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HBR on Synthesizing Leaders, Feature Bloat

This month’s Harvard Business Review has a couple of interesting articles. The first, Breakthrough Ideas for 2006, begins with a piece by Harvard professor Howard Gardner called "The Synthesizing Leader." Gardner relates how Nobelist Murray Gell-Mann once told him that "the most valued personal trait of the 21st century would be a facility for synthesizing information." Gardner notes that this skill is most important for leaders, who must deal with big-picture complexity, who have access to more information than most, and who have more opportunities to be distracted. Yet these people, he said, get little guidance on how to engage in this process of synthesis. He then give his pointers on how to do so.

The surprising thing for me is that Gardner, who is famous for, among other things, his theory of multiple intelligences (Visual / Spatial Intelligence, Musical Intelligence, Verbal Intelligence, Logical/Mathematical Intelligence, Interpersonal Intelligence, Intrapersonal Intelligence, and Bodily / Kinesthetic Intelligence) makes no mention of visual ways of communicating the results of such synthesis. In suggesting that leaders find the proper format to convery the information, Gardner suggests "a story, a set of propositions, a table or taxonomy, or a PowerPoint presentation." Suffice to say that we will be reaching out to Prof. Gardner to introduce him to this thing called mind mapping.

HBR also has an article called Defeating Feature Fatigue (link is to password protected page with a good abstract) that should be of interest to any organization that produces goods and services. The nut of the story is that "even though consumers know that products with more features are harder to use, [survey participants] initially chose high-feature models. They also pile on more features when given the chance to customize a product. Once consumers have actually worked with a product, however, usability starts to matter more to them than capability." Which then leads to buyer’s remorse, dissatisfaction with the product, and the tendency to explore competing products. The authors note that companies who are interested in long-term customers need to look hard at the balance between maximizing sales by designing high-feature products–and enhancing the lifetime value of their customers by limiting the number of new features to a manageable few.