Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807–73) was a Swiss-born American zoologist and geologist who taught at Harvard.
Imagine that you went to Louis Agassiz’s laboratory at Harvard as a student. Agassiz would place a small tin pan in front of you with a small fish and utter the stern requirement that you “should study it, but should on no account talk to any one concerning it, nor read anything related to fishes” (Cooper, 1987: 79) nor use any artificial aids like a magnifying glass until he gave you permission to do so. It would be one of your first lessons in decision making.
As one student said, “To my inquiry ‘What shall I do?’ he said in effect “Find out what you can without damaging the specimen; when I think you have done the work, I will question you” (Cooper, 1987: 82). Students kept telling Agassiz what they had found and Agassiz kept saying “That is not right.”
This went on, typically, for 100 or more hours with the same now “loathsome” fish. Agassiz would keep asking “What is it like?,” “Do you see it yet?” and saying “You have not looked carefully” and “You have 2 eyes, 2 hands, and 1 fish” (Cooper, 1987: 81).
Gradually, things would begin to change. One student replied to the professor’s query as to whether he had seen one of the most conspicuous features of the fish, the symmetrical sides with paired organs, “No I have not seen it yet, but I see how little I saw before.” Agassiz replied, “That is next best . . . now put away your fish, go home; perhaps you will be ready with a better answer in the morning. I will examine you before you look at the fish” (Cooper, 1987: 81; emphasis added).
Another student reported the following experience: “I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows, until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me—I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the Professor returned. ‘That is right,’ said he; ‘a pencil is one of the best eyes’” (Cooper, 1987: 81; emphasis added).
Agassiz (nicely told by Karl Weick on an article on richness) was acutely aware of the human propensity to name something, to categorise it, and then discover its properties vanish before our eyes. Once named we no longer need to attend to the details to work it out. As Weick points out, naming things is an essential action to coordinate activities. Unfortunately we lose detail in the process.
One way to keep richness in our understanding, to aid decision making, is to identify the stories that represent situations. We are currently working for a government agency helping them to create and tell their strategic story. They’ve identified seven strategic directions and in and of themselves are abstract ideas such as, achieve with our partners, be easy to deal with, nurture independence.
These ideas only make sense when illustrated by an prototypical story.
Cooper, L. 1987, ‘Louis Agassiz as a teacher’, in CR Christensen (ed.), Teaching and the case method, Harvard Business School, Boston, pp. 79–82.
Weick, K.E. 2007, ‘The Generative Properties of Richness’, Academy of Management Journal, vol. 50, no. 1, pp. 14–9.
HT to Tim Kannegieter for pointing me to the Weick paper.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: