Everyone knows butter is bad for you. Or we used to know. Then new research proclaimed butter is back. But is it out again? Who knows?
From the personal to the large scale, our knowledge of everyday issues continues to evolve, and that pace of change is only picking up. What “everyone knows” today could be obsolete tomorrow.
This is particularly true in business. There’s a reason why the business world has latched onto the US Army War College acronym “VUCA.” What better words could you find to describe today’s business environment than Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous?
It feels good to build up deep knowledge in a certain area. It gives you confidence and comfort, and it can allow you to keep chugging away without having to stop and think. You’re in the groove. Organizations also have many grooves, which become collective pathways that can accelerate getting things done. They can also create inertia and become major roadblocks.
Getting in the groove is easy. Getting stuck in a rut is the danger.
Specialization: Not Always So Special
No matter how much you know, in today’s world you’re still likely to find yourself struggling to make sense of many of the challenges, decisions or opportunities in front of you. You can’t look to the past for answers and best practices, because there may not be any precedents. What you know will only get you so far, and it could even lead you in the wrong direction.
So while there’s value in going deep and narrow, we can’t get by on narrow thinking alone. In a world where VUCA is the norm, too many situations are demanding that we think differently, find new ways of doing things or view circumstances through a different lens.
But our education and training didn’t prepare us for this world. We’re still in an era that pushes people toward specialization rather than thinking broadly. Education systems and families begin to push us to make choices early in life, encouraging us to seek out the sweet spot—what we’ll major in, what career path we’ll select, what we’ll be when we grow up.
For most professions, graduate education involves even more specialization, and many corporate learning and development programs follow suit. To become a true rock star, we’re told, you have to focus on your strengths and get really great at that one special thing you do. You’ve got to put in those 10,000 hours of practice becoming an expert. (A “rule” that itself has since been debunked.)
Yet extreme specialization is creating fortresses that are locking out not just our full potential but the skills and breadth of thinking we need to make it today. We have to be able to see around corners, anticipate change, execute deftly, manage a wide array of relationships and make meaning of massive amounts of data. The only way to compete and thrive is to keep growing and learning, not just during a specific time in our lives but over the long haul.
And that takes intention. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.” But it’s still up to you to make it happen.
Get Deliberate About Learning
Before you can combat your curse of knowledge, you have to recognize it. How might your strengths and mindsets create thinking ruts that could block out new and important angles?
Don’t let what you know keep you from growing. Here are a few tips for being a more intentional thinker and learner:
Own Up: Discover your natural thinking preferences so that you can identify and own the thinking changes you need to make.
Face Reality: Diagnose how and when you need to change your thinking in order to break out of your comfort zone traps. Think back to the feedback you have received across your career: What mindsets have others noted? When and how did those get in your way?
Pay Attention: Become excruciatingly conscious of your thinking so that you can recognize when you need to apply thinking agility—the ability to consciously shift your thinking when the situation requires it—to become more deliberate about how you use your mental resources.
Pivot Your Point of View: Research has shown that people who speak a foreign language can reduce their inherent decision bias by thinking about the decision in the other language. This same effect can be created even if you don’t speak a foreign language. Step into the shoes of another role or person you know. This intentional shift will engage the brain to decipher an issue with a different perspective and bring it to mind consciously.
Don’t Go It Alone: Many of us fail to tap into the diversity of thought around us in the best of circumstances. Now that the challenges are even tougher, we need all the brains we can get. Intentionally bring in those whose thinking complements or even challenges yours. And then listen with an open mind. It may be one of the most powerful learning opportunities you have.
Be Smart About Your Thinking: You have access to your entire brain, so use it! Apply a Whole Brain® approach to your job, including how you set goals, manage change, engage people and create your vision of the future.
Finally, here’s one thing we know that won’t change: Learning can be uncomfortable. It means walking straight into volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. So prepare yourself for the energy, effort and motivation you’ll need, and keep your end goal in mind. Because the results are worth it.
Embrace and develop learners in your organization by understanding how to engage them.