Not Knowing – a critical business skill

There’s an interesting, and I think important theme emerging. As we tiptoe out of the caution of the last seven years, and entertain the idea of ambitious business growth, rather than survival and incremental growth, the rules have changed.

We are discovering the limitations of expertise.

Expertise and knowledge are great in relatively static conditions, and we come to rely on the “schemata” – ways of thinking, built on experience, that govern what we take notice of. Expertise gets us promoted, makes our businesses work and allows us to train people to do things. And that is now a problem.

Almost all of the clients I work with are trying to deal with a paradox. How do they make the most of today, knowing that it is becoming obsolescent – but not knowing with any precision what is coming next.

We like certainty (uncertainty, unless it’s nature is properly understood, generated the same reactions as fear), but in order to thrive tomorrow we need to develop confidence in “Not Knowing”. (If you want more, Google “Flawed but Willing” by Khurshed Dehnugara, and “Not Knowing” by D’Souza)

When we can lean into not knowing, we can lose the fear of being wrong, and fully engage the real capabilities we need going forward – imagination, creativity and collaboration. We can find allies in adjacent areas. We can reimagine.

“Experts” are useful for what you do today, but a liability if they are relied on to guide you into tomorrow. they don’t know either. Your best guide to tomorrow is you.

We are in the middle of massive change that will see that majority of routine accounting, legal, insurance and medical skills replaced by technology. Accountants, Lawyers and the rest will not disappear – we’ll just need fewer of them, with deeper understanding of and imagination regarding the field.

Success tomorrow will be driven by real purpose, joy in what we do, creativity, and the ability to imagine and explore with the confidence of a four year old.

At GrowHouse, we are working with clients on how to explore and profitably occupy this emerging territory. If you’d like information mail me richard.merrick@growhouseinitiative.uk ¬†and we can talk more.

Productivity – it’s a mind game

It’s budget day in the UK, and there’s a lot of chatter about productivity – or more accurately, the relative lack of it in the UK. I suspect that, as with many large organisations, including governments, they’re looking in the wrong place.

In the industrial economy mindset, productivity is measured mechanically – outputs – mainly framed in money as a function of inputs – again, mainly measured in money – capital, labour costs etc.The pursuit of it has also taken a mechanical, process path. Quality, Process, Lean, Six Sigma. All very valuable, but finite tools.

In a connection economy, the prime driver of productivity is bandwidth – measured as the efficiency and lack of friction in the creation of value. If creativity is the process of turning ideas into value, then the determinants are allowing and enabling people to think creatively, and connect those ideas to places – people, businesses, universities – wherever – where they can thrive.

Most businesses are structured to strangle creativity at birth. Goals (particularly SMART ones) create the focus and pressure that stops creativity in its tracks.

We do not have ideas for money – we have ideas. Everything we know about idea generation, from Dan Pink’s work DRIVE, and the more detailed PUNISHED BY REWARDS (Alfie Kohn) tells us that applying extrinsic rewards to intrinsic motivation kills it.

Great sports coaches don’t teach players to kick a ball, or play a shot – they are working with people who know how to do that. Great coaches work with people to understand their game.

In business, most of our Learning, Development and coaching is focused on behaviour – how to kick the ball, and that’s an industrial era approach.

The answer to the productivity paradox is right in front of us. Helping those we work with to understand their game. It’s about inputs. We know how to process the hell out of inputs, we ‘re just very poor at enabling them.

If we want to increase productivity, we need to do more work, and more getting out of the way, on enabling their generation.

Every business needs a Jester

One of the key challenges we face is the “inattentional blindness” that is created by working under pressure.

One of the most effective ways of becoming (notionally) efficient is to allow our ability to label things full rein. We do most of it naturally and unconsciously, and has been the subject of much research and publications – my own favourites include Margaret Heffernan (Willful Blindness) Daniel Kahnman (all of his work, most recently “Thinking Fast and Slow”) Adam Morgan (A Beautiful Constraint) and Gerd Gigerenzer (Risk Savvy).

The point is this – unless we are attentive to this tendency, we end up stuck in a rut.

As we become successful, we focus on what works well, and that quickly becomes a preferred way of working, which morphs into “the way we do things around here” which very quickly becomes our culture. What started out being exciting and vibrant becomes set in the aspic of what worked in the past.

In the connection economy, where everything is linked, and inherently dynamic this is not only a dangerous thing to allow, it positively cuts us off from the next stage of growth.

There is an aspect of the creativity that drives today’s successful business that, to borrow from Adam Morgan’s book, requires us “to walk in stupid every morning” – in other words, to take nothing for granted, and to test the assumptions that we make – consciously and unconsciously.

The best protection against the rigidity that comes with habit is diversity – gender, race, culture, background. More than ever we need the equivalent of the “Jesters” in the courts of the Middle Ages – the only ones in the court who could speak (or act or parody) truth unto power. They were key to bringing those inconvenient truths out into the open.

We can access this in so many places, from Linkedin Groups to Professional Coaches.

It takes effort, and sometimes money, but the opportunity cost of inattentional blindness makes it a key investment.

In my own work with a wide range of businesses, there is often much attention paid to strategy, but much less to questioning the assumptions upon which those strategies are based. The difference that can be made by engaging with these assumptions is often huge, and drives breakthrough insights.

Every business needs a Jester.

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