Refracting Ideas

In physics, refraction is the change in direction of a wave passing from one medium to another or from a gradual change in the medium. Today, in times of rapid and unpredictable change, we are all a form of medium. We take in ideas in one form, and turn them into something slightly different that we direct at those we associate with. This has an interesting implication – the quality of the light we absorb determines the quality of what we emit.

While sitting in my study reading, a thought occurred as a shaft of autumn sunlight played off some glass on my desk to create a rainbow on the wall. Like all of us who do what I do, reading is vital to our “stock in trade”. It is fuel for insight and a part of our responsibility to clients, do the reading they don’t have time to, and generate a continual series of challenges to our thinking and understanding. When things change this quickly anything less makes us stale faster than an artisan sourdough loaf.

It brings with it a challenge – how to filter what we take in. If we filter too tightly, we end up in a silo and lose our “peripheral vision” – that field where the adjacent possible lives which can often take a client conversation in a different direction. On the other hand, filter too loosely, and we end up in the shallows – a broad expanse of mediocrity provided by those who recycle already well-used ideas as though they are novel.

It gets complicated by the sheer volume of content on offer – books, videos, podcasts, newsletters, webinars, discussion groups – the list gets ever longer. And there is a form of FOMO – fear of missing out – that I will miss something important I should have seen.

The answer does not lie in the digests of various forms – ‘growth” conferences and webinars, or business school and magazines, or probably, in my view, worst of all, “accreditation” to some consulting or coaching body. They were perhaps useful when things moved less fast, and “proven solutions” had a longer half-life, but in the days of sourdough bread lifespans, they are a liability. Ideas that the internet made available the moment they were spoken. We’re not doing our job if we have to wait for them to be served up to us like some all-you-can-eat buffet.

The answer, I believe, is as straightforward as it is challenging. To spend time sharing our thoughts and ideas with others who do the same as we do. A latter-day version perhaps of mediaeval Guilds, where masters of their craft gathered to set standards, share knowledge, and find company.

I’ve been doing that now for several years – finding the most interesting people I can, giving away and accepting ideas and contacts, and developing approaches in the knowledge that there is more than enough business for all of us.

We all gain if we are focused enough on what we do and set our filters appropriately. I benefit from sharing ideas with people in India, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the USA. I get insights, understanding, provocation, supervision from the most interesting people I have ever worked with, most of whom I am unlikely to meet and have formed lasting friendships. Necessity was ever necessity was the mother of invention. In this case, this is an excellent example of what a pandemic initiated. It bodes well for the creativity that will be borne of the pressures of climate change, AI and other significant challenges.

Breaking sweat doing more of what we know and what used to work does not serve us. because problems are not solved at the same level of complexity that created them. What we need now, individually and collectively, is connection with shared values. From that will come ideas that will generate action and which, in turn, will clarify our purpose.

When we are mindful about our input, the output we need will emerge.

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