At the dawn of a new decade, analysts, practitioners, and academicians have a found common ground in the need to deliver future economic stability and growth. Many have dusted and brought back the old cliché of ‘thinking out of the box’.
‘What box?’ One might ask; for if you think ‘outside the box’ your construct is relative to ‘the box’. As Einstein puts it, “our observations are always shaped by the theory through which we see”. What if there was no box?!
Many have referred to events of the past year as largely unprecedented; the global economic landscape has changed to levels not previously foreseen, the balance of power has shifted, the political dynamics has been raised to new levels, and even the pattern of global and regional weather has changed! If the nature of the problem is unprecedented, surely our approach to the solution must be unprecedented.
Organisations often succumb to what has been referred to as ‘active inertia’ – they respond to disruptive changes in the environment by accelerating activities that worked in the past. Managers take actions in the present that lock their trajectories in the future based on their experiences of the past, and some ‘newly found’ creativeness that is ‘out of the box.’ In many of our international leadership events, we spend considerable time on reverse stress testing, exploring ‘why visions fail’, ‘why good leaders become toxic’ and ‘why good companies go bad’. After many mind mapping and brain storming attempts, people have often concluded by stating the ‘unknown unknowns’.
Recognising the challenges involved with dealing with the unknowns, one could put in place a robust risk management framework with intelligent hard and soft data capture to provide strategic navigation into the future. Indeed, such frameworks can themselves become blinders, especially if the focus on critical issues and probabilities obscure peripheral vision into emerging threats and opportunities.
Boards and Management now need to push further on enabling creativity, innovation and improvisation in such a way that front line managers are less driven by rules and frameworks, but by imagination. As a veteran of strategic performance and risk management, I find myself often biting my tongue when I encourage managers to be sufficiently brave and bold in stretching their imagination. After all, as JFK said, ‘it is better to try and fail, than to fail to try’. We cannot see what we are missing if we do not know what it is that we do not know.
How far, however, should Boards encourage such imagination to stretch? Especially knowing that by sticking simply to what we can measure, we come to imagine a small and constrained world in which we are prisoners of a ‘reality’ that is in fact an edifice constructed around ourselves and environment. Certainly, a trajectory based on an analysis of the past is simply an extrapolation, and nothing more! Charles Sanders Peirce, in the late 19th Century pointed out that no new idea in the world was ever produced by inductive or deductive logic. To successfully develop a culture of innovation in both the private and public sectors, you need to allow for ‘crazy’ type imagination. I recently asked a group of executives and Board members at a leadership workshop to come up with an idea that is both bizarre and impossible. Time after time, they came back with suggestions that were simply an extension of the knowns. To successfully utilise that part of the brain that is suggested to produce creativity, we have to see Leadership as more of an art than a science.