Extraneous Concept Patrol


My job involves a lot of talking to people about ideas, from high level mission, vision, and strategy, to nitty gritty things like how teams communicate, how projects fit together, and how people think about the process of doing their job.

Clear thinking is incredibly important to my work, both for me and for the people I work with. So often, both in meetings and by myself, I go on “Extraneous Concept Patrol” (it usually gets a laugh, but I also find it useful). When I do, I try to throw out any distracting ideas that are getting in the way of whatever it is we’re trying to do.

When you kick around ideas or methods of communication, there’s an easy mistake to make. Your brain starts going really fast, and thinking of all the things you could do, and you can wind up feeling comprehensive when actually you’ve way overdone it.

Extraneous concepts come from outside, too. Business books and white papers postulate all kinds of new ideas, and if you just adopt them you can wind up with way too many concepts floating around that you feel obligated to apply to your situation. Usually, you need one, maybe one and a half of these ideas, and you need to make adjustments for your own situation.

Understanding lots of other theories about other situations is helpful, and so is imagining every different way to think about the challenges you face. But choosing how to implement those ideas should be a ruthless process of editing. Which concepts really do useful work for you and your team? How many new ideas, or new tools, do you really need to move forward?

“Brand” and “Value Proposition” are pretty useful. “Brand Promise” and “Brand Goodness” I have never seen be helpful. It’s entirely possible to meet for hours, and have heated discussions about this stuff, and then have it turn out that no one was actually talking about anything, because the words they were using didn’t actually refer to things that exist in the world. Back in philosophy seminar you’d accuse these people of “accidentally doing metaphysics”. In that context, those were fightin’ words.

When I say in a meeting that we need to go on “Extraneous Concept Patrol”, I’m asking people to examine all the concepts on the table for how useful they are without criticizing the people who came up with them. When I say it to myself in private, it’s more like a mantra that reminds me to strip away all the unneeded bits and reduce an idea to its essence before passing it on to my colleagues.

As my job has become more about thinking, writing, and communicating, and less about execution, I’ve found this to be a really good habit and an effective way to remind myself to think carefully. Also I think it’s funny.

P.s. “Extraneous Concept Patrol” is itself probably extraneous in a lot of situations. Be careful. Hope it’s helpful. Hope you get a laugh.

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