The Road Less Traveled

July 10, 2008

By Corina Wong

The Scientific Revolution emerged around the 16th and 17th centuries, and was in part a response to the arbitrary and repressive control held by the Church. The period was commonly regarded as the origin of modern science, and intellectuals like Newton, Copernicus and Galileo questioned everything they saw and introduced the notion of Reason as the ultimate form of understanding. This forever changed the way humans viewed the world.

However, Tony Golsby-Smith’s article “The Second Road of Thought” argues that this dominant, rational way of thinking was guided by Aristotle’s ‘analytics’, and “ranks as one of the worst investment decisions our civilization has made.” Golsby-Smith, an Australian-based designer and strategic facilitator, believes that our thinking processes are greatly influenced by the culture of the sciences. As a society, we place too much emphasis on logic and analysis. For instance, even in universities (the “home of thinking”, as he describes it) subjects must be presented as a science in order to be taken seriously.

The fact that Aristotle presented two systems of thought is often overlooked, and thus we have allowed just one of them to characterize our whole idea of ‘thinking’. Aristotle limited the usage of his analytics method to a specific domain of truth, which was “where things cannot be other than they are.” In this domain, it makes sense to apply logical analysis because you are dealing with things that are constant and unchanging. However, logic alone cannot be used for everything, because not everything in life is immutable.

Thus, a second domain also exists: the domain “where things can be other than they are.” This refers to the whole domain of human decision-making, where people have the ability to design their own alternative futures. The type of thinking Aristotle believed was best for dealing with things in this second domain was ‘rhetoric’ or ‘dialectic’. This called for lively debate, and involved invention, judgment and decision.

Many businesses apply a highly analytical approach to strategizing. This is because the “logic road” is appealing in that it seems to offer control and certainty of outcomes. However, this greatly hinders an organization’s creative strategic process. As Golsby-Smith explains, “the strategy process is one of the weakest processes in most organizations. They are far better equipped with the tools for operational management and ‘defending the status quo’ than they are for inventing and shaping new futures…” According to Golsby-Smith, the key to progressive, innovative strategies lies in “design thinking”.  This is superior to the analytical approach because “we cannot analyze our way one inch into the future, for the simple reason that the future does not exist yet, so it is not there to analyze.”

So, the way to progress forward is to make compelling arguments. Golsby-Smith lists three key elements in the art of argumentation. The first is Agency (or Corporate Intent). People must feel as if their contributions are valuable. They must feel that they have the ability to be agents of change. In this way, strategy will be seen “as much a matter of the will as the intellect.”

The second element is Possibility (or Invention). Successful strategizing sessions do not come out of documents and analyses; they are borne from invention. And invention calls for new ways to look at fixed ideas and viewpoints. The best parts should be determined and then combined with new ideas to create something better. This needs to be done through conversation and debate.

The third element is Persuasion (or Community of Action). In Aristotle’s second domain, persuasion is the goal (in the first domain, proof is). This creates a search for a ‘compelling’ strategy rather than merely a ‘right’ strategy. And because it is compelling, it will inspire action. And as Golsby-Smith writes, “Nothing is stronger than a persuaded community: they will create alternative worlds.”

That is not to say that we should skip over the logic road. Combining the two thinking systems will create a better end result. Customers are what keeps companies in business, so it is important to first define who the target market is and then ask, “What do they really want”? We’ve swung so far into the logic end of the spectrum that innovation falls short; we tend to want to create things that make sense to us, are easy and thus safe. What is really needed is structured creativity. When the end goal is purposefully driven, more effective and useful services and products will result.