The title of this section is probably one of Einstein’s less well-known quotes. Nevertheless, I believe it’s also one of the most powerful and important things he said, particularly because of the way it relates to our ability to learn, grow and handle change.
The story goes that, while administering a 2nd year exam at Princeton University, his teaching assistant noted that Einstein had set the same paper as the previous year. Dr. Einstein, he asked, “Isn’t this the same exam you gave this class last year?”
Einstein paused, then replied, “Yes, it is.”
Puzzled, the assistant enquired, “Why would you give the same exam two years in a row?”
“Because,” Einstein replied, “the answers have changed”.
This observation highlights a critically important concept: what we hold as “true” now can, and very often will, change. For leaders, there are two sides of this coin, one relating to maximising future potential, and the other to do with over-relying on the past:
- It is essential to be able to recognise new insights and discoveries as they emerge, because this awareness can open up new possibilities, creating the potential to gain a competitive advantage or improve results.
- Changes in the external environment can have the effect of making any current solution less effective, or even invalid, irrespective of its usefulness in the past. Strategies, systems and processes that were once “best practice” can become past practice virtually overnight, and this is happening right now, at a rate that has never been seen before.
Most people have already become fairly well aware of this challenge. However, understanding the need to remain alert in order to spot changes as they occur is the easy part. Being able to put that awareness into practice is a completely different matter, because of the way our unconscious mind prefers the familiarity of the known. This can create a feeling that we “know”, or are “right”, even when our certainty has no basis in reality whatsoever.
Unfortunately, we get no mental or emotional “warning bell” as we pass the point where ‘knowing” turns from strength to weakness: when we are wrong, but feel certain we are right, the way we feel matches the belief, not the fact. This article provides six recommendations, with details as to why each can be of great help to overcome our tendency to over-rely on expertise and/or knowledge, these being:
- Maximise learning by listening attentively and reading critically.
- Cultivate diverse sources of trusted advice who are willing to disagree with you.
- Avoid your experience becoming too narrow.
- Seek to overcome biases by actively looking for differing perspectives (stay detached).
- Keep questioning when options are offered.
- Think carefully about the risks during delivery/implementation.
Read the Article: The Elements of Good Judgment
To respond more effectively to changes in the business environment, it is essential to remember that even practices that worked very well in the past may not get you to where you want to go tomorrow. The most powerful approach for overcoming the ‘knowing/being right’ trap is also the core principle of scientific thinking: take what you believe and actively seek to disprove it, especially if you feel certain! Doing so will help to protect you against out-dated assumptions and be hugely transformation to your decision-making.
As the Einstein example highlights, to stay in front it is essential to keep questioning your beliefs, because you never know when the answer will change!