Figure and Ground and Focus

The trouble with email is that it is flat. Important and unimportant emails alike are marked in the same binary way (read or unread), occupy the same rectangular screen space, and are usually sorted together in a chronological jumble.

Of course, assiduous tagging of spam, the occasional admonishment of a chronic CCer, and prudent folder routing rules can incrementally improve the situation, but an overflowing inbox will inevitably draw the individual’s mind from the important to the urgent. Trying to accomplish meaningful work while Outlook is open is akin to writing a novel while working the counter at Starbucks.

There is an organizational equivalent for many companies. Behaving is an organic whole, the business responds too quickly to new stimuli and loses track of the larger objectives. A client complains, an executive sees a new opportunity, a key employee resigns, and the organism reacts. As the company becomes more complex, the receptors multiply, and soon the business has so many conflicting impulses that it is no longer building anything but instead coping with confusion.

Understanding which emails for the individual and which impulses for the business are meaningful is a step often forgotten. It’s the pause before action. Aim then fire.

Gestalt Figure and Ground

figure-groundGestalt’s Figure and Ground work has an analogue here. The mind struggles with images like the one to the right, trying to resolve between what is the figure (or focus) of the picture and what is the ground (or background). It feels uncomfortable to hold both possibilities, light and dark, in the mind at once. Seemingly the decision is a matter of taste or of some subconscious predilection.

For a company, the “ground” is the flow of non-productive work from within and without the business. The ground is the contextual work that seems important but doesn’t really create movement. It’s the contextual stuff which exists for the purpose of occupying peoples’ time, like packaging material, filling in the gaps in the schedule. It’s the stuff that gets dropped in an emergency.

It’s easy to say that figure should take precedence over ground, but in the melee, midweek, when the stream of email is flowing, actually focusing on the figure is much harder. Businesses and individuals need to have a clear strategic vision that can add contour to incoming messages, separate the noise from the signal, and determine what is figure and what is ground.

Michael Porter’s Fit and Focus and Figure and Ground

Michael Porter cautions against being “caught in the middle”, meaning choosing overlapping and contradictory business strategies. For example, a business pursuing a strategy based on fastest delivery times should make different decisions on the location of warehouses than would a company competing on lowest cost. Companies dilute the differentiation of their brand and risk profitability by trying to be both fast and cheap (two separate strategies).

Strong decisions on business strategy can filter incoming noise and keep the business focused on its chosen point of differentiation. From this perspective, strategy is as much about what not to do as it is where to focus.

Porter also talks about “fit”, a technique by which secondary activities are performed in such a way as to compliment primary activities and the business strategy. Secondary, non-core activities amplify differentiation and make the business model more difficult to replicate. As an example, IKEA’s choice of flat boxes lowers their shipping cost, simplifies warehousing, and allows consumers to take the furniture the last mile. The box, a secondary consideration, enables their customer experience strategy.

With “fit,” the ground is interpreted as a component for the figure.

Obama-Offical-PortraitOne last thought

President Obama’s official portrait is very different from those of previous presidents. The picture poses a figure and ground dilemma as the bright leaf background nearly overwhelms him. This is a good metaphor for a presidency tumultuous with a series of historic events. It is fitting as he focused on responding to those events more than himself. The ground and figure were inverted.

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