Project Outcome or Barnum Statement?

One of my more unusual “claims to fame” is that I’ve performed magic in front of a paying audience at Caeser’s palace, Las Vegas.  I’ve also performed the same act in London, Johannesburg and Minneapolis—although all of this becomes far less exciting when you find out it’s actually a presentation that draws similarities between business analysis and magic (and there are a surprising number of similarities….)

Image Credit: © croisy — stock.adobe.com #230407104

Preparing for that presentation meant that I carried out research into various branches of magic and I was particularly interested in cold reading.   This technique is used by magicians who want to appear to be able to read a subject’s mind. There are a whole range of ways of achieving this effect, from illusions and misdirection to clever language patterns and use of psychology.  One that particularly stood out to me was the Barnum Statement.

Barnum Statements can be described as: 

“…artfully generalised character statements that most people will accept as reasonably accurate” (Rowland, 2015)

A good Barnum statement may well feel personal, but it actually applies to a significant chunk of the population.  It somehow simultaneously feels specific but actually says very little.  Take the following statement:

“You enjoy elements of your work, but sometimes feel held back. You sometimes feel you have untapped creativity that you want to unleash”

Does this resonate with you?  I suspect at least part of this statement resonates with a whole number of folks in the business change community.  Who doesn’t sometimes feel held back? Who doesn’t feel that they have untapped creativity that they want to unleash?

Politics: It Can Mean Whatever You Want It To Mean

Arguably, one of the reasons that techniques like Barnum statements work is they are beautifully non-specific.  They allow the subject (whose mind is being ‘read’) to project any meaning onto them that they want. They are easy to agree to, they feel so personal, so targeted… but they’re not.  

Being provocative, it could be said that similar language patterns are used in Politics.  Broad and aspirational statements that are very difficult to disagree with, are repeatable ‘ear worms’ but could be open to many different interpretations.   Now I’m just not brave enough to quote any recent political slogans here (it would distract from the core message of this blog), so here’s a randomly selected slogan from the 1992 UK General Election:

“It’s time to get Britain Working Again”

What does this actually mean?  If you read this and you’re unemployed, you might assume it’s about job creation.  If you read it and you’re concerned with government bureaucracy, you might think it’s about getting ‘Britain working’ by streamlining processes.  If you are craving the simplicity of the past you might centre on the word ‘Again’ and assume it means moving back to simpler structures and different social norms.   

So what does it mean?  Who knows….  I suspect a politician would argue that the mechanisms for delivering that statement is in the manifesto. The manifesto that, let’s face it, very few voters will actually read.        

Business Is Political Too

So what has all of this got to do with business change, product and service design?  Well, often large programmes of change start with an aspirational goal.  A set of ‘strategic imperatives’ or desired outcomes.  The challenge is then to understand what capabilities are necessary to achieve those outcomes and how we’ll go about doing it.

Yet, we should watch out for ‘Barnum Statements’ in organisational change contexts too.  Statements that seem specific but are open to multiple interpretations. They might creep in completely unintentionally, or there might be a broader political motivation. Ponder over the following statements: I suspect different people would draw different interpretations to what these mean:

  • Becoming an organisation that thinks “digital first”
  • Cultivating a winning culture
  • Becoming the best place to work
  • Creating true customer delight

The danger is that different folks will (quite understandably and rationally) project their own meanings onto this.   Even if other documentation exists, much like the voter who hasn’t read the manifesto, they ‘support’ something based on their understanding of what it means (rather than the detailed intent). Then conflict will ensue when we actually try and define and deliver something to achieve it.  No wonder we spend so much time navigating disagreement….

Understand Different Perspectives

As business change professionals, one thing we spend a lot of time doing is understanding different possible perspectives/purposes. Whether it’s using techniques like CATWOE or PQR (both forms of ‘root definition’ from Soft Systems Methodology), 3Es (efficacy, efficiency, effectiveness) or UCOB we have a whole range of tools at our disposal that we can use to assess and tease out different possible perspectives.   It’s important that we use these at the strategic level as well at the detailed level of requirements or granular changes.

We should expect that there will be different interpretations of what a desired future state should look like.  Consensus is unusual, and successful change is about arriving at what has been referred to as an ‘accommodation’; a situation that everyone can at least accept and commit to (see for example, Checkland & Poulter, 2001). Of course consensus is better, but in most large-scale changes some folks are happier than others. We might think scanning all the old paperwork is a benefit, try telling that to the person who has worked with those paper files for the last 40 years…   We should be bold and have the courage to cultivate conscientious conflict and accept that consensus is unlikely. We should help organisations navigate through and get beyond conflict, ensuring that a diversity of relevant voices are represented (especially those that are normally forgotten about).

A potential antidote to misunderstanding and mechanism for achieving an ‘accommodation’ is co-creation.  Having a broader set of stakeholders involved with the definition and agreement of outcomes will reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of miscommunication.  It’s rarely possible to have everyone at the table, but ensuring there is enough; a ‘critical mass’ will really help.  This doesn’t just apply to strategy at organisational level, it is equally valuable when discussing the ‘change strategy’ (see IIBA, 2015)  that a particular initiative is pursuing.

Let’s face it, you’ve probably found yourself working on a really tricky project haven’t you? And it was painful, and you had to work long hours?*  Perhaps it was built on Barnum Statements… and perhaps as a community of professional practitioners we can help avoid this.

* Bonus points if you spotted the Barnum Statements in my closing paragraph!!


References & Footnotes:

Checkland, P. & Poulder, J. (2001) Learning for Action: A Short Definitive Account of Soft Systems Methodology and its use for Practitioners, Teachers and Students, Chichester, Wiley

Rowland, I. (2015) The Full Facts book of Cold Reading (6th ed), United Kingdon, Ian Rowland Ltd

IIBA (2015) A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge v3.0, Toronto, IIBA
Note: “It’s time to get Britain Working Again” was a slogan for the UK Labour Party (ref: Wikipedia).  Discussion of the slogan itself was not intended as any critique/support or otherwise of any political party or political philosophy.


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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com

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3 thoughts on “Project Outcome or Barnum Statement?”

    1. Thanks Judy, I still remember that very vividly. I had to edit the presentation in my head as we lost 10 mins of time with the fire drill. A very good conference though, I hope to get back to MSP PDD one day 🙂

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