Don't dumb down -- brain up!

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(MoneyWatch) The leadership thinker Sally Helgesen recently wrote about a common experience she has in working with large companies that seek her insight. What they wanted, she said, was a "few simple takeaways" -- things they could implement right away. What they didn't want was anything complicated.

This made Helgesen uncomfortable, and it should. For years now, there has been a marked increase in what I think of as recipe books for managers: A few short steps and you can cook up a stunning success. Such works follow firmly in the footsteps of cooking, diet and fitness books, appearing to offer total transformation in a few quick and easy methods.

They are all frauds. As Helgesen reflects, the world has not become simpler but more complex. The issues we all confront -- globalization, volatility, disruptive technologies, blind spots, biases -- don't make thinking less necessary, but more so. Such challenges aren't susceptible to quick fixes. No business is immune to them, and I don't know of a single company that has found a replicable way of handling them. In other words, however much Helgesen's consulting clients might yearn for simplicity, they should be very suspicious if anybody offers it to them.

In fact, what companies should be asking for from consultants are insights that spur and provoke thinking, not recipes that shut it down. No business will thrive by denying or underestimating the challenges they face. Just because the bookstores are bulging with quick fixes doesn't mean that they work, only that such flimsy remedies play to a fantasy that a quick purchase will cure all ills. We don't need to dumb down our understanding of business and markets; we urgently need to give ourselves time to understand them, to conduct low risk experiments, to reflect on what works and what doesn't. and to take stock of which changes matter and which do not.

Where once we celebrated fast companies, in other words, today we need to develop thinking ones.

I share Helgesen's unease with the demand for simplified insights, and not only because I don't think they're helpful-- rather the reverse: It is when we imagine that there are quick fixes out there that we are tempted to invent them.

Instead of understanding the market, isn't it easier to manipulate them? Instead of reading and reflecting on books, isn't it quicker just to cook them up? By asking for the business equivalents of miracle diets, we are likely to experience just what they offer -- ephemeral success followed by a lasting return to old bad habits.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on