Metalogue 5: Why do things have outlines?

This metalogue talks about why we give things an outline when we draw them, and then moves on to the idea of whether you can give an outline to something intangible like a conversation. Or a business.

“What is the outline of my business?” is surely the fundamental strategic question:

What does the business do and not do?

Who is ‘inside’ the business, and who is ‘outside’?

Where do we draw the line?

“Daddy, why do things have outlines?”
“What sort of things do you mean?”
“I mean when I draw things, why do they have outlines?”
“Well, what about other sorts of things — a flock of sheep, or a conversation? Do they have outlines?”
Bateson’s daughter tells him not to be silly.

But of course Bateson is being very serious, and then proceeds to show us how a conversation (and presumably a flock of sheep) does, indeed, have an outline.

He starts with the idea of drawing ‘things’ as if they have an outline. He tells his daughter that William Blake once said, “Wise men see outlines and therefore they draw them.”

But apparently he also said, “Mad men see outlines and therefore they draw them,” which doesn’t seem to help very much.

The daughter asks who William Blake was and her father explains that he was a great artist, and a very angry man. The daughter asks what he was mad about and Bateson explains that mostly he was mad (angry) about the fact that a lot of people thought he was mad (crazy). But also he was mad (angry) that some people painted pictures as though things didn’t have outlines. He called them “the slobbering school”. The daughter thinks that wasn’t very tolerant.

Her father agrees, but says that Blake didn’t really think that tolerance was a good thing. He thought it blurred all the outlines and muddled everything into shades of grey. His daughter agrees, “Yes, Daddy.”

Her father gets angry at this. “Yes Daddy” just means she doesn’t really have an opinion. It is another example of how so-called ‘tolerance’ results in us not being able to tell the difference between one thing and another. And that creates muddles.

The daughter gets upset, but recovers after he apologises and explains. She asks if it matters whether things have outlines. Is it important?

Bateson thinks it does matter, and gives an example of what happens when we don’t have clear outlines. Some Gentiles want to bully Jews because they killed Christ, he says. When they do this they are being muddle-headed and blurring the outlines. First, because the Jews didn’t kill Christ, the Romans did. And second, because saying the descendants should be held responsible for what their ancestors did (and in this case, didn’t do) is another way of muddling the outline. It would be like blaming the Italians for killing Christ, because they are the descendants of the Romans.

And then he reminds us that even though it is uncomfortable, the muddle stage is essential to innovation: to finding out new truths. Getting things clear is what Science is all about.

The key point, Bateson says, is that their conversations do have an outline, somehow — if only they could see them clearly.

They decide to see whether thinking about “a real, concrete, out-and-out muddle” will help.

They remember the game of croquet in Alice in Wonderland. That would be an absolute muddle. The flamingos-as-mallets would bend their necks, so the players would never know whether their mallet would hit the ball. The balls, which were hedgehogs, would stand up and walk around. And the hoops (which were soldiers) might walk around too. It would all be so muddled that nobody could tell at all what was going to happen.

And then, with a throwaway question, the daughter quietly hits the nail on the head and asks: “Did everything have to be alive so as to make a complete muddle?”

Her father realises that if Lewis Carroll [Charles Dodgson] had muddled things any other way then the players could have learned to deal with the muddling details. If the mallets had been just wobbly instead of being alive then the people could still learn and the game would only have been more difficult. But not impossible.

The surprising thing, he realises, is that it’s the fact that animals are capable of seeing ahead and learning (the cat lands where it thinks the mouse is going to be) is what makes them the only really unpredictable things in the world.

“Is that why people make laws, Daddy? Because the people who make the laws want the other people to be predictable?”

Bateson supposes so.

By now they’ve lost the thread of the conversation, and the daughter asks what they were talking about. Her father doesn’t know, yet. But he thinks there’s something in the point about the difference between living things and things that that are not alive. Horses don’t fit in a world of automobiles. Because they are unpredictable, like flamingos in a game of croquet.

And people don’t really fit either… “Or only by working pretty hard to protect themselves and make themselves fit. Yes, they have to make themselves predictable, because otherwise the machines get angry and kill them.”

“Don’t be silly. If the machines can get angry, then they would not be predictable. They’d be like you, Daddy. You can’t predict when you’re angry, can you?”
“I suppose not.”
“But, Daddy, I’d rather have you unpredictable — sometimes.”

And then there is an epilogue, and they wonder whether this conversation has had an outline. Bateson is sure it has, but they cannot see it because the conversation isn’t over yet. “You cannot ever see the outline while you are in the middle of it. Because if you could see it then it would be predictable, like a machine.” And the people having the conversation would be predictable too.

The daughter doesn’t understand. On the one hand her father is saying it is important to be clear about things, and not blur the outlines. On the other hand, we think it is better to be unpredictable and not be like a machine. And if we can’t see the outline of the conversation until it is over, then it doesn’t matter whether it is clear or not because we can’t do anything about it.

Bateson agrees. He doesn’t understand either. “But anyway, who wants to do anything about it?”

The ‘outline’ of a conversation is defined by what is relevant, and what is not.

If you are still in the conversation then you can’t see this clearly, because the conversation is still happening. But once you know it then some sort of conclusion has been reached, and the conversation is over. At that point it switches into a more structured ‘problem solving’ approach; or we move to action; or we simply decide to talk about something else.

A business is a kind of conversation. It is a conversation between the business and its customers (about what they want to buy, what the business can produce, and how much the customers want to pay). It is also a conversation with employees, suppliers, and investors. And sometimes it is a conversation with governments or the local community, when they have strong opinions about what the business should be do.

What defines the outline of your business?

  • Is it defined by who has full-time employment contracts?
    (But are there any suppliers who are vital? And isn’t there a difference between the people who work for the business and the people who are the business?)
  • Is the outline of your business defined by its products and services, or the categories these fit into?
    (But what happens when customer needs change?)
  • Is the business defined by the technologies and processes it uses — its so-called ‘core competencies’?
    (And how does the business shift when technologies change?)
  • Or is the business defined by the financial rates of return (and risk) that it will and will not pursue? Or by its leaders, market niches, or the strategic alliances it has?

As Blake and Bateson tell us, having an opinion, having a clear outline, is important — specialisation breeds success. And in fact any of these factors can be, and are, used to define the ‘outline’ of different businesses.

But it is important to leave some aspects undefined, because once the outline is completely clear then the conversation is over.

As Blake says, getting ‘angry’ and being unpredictable, being human and not being a machine, are all important to defining the outline. They help us push to find where the edge is, and whether it has moved. If we behave as machines then we are predictable. And then our conversation is over.

So in managing a business it is important to allow some things to be well-defined, highly controlled, and predictable like a machine. And other things must be allowed to shift.

As the economy changes over time, the ultimate determinant of business success is the strategic choice we make between what to keep stable and what to shift: what ‘outline’ to give the business.

And as Bateson himself points out, what drives it all is learning.


  • Which aspects of your business are fixed, machine like?
  • Which aspects are allowed to adapt and evolve? 
  • How much are they allowed to change? And can they keep up with the rate of change in the marketplace?
  • Who are the people who are pushing for change in your business? What are they driven by?
  • Who resists? What are they driven by?
  • Who decides what is allowed to change and what is not? What are they driven by?
  • Once the need for change/innovation has been accepted, who takes it forward, and how?
  • What is your business doing to learn? To find new ways of predicting where the mouse is going to be?

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