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.

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.

Image Credit

The Limits of Specialists

We ended 2014 on something of a perceived high. Specialists were reveling in a recovering economy, jobs growth, and bright prospects for 2015.

As we enter 2015, it feels different. Oil Prices, Greece, Syriza, Elections.

In reality of course, nothing has changed except the people we pay attention to; and we tend to pay attention to specialists. This is not to decry specialists – anything but, they are vital. But there are two sorts.

Firstly, the “professional specialists” – managers, pundits, politicians – those whose living depends on them being seen as the “go to” to help us manage our relationship with uncertainty. The problem tends to be that these specialists see the world through the lens of their specialism, and their status within it. One of their biggest fears is to be seen to be deficient in their knowledge, and are very unlikely to get promoted, or voted for, by saying “I don’t know”.

The second group; I’ll call them “vocational specialists” are different. Their focus is the body of knowledge of their profession, and their purpose is its ability to support and help others – Teachers, Doctors, Social workers. These are people whose ethic is based as much on what they don’t know – being able to spot gaps and anomalies – and use their expertise as a platform for finding out. They have no problem in saying “I don’t know”.

The challenge for us cones when we try to treat them in the same way. The ay we measure teacher’s performance using just hard metrics and financial incentives is not only limiting, it’s hugely demotivating to people whose intrinsic motivation lies elsewhere. Similarly, asking professional specialists to use anything other than hard data to measure their performance is equally limiting.

What we have lost along the way is the role of the generalist – those who look at the bigger picture without the blinkers of a specialist, have an understanding of both sides, who are able to allocate specialists appropriately, and maintain a constructive balance so that all are giving their best, learning, and enjoying what they do.

At a time of increasing uncertainty, we need generalists. The best are likely to act as “Consigliere” – advisers and influencers (though the image of “The Godfather” might cloud perception!). Another model might be a Concierge. These types of individual make things happen, make sure context is maintained, and keep things together – enabling the specialists to do their best work. It is a very real, and very challenging, position.

As we get into our stride in 2015, the one thing we can be certain of is that events will occur which will confound specialist predictions. Those who rely on specialists alone will carry the burden – as happened in 2008.

Maybe one of the challenges for us is to create a better balance, and recognize generalists for the perspective and balance they bring, so that we end up less surprised than we might otherwise be.

Being less surprised is more prepared, and more prepared is more successful.