What Do You Do When You Learn Something New?

I used to do a lot of speaking to groups of Chief Executives. Results were quite mixed – I seemed to be a “Marmite” – love it or hate it – proposition. On one occasion I did a natural controlled trial. I went to one group, then travelled 50 miles to stay overnight and do the same session with a different group. The second group loved it, to the extent of inviting me back three more times (and referring me to another group organiser who to date has invited me four times). The first group, on the  other hand, hated it. I remember presenting to them – I have had more fun at the dentist.

Why was this? The demographics of the two groups were identical – same age group, same job profiles, same types and size of business, but the response was completely different. I got the answer from a man who had heard me speak to one group (who had loved it) and recommended me another group he belonged to (who hated it).

“The thing is, Alastair” he said “you are inviting them to think differently. Some people like that, and others don’t.”

One of my case studies summed it up. This is the case of the software company who struggled to collect money from customers. What should they do? I have presented this case many, many times and everyone always comes up with suggestions related to the credit control staff  – motivate them, incentivise them, offer them bonuses, fire them and replace them…

The answer turns out to have nothing to do with the credit control staff. The problem arose because the late payments were caused by disputes over whether the software performed in accordance with documentation, the quality of consultancy work done, or how invoices related to contracts. All these needed help from other people in the organisation, and those other people just thought they had better things to do than waste time with accountants.

The message is that sometimes (in fact often) when you see a person or group underperforming the reason has nothing to do with them but is to do with the system in which they operate; what information do they have, what power can they exercise, who can they ask for help?  This is contrary to a very basic human bias, and comes as a shock. For some people, it’s a welcome shock; “I see it now, I feel more resourceful, I can solve problems which seemed intractable.” For others, it’s an unwelcome shock. “You are shaking the pillars of belief which support my world. Please stop””

It’s a question of open or closed. Do you know everything you need to know about how the world works, or are you still open to discovering more?