Special Guest PostI had the plea­sure of know­ing Steven D’Souza long before the start of the Nextsens­ing Project. He has been a col­league and good friend for near­ly a decade. In this post (based on his new book), I believe you will find Steven to be a thought leader who quick­ly demon­strates his abil­i­ty to sense the salient issues of the day.

Steven’s new book is titled Not Know­ing: The Art of Turn­ing Uncer­tain­ty Into Oppor­tu­ni­ty [link], which he co-authored with Diana Ren­ner. Steven has often enriched my own abil­i­ty to think more clear­ly and con­struc­tive­ly. This new book, how­ev­er, is tan­ta­lis­ing: I believe that most peo­ple have nev­er con­sid­ered the unknown as a pos­si­ble asset. Instead, they oper­ate only on what they believe they know; they see the unknown as some­thing to be feared. Con­sid­er this post an appe­tis­er for the main course, which is the book itself. To obtain it, sim­ply jump to the web­site link I just pro­vid­ed. How can one suc­ceed by not know­ing? It’s an intrigu­ing ques­tion, one that Steven begins to address here. Enjoy!

Steven D’SouzaLike many peo­ple, I have always been anx­ious about the future. If I’m not think­ing about past events, my mind is like a fair­ground carousel of Cas­san­drean images of what may be, wor­ry­ing about choic­es to be made and unfore­seen con­se­quences. We are afraid of the unknown and for good rea­son — in the past, what we did not know could lit­er­al­ly kill us. For many of us, mod­ern life is not so extreme; but neu­ro­log­i­cal­ly we are still hard­wired to know, and the fear of the unknown is a real threat.

I am not unlike an organ­i­sa­tion. Isn’t the pri­ma­ry focus of much man­age­ment the rou­tin­is­ing of what has worked in the past to cre­ate effi­cien­cies and reduced uncer­tain­ty by increas­ing pre­dictabil­i­ty? Are not CEOs, man­age­ment teams, and work­ers on the front line con­sumed with want­i­ng to know what is to come for their com­pa­ny or for their indi­vid­ual teams and jobs? Fear of new com­peti­tors, volatil­i­ty of mar­kets, and con­tin­u­ous organ­i­sa­tion­al restruc­tures are busi­ness as usu­al.

Not Knowing BookIn this com­plex, con­nect­ed and con­fus­ing world, espe­cial­ly in organ­i­sa­tions, we fre­quent­ly turn to our lead­ers and experts to help us sort the sig­nal from the noise. We expect our lead­ers to pro­vide cer­tain­ty, pro­tec­tion, and direc­tion. We pay con­sul­tants hand­some­ly to reduce our uncer­tain­ty through analy­sis, Pow­er­Point slides, and the pro­duc­tion of strate­gic plans.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, our experts are most­ly wrong in their pre­dic­tions, our lead­ers do not have all the answers, and most of our change plans are nev­er suc­cess­ful­ly imple­ment­ed. Often our prob­lems are not sim­ply com­pli­cat­ed but also com­plex. Their per­sis­tence is a clue that they don’t require only tech­ni­cal solu­tions but are adap­tive chal­lenges requir­ing changes in beliefs and behav­iour.

At some point, lead­ers, teams, and even organ­i­sa­tions find them­selves at the edge of their exper­tise and knowl­edge. They are left feel­ing ground­less. There are clear signs we can observe at this edge: we choose to “stick with what we know and avoid engag­ing in what we don’t under­stand”. Or we may see a rush to action — when we don’t know what to do but doing any­thing is bet­ter than stay­ing with the cur­rent ten­sion. There are yet oth­er signs: end­less meet­ings as a form of paral­y­sis analy­sis, engag­ing in “cat­a­stroph­ic” think­ing, and fre­quent­ly a revert to com­mand-and- con­trol lead­er­ship are all typ­i­cal attempts to reassert con­trol over what seems chaot­ic and dif­fi­cult.

In the new book I’ve writ­ten with my col­league, Diana Ren­ner, we call these signs reac­tions at the edge — clues that we have reached the lim­its of our exper­tise and knowl­edge. When we find our­selves in these reac­tions, we are now at the bound­ary between the Known and the Unknown. Rather than turn away from this place, we argue that you can ben­e­fit from engag­ing with it active­ly. We think that this is a fer­tile place where new pos­si­bil­i­ties can emerge. We call this space Not Know­ing, and we think of it as a space of oppor­tu­ni­ty and a way of being in the world. Rather than feel­ing only uncer­tain­ty, we can devel­op new capac­i­ties for won­der, cre­ativ­i­ty, and val­ue cre­ation.

Ladder To Sky

In research­ing the book, we inter­viewed dozens of peo­ple about their own expe­ri­ence at the edge, but the main focus of the book was learn­ing from those who thrived and found it excit­ing to engage in the unknown. They came from all walks of life — an Oxford sci­en­tist, a blind pho­tog­ra­ph­er, a Zen mas­ter, an explor­er, an artist, our own NextSens­ing Direc­tor, Joseph Pistrui, and Nextsen­sor Deb Mills-Scofield, both of whom shared their sto­ries on how Not Know­ing is fun­da­men­tal to entre­pre­neur­ship.

Four main skills emerged from our research, which have par­al­lels to what Keats called ‘Neg­a­tive Capa­bil­i­ties’ as they are not so much com­pe­ten­cies to devel­op, but capac­i­ties that may arise from not-doing or unlearn­ing. For exam­ple, one of the skills is Emp­ty your Cup. This is based on the con­cept of the begin­ner’s mind. Close your Eyes in Order to See posits that solv­ing prob­lems may require less infor­ma­tion and more aware­ness. Leap into the Dark is about mis­takes and impro­vi­sa­tion with intel­lect fol­low­ing intu­ition, and final­ly Delight­ing in the Unknown cov­ers sub­jects such as com­pas­sion and anti-fragili­ty. The book is full of case stud­ies from small firms and SME’s to glob­al com­pa­nies such as Eurostar and the Finan­cial Times on how they have embraced Not Know­ing.

As part of the Nextsens­ing com­mu­ni­ty, I think Not Know­ing offers all of us a frame­work for call­ing out moments in which we resort to default at our edge when fac­ing the unknown. It nor­malis­es our fear and reac­tions and gives us the chance instead to get curi­ous and cre­ate a dif­fer­ent out­come by prac­tis­ing skills and a new mind­set. Not Know­ing is chal­leng­ing, con­trar­i­an, and requires skills such as pac­ing the tol­er­ance of peo­ple to be with the unknown. It is not anoth­er action plan, and the book con­tains no panacea or bul­let point tips. There is a vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and a loss that come with embrac­ing the unknown.

As hard as it is, giv­en the chal­lenges we face today, Not Know­ing may be, para­dox­i­cal­ly, one of the most impor­tant things to expe­ri­ence and prac­tice. While the future may not be known, we can learn to ori­en­tate our­selves bet­ter in the present; and I hope that our book is a valu­able resource for the world of work and the Nextsens­ing com­mu­ni­ty.

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