Much of how we think is a function of our beliefs

I was recently facilitating a session with a new board, helping align them with each other and with management and become fit for purpose. And as I was listening to their contributions and the reactions from management I could see that the newcomers, with all their fresh energy and enthusiasm, too often were unaware that some of what they were proposing was either happening already or had been shown not to be effective.

As the discussions progressed the directors graciously realised that they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Such inaccurate perceptions aren’t unusual for recent arrivals on boards – nor, by the way, for many who have been around a long time. Plus of course, for those further away from the decision-making and other activities, armchair critics are smugly convinced they are more expert than the experts.

The answer, as I have mentioned before in these columns, is for leaders and others to ask more than tell, to listen openly, applying what Prof. Edgar Schein calls “humble inquiry” – the title of his book on the subject. In his 2021 book, Think Again, another great professor of organisational behaviour, Adam Grant, also writes on this common phenomenon. I love how Grant helps us find our way in this fast-changing world, having already written here about his earlier book, Originals.

So now I offer some thoughts from Think Again – whose sub-title is The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. “Knowledge is power,” Grant affirms, adding “knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.”

It’s logical to assume that the more competent we are the more confident we become. And yet, Grant points out, some of us feel confident despite lacking competence. This speaks of arrogance and complacency, of a lack of self-awareness, with such over-confidence having become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Sadly, as I too have found, over-confident people are the ones least likely to seek guidance from others – in particular, their juniors – and they are the ones who will shun coaches or mentors.

At the other end of the spectrum, Grant draws attention to the “imposter syndrome”. Those who suffer from it feel they’re not up to the task, even in situations where they actually are competent and it’s only their confidence that is lacking. This can turn out to be helpful, as it keeps them away from the know-it-all mindset and encourages listening and learning, rethinking and unlearning.

We have heard about the “confirmation bias” Grant mentions, the search for evidence that supports what we already believe, and he adds “desirability bias”, seeing what we did or didn’t want to see – as those who didn’t want to see Trump as President sought data to show a lower probability that he would be elected. Finally, there’s Grant’s “I’m not biased” bias, which speaks for itself.

To be relaxed about rethinking we must be confidently humble, with our egos in check, Grant tells us. This requires us to think as scientists do, treating our views as mere hypotheses to be tested and reviewed, and so enabling us to remain agile. This mindset contrasts to the “preacher” in us, wedded to tightly-held sacred beliefs; the “prosecutor”, only out to see the flaws in others’ positions; and the “politician”, who merely lobbies for approval from potential supporters.

Much of how we think is a function of our beliefs, and often it is these beliefs that hold us back, as Spencer Johnson revealed in that brilliant fable Who Moved My Cheese and its wonderful follow-up, Out of the Maze. Strong justification, Grant advises, for nurturing healthy beliefs at as young an age as possible.

Awareness of all these impediments to and characteristics of quality thinking not only gets us to think about how we approach our own thinking but helps us influence the thinking of those around us – the subject of the second part of Think Again.

For each and every one of us, whether at the personal or family level, whether in our organisation or our community, we need to re-assess our thinking process so as to ensure we’re fit for purpose in these volatile times.

My dearest wish is that as our politicians think about Kenya beyond the 2022 election they too absorb the wisdom of Grant. But given that this appears highly unlikely, it is we the voters who should do so.

Entrepreneurs ought to act like revolutionaries

In my last article, I started writing about the lessons from David McCourt’s book Total Rethink – Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries. There I focused on what he saw as the personal attributes of successful entrepreneurs, and in this one, I will be reporting on McCourt’s experience regarding the business side of entrepreneurship.

McCourt, himself a highly successful serial entrepreneur in the field of telecommunications – a self-professed “revolutionary” in that domain – tells us that while in business and in life generally, everything is changing so fast, with the problems we need to solve entirely different from how they used to be, the ways we think and how we make decisions have changed little since the times of agricultural and industrial societies.

The traditional wisdom, he observes, has been that improvements are best introduced incrementally, with large established corporations planning to increase their turnovers and profits incrementally, and governments changing their laws incrementally. However everything is moving too fast for that to be an effective solution any longer, and we must all revolutionise the way we think and the way we behave in order to be more entrepreneurial.

In an article he published in The Irish Times around the time his book appeared in 2019, McCourt relished the thought that because revolutionaries threaten the status quo – and for many their comfortable way of life – they are often very unpopular. But he strongly believes that upheaval is essential if we are to cope with the challenges the rest of this century is bound to throw at us as the alternative could well be even worse.

Technology is progressing so fast that many are getting left behind, forced to “stand back and watch as the future shoots by”. So if we are to succeed we must “take a risk and ruffle the surface”

Today’s technology goes beyond previous linear approaches, he observes, with algorithms sorting through billions of pieces of data to find patterns and connections unrecognisable to humans. It is also cutting out the middle man, as crowdsourcing is taking the place of bank managers; Airbnb, Expedia and Booking.com replacing the travel agent; and Amazon having thrown the world of retail into upheaval.

The combination of technology, social media and the way people now absorb information – particularly the younger generations – means that the top-down centralised way we have been running the world for the last couple of centuries is no longer a viable model to follow, he warns, adding that the enormous opportunities available could easily slip through our fingers “due to the greed and conservatism of the establishments that dominate the economy”. Ouch.

In the book, he also complains about how too many corporates stifle inconvenient smaller competitors, and about the short-term thinking of too many companies. To make matters worse we suffer from the over-regulation of the business environment by government, seriously inhibiting innovation and entrepreneurship.

(Including and not least here in Kenya – with the notable exception of how the Central Bank allowed the introduction of the disruptive Mpesa system… plus now watch out for swift moves by the Capital Markets Authority.)

McCourt is not just focused on beating his competitors or maximising his wealth. He is equally concerned about the many who are left behind, and here he is looking way beyond revolutionary business entrepreneurs for solutions.

“A revolutionary entrepreneur,” he states in his article, “is anyone who wants to make a difference in the world. After all, change isn’t confined to business. Today’s healthcare is being transformed by advances such as 3D printing, remote diagnoses and electronic health trackers, education is being rebuilt by e-learning and video classrooms.”

McCourt is aware that lots of changes are needed beyond those brought about by technology. “There are so many structures in our lives that need reinventing – and I mean total rebuilding: the political system, diplomacy, taxation, wealth distribution, the refugee crisis, to name but a few,” he challenges.

“I became an entrepreneur for the joy of doing things differently, to rethink the model and to change things in ways that would eventually bring benefits to everyone,” his article concludes.

I’m sure that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would applaud that, as his recently launched Courage and Civility Award indicate.

The question I leave you with is whether you are simply an incrementalist… or whether there’s something of the revolutionary in you.