March 18, 2018

Greek Wisdom: Techne And Metis

The Greeks had a word for it.

Actually they had two words: techne and metis.

The words describe two very real aspects of any personal skill set. One (techne) represents any pure technical skill like being able to cast a fly over a trout stream with grace and precision. It is a compound of muscle memory of the highest order refined by lots and lots of repetition. We’ve all experienced this. The phrase “it’s just like riding a bike” kind of sums it up. … the kind of activity when well-practiced, becomes almost automatic and requires little or no conscious thought at all.

The other term – metis – signifies the craft acquired by years of trial, error, and learning that wraps the technical skill embodied in techne inside a cocoon of accumulated practical wisdom. In our fly-fishing analogy, metis would represent the ability to “read” a trout stream well enough to position oneself at the best spot on the bank and to skillfully select a fly that reflected what was hatching at the time. It is the combination of the two that can be expected to produce a successful outcome.

I bring this up because I’ve been reflecting upon the current state of training and management development efforts within the U.S. business community.

What I experienced time and again during my working corporate career was that businesses were generally pretty good at training people on the techne side of the ledger and generally woeful about delivering on the metis side.

Sometimes, people will tend to denigrate the value of the potential metis content as “soft skills”…the implication being that they are somehow of less import and value than the sheer technical requirements of any job.

Of course, anyone who’s ever run anything larger than a two-car funeral will tell you that this is nonsense and that it is these so-called soft skills that are often the difference makers in career success and failure.

One of the tricky things about metis is that it usually remains locked within the skulls of those practitioners with the most experience. The challenge is to get it out and disseminated in digestible form to those that need it. To date, I believe that this challenge has gone largely unanswered.

I see this category of knowledge as being divided into two broad segments: the first is critical thinking skills (what I call in my classes at SDSU “Thinking Like A Leader”). The second category is a whole layer of operational craft that is practiced by your most experienced staff and line personnel.

Imagine a restaurant server with extensive experience explaining to a rookie how to read the guests at a table, help them through the menu and emerge with a big tip on a large check. Or, perhaps you can envision an experienced auto mechanic recounting how he solved what at first appeared to be an intractable problem with the transmission of a foreign car.

Success in any meaningful endeavor, it seems to me, requires some carefully concocted blend of art and science. Over time, those that find just the right balance between techne and metis will be likely winners in the challenging game we’re all playing.

And those companies that figure out how to distill and disseminate some accumulated wisdom about the “art” side of the ledger will be the biggest winners of all.