Metalogue 4: How much do you know?

cloth-1In this metalogue the daughter asks her father: “Daddy, how much do you know?”

Bateson estimates that must have about half a pound (225g) of ‘knowledge’. They realise this isn’t a very good way of measuring knowledge.

This metalogue teaches us about innovation and leadership.


What Bateson Tells Us

The metalogues are a series of imagined conversations between a father and his daughter.

In this metalogue a daughter asks her father, “Daddy, how much do you know?”

He replies, “I have about a pound of knowledge.”

Daughter: “Don’t be silly… I mean really how much do you know?”

Father: “Well, my brain weighs about two pounds [1kg] and I suppose I use about a quarter of it — or use it it at about quarter efficiency. So let’s say half a pound [250g].”

D: “But do you know more than Johnny’s daddy? Do you know more than I do?”

F: “Hmm — I once knew a little boy in England who asked his father, “Do fathers always know more than their sons?” and the father said, “Yes.” The next question was, “Daddy, who invented the steam engine?” and the father said, “James Watt.” And then the son came back with “—but why didn’t James Watt’s father invent it?”

The reason James Watt’s father didn’t invent the steam engine was “because somebody else had to think of something else before anybody could make a steam engine. I mean something like … somebody else … had to discover oil before anybody could make an engine.”

This means that “knowledge is sort of knitted together, or woven, like cloth, and each piece of knowledge is only meaningful or useful because of the other pieces.”

That doesn’t mean we should measure knowledge by the yard or metre, because knowledge wouldn’t be flat like cloth — it would exist in three dimensions or perhaps four. [What Bateson might have said at this point is that combining bits of knowledge together is like adding together bits of cloth: sometimes you get a mess, but sometimes you get something completely new, like a jacket or a shirt or a pair trousers.]

They think about what happens when you add pieces of knowledge together: “It’s as if sometimes two facts get added together and all you have is two facts. But sometimes instead of just adding they multiply — and you get four facts.”

They wonder how that can work.

The daughter realises that every fact or piece of knowledge is actually two pieces. For example, imagine we are playing Twenty Questions* and you think of the word ‘tomorrow’. I ask you “Is it abstract?” and you say “Yes.” From your yes I have not one but two pieces of information: I know that it is abstract, and also that it isn’t concrete. So from your one piece of information I can divide all the possible answers by two. And if I ask another question then I can divide all those answers by two. So one piece of knowledge plus another piece of knowledge might divide all possible answers by four.

We still haven’t answered how much knowledge Bateson has, but we have got a little bit closer to understanding what that knowledge is: it is something that is woven together with other bits of knowledge. And because of that strange weaving (in three or four dimensions), sometimes if you add two bits of knowledge together you get ‘four’, or ‘a jacket’, or if you add ‘oil’ and ‘steel’ and ‘water’ and ‘fire’ then you can get ‘steam engine’. [And if you add ‘smartphones’ and ‘app’ and ‘people who own a car’ then you can get Uber.]

Now we are a little bit closer towards measuring how much knowledge we have (and realising that this is what enables innovation.)

We know that knowledge is strangely woven together. And we know that how well we play the game of Twenty Questions depends on what questions we ask, in what order, which depends on how much we know about knowledge.

How well we understand knowledge determines whether we ask with our first question “Is it a kitten?” or “Is it an animal?” or “Is it something that is alive?”

As Bateson puts it, “If the early questions in the game tell me what questions to ask later, then they must be partly questions about knowing. They’re exploring the business of knowing.”

This means that knowing about knowledge (knowing how ideas are connected together) would probably be measured differently from knowledge.

  • Knowing about things called kittens and stones is knowledge. Knowing that kittens are pets that are mammals that are animals that are alive is knowing about knowledge.
  • Knowing about accounting and finance, marketing and sales, and supply chain and customer relationship management, and employee remuneration is all knowledge. But knowing how to fit these together to make a successful business is knowing about knowledge. It is also called leadership.

Measuring leadership is different from measuring how much knowledge someone has about marketing or finance.

Father and daughter talk about the ways in which we try to measure how much people know.

F: “They do it with examinations and tests and quizzes, but it’s like trying to find out how big a piece of paper is by throwing stones at it.”

D: “How do you mean?”

F: “I mean — if you throw stones at two pieces of paper from the same distance and you find that you hit one piece more often than the other, then probably the one that you hit more often will be bigger than the other. In the same way, in an examination you throw a lot of questions at the students, and if you find that you hit more pieces of knowledge in one student than in the others, then you think the student must know more… We do measure a lot of things that way. For example, we judge how strong a cup of coffee is by looking to see how black it is… We throw light waves at it instead of stones, it’s the same idea.”

