Towards Addressing the “This is too academic” Complaint

Just back from a conference in DC on trying to come to grips with an apparent world order in which there is no war, but yet no real peace either, and the jet lag has me up and playing with a couple of different posts.  So here’s the first.

The conference itself was interesting, and the subject matter was broad and high level, which is something I dig.  Yet it was on this point – the nature of the conversation – that several individuals commented on, some of whom attended the conference and some who did not.  The most common issue cited was that while the conference was always seen as interesting, that it was in fact too academic with no obvious application or useful impact for anyone trying to take informed actions in the present (and by clear implication, this includes a great many people).

NonActionTrinityUpon reflection, the common criticism that some discussion is too “academic” or “intellectual” to be useful for busy, overloaded decision-makers can really be understand as arising from one of three distinct issues, each of which I think deserve its own response or remedy.  In some cases, commenters are really saying that a discussion is simply too conceptual, that it’s rather abstract and divorced from obvious action or application.  In other cases, they are really saying that something is too “big picture” (what I would normally call, strategic) to be useful.  In still other cases, they are saying that the discussion is focused on too far of a long-term horizon to be obviously useful for their immediate concerns.  Taken together, these form what I’ll call for the moment, the trinity of not-action (figure 1).

In each of these three cases, we can create a spectrum with the critique on one end (e.g. something is too big picture) and the logical opposite on the other end of the spectrum.  The logical spectra here would be Conceptual-Concrete, Strategic-Tactical, and Long-Term-Immediate (figure 2).  Why is this useful?  Because it points the way toward how those of us attempting to deliver conceptual, strategic, or long-term insights can bridge the perceived value gap between what we think is important to look at and what decision makers often feel is more urgent or relevant.

NonActionSpectraFor analytic and “intellectual” types, there is often an assumption that understanding context, whether that be a larger or a longer view of the issue, is key to making good decisions. At the same time, decision makers, operating under information overload and with a variety of urgent fires to put out, often value (prefer) advice that conveys immediate and obvious applicability to decisions they feel they have to make now.  What us more analytic types probably fail to do more often than we’d like to admit, is to make the connections between the bigger and more abstract “context” with the immediate decisions with which clients and bosses are struggling.  How contexts and concepts should shape decisions is not always obvious, and part of our role is to help bridge that perceived value gap.

To begin moving towards a framework (can’t help being who I am!) to help bridge these gaps, I would offer the following first thoughts on how to bridge those gaps:

  • When the critique is that something is too conceptual, the response should be to provide the rules or even heuristics that allow concepts to actually shape actions.  The key question is, “how should this concept affect decision making?”  This is about reframing a decision maker’s thinking.  Think about the If-Then rules, or the When-This-Happens-Do-That guidance that conceptual understanding often implies but frequently fails to get codified.
  • When the critique is that something is too big picture or strategic, then the response should be to clearly establish the structural and causal relationships that actually connect the strategic and tactical levels.  Make those links explicit so that decision makers are better informed about how tactical actions will be impacted by, or in turn will impact, the bigger picture.
  • When the critique is that something is too long-term, the response should be to clearly identify the various potential downstream implications and positioning consequences of actions taken in the present. Make clear for decision makers how actions taken to maximize short-term priorities will interact with long-term goals, uncertainties, and alternative futures.

This is just a first pass at addressing this perceived value gap, but hopefully it will provide inspiration for how to anticipate and how to address criticisms that discussions are interesting but have limited relevance for the present.


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