A bit over 5 years ago, I wrote a series of articles for the Enneagram Monthly on a pragmatic approach to the Enneagram, titled “The Notes and the Melody.” My ideas have evolved slightly since then, though I still hold the same basic premises for the most part. I’d like to revisit some of those ideas in this and subsequent blog posts.
In the first part of that series I identified four basic principles for teaching the Enneagram in the business world, the first of which is: Less is More and Simple is better than Complicated. The longer I use the Enneagram in my work with executives, the more certain I am about the importance of this idea.
I recently spoke with a client named Mike, a senior director of engineering, who was going to make a presentation as part of a business review before the CEO and senior leadership team of the company. This would be his first time presenting to that level of the company. He spent many hours preparing a lengthy, detailed product overview on in PowerPoint and was quite proud of his work when he emailed it to his boss, the group general manager. The GM was less impressed, responding with a simple message: “Put it on two slides; max. 5 bullets each. If he wants to know more he will ask.”

The engineer was flummoxed; “How can I possibly communicate the complexity of our business so briefly?” Mike asked me. While I understood Mike’s frustration, I also knew that his GM was correct–the CEO would chew him up and spit him out if he presented as much data as he originally planned. Mike went back to the beginning and spent many more hours streamlining the presentation, which was ultimately well-received by the senior leadership team.
Mike’s challenge is a common one when dealing with executives: the need to introduce complex information concisely and simply without losing impact. This same challenge faces consultants or coaches using the Enneagram in corporate settings–having to communicate a complex topic to busy and attention-taxed people without losing the robustness and usefulness of the system.
This dilemma was the impetus behind principle one. Executives are busy people, and they are generally not seeking to master the full body of Enneagram knowledge. Therefore, a coach or consultant going into organizations would be well-served to develop a way of talking about the Enneagram that is simple but useful, memorable but robust.
It is hard work to take something complex and make it seem simple, and I have learned to focus on two basic concepts: the strategies and the instincts. I tie them together in the taiji diagram shown above and deliver the message that there are two fundamental aspects of our Ennea-type:
  • Our dominant instinctual bias, which identifies our fundamental values and focus of attention, and
  • Our preferred strategy, one of the nine basic approaches to satisfying those values.
Taken together (as in the diagram), this simple model captures what one really needs to know about the Ennea-types–what is important to us and how we go about pursuing it. Once this is understood, we can map a path to self growth and improved relationships. I introduce both basic concepts in my initial meeting with my clients and they guide our work together.
(I use different language when talking about the Ennea-types and instincts than what is typically found in the literature, for reasons I have written about at length in other places. For more on the strategies click here or see our book, “Awareness to Action: The Enneagram, Emotional Intelligence, and Change.” For more on the instincts, read here or view this video.)
The utility of presenting the Enneagram this way is that it is easy to remember, not only about oneself but about one’s coworkers. A Social Nine, for example, understands that at her core, she Navigates the interpersonal domain by striving to peaceful, but her Self-Pres Six co-worker Preserves well-being and resources by striving to be secure. Seeing people in this context allows us to infer a lot of information because behaviors and attitudes are now seen in a very specific light. We start to see the logic behind another’s behavior, and once this logic is understood we can start to modify our interactions accordingly.
This ability of people to infer from basic principles is the reason behind the corollary to this principle: Give them the notes; let them play their own melody. The coach can’t be there to spoon-feed the client specific advice all day, every day; the coach needs to equip the client with tools that they can apply creatively in diverse circumstances.
This does not mean that there is no place for in-depth models, tools, and lots of data. In our example above, Mike could not have done a good job boiling down the business’s product portfolio onto two slides if he didn’t have a good grasp of a vast amount of information. those using the Enneagram must also master a lot of information in order to get to the most-useful kernel. When appropriate, they can reach into their toolkit for in-depth models and tools. If they go too deep too soon, they will overwhelm their client.
It is important to keep things simple (which is not to say that one’s approach to the Enneagram should be simplistic). Zen teacher Sunryu Suzuki said that being enlightened is simple–stand straight and breathe–but he spent his life teaching ideas extrapolated from that basic idea. Likewise, the Enneagram is a system that justifies years and years of study, and nearly two decades in I still discover new insights about the system all the time. But without the simple, easy-to-grasp way of talking about the Enneagram you will lose the attention of most executives.

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