wisdom and fundamentalism

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has helped us appreciate that we never really free ourselves of our addictions. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. The impact of some addictions; drugs and alcohol, gaming, porn etc are pretty well understood and acknowledged. What about the fundamental adherence to a belief or idea?

I was thinking about this after reading Adam Kahane’s courageous, Collaborating is not the best optionThis from a man who has built a career on helping solve tough problems through thoughtful collaborative processes. Maybe I’m over-reaching a tad, but think with me about this process that has been played out countless of thousands of times in management thinking and publishing.

  • We observe or experience, something that works really well.
  • We get enthusiastic about seeing it happen again. Eventually we have a vision of applying it more broadly.
  • We distill, deconstruct or abstract the solution into a ‘formula’ or set of principles.
  • We figure out how to scale it through training others, writing a book, rolling it out at greater scale.
  • Sometimes it works great, other times it doesn’t. When it works, we feel great, because the data supports our belief that we’ve got a great ‘belief’. When it doesn’t, we typically dismiss the data, convinced that other factors must be at play. (b/c there is nothing wrong with our solution!)

About six months ago I started using a little self constructed tool we can call the ‘wellbeing grid’. Every week, on the whiteboard in my Melbourne apartment I start a clean grid. Down the left hand side are the days of the working week: Mon-Fri. Across the top I have a set of commitments that I tick off each day. They are eclectic. There are a couple of different kinds of exercise (swimming and stretching/strength), I couple of food related commitments (portion size and sugar related), some personal writing and learning (journalling and Italian language), and another more general wellbeing commitment. I have figured out, that at least for this season of life, if I can maintain my daily / weekly commitments in these areas it significantly helps my general sense of wellbeing.

It’s a great little tool, simple and flexible. I’m sure others would find it helpful too. But there is a subtle and very significant difference between saying, “This works for me”, and “This works.” Now no one wants to waste time re-inventing the wheel, so it makes great sense to learn from what works for others. The professional services economy is built on the scaling of tried and true systems and processes. But, I suspect we too easily become fundamentalists for the systems and processes, and the beliefs that have helped shape our professional identities.

It takes courage and insight for an Adam to stand up and say, maybe we’ve presumed too much about the approach we’ve been promoting. The point is not that collaboration (in this instance) doesn’t remain the best hope in solving tough problems, or that my little wellbeing grid is not a helpful tool to stay centred in a busy urban life. The point is that each scenario is deeply unique. Perhaps the test is our emotional reaction to someone stating, “Well that [insert your pet approach] wouldn’t work for me/us.” Are we prepared to engage that meaningfully, or do we assume they’ve misunderstood the ‘power’ of what we are offering and that they’ll come around if they allow us to convince them?

Addictions are things we can’t say no to. Are we addicted to an approach to solving a business or social problem? The word that probably suits the situation more aptly is fundamentalism, where we have somehow got to a point where we believe our perspective has a one to one correlation with absolute reality.

So what does this mean? In a world where the challenges we face require new ways of thinking, let’s be suspicious about our own presumptions that what has worked for us locally can be scaled to solve the world’s problems. Does that mean we can’t participate in large scale ambitions? Of course not. But let’s do so with humility and wisdom rather than presumption and fundamentalism.

3 thoughts on “wisdom and fundamentalism

  1. Good thoughts Col. I’ve noticed within myself that I can become attached to a certain way of doing things, and automatically go down that path when the opportunity presents itself.

    The ability to take a step back, and ask yourself is this really the best approach for this particular time I think is a valuable skill to cultivate.

    I’m curious as to what practices you feel would aid in developing such a skill?

    • Hey Adam, thanks for the comment. I think it is not so much a skill as an attitude, but maybe that’s being a bit precious. In anycase, the practices that in my experience foster the attitude are to ask lots of questions with a view to understanding the challenge or opportunity better. A little ‘trick’ I use is to pretend I have no idea what the client needs (in a professional services context), but to assume that the client themselves has a really good understanding of the problem. So my role is not to offer a solution, as much as to help the client articulate the problem.
      In short, hold back in offering solutions, demonstrate relentless curiosity about the challenge.

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