how do you define a 'concept'?

In a few earlier posts I have taken shots at bullshit bumpf, or bafflegab (as my sister Sarah suggests), or jargonomics (as my wife Lisa labels it). My intention for calling out bumpf is not to be a jerk; more to offer some provocation for looking at issues from different angles.

As I quoted Fast Company magazine founder, Alan Webber in a previous post:

Jargon is not about using big words to make small points. Sometimes it’s about using big words to make no point at all.

Yet, there is some point to using bumpf-words such as conservation and stewardship and ecosystem integrity and the like. The unfortunate aspect of these words – and what makes them bumpf  in my mind – is that they are verging on, or have already become, empty words; empty concepts tossed around  that no one really understands what they mean – or have lost track.

Kind of reminds me of hearing 40-something year old guys on a ski lift tossing around the lingo of a teenage snowboarder: “wow, man did you see me stick that backside 920 in that big spliff of pow? – whoa dude it was sick” —- or something to that effect…

When really what he’s trying to say is: “did you see me spin around lots in the air and land in soft snow? I’m pretty happy with myself.”

So why use the lingo? Well, it’s often about fitting in, sounding cool, or sometimes it’s simply because we may not know what we’re actually talking about. Sometimes, what we are talking about is complex… complicated… confusing… (and who wants to admit that to their friends – especially those of us of the male persuasion).

Sometimes a word is more of a conceptual idea that we might partially understand. So, we become like a new kid at school; we adopt the language that’s around us and try to fit in – you know, use our new words as often and in as many sentences as possible. Or, we become lost in the tunnel of lingo and bumpf.

Fair enough – but what then – when we are actually asked: “what do you mean by that?”

This reminds me of painful, stab-yourself-in-the-eye-with-a-mechanical-pencil-conversations about ‘strategic planning’ while sitting on the board of a large environmental organization several years ago. “No, that’s a strategy not an objective. No, that’s a tactic not a strategy. Is that strategy measurable.. .? No, bonehead, you measure objectives, not strategies.” and so on, and so on, and so on.

Meetings would be called off, or at least timeouts called because colleagues would be ready to start a boardroom table clearing brawl because objective 3.1.4 did not match up with tactic 6.1.a.4…. and the ‘measurable’ criteria of objective 4.1 has set off a litany of arguments and debates.

The whole point and concept of ‘planning’ was largely lost – and is still lost in the corporate process and concept of ‘strategic planning.

Ok, so what’s my point? (apologies ahead of time for the space this takes to lay out…)

For this, I return to my friend Edward de Bono (the originator of the concept ‘lateral thinking’ and the fellow that devised and wrote “Six thinking hats” – and, ok, he’s not my friend as in we have weekly coffee, I just really enjoy his books on thinking and creativity).

de Bono asks: how would you define a concept? (think about this for a second before reading on).

Not that easy, hey?

In these situations, I sometimes turn to a dictionary. An online dictionary describes concept as:

1. A general idea derived or inferred from specific instances or occurrences.

2. Something formed in the mind; a thought or notion.

3. A scheme; a plan.

The word comes from the late Latin term conceptus, from Latin past participle of concipere to  conceive. Curiously enough, conceive means: to form or develop in the mind; devise. To be of the opinion that; think. To form or hold an idea.

So, as de Bono points out we can probably all recognize a ‘concept’, or conceive of concepts when we see them. A concept is a: “convenience package, a grouping, a clustering, an assembly for a purpose, all have some of the flavor of a concept.” In essence, a concept is built upon other concepts, until we get right down to raw experience.

To illustrate his point, de Bono suggests envisioning a “concept” as a town/city with various roads leading in and out. Let’s say, for example, Prince George in B.C. The city is a node, or connection point, for various roads. The city (ie. “concept”) is dependent on the roads for its existence and yet it also exists separately from the roads. It also exists in relation to the other towns connected through those roads. There is convenience in talking in terms of towns or junctions – and it also provides a ‘conceptual map’ per se.

As de Bono suggests: “The simplest way to describe or to contrast one concept is to contrast it with another concept in the same area.” Sticking with the ‘map’, one might contrast Prince George and Quesnel – for example, they both stink equally bad in the right weather conditions, they both have Wal-Marts and Superstore, yet they are affected differently by outlying communities.

Let me paraphrase de Bono’s great examples of contrasting one concept with another. One example he uses is the fast-food industry. Early on, the industry functioned on the ‘operating concept of speed. Get ’em in; get ’em out. Faster the service, the faster an establishment could serve the next customer. Any delays meant lost business.

Then, at least in the U.S. and Canada, the fast-food business grew quickly and there were not enough customers to go around. The ‘operating concept’ of the business changed virtually overnight.

