I once worked in a large bureaucratic organisation. I was struck by many aspects of the toxic culture, but one aspect of the experience remains with me to this day. Many people in the organisation appeared visibly much older than the age they actually were. It didn’t take long to figure out why and it had nothing to do with genetics or environmental pollution, but everything to do with caged lifeforce. It led to an effect I call the “Reverse Dorian Gray” effect. Before I explain what this is, a very quick recap of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray may help (skip if you know it already).
Just as an organization should explore new business models, a bee population explores new hive locations. My point in sharing this analogy is both to emphasise how there is always a small percentage who search for alternatives but also to highlight how the scout bee communicates and sells her idea.
Life’s animating force compels us to evolve, but unlike the crab and the caterpillar, many of us ignore that inner calling to change. We often hear the whispers in moments of silence: a walk in the wilderness, a moment in the shower, a vacant stare in the distance. We silence the internal voice with busyness, to-do lists, important-but-not-urgent tasks, entertainment, the contents of the fridge, anything but unearthing our destiny. Instead of changing, we cling to the familiar, even though we are compelled to evolve.
It is critical to realise that our schemas, these mental shortcuts, while beneficial can produce biases and prejudices that often obscure the truth. As our recent guest on the Innovation Show, Elliot Aronson told us, “Unless we recognize our cognitive limitations we will be enslaved by them.”
leaders are time-strapped, but a major part of transformation efforts includes leaders making time to provide the extrinsic motivation necessary to kindle the intrinsic motivation that may have extinguished inside your people.
Just as innovation-focused restaurants have realised it is better to structure reinvention in a different way to repetition, established companies must empower different teams to manage and conduct reinvention efforts within their organisations. Once they have stumbled upon a successful product, then they can transfer it to an execution team to perfect, refine and replicate. These are different modes of being, thinking and measuring.
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Nonetheless, it takes a lot of courage to go against the grain, to paddle one’s own canoe, to resist conformity. The irony is that the progress of humankind depends on those people who resist conformity who embrace what Rollo May called creative courage.
The title of Aristotle’s “Politics” literally means “the things concerning the city”. It is the origin of the modern English word politics. In the book, he tells the story of a 7th century BC tyrant named Thrasybulus. Thrasybulus asked his fellow oppressor, Periander of Corinth for advice on how he should govern his people. Without uttering a word, Periander walked over to a grove of poppies and lopped off their flowering heads. The message was clear “do away with eminent citizens” and “don’t let them grow above their station.” This is (one of) the origins of the term Tall Poppy Syndrome. Tall Poppy Syndrome refers to the mindset where those people who stick their head above the parapet are resented, criticized, and cut down.
Disagreement is painful. Burns’ work suggests that not only are our brains not wired for truly independent thought, but it takes a huge amount of effort to overcome the fear of standing up for one’s own beliefs and speaking out. Those people who speak up with the intention to course correct the business before a calamity should be welcomed, but they are often ostracised and outcast.
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In a business environment in perpetual flux, we must learn how to unlearn, relearn and learn anew in permanence. Unlike robots, we have the ability to rapidly remap our mental models to adapt to big shifts in any environment. Doing so is often accompanied by concerns of what others will think, fear or failure or the worry that we may encounter setbacks and shame. Robots do not feel that, that is a human frailty. To recalibrate to relentless changes in our world, we must not cling too rigidly to our business models, nor our mental models.