Friday, October 16, 2009

Talk Your Walk

I know the title of today's blog seems backwards, but that's the point I want to make. It is not at all unusual to find situations where a person says one thing and does another. In Action Science, that is called a gap between a person's stated beliefs and their theories in use. In common practice we say that someone isn't "walking the talk" with the implication that the problem is in the walk.

Sometimes that's true, but often the reverse could be true, we're walking a particular walk because it works for us and it is the talk that is out of place. Action Science recognizes that and spends as much energy trying to align the message with the reality as it does on adjusting the practice to the preaching.

For example, if you ask writers how to write, they often say, "I start by making an outline." I taught technical writing and I often said "I start by making an outline." Most writers don't actually do that and if you corner them they will say things like, "I really should but..." Maybe, but the alternative is to just quit saying "I start by making an outline." In my case, for instance, I often just start writing. That's my way of exploring the content space. My friend and mentor, Carol Barnum, often says "Writing is thinking." So I start by writing, which gets me thinking about content, theme, and sequence. Interestingly, when I'm about a third of the way into an article, I turn on Outline view in Word and view only headings 1, 2, and 3. It lets me see where the flow is wrong or the appropriate ideas are not getting grouped.

I'm not saying that's the right way to write, but I have been successful with it so I need to quit telling people "I start by making an outline." I need to say, "I just dive in initially as a way of dumping what I already know and getting a feel for the content."

We confuse people when there is a disconnect between our stated beliefs and our theories in use. When managers say they demand teamwork but evaluate employees based on individual accomplishments, they do a disservice to the person who puts the team's overall needs ahead of his or her specific goals. That person gets punished for believing what the boss said and acting on it. The same applies to spouses, kids, friends, and all.

But don't be so quick to blame the disconnect on your behavior--It could be you are reciting scripts that describe what you think you should do. Actions speak loudly, and we are getting something that works for us from our behaviors or else we would have abandoned them (compulsive behavior aside).

So there is absolutely nothing wrong with the following talk:
  • I start writing by just letting the firing of every synapse go to my fingers and then I organize and clean it up later.
  • Although I value teamwork, I will evaluate each employee on his or her individual achievements first. It's my job as manager to make sure that your individual goals add up to a team achievement.
  • We are not all equal here, I am more mindful of engineers' time than writers' time. That's just the reality of it.
  • I'm going to ask if these jeans look good on me because I'm feeling fat, but I'm just fishing for some positive stroking.
It's kind of like using turn signals when you drive. It's easier for others to avoid hitting you if you share where you're going.


Margaret said...


It's good to look at rules and the "everybody know that..." cliches from another angle once in a while. Disconnects between what is said and done always causes something -- disquiet, distrust, friction, or frustration.

I, too, was always taught to start with an outline, but it is nice to know that there are other writers who just jump in and start writing to get what you know on paper, and then pause to look at the outline and structure, assessing the organization, flow, and content holes you still have to fill later.

I love your insights.

Michael Hughes said...

Thanks, Margaret,for the many insights you add in your comments.