The new operating concept didn’t mean the opposite as before – for example, keep customers as long as possible. It was based more on keep customers long enough that they spent more, as there was not necessarily another customer waiting to replace them. And, offer more convenience, such as kids toys, kids play areas, more desserts, super-size drinks, etc. The new concept was ‘keep them there and get them to spend as much as possible’. As de Bono suggests: “the contrast between the two concepts is obvious.”

In health care, de Bono suggests: contrast the concept of ‘treatment’  with the concept of ‘prevention’. Contrast, the concept of matching patient care to patient needs within the ‘hospital’ concept. In a hospital sick people are generally taken care of until sufficiently recovered. Beds in a hospital are expensive to maintain and beds for very sick patients are the most expensive because of the standard of care, level of support staff, and equipment required to ensure care. The concept of ‘matched care’ means that as soon as a patient is well enough he or she may be moved to a different part of the hospital where the costs of a bed may not be as high.  Thus the level of care is matched with the cost (in theory). This frees the expensive hospital bed for another patient.

The concept of an auction is different from the concept of a sealed tender bid. A tender bid is a one-shot guess and bid; an auction has continuous interaction. Both are different than buying a fixed price item at a store.

de Bono’s book is from the late 80s and he uses a comparison between the concept of debit-based credit cards (i.e. standard credit card) and travel and entertainment cards such as, the old American Express card where the card holder had to pay monthly balances. With the credit card concept, companies want maximum amounts of loan-credit outstanding since this accrues interest for the company. With the travel and entertainment card, outstanding balances must be paid monthly –  this is based on the concept of convenience (and status). The concept of a traveler’s cheque is different again.

As de Bono explains: “Concepts may be contrasted in terms of function or method of operation. They may also be a contrast of purpose.” Here are some of de Bono’s examples:

What is the real purpose of gambling? Is it to win or lose money? Or is it to have an exciting time? Or is it to have a long drawn-out anticipation of winning?

What is the concept of a holiday? Is it a change of surroundings (both physical and psychological)? Is it a set of new experiences? Is it a rest? Is it something to look forward to in anticipation and talk about in retrospect? What is the concept of lying in the sun? The physical aspects of the concept are easy enough to define: sun, beach and time. The functional aspects are more difficult. Is it a nice lazy feeling? Is it just something that is expected of people who go for a seaside holiday? Is it that tanned skin looks good?

Narrowing in on the purpose of all this blather… It is here that I return to the concept conservation – What is it? What is the concept of conservation in relation to looking after wild salmon? What is to be conserved? And why is it being conserved? For whom, or for what?

de Bono: “whenever we look at a concept or seek to define a concept it can be very helpful to contrast it with parallel concepts.”

The concept of ‘news’ is changing. There is a traditional newspaper – contrast it with the amount of ‘news’ available through t.v., online papers, and the incredibly fast growing blog-osphere (i.e. somewhere around 80,000 new blogs per day).What is the concept of news? What is the purpose of ‘news’? Is the concept to inform? To influence?

de Bono asks:

Why should we bother to spell out a concept if we are using it successfully without ever having had it spelled out? There is something to be said for operating on a sort of intuitive basis while things are going well. But when they start to go bad then it becomes very difficult to escape from the old concept. It is also difficult to assess a proposed new direction if we cannot really tell how new it is.

So, again, I ask what is the concept of conservation in relation to wild salmon? (or stewardship, or ecosystem integrity, or…)

Is conservation of wild salmon so that people can catch them? Is it conservation so that bears can eat them? Is it conservation so that trees can aborb the nutrients?

Things haven’t been going all that well on the conservation front for wild salmon. Things have been, and are continuing to, go rather badly if we look over the last fifty years or so. So how are we proposing a “new direction” (as suggested in Fisheries and Oceans Wild Salmon Policy)? And how ‘new’ is this approach? New to who?

Is the concept of conservation, as the definition of concept suggests, a general idea derived or inferred from specific instances or occurrences? Is the concept of conservation, something formed in the mind; a thought or notion’? Is it a ‘scheme; a plan?

It is definitely complex, confusing at times, and complicated. However, I do see a general bias in the concept that is apparently guiding how one institution proposes the concept of conservation of wild salmon.

See next post, for further discussion – this one has become pretty long….

2 thoughts on “how do you define a 'concept'?

  1. salmonguy

    Oh yes, however, the word (or concept) of preservation can be a sensitive one with many folks when it comes to wild salmon…. for example, preserve for what, and for whom?

    Continuing on the ‘map’ analogy and illustration in the post. Conservation may be ‘Prince George’ on the map, and preservation may be ‘Jasper’. They are distinct communities (or concepts) yet connected by roads.

    I’ll expand a bit more on another post…

    And, yes, I think de Bono does get the contrast between “prevention” and “treatment”. Curious enough, contrast the various examples that he raises for discussion – fast-food, and chocolate bars…

    It is also this, what some folks might label cross-discipline, thinking that I hope to continue to build on.

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