Stranded on the summit.

To make the changes we need to not just survive, but thrive together, we have to go beyond what we know and be guided by what we believe in, our intuition, and our insight.

It’s difficult, because we’re used to proof. A solid business case. Someone to blame if it goes wrong.

We’re used to lionising those who succeed, and castigating those who fail, even when what has been as stake is little more than profitably rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

We’ve entered a period where to progress we need to go into the unknown and be prepared to fail in the pursuit of something worthwhile, whilst we gain the knowledge that will be the platform for the next decades of growth. (hint; people will be more important than systems)

Which brings me to an issue I see. Most of our training around innovation, creativity and leadership is formulaic. Designed for what we have been doing, not what we need to do. It is well delivered, professional, often expensive but has short time horizons. Its’ usefulness also has a short half life in periods of rapid change.

The capabilities we need to develop are significantly different. They address what is emerging but not yet clear, and focus on different values to the financial ones that have brought us to now. They are varied, developmental, often experiential and address more distant time horizons. They are not always expensive, or at this stage profitable for the providers.

This seems to generate a conflict. These two approaches speak different languages. They have different goals. Each can regard the other with disdain, as either too mundane, or too flaky. We need to resolve this conflict.

(Note – there is evidence of this changing. Attendance at Burning Man and some other settings includes senior leaders from a range of organisations – but we’re only making the tiniest of scratches in a very hard surface.)

We need a bridge; a common language. Otherwise, we get people to deep insights whilst exploring the unknown, and leave them stranded without any way to bring it back into the current mainstream. We can do the work, take them to the top of the mountain, but then leave them there.

The key is delivering insight, often to people who will resist it because it requires new thinking, new habits and new measures all of which are unfamiliar.

It places real loads on leaders who will require very different skills from those we teach in the mainstream.

It requires those of us delivering new ways of seeing to generate insight with a real responsibility to be not just guides, but Sherpas. To go along on the journey, share the load and the risk. To know not just the techniques, but the territory.

(and a High Five to David Chabeaux, who gave me the mountain metaphor. I like it a lot.)

Getting to the top of the mountain is dangerous, and the view is wonderful from there, but as any mountaineer will tell you more people die on the way down than on the way up.

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.

Diminishing Marginal Returns and Entropy.

A long established principle of classical economics. The more we develop something, and the better we get a it, the smaller the benefit of each incremental improvement becomes over time. I really love my latest iPhone, but it hasn’t changed my life the way the first one did. There are now more apps than I can count, but very few do something remarkable.

I am more efficient at what I do than ever before at what I do, but the challenge is that what I do is not as exciting to me as it was when I first set out.

It can be insidious. We progress more slowly, until we end up at a standstill without noticing.

Entropy.

Tomorrow is not there just to have a chance to be better at what I do today, it offers the prospect of noticing things that I won’t notice today.

At any one point I have a choice. To remain secure in what I know, and use it to advance in areas I understand; or to step into areas I don’t understand in the anticipation of finding something new and worthwhile that doesn’t just make be better at my current game, it changes the game.

Stepping from one area into the the other is a constant small act of courage.