The Scourge of Incomprehension


There is an article on my desk that I tore out of the Economist several months ago. The title is “The shadow of the caliphate”. I’ve been thinking about it since I first read it. As you can guess, it’s about the Islamic State’s pull on so many potential followers and the difficulty countering it.

In the article, the author, Banyan, uses quotes from two prime ministers, Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore and Tony Abbott of Australia, to suggest that “the appeal that IS holds for ‘troubled souls’ is incomprehensible to the leaders of prosperous modern states. And it is hard to marshal good arguments against a point of view you do not begin to understand.”

While Banyan applied this assessment to the scourge of the Islamic State, this conundrum also applies to problems in other realms from politics to business. Perhaps it even explains some of the discord so many marriages face.

In the world of business, the highest level executives are living in a completely different world than the vast majority of the rest of the organization. The daily issues of those they manage are often incomprehensible to them. This lack of understanding leads to an inability to appreciate others’ differing worldwiews and how they color their ideas and interests. This leads to ineffective communication, which leads to potentially perverse consequences. How many times have you asked someone to do something and the result bore no resemblance to what you thought you asked for?

In the political realm this lack of understanding has led young people from the United States and other western countries to fly off to Somalia or Syria to join the terrorists. Obviously, in business the consequences are far less important.

Yet, living in a gated community of million dollar houses surrounded by people just like you is not the best way to build an understanding of the life of someone trying to support their family on minimum wage. Having a company paid premium health plan where the co-pays and other out-of-pocket costs are insignificant to you gives you no understanding of what it means to struggle to pay for the least expensive and not very comprehensive health plan where a medical problem leads to the question “do I eat today or see the doctor?”

Recently I had a problem with my Comcast cable service. It took several visits from service technicians for it to be fixed. During one service call, the technician was accompanied by another fellow who merely stood around watching. I chatted with him and discovered he was an executive from corporate headquarters on his annual observation day, seeing what the technicians faced in a typical work day.

What a great idea, I thought. To get out of the hermetically sealed corporate headquarters and actually see what daily life is like for one of their people lugging a heavy coil of cable and a bulging tool belt around while slogging through the woods, kneeling on the wet ground, and expertly making all the correct connections while the rain falls on their head. All for a fraction of the compensation the executive gets for sitting in a nice dry office every day with a subsidized cafeteria a floor or two away.

How many other executives, I wondered, regularly spend a day right next to those who work for them in difficult and often dirty or dangerous jobs, observing what they actually do. A day talking to them about how they feel about their work, about their concerns, about how they’re doing in life?

Banyan’s article followed by my Comcast experience. The first a problem of incomprehension and unfathomable differences. The second a solution that opens the path to improving both. So simple – walk in the other person’s shoes – and yet so rarely done.

shoes walking



Continue reading →

Get Lost…Ignite Creativity

Ever been lost? Wandering around in some strange place without a clue how to get where you’d like to be? Those of you old enough to remember what it was like before Google Maps and GPS are no doubt cringing, remembering the queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach as you wandered around hoping to see a familiar landmark. Or perhaps you’re smiling, thinking about the time you found an unexpected pleasure along the way before finally reaching your goal.

I just completed an assignment leading a Board of Directors through a strategic planning meeting. On the return flight, as I reviewed the session and remembered how difficult it was to get them to open their minds to new and unusual ideas, it occurred to me that they don’t get lost enough…or perhaps at all. As I thought more about this, I realized this is the case with several of my recent clients. Thanks to technology, we’ve lost the ability to get lost, and that’s hurting us. Our reliance on tools, instead of our own wits, to get us physically to “the right place” seems to have left us incapable of finding our way out of mental jams and considering truly unique solutions.

I’m often asked where I get all my ideas. It seems I’m known for rapidly leaping to expansive and unusual solutions for seemingly insolvable issues. A large part of my ability to think in unconventional ways comes from travels to places where I am completely out of place, with no map or guide to tell me where I am or what to do. Wandering around in remote villages in Uganda or Cote d’Ivoire opens my mind and challenges my thinking with every step. In unchartered territory, your old and familiar ways of thinking won’t get you very far.

Once, while leaving Senegal I became intrigued by the myriad ways one semi-official person after another worked to get you to pay them to allow you to continue to your gate. Those who were helpless in the face of this unusual “custom” simply paid while I bantered with each gatekeeper and got away without paying. There was one enterprising fellow whose line I enjoyed. He spent quite a bit of time building up a good story about how mid-February was the season of gift giving and what a wonderful thing it is to give gifts. The humorous and philosophical conversation we had about this was well worth the small cost of the cup of coffee I decided to gift to him.

When we are lost, we wander. We explore paths never taken before. Without a laser focus on what that GPS voice is telling us to do, we can truly experience things we never encountered before. Inspiration and creativity come to us. They come whether our lostness occurs driving 50 miles from home, on the other side of the world, or while caught up in business problems we’ve never faced before.

We used to understand this well. Mazes were built hundreds of years ago to give people freedom to wander around lost and challenge their minds. We, well, men at least, kept this going with our infamous unwillingness to ask for directions when driving around lost—we were committed to proving our abilities to find our own way.

Then GPS ruined it all. We always know exactly where we are and how to get to wherever we’re going.  Gone is the queasiness of lostness. Also gone is the joy of figuring out how to reach your destination on your own, and doing it—often via some unknown trails that lead to unexpected and enlightening experiences. Most importantly, gone is the freedom of mind and creativity that comes from having to figure it out all by yourself.

Break free from the usual and free your ideas to soar. Get lost.


Continue reading →