Monday, September 24, 2007

How to Draw a Fish

No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish.

Ezra Pound
ABC of Reading

If ... the artist finds himself constrained, by any consideration of expression, treatment or style, or by his deference to the peculiar nature and limitations of his tools and materials, to adopt or invent a convention or a symbol and to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand, then the particular problem dealt with in this book does not arise.

Oliver Senior
How to Draw Hands

I'm helping to coordinate a PhD course later this week. This post is an attempt to articulate my teaching points for the group work.

In the February issue of the Academy of Management Journal (v50, n1, 2007), Karl Weick makes an argument for "the generative properties of richness". He introduces his piece with the famous story of Agassiz and the fish, which you can read here in full. (The essential elements of the story can be found in Samuel Scudder's account, also available here.) In a nutshell, the zoologist and geologist would ask his students to describe a fish without the aid of (1) special equipment, (2) talking to anyone, (3) reading anything. They were to use only their hands and eyes and were encouraged to draw the fish in great detail. We might say that they were to engage in atheoretical description.

They were not to label the parts of the fish with their latin names, nor regurgitate accounts of their evolution and bodily functions from reference works. They were simply to look at the fish and describe what they saw and eventually to compare one fish with another. Moreover, as Scudder points out, "Agassiz's training in the method of observing facts in their orderly arrangement, was ever accompanied by the urgent exhortation not to be content with them." There was always more to be seen.

Lane Cooper's account (published in 1917) seems to have informed the poet Ezra Pound's statement (in the epigraph above). But it also jibes nicely with any artisan's attitude to his basic skills more generally. Thus, Oliver Senior has written a wonderful little manual about drawing hands (also quoted above). He describes the hand as "a familiar yet highly complex piece of physical mechanism" and correlates "the notorious difficulty of drawing hands" with "the mental equipment by which [the student's] vision may be directed, extended and refreshed."

The better draughtsman has more "on his mind" concerning his subject; and, by embodying his knowledge and understanding in each purposeful line or passage of his drawing, achieves with apparent—or even real—ease an expression of form, character, action—whatever may be his immediate object—that the novice, lacking such equipment and relying on vision alone, finds beyond his power.

This "better draughtsman" was of course what Agassiz also wanted to encourage his students to become.

Note Senior's emphasis on the improvement of one's vision. Learning how to draw a hand improves your ability to see hands as such. On this background, with that much more "on your mind", you are able to detect the significance of positions and gestures of the hand of your model, and can therefore incorporate the hand naturally and informatively in your drawing.

An organization or management context is also, of course, "a familiar yet complex mechanism"; and management theory, in whatever form you may be pursuing it, is "the mental equipment by which your vision may be directed, extended and refreshed." Management theory is what you "have on your mind" when looking at something. And it may be useful to describe simply what you see rather than the theory that informs your vision. What is your mental equipment doing for you? Are you equipped to think about modern organizations?

Indeed, Agassiz was apparently not wholly adverse to theorizing. "Facts are stupid things," Scudder recalls Agassiz saying, "until brought into connection with some general law." His aim was to ensure that his student grounded their general laws in observations of particular fact. He did not want them to develop the habit of replacing a concrete description with a symbolic label, "to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand," as Senior puts it.

The lesson is simple: we should not resort to generalities simply because we are unable to describe specifics. You should always treat a general statement as an implicit claim that you can provide a specific, detailed and well-drawn example. The exercises we will be doing during the PhD course are intended to train precisely this art of connecting an empirical specificity with a theoretical generalization. I want to see if we can't help each other to achieve "with apparent—or even real—ease..." an expression of the form, character, and action of whatever management phenomenon may be our "... immediate object."

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