Obsession without voice, or voice without obsession

What’s this about voice and obsession?

I’m referring to the 2009 SXSW talk by John Gruber of Daring Fireball and Merlin Mann of (amongst others) 43Folders fame, which I recently discovered via Yuvi Zalkow’s excellent visualisation on his blog. The post below, for your information, is a curated version of a post I did a couple of days ago on Risk&Reengineering.

Defining obsession and voice

To summarize – but you really need to read John Gruber’s preface, listen to the talk itself or at least look at Yuvi’s visualisation – in order to really develop, design, deliver a quality result, you need two factors working of each other: obsession and voice.
* Obsession or to a lesser extent topic is defined as knowing something in such depth because it is what you are all about, it’s what you think about most of your waking moments.
* Voice is defined as the ability to know what to say about it and how to say it.

An upward spiral

Merlin Mann refers to the magic formula, which I will later refer to as the Gruber-Mann theorem as obsession x voice Now, how does this work?

  1. You descend really deep in a subject, you truly understand what it is and its dynamics, and you find a way to bring this to people, to make it accessible;
  2. The more you talk about it, the more you yourself start to understand it even better. Richard Feynman mentioned in one of his books that one of the reasons he teaches (I’m paraphrasing now, but you will get the idea) is because looking at something with a layman’s perspective almost always brings out new ideas. In essence, there are no stupid questions, because questions posed with an open, unspoiled mind usually lead to new avenues of thought.
  3. Which then deepen the obsession;
  4. Which then leads to even better things to talk about and exercise voice;
  5. Which then lead to new questions being raised by the people in the conversation;
  6. Which then will deepen the obsession again … and on, and on, and on …

And so the upward spiral of deep knowledge and understanding begins and feeds itself.

What if there is an element missing?

I’ve witnessed two of the most common scenarios: obsession without voice and voice without obsession. Perhaps funny, but I both encountered them while working in or with consulting organizations.

Situation 1 – Obsession without voice
This is a traditional expert scenario, in most applicable terms of the word expert. Someone understands a certain subject very well, but is not capable of explaining it or communicating about it, perhaps with the exception of a very small peer group. There are no doubt great ideas being developed in this small universe, but little of it gets out. In a consulting environment, these are the experts developing great solutions for specific client problems and never ever sharing them or bringing them to a wider audience. I also feel these people ofthen are very afraid of comments, because they see any comment as a criticism. They miss the incredible advantages that come from sharing ideas.

Situation 2 – Voice without obsession
Think consultants – with some notable exceptions.
Yes, before you start to get angry at me, I know who you are. This is not about you. It’s about that guy right next to you. Yes, and about the other guy as well, on your other side. But absolutely, certainly NOT about you. Okay? Now let me talk.
These are people, often traditional sales people, with too little background in the actual content of the work they are selling or the clients they are selling it to. They refer to themselves as experts, and are often considered by their peer group within their organization as experts. The fact is they are not. They have no consuming obsession, no gnawing feeling of having more to say than they’ve already said. They are hollow, and their clients will sooner or later notice this.

You need an obsessed consultant with a voice

Now, as a client, and I will soon be in that situation, what do you need? I think it’s obvious: you need an obsessed consultant with a voice. The obsession or elaborate topical depth will ensure that this consultant is on top of his game and is always looking to learn more, develop a deeper understanding and thus is able to continue adding to the solution. The voice will ensure this advisor will open up to the discussion, not only consider his point of view as the only relevant point of view but is willing to listen and examine his or her own particular perception of the issue at hand and compare it to other perceptions. This and only this will ensure that the solution will remain relevant for you and does not turn out to be a prefabricated solution which was ported from the last client they visited.

I’ve been very lucky that in the past couple of months I’ve had the pleasure of working together with some really obsessed consultants with a voice. Thanks guys and girls, especially those on my DAV and Wetsmatiging teams, for the wonderful experience.