All Fur Coat and No Knickers

Have you heard the phrase All Fur Coat and No Knickers?  It's an old phrase used to describe people who have all the style and outward appearances, but no real substance underneath to back it up.  People like this exist in many fields, and they consistently amaze me.  It's not their existence that amazes me, it's the fact that they are often so successful at being taken seriously.

We live in a time when more words than ever have become buzzwords so ubiquitous that they have come to mean both everything and nothing at the same time.  Think about the terms "innovation", "design thinking", and "strategy", just to name a few.  Add to that the common belief that any idea bigger than a pithy sound bite is not worth listening to, and we have set conditions that can keep truly substantive ideas from ever seeing the light of day.

Think about this the next time you are in a meeting and watch people's reactions to different ideas being presented.  We tend to think that when we are presented with an idea that seems foreign or a bit difficult to understand that the person presenting it doesn't know what they are talking about.  And on the other hand, we tend to think that when presented with an idea that makes immediate sense or is consistent with what we want to hear, that the person presenting it is brilliant.

If we all learned to look beyond the fur coat, think of the massive waste that could be avoided.  Could Ponzi schemes have succeeded if more people looked beyond what they wanted to hear?  Not likely. I'm not saying all fur coats are bad.  On the contrary, helping to make an idea more easily understood or engaging is a very good thing if it helps more people to grasp the knickers that lie beneath it. However, too many engaging ideas have no knickers supporting them, and we don't take the time to call this out.  When this happens, the style wins over the substance, and it's our own fault.

I have seen a lot written in the past few weeks about New Year's Resolutions to get back to the depth of thought and engagement that we seem to have lost as our communication norms have so heavily relied on sound bites.  Tools like Twitter are great ways to enable us to broaden our reach, but I have found that they are best used as vehicles to open a meaningful conversation, rather than replace a meaningful conversation.

The next time someone is presenting you with a new idea, take a few minutes and try to understand whether there is any substance underlying the thought. The more we can do this, we can help the fur coats to do what they do best - make great ideas more accessable and engaging, and keep them from being used to cover up the fact that there is nothing underneath.