A map for uncharted waters

Finding solutions to problems that didn’t exist when you started your annual planning

How can we turbocharge our businesses learning? Marc Nohr and Sara Tate argue in today's uncertain world we have to be able to learn things we didn't know before and to create a culture of learning for those around us.

"AI claims its first scalp as shares in the education sector tumble" claimed a FT headline.

A year ago agency leaders were emerging from Covid-19 only to face The Big Resignation and then get hit by a tidal wave of rising inflation. Now they find themselves looking over their shoulder for the AI bogeyman who might be coming to eat their lunch. Even before these extraordinary events, big questions were being asked about the agency business models.

You don’t need to be in the C-suite to know that these are uncertain times. There is even a world uncertainty index which, to no surprise, is following the type of 'up and to the right' trajectory that most CFOs long to see in their own numbers. If any agency management teams thought they had all the answers to navigate smoothly through 2023 and beyond, it’s time to think again.

So what is the solution? How can we lead teams and businesses without a map? How do we find solutions to problems that didn’t exist when we were starting our annual planning?

Going back to school

One solution can be found, not in the business press, but from a far less intimidating seat of learning. On the wall of our local primary school is a poster about Growth Mindset. It reminds children that they are mini-learning powerhouses. It tells them that effort equals progress and each time they tackle something new and scary they learn and grow. Up and down the country children are learning how to learn. Not to bluster their way through Boris-style but to face questions and challenges everyday that they have no experience of and to find a way through.

It’s a lesson all adults would do well to absorb.

Remembering that we can learn

As we become more senior we think we need to have the answers. But it’s an instinct we may have to fight against. Because in today's uncertain world we would be better served by asking questions. To deal with problems we have not faced before we have to be able to learn things we didn't know before and to create a culture of learning for those around us.

This of course may feel counterintuitive because since 1911 when Frederick Taylor invented Scientific Management (the forerunner of Management Consultancy), business has been obsessed with the right way of doing things. At the dawn of industrialisation, Frederick wanted to improve the efficiency of factories and their workers and came up with precise, consistent and optimal processes. This 'drive for efficiency' created the idea that there was only one right way to do things.

But business has gotten more complicated since the industrial age. Competition has emerged from new places, technology has become a source of constant innovation and disruption and our understanding of human motivation and behaviour has become richer. 

'Getting it right' assumes that perfection is attainable. It focuses leaders on building environments that are concerned with being perfect and getting it right rather than systems that are designed to learn and adapt.

But today’s environment is evolving and to evolve in tandem we must reconnect with our ability to learn. We must embrace our amazingly adaptable brains, unleash our creativity and curiosity, we must channel some of the growth mindset that makes Year 4 primary schoolers better equipped to embrace the unknown than the average senior exec.

How can we turbocharge our businesses learning?

The same is true for teams and businesses overall. Leadership may once have been about the all-seeing and all-knowing oracle, but now it’s much more about the leader as a coach who supports people to get to the right answer on their own. Interestingly Goleman’s study into effective leadership styles showed that this 'coaching' style is leaders’ least favourite style, despite being one of the most effective styles. So we have some work to do as leaders! Judging by the extraordinary commercial success of Microsoft in recent years we would do well to take a page out of CEO Satya Nadella’s book. In a recent Times of India piece it was reported:

Microsoft’s culture had become dogmatic, because everyone had to prove they knew it all and were the smartest people in the room. Satya committed to change Microsoft’s culture from “know-it-alls'' to “learn-it-alls.” He sees the CEO’s chief job is being the curator of the organization’s culture. The key to culture change is empowerment that brings out the best in everyone. He asks all employees to adopt psychologist Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” observing that “a fixed mindset will limit your growth and a growth mindset can move you forward, centered on the belief that everyone can grow and develop. 

Marc Nohr is Portfolio Chairman and Board Advisor. Sara Tate is an Author & Brand and Organisational Strategist. 

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The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 01 May 2024