I wasn’t originally planning to do a post today, but it dawned on me that it might be a fine opportunity to tell the story of the name of this blog – “Two boards and most of the idea.” As I mentioned in my kickoff post, this line comes from an old family story told about my uncle Leighton, my mother’s brother, who I am much like and whom I greatly admired. In case you’ve never heard of anybody named “Leighton”, that’s probably because it isn’t really a first name; when my grandfather and grandmother, John Perley Dudley and Mildred Jenks Dudley, were in college together (Colby College, Class of 1903), their best joint friend was a man named Frank Leighton, and they named their first male offspring after him. Unfortunately, when my uncle was barely a year and a half old my mother about six, my grandfather was killed in a hunting incident – perhaps the reason why my mother and my grandmother were among the original anti-gun activists, to the point where I wasn’t even allowed to have a cap pistol as a child. (I later learned target shooting as an act of rebellion, but that’s another story.)
Anyway, back to the original story. My uncle Leighton grew up in a household largely made up of women; the only resident male, my great-grandfather, died when Leighton was three. So he had his mother, his grandmother, his aunt, and two older sisters to contend with. Obviously, that would bring out strength of character in a boy, particularly one of Leighton’s talents. One day when he was about nine, his mother spotted him running across the lawn carrying a couple of things. She called out the window to him, asking what was up. You should realize that this was Houlton ME, a small town of about 4000 in a largely rural part of Maine’s vast northness called Aroostook County. Everyone knew everyone else, and it was a highly stratified society. My grandmother and her family were considered to be part of the highest social stratum in town by virtue of family descent and prestige, despite having next to no money, so Leighton got to play with the high status kids. He went over to the window and told his mother that he and the Putnam twins across the street were building a tree house in their backyard. His mother asked him just what he was contributing to the event. His response, as you probably have guessed by now given my well telegraphed buildup, was “Two boards and most of the idea.” That being such an unusual way of phrasing anything by a barely 9-year-old boy, it passed in family history and has been a tag line in my family for nearly 100 years now.
Well, aside from its being a cute line, why would I pick it as a title for this blog? Actually, it started out as the prospective title for a book I’m writing, covering many of the same themes as this blog. When I decided to start the blog, I realized I might as well use the same name, since same material was going to be covered. But that still doesn’t answer the question of why it is a propos. For me, the phrase sums up the essence of sociotechnical design, the organizational framework to which I’ve devoted a large portion of my professional career. I’ll have a number of future columns on sociotech and related themes down the road; for now, let me just summarize this approach as understanding much organizational behavior as an interplay between the technical system (tools) and the social system (uses and procedures) within the organization. Both systems are continually changing, and any change in one system tends to produce a change in the other. This is a slightly more specific formulation of Kurt Lewin’s famous dictum that you can’t change just one thing. So here we have two boards – the technology – and the idea – how the technology is to be used and to what ends. Moreover, we have the idea split into pieces, reflecting that most good ideas really are the product of multiple imaginations being brought to bear. So in fact, most organizations, from Walmart down to Joe’s Gourmet Catfish Heaven (a fine restaurant in Alabama) in fact consist of boards and ideas; one without the other isn’t a whole lot of use.
In future posts, we’ll be exploring some of the bases and implications of the sociotechnical design paradigm for organizations. It’s a truly fascinating approach, one that is enormously stimulating for both theory and practice (we’ll also be discussing the interplay of theory and practice, among other topics.) At any rate, that’s where the name comes from, and why. Bear with us, and I think you’ll find it interesting journey.