Can lessons of the humanities help solve problems in the business world?

This book review appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post.

In the introduction to Sensemaking, Christian Madsbjerg writes that “when we devalue humanistic endeavors, we lose our best opportunity for exploring worlds different from our own.” Here, it would appear, is a business book to prop up the spirits of humanists (like me) who worry that over-investment in any discipline that relies only on big data and algorithms is shortsighted and stultifying. Madsbjerg, the founder of the business strategy consulting firm ReD, tells us that the shift to STEM is “doing great damage to our businesses, governments, and institutions.” He counsels, instead, “sensemaking,” by which he means a holistic approach to solving problems: “a method of practical wisdom grounded in the humanities.” Humanists should welcome better translators of academic ideas into nonacademic domains. But we must be careful what we wish for.

Sensemaking repeats many of the lessons of Madsbjerg’s 2014 The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems, a volume co-authored with his ReD partner Mikkel Rasmussen. Martin Heidegger is the intellectual hero of both books — his name used mostly to legitimate the idea that we should pay attention to the world around us and to the ways that human beings construct a world of meaning even as we perceive that world. Heidegger, of course, never practiced anything like the research Madsbjerg recommends. Indeed, the philosopher would have been appalled to see his meditations on the Being of beings used by consultants to increase the revenue of a supermarket chain by redefining its mission as providing cooking experiences rather than just groceries.

Madsbjerg marshals Heidegger, T.S. Eliot, Henry Ford (Ford Motor Co. has been his client) and other luminaries in the service of his argument that we need a complex, multi-layered approach to the most interesting problems facing businesses today. We need techniques from literature, history and philosophy to help us understand what it is like to experience the world from another person’s perspective. But for all his talk about paying attention to the contexts of other people, Madsbjerg has almost nothing to say about the contexts of the thinkers he favors. For example, anti-Semitism was a key part of the worlds constructed by Heidegger, Ford and Eliot. One finds no mention of any of this in Sensemaking because its author just cherry-picks the ideas that fit into a strategy that sells.

Madsbjerg gives lots of examples of business leaders and consultants who get their best ideas when they move away from mere data, when they listen to their bodies. What in 2014 he called “moments of clarity” he now calls “grace,” a special way of being that is both active and receptive. He tells stories of successful investors and creators whose hunches defied common sense and the easiest reading of the data. In his happy examples, people went with the flow and won big. Madsbjerg doesn’t include any stories of people who got terrible ideas by paying attention to their bodies, about failed attempts to implement the inspiration that came to someone while running or about disastrous decisions made on gut feelings. One doesn’t need algorithms to see the selection bias in Madsbjerg’s approach.

The author may indeed be right that the “hardest and most lucrative problems of the coming century are cultural.” But calling something cultural and extoling the virtues of “analytical empathy” are not grounds enough for making sense of diverse environments, solving deep-seated problems or exploring potential opportunities. For these complex tasks, we need more than a light humanistic experience of drive-by philosophy. The problems of the coming century will require a deeper engagement with the humanities and with data than Madsbjerg provides in Sensemaking.

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