As published on page 13 in today’s Business Newsday, Trinidad and Tobago April 5th 2012 and online here http://www.newsday.co.tt/businessday/0,158061.html
“I really admire how you read so much Giselle. How I wish I had that kind of time available – I would do just as you are and probably read just as much,” said a department manager of a company where I’d just delivered the results of a customized research program. She said it in a way that implied I had a lot of time on my hands, was not as busy as she was – as the demands for her time were far greater than those for mine. In her busy schedule where would she find the time for the reading luxury?
I understand that in today’s business world people are busy but let’s stop for a moment and think about today’s business climate.
Today’s business climate is a lot like the weather. Lame jokes abound across the world – like this one from Sweden about the weather “Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes.” And it would be funny if it weren’t so true. This was Kate Reuterswärd’s (an American, a serial expat, and a travel addict) description about the weather in Sweden: “I woke up in the morning to sun, which already is a big success in March. Then I packed up my things and went back to Malmö, where I proceeded to sit at the same table in front of the same windows for five hours while teaching English. During the five hours I spent in front of those windows, the sun gave way to hail, which receded and then came back again twice as strong, setting off car alarms and ricocheting off of innocent pedestrians as they scrambled for cover. Then hail session number two eased into a blizzard-like snow, which, within an hour, became torrential rain. Then about half an hour before my scheduled 3 pm departure time, the sun came out, and I was able to unzipper my coat on my bike ride home.” And this ladies and gentlemen is business today. It’s not just about uncertainty. It’s about chaos!
Any business owner ignoring this ‘new world’ is doing so at her own peril. In a February 2012 Fast Company article called ‘Generation Flux’ writer Robert Safian says “Despite recession, currency crises, and tremors of financial instability, the pace of disruption is roaring ahead. The next decade or two is going to be defined more by fluidity than by any new, settled paradigm; if there is a pattern to all this, it is that there is no pattern. The most valuable insight is that we are in a critical sense, in a time of chaos.”
So how do we plan to thrive in this unpredictable climate that we find ourselves in? The truth is that we don’t know what we don’t know or what we will need to know in the future. Safian says, “The security of the forty-year career of the man in the gray flannel suit may have been overstated, but at least he had a path, a ladder. Today there is a constant pressure to learn new things and adapt to new work situations with no guarantee that you will be in the same business or industry for that matter long term. This can be at the same time – daunting, exhausting yet exhilarating. “
“Fear holds a lot of people back” says Raina Kura, 34, showcased in the same article. “I’m skill hoarding. Every time I update my resume, I see the path I didn’t know would be. You keep throwing things into your backpack, and eventually you’ll have everything in your toolkit.”
What does this say for business owners and knowledge gathering? First off we must embrace learning as a lifelong experience – not a collection of facts or skills. Whatever we learned in school is no longer all we need to know. What got us to where we are now in our businesses won’t be the same combination of activities to take us where we want to be. According to Dr. Denis Waitley, hundreds of scientific papers are published daily. Every 30 seconds some new technological company produces yet another innovation. Your formal education has a very short shelf life.
In order to thrive in this ambiguity we need to have a new attitude towards learning. We need to take learning under our own belt. Teach ourselves, learn new ideas on the run. Dig deep enough to understand not just the “how” but the “why”.
As leaders we already know that we cannot get by without thoroughly knowing our field but thinking that we are experts is dangerous. Figuring that we know all there is to know is foolhardy. Instead of being driven by curiosity, you become driven to defend what you’ve previously researched, invented, created, marketed or published. Reciting safe answers, you stop saying the liberating words “I don’t know” and instead make silly excuses that just inflate your sense of self that you hope will mask your ignorance.
Tom Wolfe once observed that what a good journalist needs most of all is “portable ignorance,” an ability to put aside what he or she “knows” in order to receive other points of view without prejudice. I think it’s what today’s business owners and leaders need as well.
If not we run the risk of clinging to assumptions without determining whether they have factual foundation; losing our curiosity and paying less attention to our business climate. No doubt we won’t survive with this attitude because we will never be able to handle our “unpredictable business weather.”