Why conventional wisdom is poisoning your business

DEFEND YOUR WORK: In an uncertain world, leaders need to rely on "unsafe thinking", says author Jonah Sachs.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 17 May 2019

When in unfamiliar territory, the last thing a traveller wants to do is stray from the well-trodden path. There’s security in the known and unless you’ve got a surplus of bread in your pocket, dropping a trail of crumbs won’t help. Thinking like this, says Jonah Sachs, might work for the less-than-intrepid explorer but can only lead a business to one destination: failure.

In his book, Unsafe Thinking, the co-founder of Free Range Studios argues that in an increasingly metamorphic world, leaders who rely on conventional wisdom and standard operating procedures risk being left behind: true progress can only come through ignoring everything that we are comfortable with.

He talked to Management Today about his theory, why CEOs have less control over their organisation than they believe and how all businesses can unlock creativity.

Is 'unsafe thinking' really a luxury that every business can have?

Sachs: "I’m really just talking about the importance of being open-minded, recognising how quickly the business environment is changing and being willing to change along with it."

But isn’t that just what most businesses are doing all the time?

Sachs: "Many companies have an innovation department, but don’t have an ingrained approach to constantly updating behavioural patterns, team structures and relationships. My argument is about looking at standard operating procedures, alliances and interpersonal relationships within a company, and removing ones that are inefficient.

"During challenging times, a lot of businesses go into a state of denial, falling back on past perspectives and rules that are familiar, but that narrow their thinking."

Can you really encourage unbridled rule-breaking? Look at what happened in the banking crisis.

Sachs: "The work of [Harvard Business School] academic Teresa Amabile shows that creativity is contextual, it is about environment, the people around you and the set of rules and regulations that you’re working within. If you think about creativity as rule-breaking on an individual level or as a team within an organisation going rogue, you often do end up with negative results.

"But this isn’t about taking risks for the sake of taking risks. Organisations that can benefit from unsafe thinking are ones that encourage what I call articulated dissent. That’s where you don’t tolerate rule-breaking in the shadows or people going around the regulations. Instead you get them to do it in public.

"Often in a manufacturing company, for instance, the people on the front line know so much about what isn’t working, but it is hard for them to challenge procedures. So leaders should aim to create an environment where everyone is encouraged to question rules that no longer work."

Surely that is quite disruptive and distracting?

Sachs: "In the book I talk about a study in which teachers stated that the most important skill to teach is creativity. But when asked to rate their favourite and least favourite students to teach, the students with the most creative traits came out last because they are disruptive.

"Putting people into efficient environments and training them to do a specific thing will decrease their creativity, so in today’s business environment you have to be able to evolve and adapt, you have to find that balance."

Doesn’t encouraging employees to question the rules undermine a leader’s authority?

Sachs: "In my experience, the CEO is actually less in control than they believe. In a top-down organisation, people are constantly finding ways to work around procedures and do things in their own way. That is one of the most toxic organisations you can have. Science has actually shown that employees are more trusting of leaders that are humble and ask lots of questions over ones that are self-aggrandising.

"What can be scary for leaders is that getting a lot of new information can be hard to process. Not just because your ego might be threatened, but because you start to get ideas coming in from lots of different directions.

"Some choose to resist, but ultimately that only ossifies a company and leads it to become stuck in a single way of operating. It’s not about a leader giving up any sense of authority, it’s just about opening up and not leading from such a defensive, unquestionable position."

Image credit: Johannes Plenio from Pexels


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