A few years ago, I spent quite a lot of time speaking to Chief Executive groups. The results were mixed. Some groups really loved my material – there is one group where I was invited back three more times and another where I have been four times. But then there were others who hated it – I usually really enjoy speaking, but there’s one event I remember and think “I’ve had more fun at the dentist.”
What intrigued me was why the reception was so varied when, on all objective criteria, the groups were very, very similar. Same age range, same gender balance, same type and size of business.
It was Martin who provided the answer. Martin had been a member at one of the groups who had really loved my stuff (the one which invited me back three more times), but then left and joined a different group. He recommended me as a speaker there, where my material bombed. I asked him why.
“It’s simple,” he explained. “You ask to people to think, in fact to think differently. Some people are up for that, and others aren’t.”
Yes, it was simple. It all came down to how people responded to a new idea or a new way of looking at an old question. At some groups it was “that’s interesting, tell me more.” At others it was “Urgh!” (or something a little more polite to the same effect). It’s also worth noting that people of either persuasion will tend to self-sort into groups of kindred spirits. If you attend a group and they are the same sort of people as you, you will be more likely to stay. If they are the other sort, you won’t feel comfortable and won’t be back. So groups acquire a particular character.
Now until a few months ago I would have said “no big deal, different strokes for different folks” and avoided groups which didn’t like to take an idea for a walk. Today, however, I take a different view.
Today and for the next couple of years everything has been thrown up in the air. If you think things will return to the way they were, you are deluding yourself. That means that moving in circles where your ideas aren’t challenged is a luxury you can’t afford. If you haven’t in the past sought out new ideas and new perspectives you need to start doing so, even if it jars. In fact, the fact that it jars is proof that you are getting the stimulus you need. If you have historically sought out new ideas, you need to seek out more, and seek a broader range from stranger places. If it’s not odd, weird or a little uncomfortable it won’t be what you need. The biggest risk today is the unknown knowns, the assumptions we don’t notice we’re taking for granted.
In the military they say “train hard, fight easy.” There’s an analogy here. You can accept the discomfort of strange new ideas in a private conversation with a helpful person or group of people, or suffer the far greater discomfort of smashing head first into a strange new reality out there.