself
here) tend to greatly overvalue the ability to make distinctions. While
making a few strategic distinctions can create new possibilities for
understanding and action, the multiplying of distinctions obscures the
direction of thought and, somewhat paradoxically, creates imprecision in
action. It is the great error of the Sophists and the Philosophers (in
our time, especially the dominant British/American/Australian school of
"analytic philosophy," and, ironically, their worst enemies the
"deconstructionists.") Uncritical adulation of elegant distinction-making
falsely absolves us of the responsibility to test our distinctions in
action and to discard those that do not contribute to our survival and the
enrichment of our lives.

Success in practical matters (e.g., building learning organizations) will
go not to the one who can weave the densest and subtlest web of
distinctions, but to the one who knows "the right stuff" -- that
economical, precise, and illuminating set of concepts and skills that get
the job done. That is what we must seek. It is a great and pernicious
myth of modern intellectual culture, perpetuated by the cult of the
"expert," that *the more we know, the better we can act.* Rather, we
should say *the better we know, the better we can act.*

Occam's Razor, forged sharp enough to cut through that overgrown jungle of
distinctions known as Scholasticism, is still sharp. Developing the skill
and resolve to wield it is, IMHO, a necessary spiritual discipline for
anyone who wants to change organizations.

At least this is the kind of thinking that leads me to conjecture that
when we collectively figure out how to really build learning
organizations, our fieldbook will no longer be 593 pages thick.

John Snyder
Innovation On Demand
Round Rock, TX