Unreasonable promises

It’s that time of year again. Even though the exact point where one year ends and another starts is fairly arbitrary, it’s hard to avoid a sense of new beginnings.

Many of us make unreasonable promises to ourselves. This year I’ll definitely:

  • stop [negative behaviour]
  • start [positive behaviour]

According to a poll by YouGov, about 20% of us make a resolution of this sort at this time of year. It’s difficult to have a high degree of confidence in the success rates quoted online, but I’ve seen failure rates of between 80% and 95% while doing cursory desk research.

In business too, for many organisations this time of year is “planning season”. How did we do last year? What did we learn? What targets are we going to give ourselves now? It’s a perennial urge, encoded deep in the operating system of our organisations.

Cognitive bias

While I don’t make New Year resolutions myself, I think this desire to look at things afresh is a positive one. It makes me think of Shoshin, the term from Zen Buddhism meaning “beginners mind”. Shoshin is an attitude of openness and eagerness. Someone beginning their study of a new skill, or addressing a new problem, will approach it with a lack of preconceptions about what’s possible or the potential limitations. Shunryu Suzuki noted that

“in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

From a business perspective, at Subsector we are often confronted by the cognitive bias alluded to by Suzuki: expert’s mind, or the curse of knowledge. While making important decisions about an organisation’s next steps, the very expertise that has rewarded some staff with positions of authority may, in fact, limit opportunity.

It often sounds like:

  • We can’t do that because…
  • The way we’ve done this in the past is…
  • We tried that before and it doesn’t work…
  • [Department x] would never go for that…

Truth and doubt

It’s a cliché to say that things change quickly these days but, if we accept that as partly true, how can we be sure that our historical expertise remains accurate or relevant to current conditions? It is reasonable, even necessary, to doubt. Descartes made a name for himself by systematically doubting everything until arriving at “self-evident” truths. If you’ve ever spent time with a five-year-old repeatedly asking “why”, you probably have an idea of what it might be like to hang out with him.

There are some things, of course, that don’t change as quickly as the social or technological environment of the 21st century. Descartes might have called them “a priori” truths. Aristotle called them “first principles” or “the first basis from which a thing is known”. Jeff Bezos would probably call them “customer needs”. Without wanting to disappear down a philosophical rabbit-hole, perhaps recognising some of these “first principles” for our organisations might help us escape the curse of knowledge and better adopt a beginner’s mind when planning for the future.

The N2D Method takes this approach, helping business leaders navigate complexity by focusing on what truly matters.

Happy New Year!