16 Apr 2015 | Archive

If I had more time, I’d have written less / The art of reducing the science.

Appraising both staff and prospective new employees has, to many HR managers become a scientific routine. It includes a mix of subjective opinion, evidence supported psychological practices and has been bent to fit the shape of the online age. It appears to have lost any connection to instinct and the untrappable art of intuition. Here Renato Fantoni introduces a complementary approach designed to bring back the human and creative touch.

Putting a concept or an emotion across in few words is much harder than doing it in many.

One reason for this is that as children when we taught to write ‘essays’ we are given a scientific paradigm that includes arguments, references, facts and opinions and to wrap them into the format of beginning, middle and end. Once this model has been set, it’s a challenge to grow out of it. Another quirk of written assignments is that they usually have a minimum word count, presumably to ensure all the above have a fair chance of being included. In short, we are taught to be long (winded).

As a student I would often find myself so concerned with meeting the word quota that I’d  put down anything vaguely relevant to the topic to get towards the stated minimum before all-too-quickly including the key points of what I really needed to say. The quantity not the argument became the goal. I could have written essays and later in life, articles and chapters much more effectively I had not grown up under the waffle paradigm.

As an English Literature student I read the likes of Keats, Wordsworth and Blake.  Wading through the bountiful outpourings of these great writers was a slog (Shakespeare was even worse). It became so tedious that I would amuse myself and take a break from the set readings by perusing something else. I rooted out books that other students had not read and by ranging through the library shelves for clean unbroken spines and un-fingered pages I found several books that had evaded the official reading lists and were therefore unknown to my peers. This gave me the chance to access concepts and angles that my competitors would not think of and I hoped to gain an advantage over them and allow my uniqueness to shine out. (In many ways I achieved this although a price I paid was that I often spun off tangent and although my knowledge was getting broader, my grades remained modest.)

So, while I was researching and writing about the Romantic Poets, the unread books in which I’d take refuge were those labelled Modern European Poetry. My favourite poets were Celan, Apollinaire, Eluard and Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970). What I liked about these writers, and Ungaretti in particular was that their writing was brief and succinct. Ungaretti’s poems often occupied less than one page and many of his pieces were so short that he would only use a few words.

Silenzio Stellato 

E gli alberi e la notte
Non si muovono più
Se non da nidi.

Starry Silence

And the trees and the night

Move no more

If not they become nests.

He pared poetry down to bare essentials, often abandoned punctuation and if he had to produce more than one verse that second and third would too remain brief.  His poetic style was known as ‘Hermetic’. He dealt with difficult topics e.g. war, and used obscure or out of place language and imagery. Referencing the human history of word-of-mouth storytelling, he used alliteration and rhyme. Not an unusual trick for a poet to turn, but his style was so raw and economical that a meaning could be gleaned from a quick glance; there was no compulsion to dig deep under thousands of words. The term Hermetic brings to mind a sealed glass jar. You can see in and through it, you can open and close it but when it is shut, the still visible contents are cut off from the air (and pollution) outside it. You can imagine holding up this jar and looking in and through it from an infinite number of directions. The contents are the same, but always viewed from another perspective.
Returning to our staff appraisal issue, this echoes a 360 degree system, but in fact is a million times wider. If we consider the person as a short poem who is made up of even a few words that bounce around in the vacuum, changing order, size and position we can apply a more human approach to appraising. Psychometrics tries to define us by science and although we humans are a mixture of hydrogen carbon and whatever else, the scientific facts never completely stack up. There is always the external unknown that can change everything.

A contemporary of Ungaretti was the painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). His reputation was built around a  prolific output of still life pictures. Interestingly the Italian version actually means Dead Nature (Natura Morta). What interests me in this context is how he used complexity to create paintings that looked brief and simple but weren’t.

Morandi collected domestic objects such as bottles, cups, saucers, bowls, and boxes and before painting pictures of them, he painted the objects themselves. He coloured them in pastels of blues, yellows, greys and reds and combined these with muted oranges, fawns and woody hues for walls, tables and chairs on which the objects sat or sat by. He evolved a vast collection of portraits of recognisable household objects but because the bottles were no longer transparent greens or browns and the cups appeared to be 3D pictures rather than shiny ceramic, their realities had been altered.

When Morandi subsequently created paintings of these items, their mundanity and everydayness evaporated and under their new opaque guises, developed a warmth and depth that you wouldn’t associate with ’normal’ objects. By painting pictures of painted objects, Morandi had taken a step back from the art of depiction and two steps back from the reality of the objects. Their shapes could still be recognised, but now their contents were hidden.

From the Human Resource point-of-view, this demonstrates how a candidate or colleague can become masked and altered on the outside and that what goes inside can remain hidden and unknown. Like an attractive and nominally simple painting, a lot can be hidden behind the frame and under the paint.  As managers we can fall into the trap of becoming the painter. You spend months in training and mentoring a new trainee and as they learn to mimic your actions and methods your objectivity becomes painted over by your own self-importance. There’s not much you can do about this other than to be aware of it.  Once in a while the best artistic action you can take is to stand back and look at the person or scenario from a safe distance. Hues change in the sunlight.
He even illustrated Un Grido e Paesaggi (1962

Renato Fantoni 2015