Monday, January 30, 2012

Sticks, String, Feet-n-Inches and Ideas

My father had a practical way of differentiating different types of people.  In my childish imagination, it came from the wisdom of Generals preparing for battle in World War I.  In my mature, adult worldview, I like to think it came for the wisdom of Generals in World War I.  Whatever it's source, I still find it's classifications beneficial in understanding how to work with different people.  It divides people into three groups:

  1. Sticks-n-String People
  2. Feet-n-Inches People
  3. Conceptual Idea People
The example which was always given had to do with digging trenches.  The concepts still holds.  In business whether you're digging trenches, making widgets, writing code or selling apples, there are still tasks which have to be done and people who have to be asked to do them.

Sticks-n-String People
If you want a sticks-n-string person to dig you a trench, you need to go to them and say: 

"I need trench that's as deep as this stick, as wide as this stick and as long as this piece of string and I need you to dig it right here.  I'll be back at 10:30 to see how it's going."

If you give a sticks-n-string person these types of instructions, they'll dig you a perfect trench.  If you leave much more ambiguity than that, they'll get confused, frustrated and you'll get delays and disappointment.  And it will be your fault, not the person you asked to dig the trench.  Know who you're dealing with, know what you have to provide them and provide it to them.

Feet-n-Inches People
If you want a feet-n-inches person to dig you a trench, they need the correct amount of direction, a little explanation about why they're digging the trench and they need to know how much freedom they have to solve problems.  A good approach with a feet-n-inches person is to say something like: 

"We need to protect the left flank.  Could you dig me a trench that'll hold 20 soldiers.  Make it 5 feet deep, 3 feet wide and 20 feet long.  Let me know when you're done."

Feet-n-inches people care about why they're doing something.  They like to have some context and purpose in what they do.  They also like a certain amount of freedom to go around rocks and such.  Finally, they like to have closure.  When something is finished, they like to know it's finished.  Feedback on how the trench looks will pay great dividends in the future.

Conceptual Idea People
Conceptual idea people think too much and often work too little.  Yes, they may have great ideas about how to dig better trenches and if you need to invent a trench, they are definitely the person to go to.  But if you want twenty trenches dug, these people are useless.  They'll spend more time arguing with you about whether trenches are necessary, if there aren't better ways and mostly whether someone else wouldn't be a better trench digger.

These people need a lot of freedom.  In certain situations, they'll create great work.  For innovating new approaches, they're fantastic.  If you need someone to scout out a new territoriality, find the best place to defend and dig a trench for forward troops to go to, they are great for this.  You're best approach working with a conceptual idea person is to say:

"Look, we need to take that valley.  Could you scout ahead, find the best location to build a base to advance from and then dig a trench for the 20 scout troupes to work from.  Go forth and report back to me by 02:00 Tuesday morning."

It is critical with conceptual idea people that they have a good amount of freedom, but also strict deadlines.  Give them too much freedom, and you'll never get anything done.  Be too precise and they'll argue with you or think it's below them.  For the right kind of problems, they are the best person to pick.

Knowing the different types of people, what they'll respond to is critical for getting what you're looking for.  In the end, a trench is a trench and to be successful, you need to get it dug.  Pick the right kind of person and give them the correct type of instructions.


Mark Carrington said...

Interesting idea. It seems to miss a whole category of people that landed the first man on the moon or created the IBM PC or created the Apple iPod.

I guess we did not need trenches on the moon so the sticks man was not needed and the feet n inches man was not needed and the conceptual ideas man was too busy in the laboratory - yet we landed a man on the moon.

Tough being a new inventor in that world

Andrew Meyer said...


thanks for stopping by. I understand what you're saying, but is there really a difference between filing a particular document with the correct tags or using the correct terms so a search engine find it and digging a trench?

There are plenty of consulting firms that'll sell deep corporate thinking, but corporations grow because they scale a business model and make processes and people more efficient, not because of deep thinking. Those processes and people maybe following check lists (sticks and string) or following orders (feet and inches).

The people sitting in Cupertino working for Apple maybe thinking great thoughts, but if you know anything about Apple, they're following tight orders and better not step an inch outside of them. Is that really so different from a "feet and inches" person?

The people in China assembling iPads follow precise instructions. Is that really so different from "Sticks and String"?