Tuesday Tip: Flat Earth Thinking
The date was 16 February. The year was 1600. The place was Italy. The person was Giordano Bruno. He was about to be burnt at the stake. He had one more chance to recant his crazy, heretical view that the sun was the centre of the solar system. He refused.
Bruno is not the name we normally associate with this issue and period of history. The more famous names are Copernicus and Galileo who had first put forward the heliocentric view. Under pressure from the Church and society leaders, though, Copernicus did not publish his views in his lifetime and Galileo recanted. Bruno, however, faced the full consequences of holding a view that was opposed to the orthodoxy of the age. He paid the ultimate price for doing so.
We now know, of course, that they were right. And the prevailing view was wrong.
In our book, ‘Leading in a Changing World‘, Keith Coats and myself talk of the power – and danger – of “flat earth thinking” in our world today. This describes the inability to let go of outdated models and received wisdom. Every industry has these “dogmas” that govern how things are done. They’re often entrenched even further as industries go through annual competitor analyses and industry benchmarking exercises – mainly checking themselves against the things that everyone else is already doing.
Challenging the received wisdom and dogmas of your industry or function can be scary. It can bring scorn from colleagues, push back from your system, and sometimes even a loss of your job. But we need more people who are prepared to do this now than ever. We need people who will recognise that the 2020s are not just going to be a continuation of the world we’ve grown up in, that every industry in the world is facing disruptive change, and that to be successful in the decade that lies ahead we might need to do – and think – things we have never done – or thought – before.
So what can you do:
- Don’t feel you always have to have the answers, and especially don’t feel you always have to be right. This is a shift in leadership model that Keith and I talk about a lot in our book. At one level it is just a switch you need to flick, but of course, we realise that this is not as easy to do as it is said. Our book is filled with practical ideas on how to become “future fit”, including the next three:
- Check your cognitive biases, especially your confirmation bias. When you begin to study cognitive biases (look up, for example the anchoring bias and framing bias) you will realise just how powerful they are. For example, if a restaurant has five wines on its wine list, people will typically choose either the second or third most expensive. By simply adding another much more expensive wine to the menu, they can significantly increase the amount the average diner will spend.
But the most powerful of biases is the confirmation bias. Our brains are programmed to confirm what we already believe. Think about it: if you read an article in a magazine and it matches up perfectly with what you already believe, you might think, “this journalist is very clever.” If the article contradicts what you believe, you’ll think, “this journalist is an idiot”. Confirmation bias plays out all the time at work. We need to acknowledge it exists, understand how it works, and implement strategies to counter its effects.
- Encourage questions. Too many leaders think they need to have all the answers, whereas actually the best leaders have great questions. Think about it: would you rather work for a boss who has answers that are difficult to question, or work for someone with questions that are difficult to answer?
Here’s a really fun way to find great questions to set your team up for the 2020s. If you look back at the 1980s, what crazy things did we used to do that we wouldn’t dream of doing now? I think of smoking in airplanes and restaurants, permed hair and fearing that my girlfriend’s father would answer when I phoned her. Which also reminds me of shared lines – talking to my girlfriend and then her brother would pick up the second phone and interrupt – which reminds me of needing to get off the phone so we could dial up the internet. And so the list goes on. Now, imagine that you’re living in the 2050s, looking back on our era. What are the crazy things you look back on and say, “why did we used to do that in 2019?” Turn these ideas into questions about why you do these things now.
- Be the second person to speak. This is one of my favourite stories and exercises. Imagine when the Nokia manager came back from investigating the new cellphone market and tried to explain to the executive team that this company that had been in foresty, rubber and cabling should start building things called “mobile phones”. The first person to make this suggestion must have sounded crazy.
History might celebrate them now for their foresight; but I think the hero of the story is the person who spoke second. After the crazy idea was presented, and the leadership team started to give reasons why they were crazy, there must have been a second person who said, “no, wait, let them speak, this might not be as crazy as it sounds”. The rest is history (sadly for Nokia, they seem to have gotten rid of all these people, and lost their way later.) You don’t have to be a creative genius. You don’t have to be a world class innovator. You don’t have to be the one prepared to be burnt at the stake. All you need to be is the person who says, “no wait, maybe this isn’t so crazy.”
But maybe you are the one who will stand up against the dogmas of your industry. Maybe you are the one who will challenge the received wisdom. Maybe you are the one who can show your team a different way of thinking. If so, don’t be quiet. Let your voice be heard. It’s needed now more than ever.
Grab a copy of Keith and Graeme’s updated 2019 edition of Leading in a Changing World today!
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