Conversations with business leaders over the past few months have surprised me—a lot.
Many of them preside over what are almost universally regarded as some of the worlds most respected organizations. A few of these organizations have in fact “written the book” on much-admired management or production philosophies.
Yet, in what is a first in my 25-year career—more than a few business leaders are acknowledging their hesitation in being able to predict where the future is headed and what the rules of organization in that future may look like.
For the first time, I am hearing business leaders ask questions that strike at the very heart of the way they are organized.
And this may begin to have some very powerful implications for the way businesses and organizations are being built.
This has happened before.
Yuval Harari, (Sapiens) describes another era, in the 16th Century when the door to the Scientific Revolution was propped open by a similar discovery—of the limitations of our mental maps.
Up until then, most major civilizations believed that the most important questions had already been answered and that these answers were codified within one or more religious texts. So if you had questions to be asked—all you needed to do was to study the Bible, or the Qu’ran or the Vedas more rigorously, and the answer to your question would be found.
All that began to change when new discoveries translated to success for the original big businesses--the Colonial Empires.
Imperialism, capitalism and scientific discovery supported each other as new lands were discovered for colonial rule (Australia, the Americas among many others); new medical treatments to keep sailors and armies healthy; new technologies to help govern new lands (steam engine); new understandings of history and culture to document and organize the world (archaeology and anthorpology).
But first, something profound needed to happen—an acceptance of ignorance.
“The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.” (Sapiens, 2015)
Now think about just how dearly people from any human society—historical or modern hold on to their mental maps, and you will know just how big a leap this is.
Our mental maps guide our understanding of how the world works, what is important to focus on and how one needs to behave to be successful in this world. They act as our outer compass and help us take action in an otherwise chaotic world. For most of us, they help us find our anchor and build our identities.
It’s no surprise then, that people have been willing to go to war or even sacrifice themselves to defend their own mental maps!
So admitting that an existing and proven mental map may not be adequate is never easy. It is uncomfortable and does not happen all too often.
Yet we seem to be entering exactly such a time. Conversations with business leaders reveal questions that are striking at the very heart of how they do business.
-------How do we keep track of the many possibilities of the future and know which ones to pay attention to?
-------How do we build our organization so that we can tap into the ideas and enthusiasm of the young, while benefitting from the experience of the old?
-------How do we manage the efficiency of our scale while having the agility of start-ups?
------How do we build products and brands that will connect with our future customer when their preferences may very quickly move away to something quite different?
-----Should we even sell physical spares any more or should we sell simple downloadable 3D prints?
Perhaps for the first time, at least in my career, there is such an intense and pervasive realization that the mental maps organizations have used for guidance in the past, no longer have the answers they will need in the future.
Despite, how uncomfortable this place might be, it is also full of possibilities…
After all, in organizations, just as in human societies, the discovery of ignorance is the doorway to breakthroughs and revolutions.
Welcome to the age of ignorance! Welcome to the age of discovery!
(Dr. Shalini Lal works with clients in Organizational Development and Innovation. She is part of the Global Fellows Program (Talent) of the Wharton School, a PhD from UCLA, and an MBA from IIM-A, and has been working in this field for over twenty five years. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org)