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17 Jan. 2020 | Comments (0)

Over 50 years ago Alvin Toffler suggested that the biggest issue facing future generations will be the ability to adapt to an ever accelerating pace of change and that we will cope through denial, specialism, reversion and simplification.* Well, we are those future generations and Toffler’s prediction is looking more and more accurate. In search of a remedy, albeit a partial one, it seems that a characteristic that might go some way to alleviating some of the issues in Toffler’s list is Curiosity.

In this age of instant access to more or less any piece of data that you might choose to seek – it struck me that the curiosity to enquire whether the data seemed sensible is missing. Was the data from a reliable source – in short, is it true? As we have recently seen in the political arena  for all of us – irrespective of where you are in the world. People seem to be so keen to  get an answer it is almost as though any answer is a good answer – irrespective of whether it is correct or not. There is an absence of curiosity about the sources of information on which we are increasingly depending.

The issue of the lack of curiosity and inability (or unwillingness?) to learn was visited upon me a short while ago. I was fortunate enough to accompany a group of super smart executives on a visit to the Harley Davidson Museum and Powertrain Factory in Milwaukee. The visit was excellent. A walking tour round the factory floor, conversations with operatives, a meeting with executives from the company.  It was a really interesting and a chance to see another environment. Our group of visitors had to take a coach back to our accommodation. En-route back to our accommodation, one of our group slid into the seat next to me. “Mike, it was a fun afternoon out. But I work in financial services – what was I supposed to learn from a factory visit?” Absence of curiosity? Unwillingness to learn?  Inability to see or even seek parallels and insights? My response is not really relevant. But I found the executive’s reaction to the visit fascinating – and worrying.

That reaction was echoed in another conversation I overheard. And the following dialogue – whilst not verbatim - is wholly accurate in sentiment and very close to what was actually said.

Business Leader: “That was a great presentation John, we really love the way you share your experiences – we learn a lot from them”.

Business School Professor “Oh, thank you.  But do you not have experiences from which you can learn?”

In what some have termed “The Dark Side” – using language familiar to the well-known and respected  Hogan instruments – one of the key derailers of modern executives is the executive’s inability to unlearn or let go of old ways of working and to learn new skills, ways of working and thinking. And we should remember that all the while, this need to amend the learning habits of a life time happens in the glare and pressure of constant visibility. Where a lack of success – or a slowing of pace - is viewed very dimly by the short termism of the financial markets.

As the pace of working life quickens, it would seem that we are struggling to find the time to stop and think that enables us to really learn. The time to question the assumptions and data with which we are working – at its most basic to check the veracity of what we are finding in our internet searches. We do not review how we are tackling problems, nor reconsider whether our working methods are still the most appropriate – or not? And all of this at a time when the need for leaders who can learn and adapt and make informed choices is increasing by the day.

Let me close with another reference to Toffler – who, it has to be said, was phenomenally prescient “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”* A sentiment echoed by Satya Nadella –Microsoft’s CEO who stated “Don’t be a know it all – be a learn it all.” Maybe it has never been truer to say that today we really do need to learn for a living.

*Toffler quotes from “Future Shock,” Penguin Random House.

  • About the Author:Mike Mister

    Mike Mister

    Mike Mister is a Senior Fellow in the Human Capital Practice of The Conference Board’s and an Associate with the Møller Institute, Churchill College in the University of Cambridge, UK.&nb…

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