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Tautology: The Law of Detachment + Faster Horses


March 20, 2023

I am certain you have heard someone use the phrase when they go to buy something — a concert ticket, for example — that they are going to “prepay in advance.” Does anything strike you as odd about that phrase?

Tautology is a verbal construct by which the same thing is said repeatedly. In its most benign form, it’s redundant. In a more malignant form, it can act as a substitute for clarity or a distraction from a lack of content. When determining a strategy, it’s important to distinguish between distinctive ideas and not fall into a trap of mistaking “the same” for “more.” For example:

Tautology in the context of an idea would generally be described as:

  • Stating that Idea “X” = Idea “X,” Therefore “X.”
  • Stating that Idea “X” is or is not Idea “X.”
  • Stating that Idea “X” is not exclusively Idea “X.”

I.e., repeating or reframing the same thing — in reference to itself — is not breaking new ground, even though it seems like you might be doing more work to express diversity of thought than you are.

The Law of Attachment

An additional element to add to the above is the idea of the law of detachment. This states that removing an attachment to a specific outcome to afford greater creativity in the process will contribute to a greater chance of the success of the process itself.

Henry Ford said something to the effect that before the advent of the automobile, if you had asked the consumer what they would like to see in terms of evolutions in assisted mobility, they would have almost certainly indicated that they wanted faster horses. That’s likely rooted in the idea that they were attached to the idea of a specific outcome, based on what they knew at the time. So, if you take that variable away, you are freed up to generate any outcome that the process generates — away from a predetermined concept or parameter on the resolution.

To combine the two concepts above, if you described the horses only in the context of themselves, then you have predetermined the outcome and gone around in a circle. You will likely only see the faster horse as the outcome and work toward that.

If you detach yourself from the orbit of the outcome, and only state a single idea or variable a single time, you will generally be creating data points that are clearer, cleaner and easier to work with.

To put it another way, if you had a set of Legos and that set only contained blue pieces of the same size and configuration, and you were told that you could only make something that existed elsewhere and that something is blue, you’d probably feel very stuck, no matter how many pieces you had or how much effort you put into it. Furthermore, you’d probably generate the same four or five things, regardless of who was in a group with you working on it or the size of that group. That’s the loop that tautology creates, with added sprinkles of attachment to a specific outcome.

In a more optimal scenario, you would ask what other colors and shapes of Legos exist and might not ask what outcome is desired. You’d utilize a mix of pieces to experiment, or the outcome itself could be defined exclusively as “something new” with a more general focus. Idea “X” is the same as Idea “X,” but it’s not useful or productive to point that out when you have a broader variety of concepts or blocks to build from.

The next time someone asks you to prepay in advance, you might ask them if they are going to ride their faster horse to the bank. Tongue-in-cheek, of course.

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Joe Benesh

Joe Benesh is the President and CEO of The Ingenuity Company, located in Des Moines. The Ingenuity Company specializes in Strategic Planning, Diagramming, Organizational Design Thinking, and Leadership/Change Facilitation. He also teaches strategic planning at the University of Iowa in the MBA Program.