The Insight Famine

I suspect that one of the side effects of the austerity mindsets that have been encouraged in the last decade has been an insight famine.

When we’re cautious; when we cannot see or imagine the future clearly, we go into defensive mode. Reduce costs, stick with a slightly newer version of what we already know. Acquire and hoard rather than invent and share.

The creation of the worthwhile, the things that improve our world and the human condition are rarely done gradually. The breakthroughs are just that – breakthrough. Not improvements, not marginal, rarely guaranteed, often career threatening. We do them because they matter, not for a few extra bucks.

We have become incredibly good at efficiency, processes and systems, but poor at real breakthrough. In the West, the vast majority have seen little improvements in their incomes, and marked deterioration in their standards of living. The increases in earnings generated by efficiencies and systems have gone to a tiny minority.

Not, much as it would be satisfying to report because of some great conspiracy, but merely because of the systems we have built that hold us in thrall.

So, rather than create new we defend what we have. We demonise others, promote individualism, sow the seeds of fear of the other.

The problem of course is that it’s not sustainable. We can’t prepare for a famine by practicing starving. We’ve just about exhausted what has created our wealth for the last two hundred years, from the economic systems to the viability of the planet.

Breakthrough is never, ever safe, needs leaders who understand that and those of us that choose to follow them to accept the risks.

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance a whole lot less”

Eric Shineseki

To create the change we need, we will have to go right to the edge of what we know, what we trust, and what we find safe and step beyond. Deal with what we find.

I’m very aware that 75 years ago, my father and his friends did that.

With a bit of luck, we can honour their memory by not allowing a similar set of circumstances to evolve, but we will have to show the same level of moral courage and resolve to step into the unknown.

What is at stake is just as fundamental if we don’t.

Reflections from the edge

We each have our own personal “edge”. It is the point beyond which we have difficulty going. Ancient map makers used to mark areas of the world they had not explored “here be dragons”. Stephen Pressfield talks about “ The Resistance”. Seth Godin talks about “The Lizard”, and in his original ground breaking work, Tim Galwey suggested a simple equation;

Performance=Potential minus Interference

Where interference is all the things that define the edge for us – approval of others, self belief, and the internal voices of “should, must and have to”.

All of these ideas point to the same thing – our own self limiting beliefs. It is not fault, or weakness – it is largely hard wired. Much has been written elsewhere by neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, behavioral economists and others (and if you want details, you can find summaries and book links at

I suggest for all practical purposes, we can simplify these findings into two critically important areas. Firstly, our brains are pattern making organs – we interpret our internal and external worlds into our own unique version of reality. Secondly, Evian Gordon, an “Integrative Neuroscientist” points out quite elegantly that we “walk towards reward, but run away from danger”. So, we create our own reality, and then react to that creation. That gives the “edge” formidable power.

Early years educators will point out that we have largely created our own view of the world by the time we are seven. We then take these attitudes and dispositions through education to arrive in hugely varying degrees of readiness at the threshold of the world of work.

We created formal mass education at the start of the industrial revolution with a single purpose in mind – to create the assets needed to effectively populate an industrial economy. It was spectacularly successful. Until the late twentieth century and the arrival of the Internet and its handmaiden technologies. Almost overnight, knowledge was commoditized, available worldwide to the vast majority of the global population. Alongside globalization and the pursuit of lowest cost, our manufacturing base went from local, to regional, to global within a generation. And the industrial model of education fell into disrepair every bit as much as the mill towns of northern England.

This move has fundamentally changed the rules. What used to be the foundation of a safe career – an accumulation of knowledge and process skills – has evaporated. First in manufacturing, then in lower level service jobs, and now in, well, pretty much everything that can be reduced to process. IBM’s “Watson” computer first took the quiz shop “Jeopardy” by storm, and is now a more advanced medical diagnostician than any human physician.

So now we have a reversed situation. The ability of people to imagine rather than process is at a premium. The power of insight, or intuition, or relationship is key. The very things that for the vast majority of people, have been pushed deep into the background by industrial education.

But not extinguished. For most of us, it resides just beyond the “edge”. We can relearn (again, a nod to the neuroscientists and “neuroplasticity” – our capabilities are far more flexible than we used to think)

It’s time to explore the edge. There no rules and no courses. I have been working with Myles Downey and others on exploring concepts of “Enabling Genius” – identifying and enabling the unique insights and capabilities that we all have, but which for many do not fall into the convenient labels of conventional descriptors.

The discomfort we may feel at the pace of change in the way we work may just be the key to a much brighter future for those who are prepared to explore beyond the edge.

You can see more on this on the GrowHouse blog