Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#5) — On false façades and smoke screens

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The two false façades at London’s Leinster Gardens, numbers 23 and 24, which played a part in His Last Vow, an episode of the BBC television series Sherlock.

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

On false façades and smoke screens

When talking to Kenneth Mikkelsen recently, we discussed how difficult it can be to find clients who want to work with people ‘like us.’ We both don’t fit into a single category. We are neither consultants nor interim managers, but multidisciplinarians who traverse what many people see as separate worlds — constantly shifting between roles, bringing together diverse people and ideas, and addressing the fundamental issues that confront us in order to shape a better future. We believe this to be not only a strong message, but also a highly necessary one. Yet, strong and necessary doesn’t make for an ‘easy sell.’ But why?

First, it’s a question of language — of being able to understand eachother. To us, as neo-generalists, bridging disciplines and being at the edge of inside is second nature, while most leaders we talk to are firmly rooted in their silos. There seems to be a C-suite role for almost everything, yet neither of us has ever come across a Chief Bridging Officer. Even the ones who are responsible for innovation and transformation often have limited responsibilities, mostly for the renewal of products and services — hardly ever for re-inventing the entire business. And while they talk about exploitation and ‘being,’ Kenneth and I, talk about exploration and ‘becoming.’ This is not just a different language of words — a vocabulary. It’s also a different language of the mind, which makes it even more difficult to understand eachother.

But there’s more to it than ‘just’ language. Yesterday, I came across a tweet by Esko Kilpi. There are two different ways to understand ‘digital,’ he wrote. It is “either seen as a front-end and customer interface or a new, connected way to think and act.”

Immediately, I thought about this image of Leinster Gardens in Bayswater, London. Standing in front, Leinster Gardens looks like an ordinary row of Empire houses, built in the early 19th century. You’d never know the houses at numbers 23 and 24 are fakes, until you see the train tracks on the other side.

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Behind the false façades at Leinster Gardens, numbers 23 and 24.

When the London Underground was being constructed in the 1860s, rather than tunneling under existing buildings, deep tunnels were dug through the city and then covered up again. The houses at 23 and 24 Leinster Gardens were demolished to build the tunnel connecting Paddington with Bayswater. They were, however, never reconstructed. This left a rather unsightly hole in an otherwise very sightly block of 5-story houses. And so, a false façade was constructed to conceal the wound. They did a really nice job; you could live in that neighborhood for years, walking by this address frequently, and still not notice the deception if you’re not looking for it. However, from the back of the block you can see what’s going on. The houses on either side of the façade are braced against each other by a number of sturdy steel struts, and the Underground tracks are visible — and most audible — just below.

And this is precisely how organisations understand not only digital, but also innovation and change. They build façades, whether a front-end or customer interface, innovation labs or change programs. From the outside, it may look ‘the real McCoy,’ like the houses at numbers 23 and 24 Leinster Gardens, but round the back, it’s all, well, rather empty.

I don’t build façades, and neither does Kenneth. We build different ways of thinking — ‘mind palaces.’ It’s the architecture of our mind that determines not only how we think, but also how we act — what we do, and how we do it. Building ‘mind palaces’ is a tough sell though, especially when façades seem to work so well. After all, those in Leinster Gardens have fooled many people for years.

Apart from these physical façades — customer interfaces, labs, programs, and things like that — there is often also a fictional façade — a smoke screen of words, of empty vocabulary. “But we do all that,” is something I often hear. My answer is almost always, “No, you don’t. You talk about it, but that’s not the same.”

Most companies and their leadership teams have embraced all the ‘right’ the words. Some have even erected a façade. At the end of the day, though, it is all pretend — nothing more, nothing less. It may very well fool people, but it won’t last forever.

The real answer to today’s challenges isn’t very difficult though, but it’s hard work as it lies in ourselves — in what we believe, the assumptions we make, the way we perceive the world. It requires us to explore our ‘value and belief system’ — to question, rethink, reframe. This is indeed hard work and deeply personal, but it is also highly rewarding and meaningful. Peter Drucker was absolutely right (again) when he said that you can’t solve today’s challenges with yesterday’s logic.

So, instead of building false façades and smoke screens, let’s craft beautiful ‘mind palaces.’

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