Shallow Thinking: Licking the Frosting Rather Than Tasting the Cake

October 6, 2004
In this issue:
1. Newsbriefs: Just Returned from Brazil
Looking for a Booking Agent
Join Us in San Francisco
2. October Editorial: Shallow Thinking: Licking the Frosting Rather Than Tasting the Cake
3. More Newsbriefs: Masters Degree for Organizational Leadership
Join Me in Wyoming
Successor Wanted for The Presidio Dialogues
4. Quote of the Month: Eric Hoffer, longshoreman-turned-philosopher
5. Next Month’s Editorial
Just Returned from Brazil

I returned from Brazil yesterday and had a great time; met some fabulous people, saw some old friends, tasted the Brazilian food, drink and culture while engaging in dialogue about all my favorite subjects; there were 800 people attending the Porto Alegre event at the Catholic University; I also met with the staff and executives of Parceiros Voluntarios, the host organization, the next day, accompanied by my delightful U.S. Consulate escort Cezar Borza; in Sao Paulo, I met with about 18 company Presidents with the World Business Academy Brazil, then a public meeting at the Willis Harman House, followed by a intimate meeting with the Brazilian Futures Group that evening. Great trip; great people; great time!
Looking for a Booking Agent

Anyone know a booking agent? I’m looking for a person to represent me as my agent for speaking engagements, domestically and internationally. This person can be located anywhere in the world. If you know someone, have them contact me or send me their email or phone information and I’ll contact them. You can refer them to my speaking page so they can become familiar with the kind of talks I give at Keynotes That Make You Think! or check out What people have said about John as a speaker. Call 415-437-6974 and leave a message.

Join Us in San Francisco

I’m going to be serving as a discussion leader for a couple of the sessions at “Positively M.A.D.” – the Conference on Making a Difference – in San Francisco, on Saturday, November 6; sponsored by Berrett-Koehler Publishers more than forty of B-K’s authors will be presenting or facilitating in four topic areas: Global and National Change, Personal Change, Reinventing Organizations, and New Leadership Skills; this event should be fantastic with authors like Peter Block, Michael Ray, Janelle Barlow, David Korten, Richard Leider, Debbe Kennedy and Jerry Mander to name a few.


Remember as a kid when you walked through the kitchen and your mother was icing a freshly baked cake? When she wasn’t looking, you might have swiped a finger though the new frosting and tasted it quickly before she noticed. While she would scold you and you might run away, it was a gleeful dance you both were used to, all in good fun. This is part of being a kid, a part of growing up.

A few years ago I heard a European colleague of mine use the term “shallow thinking” when he referred to how many Americans tend to emerge themselves into new subjects, particularly American business people. His observation coincided with my own perceptions after spending some time with colleagues from other parts of the world. It appeared that for many of us in the U.S., the gist of a new idea was all we took time for, especially when compared to how I saw people in Europe and Japan engaged new information. It seemed as if once we understood a kernel of the idea we moved on as if we actually knew it. To me, it seemed both pretentious and superficial.

I noticed that most of my European friends had a much deeper understanding of subjects like world affairs, systems dynamics, history, sustainable business practices, diversity and cooperation, international cultures, and many other late-comers to the business person’s curriculum. I was curious as to why this was.

Here are some of the six possible explanations I came up with:

  1. We’re too busy to get to know a subject well; we won’t spend the time or effort to know something in depth, the subtleties, textures and nuances that go with it;
  2. We’re too lazy to study anything in real depth, preferring to get just familiar enough with the subject so we can have a very short, and “seemingly-informed,” conversation about it;
  3. We can’t afford to spend too much time on learning this in any real depth because the next “idea du jour” is coming and we have to get somewhat facile with that one;
  4. We want instant gratification or ‘quick fixes’ and anything that requires study and deep inquiry takes too long and is too much work;
  5. We’re “form junkies;” as long as we know what it looks like, how to describe it, and whether or not it affects us immediately, we discount deeper understanding as meaningless;
  6. We find substantial or in-depth knowledge to be boring; we want ‘the most bang for our buck’ and the main ‘bang’ is the form of it; once we have that, we have our greatest payoff for the least investment (the 80-20 Rule).