The reason this is a good way of measuring how strong the coffee is but a poor way of measuring how much knowledge (or leadership) a person has is “that there are different sorts of knowledge — and that there’s knowing about knowledge. And ought one to give higher marks to the student who can answer the widest question? Or perhaps there should be a different sort of marks for each different question… [And] we might multiply or divide one sort of marks by another sort but we could’t add them.” [Because that would be like adding apples and orangutans.]

So they come back to the question of how to measure knowledge.

F: “The first thing about being clear is not to mix up ideas which are really different from each other. The idea of two oranges is really different from the idea of two miles. Because if you add them you only get fog in your head.”

D: “But, Daddy, I can’t keep ideas separate. Ought I to do that?”

F: “No— No— Of course not. Combine them. But don’t add them. That’s all. I mean— if the ideas are numbers and you want to combine two different sorts, the thing to do is to multiply them by each other. Or divide them by each other. And then you’ll get some new sort of idea, a new sort of quantity. If you have miles in your head, and you have hours in your head, you get “miles per hour” — that’s a speed.” [Or if you multiply them you get mile-hours, which is what you pay a taxi-driver for.]

The daughter says she tried to do an experiment once. She wanted to find out whether she could think two thoughts at the same time, so she thought “It’s summer” and then she thought “It’s winter”. And then she tried to think the two thoughts together. And what she found was that she wasn’t having two thoughts, she was only having one thought about having two thoughts.

You can’t mix thoughts you can only combine them (like threads in a piece of cloth, or pieces of cloth) you can’t add them.

Which means ultimately that “we only have one big thought which has lots of branches — lots and lots and lots of branches” [woven together in different ways].

Bateson closes by telling us why he only uses a quarter of his brain.

F: “You see the trouble is that I had schoolteachers too. And they who up about a quarter of my brain with fog. And then I read the newspapers and listened to what other people said, and that filled up another quarter with fog.”

D: “And the other quarter Daddy?”

F: “Oh — that’s fog that I made for myself when I was trying to think.”


Implications for Business:

Running a business is a lot like playing Twenty Questions every day. It involves knowledge, and knowing about knowledge.

A crisis hits and the business needs to to work out what to do. The leader is the person who is best able to ask the right questions in the right order: “What is the problem? What are the implications? Does this matter? How urgently do we need to address this? What resources do we have available? How does this priority compare with the others we are facing?” And so on…

What Bateson is doing here is helping us to clear the fog so that we can do this better.

Leadership is what Bateson calls ‘knowing about knowledge’. At the end of the 20 questions there also needs to be someone in the organisation who has the ‘knowledge’ that will fix the issue. And for the organisation to function well, the two must be connected. Engineers working on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico knew full well that their new operating procedures were risky. The leaders in the organisation who signed off on those new procedures either lacked that knowledge, or lacked the ‘knowledge about knowledge’ to understand the implications of their policy decisions.

‘Strategy’ is about the first few of the 20 Questions. But unless strategy integrates into the operational questions that come later then it is just another, separate, form of knowledge: on its own it is not enough to win the game. Knowing how to think about operations and execution in a strategic way is what matters. This is leadership.

When there is no problem to fix, or when there are multiple crises to respond to, then knowing about knowledge (leadership) becomes even more important: “Every part of the business is under pressure: which issues shall I ignore, which issues shall I respond to, how? What direction shall I take us in over the next five years? Which parts of the enterprise shall I cut back? Which parts shall I invest in? Which parts shall I maintain?”

To answer these questions the leader needs to know not only how the different functional departments work, but also how they connect together. More than that, they also need to understand how the business connects with its customers and suppliers, and how they all connect into the global economy.

Bateson cannot tell us all the answers in a single metalogue. But he can show us that it is this “knowing about knowledge” that matters, that is leadership.

And the rest of his work, on understanding how nature works and how people think, provides a solid sure foundation to work from.

If all of knowledge is a single tree, and we are used to looking at the twigs, he has shown us the main branches.

If, as leaders, we are aware of and understand those branches, then when the crisis hits we have a better chance of asking the right questions to begin with, and at following them through to end up at the right (operational) twig.

The way forward from where we are is innovation. This involves combining existing knowledge in new ways. Being clear about that knowledge will help us through the task.

And as the previous metalogues have shown, going through that process is likely to feel uncomfortable, it requires us to listen carefully, and it will benefit from the support of someone who is able to maintain a balance between keeping some parts of the business ‘tidy’ and allowing other parts to become messy’’ (but not too messy).


* Twenty Questions was originally a spoken parlour game in which players would seek to find out what the other person was thinking about, by asking questions which can only be answered “yes” or “no”. The player is allowed twenty questions to find the correct answer.

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