What is the sound of one hand clapping? How do managers and organisations change for the better? “Those who never change their minds, never change anything,” said Winston S. Churchill.
Just as there is no clever answer to the Zen koan, shifting performance in companies, NGOs and donors is equally perplexing. Both questions require a sense of stillness, an awareness, with the hope for a flash of enlightenment.
In management, awareness is everything. After all, if you are not aware of something, does it exist? Breakthrough products and services came about because their originator saw something different, they had an awareness of an unmet need, a customer’s irritating problem, that others had not noticed.
From the iPhone, M-Pesa to Chat GPT, they provided a simple solution to a problem that the competition ignored, or was not aware of.
Give up always being right
One of the operating principles of being human is: we think we are always right. This survival mechanism is quite useful, for instance, each time you sit on a chair in a conference room you believe it will support you, it won’t fall apart.
All those almost unconscious actions we take based on [usually correct] assumptions allow us to go about our daily lives. But the breakthrough comes in business when we begin to question those fundamental assumptions. And, ask why does it have to be this way?
“The smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they'd already solved. They're open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions and challenges to their own way of thinking,” remarks Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
And science backs him up. A series of experiments published by the Harvard Business Review show that while changing your mind might make you seem less smart, changing your mind is actually smarter.
Case in point is, that entrepreneurs who adapted, revised and changed their positions during a pitch competition were six times more likely to win the competition. In lean startup business lingo, this is the ability to pivot, to change direction.
Being right is tied up with our egos, our self-identity. The big boss, is always right, infallible. Yet it is that humility, that ability to say “I was wrong” that makes an effective manager. Paradoxically, it is in that moment of self-awareness, that they gain the respect of their staff.
To build the essentials of trust and rapport one must show vulnerability, and it is in that ‘opening up’, that showing weakness, that people begin to trust. The funny thing about trust is that it takes time to gradually accumulate, but can be lost in an instant.
Push pause to move forward
So how does one become aware? Imagine it is only the present moment that exists. For some, this will be tough to admit. We are all so tormented by past memories and experiences in business that drive us, yet do they exist?
Can you put your finger on them and hold them in your hand? Yet, strangely, for many they are very real, existing in one’s mind, with those past corporate upsets pushing their way into the present.
For a moment, to move forward one has to stop. Simply close one’s eyes and breathe in and out, and focus on one’s breath, inhaling and exhaling. Being in the present, we notice that our minds are like music blaring, loud hooting matatu, frantically lurching forward to escape the traffic jam. Or like a ravenous monkey in a fruit tree, constantly swinging from branch to branch. After 5, 10, 15 minutes eventually the mind calms down.
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst would talk about shadows in someone’s subconscious, those unpleasant elements of one’s experience and personality that is kept suppressed, pushed down into the subconscious, that perhaps would only come to the fore in dreams.
Yet, the shadows influence behaviour. He believed one could never get rid of those shadows, but instead had to acknowledge their existence, be aware of them, and integrate them into one’s personality, where they had the potential to become a source of drive and energy. Perhaps both managers and corporates have their shadows.
In our ‘always on, always urgent’ TikTok world, management wisdom comes from Lao Tzu who 2,500 years ago said: “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”
David is a director at aCatalyst Consulting