“Because the Answers Have Changed”

“Because the Answers Have Changed”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. Maximise learning by listening attentively and reading critically.
  2. Cultivate diverse sources of trusted advice who are willing to disagree with you.
  3. Avoid your experience becoming too narrow.
  4. Seek to overcome biases by actively looking for differing perspectives (stay detached).
  5. Keep questioning when options are offered.
  6. Think carefully about the risks during delivery/implementation.

Read the Article: The Elements of Good Judgment

My Advice

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!

The Need for Psychological Safety

The Need for Psychological Safety

Understanding the dynamics of effective teamwork is becoming ever more important, as businesses face relentless pressure to increase their profitability. Studies, however, consistently and convincingly demonstrate that structuring people into teams may be counterproductive to decision-making since, unless the culture is right, individuals outperform teams much of the time.

In Project Aristotle, Google researchers sought to understand how team composition and dynamics impact team effectiveness. They analysed 180 teams, including a mix of high and low performers, and conducted hundreds of interviews. What they found was that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together.

At the top of Google’s list of the things that matter when it comes to team performance is psychological safety – a concept originating from the work of Amy Edmonson, Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School. What she showed is that people will not give their fullest contribution to their team unless they feel safe. For teams to do well, the people in them MUST be:

  • Unafraid to share their ideas.
  • Willing to challenge and be challenged.
  • Prepared to risk failure.

Only by solving the safety problem can teams maintain the creativity and openness needed to make complex decisions and function effectively today. This article summarises some of the steps Google took in order to do so.

Read the Article: High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It

My Advice

We now live in a world were old styles of leadership are unlikely to achieve better than basic levels of productivity. To be successful, leaders now need to create a team culture within which employees will commit their discretionary effort and bring their full creativity to work. For you to be successful in this area, it is essential that you do everything you can to remove any obstacles that block your team from feeling safe.

Developing Inner Agility

Developing Inner Agility

This article, from McKinsey & Co., suggests that, “To navigate effectively, we must learn to let go—and become more complex ourselves“.

The concept of developing greater personal complexity encapsulates the approach that I’ve adopted in virtually all of my work. Because great leadership is critically dependent on emotional intelligence (EI), we can see that it has more to do with our mindset than any skills we might possess. This means that it must be constructed, from the inside out, by creating learning environments, not instructed from the outside in, as has traditionally been the case when teaching skills.

Let’s look at this in the context of one key point from this article, which is the statement that, “The problem isn’t the problem; our relationship to the problem is the problem”. In relation to resilience, this would suggest that it is not stress that is the problem, but our perception of the situation that is the problem. This recognition is incredibly powerful, because it puts us in a better position to find a solution.

At the heart of this challenge, of changing our relationship to our environment, is one of the biggest paradoxes of dealing with the unknown.

Current thinking in psychology, which is supported widely by research, suggests that we all experience stress when faced with change or uncertainty, to some degree. This is thought to be the result of deep conditioning that evolved to aid our survival.

The problem today is simple: very few situations we face are genuinely life-threatening, but our mind reacts to uncertainty as though faced with a predator: by triggering our fight-or-flight response. We experience this as stress, and it drives behaviours that may be highly inappropriate, such as acting on instinct, falling back on old habits, or to becoming so preoccupied with seeking more information that we cannot make any decision at all.

So, what is the paradox I referred to above?

Let’s assume for a moment that our stress is not the result of misperception. The root cause of the stress that arises when we face the unknown is that we don’t know how to resolve the situation we face, and we therefore worry about the outcome. If we knew what to do, we wouldn’t feel stressed!

It follows that what we most need in such situations is a new solution; however, that would require creativity, and – here’s the paradox – creativity is blocked by stress. How ironic! Because our brain is maladapted to modern challenges, just when we most need to be creative is when this mental resource is least available to us. It occurs because the part of our brain that triggers our fight-or-flight response, the amygdala, also suppresses activity in our prefrontal cortex, which is the part that gives rise to our creativity (as well as many other higher human functions).

To remain agile and creative when confronted by unpredictable change, it is essential that we learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty. I believe that this article conveys some useful insights to help you move towards this goal.

Read the Article: Leading with Inner Agility

My Advice:

When we resist a situation, wishing it would go away because it feels uncomfortable, that resistance increases the stress we experience. This puts us into a vicious cycle where, as the article highlights, our poor relationship to the problem only increases the magnitude of the problem as we see it.

Try to shift your perception of challenges, to see them as opportunities to learn and grow. Every world-class athlete knows the importance of this mindset, having achieved success by continually pushing him or herself into situations where they are stretched beyond their current physical, mental and emotional limits. Without the stress this creates, the growth they seek is impossible. If you can use your challenges in a similar way, as melting pots that create the conditions necessary to become stronger, they will immediately feel less stressful.