In short, we are spoiled and seem to have gotten away with this so far. But what do we know? Is there any true knowledge there or is it all “books on tape” or fast food or façade or crib notes? This thinking seems incredibly shallow to me, developing a scent of a topic but having no real appreciation for the nuances, long-term effects, subtleties and aesthetics of a new idea.

One of my favorite examples of this shallow thinking is the quality movement of several decades ago. When international consultant W. Edwards Deming was trying to convince American companies to start paying more attention to quality and offered transformative approaches to achieving this, he was rebuked here at home. The abstractions and in-depth understanding for what he was offering wouldn’t satisfy that “quick fix” mentality Americans had come to insist upon. It was too deep.

In 1950, Deming found a market for his work in Japan, a culture that has greater appreciation for depth, substance, texture and nuance. After much work by all involved, and huge investments of time and transformative education, the Japanese started producing high quality products, changing their global reputation from the land of “cheap copies.” Deming helped create a revolution in quality and economic production in Japan and in, 1960, the Emperor decorated him with the Second Order Medal of the Sacred Treasure.

Twenty years later, feeling the impact of the new quality of products coming from Japan, American automaker Ford asked Deming to help them. The Total Quality Movement, also known as “TQM,” was underway and companies were rushing to get on the quality bandwagon. American executives visiting Japanese manufacturing plants saw workers talking amongst themselves in what came to be known as “quality circles” which was the most visible change in the new “Japan Inc.” manufacturing model. Subsequently, articles were published in U.S. management journals about this phenomenon, Deming became the “guru du jour” here in the states and Quality Circles started popping up all over. The President of the United States even awarded the National Medal of Technology to Deming in 1987.

But the transformative aspect to Deming’s work, that deeper understanding of context where profound change occurs, was never really appreciated or fully embraced in most American companies. His principle of “Profound Knowledge” is still being fostered by the W. Edwards Deming Institute® but the Deming Prize is still an Eastern hemisphere phenomenon.

Whether Americans avoid the deeper understanding out of their busy-ness, laziness or lack of attention spans, it is hard to argue with our financial success as a global leader in innovation and entrepreneurship. But it would seem that a deeper understanding of new ideas, ideas that offer fantastic learning, real wisdom and profound knowledge, would benefit everyone, despite the extra effort it may take. We’d be richer and more mature as people, as companies and as a culture in many ways beyond mere financial gain if we could learn at deeper levels. If more people were willing to engage the deeper levels of abstraction, the domains from which ideas were born, the domains where true transformation happens, our nation and the world could be so much richer and we could all be more intimate with “Profound Knowledge.”

It is like taking a lick of the cake’s frosting and getting a sample of only that part of the cake. We never get to experience the whole cake unless we take more time and savor the whole thing. We can talk about how good the frosting is but we never know what the whole cake tastes like. By taking only what gives us enough understanding to discuss something, we are simply taking a “lick,” ripping ourselves off from the full experience of deep learning, transformative change and profound meaning.

NEXT MONTH’S EDITORIAL: Allegiance versus Commitment: A Small Distinction that Makes a Big Difference

Masters Degree for Organizational Leadership

Registration is still open for the Masters of Arts in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) program which begins in mid-October; being offered by The Graduate Institute of Connecticut and accredited by the Board of Governors, Connecticut Department of Higher Education, I will be one of the faculty members for the class, lecturing on several occasions during the class year; in this class, leadership is treated as a transcendent practice so it ties in nicely with my Conscious Leadership work; check it out.

Join Me in Wyoming

I’m speaking at the SEE Your Future conference in Laramie, Wyoming on October 28th, sponsored by the University of Wyoming’s Small Business Development Center; the conference is open to the public.

Successor Wanted for The Presidio Dialogues

I’m looking for a successor to take my role for The Presidio Dialogues which I started in October 2000; TPD hosts public meetings each month in the Presidio in San Francisco, plus a couple a year at the University of San Francisco; I sent an email to the TPD mailing list last week and am waiting to see who’s interested in taking over the leadership.
“In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer, longshoreman-turned-philosopher (1902 – 1983)

About John Renesch

Better Future NEWS is prepared monthly by John Renesch, a San Francisco writer, business futurist, and mentor.
His latest book is Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing. For a list of all the SERVICES John offers, go to Services.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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