Things go round in spirals
Seen it all before? After once complaining that things appeared to be going round in circles, a wiser, older colleague replied saying that things only appeared to be going round in circles. In fact, they go round in spirals. Viewed from below, a spiralling object would indeed look like it was going round in circles. It depends on the position of the viewer. So if you think you’re experiencing organisational déjà vu, think again. It might be you that’s changed. Or not changed.
This wise old colleague was a hero of mine. If I tell you he was still playing competitive rugby in his early fifties it tells you all you need to know of his combative nature. What I most admired about him though was his ability to bring in new ideas from all directions, blend in a lifetime of experiences and come up with original insights into how our business worked. The 28 year old me had assumed this mental dexterity was not possible beyond a certain age. The most wounding insults we fling are the ones that, deep down, we fear are true of ourselves. And the characteristics we admire most in others are those we wish in ourselves. I live in fear of a closed mind and the worst insult I can throw at someone is to call them stupid or, in a milder version, to suggest someone hasn’t moved with the times. This colleague (his name is Fred Trussell) is a hero of mine because he had a strategic mind with the experience and character to get things done.
We tend to assume that experience is always good, but it’s capable of setting us traps. The more experience we gain, the more certain we are that we know what to do when faced with circumstances we’ve seen before, and the more vulnerable we become to misreading the situation. This is why the young seem so open minded. They’re not, they just don’t have any experience telling them it can’t be done.
If the old are just as open-minded as the young but have experience to boost their productivity also, they should be the engine of our economy. Why then does creative energy seem to decline from middle age onwards? Here are my theories. Top of the list is health. Bad health is a distraction, no doubt about it. Second, is financial. Once you achieve a certain financial cushion, perhaps the fear of failure that drives so much success just isn’t there to the same extent. But I can’t help thinking there’s something deeper at work. When you’ve obtained a lot of experience, so much so that, you may, actually, have seen it all before; when the chances are quite high that the lessons of the past will still be relevant in the future; then perhaps you just stop searching. You can get by perfectly well without it. A sort of intellectual cost-benefit analysis kicks in that says its not worth it.
If Fred Trussell ever reached that point, he found a way around it. My solution is simply to admit fallibility. Despite my best efforts, I find I have to repeat the same mistake at least twice before I really take a lesson to heart. My guiding management philosophy is to be prepared to change my mind quickly – without embarrassment, self-justification or qualification – and start again. In this way if a decision turns out to be wrong, you can’t do that much damage.
I’ve often thought this tactical flexibility is important in many other aspects of business life. In essence, it’s just trial and error. To others it will look like you’re going round in circles, but really it will be spirals.