Buckets and boxes: “It’s hard to define” and that’s okay

We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to put ourselves in buckets and boxes.

“X” seems to have become a required answer for organisations and individuals alike: “X” being a single word label or pithy statement that captures the area, breadth and nuance of what you do.

Which is why it was so refreshing to hear a talk by Charles Leadbeater for the School of Life where he opened with “what I do is quite hard to define…”

Why is that not OK? Why do we need the label or the box? Successful organisations are clear about who they are and what they do and rarely rely on boxes and labels. I say rarely because sometimes boxes and labels do work (there are, after all, no “rules” for this stuff).

My friend @tomd responded to my missive on this topic with the following (after first noting that boxes and labels are useful for moving – good point): “sometimes taxonomies are pretty helpful for synthesising understanding and designing processes.”

And he makes a good point. Except when they don’t, because all those boxes and labels come with attached framing that allows people to short circuit to their definition of what you mean. And that might be worlds away from what you do actually mean.

How to know if a box is working for you? If how you describe what you do as “we do ‘X’ BUT…” then it might be time to take another look at things.

Take the word I try and avoid like the plague for exactly that reason – “brand”.

The minute you say that word a whole minefield of things jumps up and gets in the way of the conversation: marketing, communications, logos, design and advertising, the last failed campaign they did, the price tag, etc. Like stone monoliths that have to be blasted out of the way before the useful conversation about what you mean can take place.

Now before everyone gets all huffy about the value of being able to explain what you do so others can decide if they need it. I agree. That is really valuable and necessary. It’s just not often accomplished via a box (or label). Boxes make things easier for us to categorise. They also make them easier to dismiss, ignore and make assumptions about.

So for now I think I’ll stick with Charles’ version, “what I do is kind of hard to define.”

See you next week.

Michel is an independent adviser and advocate dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. She also publishes a blog at michelhogan.com. You can follow Michel on Twitter @michelhogan.

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