The Dangers of Categorical Thinking

‘Your mind is a categorization machine, busy all the time taking in voluminous amounts of messy data and then simplifying and structuring it so that you can make sense of the world.’    I stopped to think about this sentence in an article I was reading in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review – The Dangers of Categorical Thinking, by  Bart de Langhe and Philip Fernbach .

The reason I stopped on the sentence was because I’ve often thought that the categories and categorisation tools/models/frameworks we use in organisations and organisation design make nonsense of the world rather than sense of the world.   I started to list some of the one I’ve come to consider more nonsensical in the course of my working life:

  1. 9-box grids
  2. Myers Briggs (and several other similar inventories).
  3. McKinsey 7-S model  (and other organisational systems models, including the Galbraith Star Model )
  4. Various 4 x 4 matrices e.g. Boston Box, Eisenhower matrix,
  5. Competency models of various types.
  6. RACI charts that attempt to categorise who should be responsible, accountable, consulted with, or informed about something.
  7. Phase or step models of change, design, development e.g. Kurt Lewin’s unfreezing, changing and refreezing, appreciative inquiry, design thinking (emphasise, define, ideate, prototype, test)
  8. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
  9. Grading systems that often with learning/development. (‘You can’t take that training because it’s not for your grade’).
  10. Typologies

Thinking more about these, for most of the above methods of categorising stuff I’ve initially found them useful – they simplify things, but I’ve found there are too many instances when they don’t seem valid.  In using them and with more experience I’ve relegated them to the ‘nonsense’ pile, because organisational life is not simple.  Trying to categorise, say the ‘competence’ of someone or categorise aspects of  ‘style’ (McKinsey 7-S model),  imposes unhelpful, artificial boundaries that can hamper considered ‘design’.

As the HBR authors say, ‘For a categorization to have value, two things must be true: First, it must be valid. …  Second, it must be useful.’   They rightly say ‘In business we often create and rely on categories that are invalid, not useful, or both—and this can lead to major errors in decision making.’    Looking at my list above they’ve mostly reached the nonsense pile because I no longer see validity and/or use in them.

A FutureLearn course I’ve just started (Make Change Happen ) tells learners that ‘ we see the world through our personal experience and beliefs. And we make assumptions all the time based on those beliefs.’

The educators view is that, ‘we must recognise our own power, influence, attitudes, and behaviours.  We must have a good awareness of self. This includes an awareness of who we are, what drives our thinking, our power, prejudices, and values, and understanding what privileges we have or don’t have relative to others. It includes an awareness of the role our different identities, such as gender, race, class, age, disability, and sexuality have on our attitudes and behaviours and those of others. None of us are ever really objective. What we see and what we do is dependent on who we are, our background, personal experiences, social stereotypes, and cultural context.’

When we categorise stuff we are doing so from within the frame of those dependencies.   There’s delightful evidence of this in writings about ‘wunderkammern’ or cabinets of curiosities, that started to emerge in mid-sixteenth century Europe.  They were collections—combining specimens, diagrams, and illustrations from many disciplines and the way they were categorised was ‘a contradiction’ and a reflection of certain assumptions and cultures:

While wunderkammern marked an encyclopaedic and objective approach to nature, the wonder and curiosity that they inspired also preserved a sense of mysticism that mirrored religious beliefs. An excellent example of this contradiction lies in the collector’s treatment of an object such as a piece of coral. How should this curious thing be defined and categorized? Because few people were familiar with coral in its natural environment, they invented definitions based on their personal ideologies. Therefore, the question of how to define coral could be approached from a medical, superstitious, scientific, or purely aesthetic point of view. Some used coral as a treatment for anaemia; others kept it as a talisman against being struck down by lightning, or the evil eye; naturalists debated whether to classify it as mineral or animal; and finally, those with an eye for aesthetics simply arranged it based on its brilliant red hue. Clearly, there was no one correct way to execute a cabinet of curiosities; the personal level of choice involved in collecting was representative of the range in scientific and religious values at this time.’

Today’s categorisation of coral is also not clear-cut either:  we find that ‘Scientists generally divide coral reefs into four classes: fringing reefs, barrier reefs, atolls, and patch reefs’ also, ‘The three main types of coral reefs are fringing, barrier, and atoll.’ And in an interesting article on mapping coral, ‘Dead coral (DC) is listed as an additional category instead of being categorized as rock. ‘

Coral categories serve as an illustration of the dangers of categorising.  As the HBR authors say ‘Categories lead to a fixed worldview. They give us a sense that this is how things are, rather than how someone decided to organize the world. John Maynard Keynes articulated the point beautifully. “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas,” he wrote, “but in escaping from the old ones.”’

The HBR authors suggest categorising ‘can lead you to compress the members of a category, treating them as if they were more alike than they are; amplify differences between members of different categories; discriminate, favoring certain categories over others; and fossilize, treating the categorical structure you’ve imposed as if it were static.’  (I ask myself if these four dangers of categorising are, themselves, categories?)

They offer four ways of avoiding the dangers.  The most interesting of these is to ‘schedule regular “defossilization” meetings’; ‘holding regular events in ‘which you scrutinize your most basic beliefs about what is happening in your industry. Is your model of the customer landscape still relevant? Are customer needs and desires changing?’   This could work if we avoided categorising the people who should attend these events.   A random selection would (probably) work better than selected invitees – see Matthew Syed’s new book Rebel Ideas: the Power of Diverse Thinking on this.

The HBR article concludes: ‘Categories are how we make sense of the world and communicate our ideas to others. But we are such categorization machines that we often see categories where none exist. That warps our view of the world, and our decision making suffers. In the old days, businesses might have been able to get by despite these errors. But today, as the data revolution progresses, a key to success will be learning to mitigate the consequences of categorical thinking.’

What categorical thinking are organisation designers subject to?  How do we mitigate any negative consequences of this?  Let me know.

Image: Coral ID

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