Archive for the ‘Knowledge Management’ Category

Cavalier or Zen?

21st February 2011

I was talking to a psychiatrist the other day (I was working, she wasn’t). She talked to me about the idea that clinical skills are a ‘scientific art’, in other words good clinicians are able to apply science to a situation until intuition, judgment and other ‘artistic’ abilities lead to a final diagnosis or treatment. This reminded me of a post from my mate Rick on evidence-based management and a conversation that I had at Business School last week.

Rick makes the comparison between the medical research required to license and introduce new drugs and the sort of empirical evidence that you can expect to support decision-making in the workplace. He rightly concludes that the nature of work – it involves Electronic board showing stock information is reflected in Taiyuan, Chinapeople – makes it unreasonable to expect the same degree of certainty that you would find in a controlled scientific environment. The involvement of the people inside a firm means that no two situations are sufficiently identical to confidently predict the same outcomes from the same inputs. If this wasn’t true, all businesses competing in a market would be similarly successful because they would all sooner or later have the same data and the same capabilities to produce the ‘best’ product or service. In philosophical terms, this is a form of Singularism: the idea that there is one right answer, one way forward, one solution: everything else is wrong. Singularism is the basis of most Western thought. Think Catholic religion, think Margaret Thatcher and ‘there is no alternative’. Our past and our present is filled with those that peddle their own form of certainty to the exclusion of all other possible answers. Bob Sutton, who is clever enough to know that ideas of certainty are both ‘wrong’ and a requirement of leadership has come up with the approach of ‘confident but not really sure’ as a piece of mental origami to try and solve the problem.

Of course, one of the reasons that some people go to Business School is to learn the single right answer to the particular situation they are in or can reasonably expect to be in for the future. Next to ‘because my boss told me to’ the most common answer to the question ‘why are you at Business School? is often ‘to learn how to do it’. Rare indeed are the people who answer ‘to read widely, listen and reflect’ but they were the people that I spent most time drinking with when I was there. Perhaps that’s why the best answer to most Business School questions was, and is, ‘it depends’. It depends on the people, it depends on what everyone else thinks, it depends on what your competitors are doing. It may even depend on the phase of the moon for all I know.

Those that work with organisations know that the acceptance or rejection of a great idea depends at least as much on the ability to manage the politics of the board room as it does to be ‘right’. Against this repeated experience, we have a way of educating and promoting people, including Doctors, to a point of professional expertise where our expectations of them and theirs of themselves is to be ‘right’. In contrast to this Western Singularism, Zen Buddhism has the idea of the beginner’s mind, Shoshin, as being the desirable state for wisdom: ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few’. This open mind or awareness of possibilities bring me to the conversation at Business School last week. The leader of a FTSE 100 business was describing restructuring his headquarters staff some years ago. ‘We knew that we had to reduce headcount’ he said, ‘and we knew that the right number was somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000. HR wanted a month to work it out but we couldn’t wait. I settled on 4,600 and we got it done’. Cavalier or Zen? Half the people in the room were impressed with his gung-ho and the other half scandalised by the fact that he didn’t have the data to validate his opinion.

Perhaps, like clinical decisions, there is a place for art or at least art-led thinking in the board room. The pursuit of perfection or ‘right’ has caused many a spike in whisky sales over the years. As The Economist points out this week, maybe the men with beards have some experiences that can help.