Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#17) — Trying to make sense of the world

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Swans, by M.C. Escher, wood engraving, 1956.

“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 (Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

Trying to make sense of the world

Stuck. We all know the feeling. We have tried everything we can possibly think of and, yet, nothing seems to work.

“We had this all-encompassing change program, but in the end, nothing has really changed.”

“We have been innovating by the book, literally, but the result was just ‘more of the same.’”

“No matter how hard we try, we always seem to end up where we came from — exactly where we already are today.”

These are the kind of things I hear almost daily. In the end, we blame the change program or the book. We bring in fresh consultants with yet another box full of tools and solutions, jump on the latest bandwagon or we might stop trying altogether because nothing seems to work anyway. Stuck.

But the real problem isn’t the program, nor the book. The real problem lies in ourselves — in how we think and how we think about our thinking. In what we believe to be true, the assumptions we make, and the mental models we use to help us make sense of the world.

And when we try to make sense of the world, we generally use concepts which we haven’t invented ourselves but reflect the shared understandings within our community — our industry, organisation and even our team. We tend not to question these views and as we often surround ourselves with people who share our beliefs, they are constantly being reinforced — not only leaving less and less room for cognitive diversity but also creating ‘blind spots.’

But without this diversity in thinking, many leadership and innovation teams struggle to reinvent themselves and their company. After all, it is not without reason that many industries are being disrupted by ‘outsiders’ who look at the world with fresh eyes. They ask different questions, use different mental models to interpret their environment and understand themselves, and lack a legacy of entrenched beliefs about how things ‘should’ work.

So we can safely say that ‘thinking about thinking’ — thinking about how we can understand ourselves and the world around us — isn‘t a philosophical nicety. It is a crucial business necessity for people who not merely want to cope with complexity, but also learn and thrive in it. Your ability to do this may very well make or break your personal and your company’s relevance, now and in the future.

“Alice looked round her in great surprise. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’” — Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass.

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helping leaders navigate complexity with confidence & clarity of thought | varius multiplex multiformis

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