I’m currently enrolled in a leadership-training program (for reasons I won’t get into). I was told to give a brief presentation on the most impactful lesson from our first training session, several weeks ago. This is the text of what I presented. The last part was… modified… to fit into corporate expectations. I’ll post what my summary would have been if I’d been able to air my true feelings early next week.
In what I’ve come to think of as the 6F/9F Event, we were given a paper, face down. As a group we were told to flip it over and count the number of Fs on the other side, and given 15 seconds to do so. This sentence was on the other side.
Fairness is the final result of years of effective effort combined with the experience of diversity
(note: this next comment wasn’t in the presentation: can we take a moment to marvel at this masterpiece of meaningless feel-good-isms? It’s like the corporate overlord version of a fortune cookie)
If you try to count the Fs yourself you’ll see that there are 6 Fs. Except there aren’t. There are actually 9. However almost all fluent English readers will count 6. The reason for this is the word “of”. Of is a simple preposition, and contains no information in itself, it’s a basic modifier for other nouns. As such, fluent English readers basically integrate it and skip over it as they’re reading. There are three “of”s in the sentence, and since they’re skimmed over the 3 Fs in them aren’t counted. This was of course made worse by the time pressure.
What I found infuriating about this, and why it still comes to mind sometimes, is that it was used as an example of detail-oriented personalities vs. broad-picture personalities. It was claimed that people who saw 6Fs were more of the broad-picture, over-arching master-planner types, and people who saw 9Fs were more the meticulous, attention-to-detail types. They even gave these people names – the 6Fs and the 9Fs.
But this was wrong! This test doesn’t differentiate those personality types at all! It only points out an interesting side effect of how parts of grammar are processed by fluent readers! The only sorting of people this test can do is to separate those who’ve seen this test before and remembered the trick, and those who haven’t. Needless to say, nearly everyone was in the 6F group.
Yet, amazingly, this didn’t stop anyone from accepting their new identities. A test was administered, and tests are definitive. So people who I know are highly-detailed people, and who admitted in that lesson they’d always thought of themselves as “9Fs”, were now generating reasons as to why 6Fs are superior. Specifically why being a person who counted 6 Fs is more desirable than being one who counted 9. I was speechless.
But eventually I came to the conclusion that this was a good lesson. Earlier we had a section titled “Tailoring Your Leadership To Your Audience.” It was mainly a generational-difference sort of thing, and we moved past it pretty quickly. But in retrospect, the 6F/9F Event was a perfect example of that sort of tailoring.
It didn’t matter that “of”-skipping didn’t actually measure how intensely people paid attention to details. What mattered is that as long as people thought that it did, it served as a very useful and very memorable tool for demonstrating different natural levels of detail-orientation. The way the test smacks you in the face with those three missing Fs is really pretty jarring, and it really brings a very visceral aspect to the lesson. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t true, what matters is that it’s a very good teaching aid.
As such, I think the lesson worked double-duty. In addition to the nominal “difference between detailed-view/broad-view people” lesson, it was also an object lesson in the very essence of tailoring how you do something to have the biggest impact on your audience. It obviously worked on me. I’m still thinking about it.