David Lewis suggests that experimentation would make for a better post-lockdown business world.
The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has presented individuals and organisations with an avalanche of threats demanding immediate changes to the way we work and our expectations of what the future holds.
What is perhaps surprising, given how difficult it was to get people to change in the days before the pandemic, to implement new ways of working, to radically challenge convention, is how quickly people have experimented and adapted during the pandemic.
Ideas that previously would have taken months if not years to get through the internal bureaucracy, have become common practice and business as usual within a matter of weeks. Homeworking, sophisticated use of Zoom technology, self-managed teams, are just some of the examples, that in my conversations with business leaders repeatedly come up as success stories.
But what is also remarkable, is how attitudes towards the future have changed. Where before strategic thinking comprised an extrapolation of what had happened over the last couple of years, plus or minus a small variation to allow for the unexpected, we are now talking about scenario planning, experimentation, flexible execution loops and democratisation of innovation.
Effective experimentation depends on a clear sense of purpose, what are we trying to achieve, what does success look like; doing the right thing as opposed to doing the thing right
For many years senior executives and others have been urging their organisations to be more innovative, to take more risks, to be more agile, with little effect.
Why such a little impact? A study over the last four years involving 2000 respondents across more than 100 organisations, indicates that 87% of people experience a working environment which is bureaucratic, dominated by directive, controlling, conforming, cautious, hierarchical and resistant behaviour. In such an environment, calls to innovate fall on deaf ears.
There is a real opportunity now to align the rhetoric with organisational behaviour and practice through embracing and embedding the art and discipline of experimentation. Karl Popper, the Austrian-British philosopher argued that you can never prove anything, you can only through practise to find out whether what you believe to be true still works.
He favoured instead what he termed critical rationalism – learning through trial and error – and experimentation. “All life is problem-solving”, as he put it.
He confronts us with the challenge that in anything other than an extremely controlled and constrained set up, such as the test tube in a scientific laboratory, there are so many assumptions that need to be made to support the validity of any data being analysed – assumptions about existing knowledge and conditions – that sooner or later, the inherent complexity and volatility of the supporting environment means one or more of the assumptions will turn out to be false, such that the so-called proof, also turns out to be false.
If we apply this thinking to strategising we realise that the variance analysis approach falls short. It is closer to theorising – making assumptions and educated guesses – than experimenting.
Our environment is not that of the scientific laboratory, it is, using terminology stolen from the military, volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. This has been made very clear to us during the pandemic, but we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that we will not continue to face disruption for a long time to come.
We need new ideas, we need new perspectives, we need new methods, we need diversity. And not just diversity of experience – social and identity diversity – but diversity in ways of thinking; cognitive diversity. We need to create scope for all our diversely talented and passionate people to flourish.
Aristotle says a lot about human flourish, or ‘Eudaimonia’, as he phrased it. He related flourishing to pursuing a fulfilling purpose; to the acquisition of virtues – striving to do the right thing; to the use of our abilities, and to being animated by autonomy. When you extract these four keywords, purpose, ability, autonomy and virtue from Aristotle’s teachings, it sounds a lot like our modern day idea of empowerment.
Effective experimentation depends on a clear sense of purpose, what are we trying to achieve, what does success look like; doing the right thing as opposed to doing the thing right; embracing diverse abilities and perspectives to challenge convention and assumptions, and engaging the full energy of our people.
One thing is clear; through the pandemic, people are questioning things about the way they do business – things that have been questionable for some time. For example, what is the point of a large head office building, filled with people barely talking to each other.
Many organisations have discovered that their teams operate just as effectively, if not more effectively, after, due to social distancing, they were forced to close their head office. These and other examples of unconscious nonsense, that have become accepted practice, should at least be the subject of an experiment.
Experimentation is not random improvisation. It is a way of challenging assumptions, trialling so-called ridiculous ideas, without risking the success of the business. But it takes people with different talents and perspectives, and with the confidence to speak up, to fuel effective experimentation.
So in conclusion, what is a good post-lockdown philosophy that will transform your business, it is critical rationalism and eudaimonia, or to turn it from the language of our philosopher friends Popper and Aristotle: experimentation and empowerment.
About the author
David Lewis is programme director for Executive Education at London Business School and co-author of What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader.