buck the established way

Here is a good story that shows the value of learning as working, as opposed to relying on previous expertise.

“On the surface, John looked like the perfect up-and-coming executive to lead BFC’s Asia expansion plans. He went to an Ivy League B-school. His track record was flawless. Every goal or objective the organization had ever put in front of him, he’d crushed without breaking a sweat.

But something broke when John went to Asia. John struggled with the ambiguity, and he didn’t take prudent risks. He quickly dismissed several key opportunities to reach out for feedback and guidance from leadership. It became clear that John had succeeded in the past by doing what he knew and operating rather conservatively within his domain. It also became clear that the company was going to massively miss the promises it had made to the Board and the Street if John remained in the role.

With a heavy heart, BFC’s CEO removed his promising protégé from the role and redeployed him back in the US. He decided he had no choice but to put a different kind of leader in the role – Alex.

While talented, Alex had come to be known behind closed doors by the moniker “DTM” – difficult to manage. He marched to the beat of his own drummer, and he wasn’t afraid to challenge the status quo. He loved a challenge, and he was comfortable taking risks. It turned out to be the best move the CEO ever made.

No stranger to ambiguity, Alex was flexible in formulating his strategy and sought feedback from the people around him. He made a risky move at the beginning that backfired on him. But as a result, he learned what not to do and recalibrated his approach. That was the key to success. His tendency to buck the established BFC way of doing things was exactly what was required for the company to successfully flex its approach and win in the new territory”. – Harvard Business Review: Improve Your Ability to Learn

Alex understood that complex situations, which this definitely was, require experimentation. He probed the system, failed, observed and discussed, and then refined his initial probe, which succeeded in the long term. More and more of our work will be non-routine and will deal with complex issues. Routine cognitive work will continue to be eaten by software and machines. A client once said that she wished to have just one day of only routine problems. I doubt she will. I doubt many of us will.

If experimentation, and bucking the established way of doing things, is becoming a necessity then a few things have to change to keep an organization effective. Many policies and procedures will have to be replaced with principles and heuristics. Individuals will have to become comfortable with experimentation and be allowed to take risks. Learning by doing will have to be the new routine, requiring active and ongoing sense-making in our networks and communities of practice.

In the network era more of our work will be to Probe-Sense-Respond as we Seek > Sense > Share.


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