One of my favorite tests of an audience is borrowed from “The Geography of Thought” by Richard Nisbitt. I list three objects: Cow, Chicken, Grass. After a repeat and a stern instruction to close your eyes I get people to raise their hands for the odd one out.

The pattern normally goes with Nisbitts research. Northern Europeans, the English and most of North America eliminate “Grass” as they have been brought up in a tradition of categorisation: Grass is a vegetable while the other two are animals. Asians, Africans, South Europeans and the Celts nearly always eliminate “Chicken” as they think in terms of relationships, and “Cow” has a relationship with “Grass”, both input and output if you get my meaning.

Relationship thinking V Categorisation thinking is an interesting division, one that is reflected in the CAS (Complex Adaptive Systems) distinction between exploitation and exploration. Categories allow for fast response for example. Now I frequently go on to illustrate this with a HR example: comparing Myer-Briggs with Belbin. Myers Briggs basically puts you into a box or category (INTJ, ISTJ etc etc). In contrast Belbin, in its original seven type form identified your primary and secondary orientations within a team. My score for some years has been a mixture of {shaper} {plant} {resource investigator} which roughly means I want to control the universe have lots of ideas and assume that someone else can help me do it (I’m not proud of that necessarily). That means that to be effective I need to balance my skills with [monitor evaluator} {team worker} {completer finisher} {chairperson} orientations. Interestingly the best predictor of people with capability in these areas over time has been females born under the sign of Virgo which should tell you something about psychometric testing or about the author but it is strictly retrospective coherence. However, that aside, if the team lacks certain skills, then your secondary characteristics kick in, in my case {monitor-evaluator} {completer finisher} which means that if no one else does it, I will switch from high level design to low level analytics and obsession with detail. Its not a nice sight to be honest and its rare but it does happen.

Now the thing I like about Belbin is that it doesn’t put you in a box. People coming out of a Myers-Briggs assessment always remind me of Huxley’s “Brave New World”, one of the three defining utopian novels of the last century along with “1984” and “Darkness at Noon”. In that novel at some point (and I do not have it hand so this is not an exact quote) someone says “I am so glad I am a Beta, I don’t have to wear dull boring clothes like a Gamma or to all the hard work of a Alpha”. Categorisation can easily become an excuse. Belbin on the other hand recognises that change is a part of connectivity and that people will change over time depending on the context. So Belbin is for {Cow-Grass} people not the {Cow-Chicken} guys.

Now why bring all this up now? Well just over ten days ago in South Africa I was teaching a bright bunch of managers from a telco and I mentioned the above (they were mostly Cow-Grass by the way) and was then shown the modern Belbin test. From seven ambiguous orientations which enabled a team to talk about their roles, it has now become eight primary categories, with each designated as representing both sides of the force: constructive and non-constructive role. I will now treasure my seven characters kit, its precious, something useful has been caught up in the categorisation-recipe book approach which is used as an excuse to avoid responsible management.

By the way – if anyone says that “Cow” is the odd one out, then watch them; they want to be seen to be different …..

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