Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Problem With Fundamentalism

Back in college, I had a philosophy teacher that opened a class by writing this on the board. The theme of that class session was that, depending upon your perception, you could see and interpret this in several ways. Some might see "god is nowhere" while others might see "god is now here". This perceptual shift and the recognition of multiple ways of seeing the same thing and adding an interpretive layer is key to flexible thinking and analysis. We spent a lot of time in that philosophy class exploring ideas of 'how do you know' and building frameworks of thought around those ideas.

Fundamentalism and the Problem of 'The One Interpretation'
At the heart of religious fundamentalism is the idea that this one document -- possibly even one specific version of the document -- is the foundational truth and an axiomatic platform to build all knowledge upon. Upon this base is an ideological framework that says, if this is true, then this must be true. Often, this house of cards knowledge construct is actually framed by 'authoritative' voices that provide shaped corollaries - 'since it says this, it also means this.' This process transforms framework into something like, "since it says God Is Now Here, anyone failing to see that is doomed and should be ostracized because God did speak to them." In that way, this extended element becomes dogma, perhaps being further extended to address the moment when people perceive the message, the fate of non-perceivers, and so on.

The problem is that, as dogma, these conceptual constructs carry the same ideological weight as the core -- they are equivalent truths. As a result, anything that questions an interpretation is also an assault on the original principle. In practical terms, people who approach problems with this type of thinking become very defensive about their belief framework even when a concept is distant from the core. Finding a flaw in thinking can potentially result in the catastrophic failure of much larger conceptual framework elements.

This is also why this type of thinking often struggles with tangible conflicting information. For example, when some fundamentalists add up all of the years mentioned in the Bible and define a specific number of years for the span of history, dinosaur bones date to before that time. And there's not really any mention of dinosaurs in the Bible, but there are very real bones. Rather than accept the idea that the dinosaurs existed before the scope of human history, some fundamentalists go through ideological acrobatics to incorporate dinosaur bones into their conceptual framework a la the creationist museum.

Fundamentalism is Business, Marketing and Creativity
While we're all familiar with fundamentalism in religious beliefs, we're not always quite so aware of how this same type of thinking affects us in business. And yet, if you reflect on your ongoing business experiences, you'll probably find examples and issues that were created or defined by this type of thinking.
  • Brand behavior
  • Product feature and roadmap definition 
  • Creativity and idea brainstorming
With brand behavior, it's easy to think of examples of how some of the same types of behavior that you see with fundamentalists carry over to brand identity. But one element that can be easily overlooked is how committed brand loyalists are once that framework has been established. Even when presented with a factual framework that might point to a brand change, brand loyalists may probably fight and die for their brands. Consider this as it relates to enterprise software, on-premise versus SaaS, or even very technical brand decisions that take place inside the data center.

With product features, it's not uncommon for people to lock in on specific features as "fundamental" elements of product definition, even when the relationship between the feature, the functionality, and the product are actually dynamic. Recently, you see this a lot with touch screen versus keyboard and mouse functionality. And it's carried over into defining the next generation versions of iOS and Mac OS X, Windows and Microsoft's mobile OS, and the very essence of what drives phones, tablets, notebooks, desktops and servers.

With creativity and brainstorming, it's natural for people to see complete conceptual frameworks form out of a simple idea. Since the idea generator is also the original interpreter, they often have even more invested in their conceptual framework than someone who has developed the extended conceptual elements through authoritative dictate. This is the same bug that bites you when you write a sentence that can be interpreted two ways, but you can only see a single interpretation of the text. In these instances, it can be very difficult for an editor to convince you of an alternate interpretation and a corresponding edit.

Adapting to Fundamentalist Thinking in the Workplace
Ultimately, it's important to recognize this pattern of cognitive behavior and how it comes into play in building conceptual frameworks. While it may not be possible to completely escape this type of thinking, flexible thinking is an essential skill needed to function and thrive in an environment where new ideas are the currency. If you can only see GODISNOWHERE as one of two possiblities, then you have already bound yourself to a framework that rules out any other options -- God!sN0Where might simply be a variation on a strong password. It's amazing how metaphysical one can become about a simple stream of characters.

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