A knife, a ball, a piece of paper

These are a few of my favorite things… (O.k., I also like raindrops on roses, as in the song, but that’s a different story…)

Because when I want to do stuff, a knife, a ball and a piece of paper are perfect. “Why?” you wonder. And even more confusing: “What kind of stuff is she planning to do? Do we have to be scared???” My answer is: “Anything!” And that’s why I like them, because these are the kinds of things that you can do about anything with. I love cooking and do a lot of it. That’s why it drives me crazy when people try to convince me that I need all kind of specialized gadgetery: Egg boiler, rice cooker, bread baker, lemon zester, asparagus pot… No I don’t. I need a good knife, a cutting board, two pots, a good pan. Now let’s get cooking, I’m hungry.

Knife Sharpeners in Kashgar, China (copyright by watchsmart on Flickr)

A ball? Well, the anthropologist John Fox has written a whole book about it (The Ball: Discovering the object of the game) and in this entertaining interview on NPR he explains how the mix of predictability and unpredictability and the fact that you can play so many different games with a ball, has made playing ball an important past-time from rather brutal ballgames of the Aztecs to Soccer World Cups of today.

A piece of paper? I don’t even have to do there, do I? You can write ANYTHING on a piece of paper, no limitations, or draw something, keep a table from wobbling, start a fire, even crumble it up and use it as a ball.

Now, where do all these thoughts come from? I recently attended a summer clinic of the World Bank Institute’sGreater than Leadership” program. They showed us a 5 day training course for civil servants around the world that aims at making them more effective leaders and making their reform efforts more successful. And while I was sitting their listening, discussing, giving feedback on tools, concepts and methodologies, I realized: The tools I find most useful are those that work like a knife, a ball, a piece of paper. And I guess that’s why I’m still hooked on Social Network Analysis – because it’s not a rice cooker or banana slicer, specialized for just one situation. But any situation where you have many different actors (individuals, groups, organizations), who are somehow connected (formal, informal, flow of goods or money, friendship or hatered…), Social Network Analysis can tell you something interesting about the situation and give you insights in the system dynamics which you would have missed without…

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