In part 1 of my interview with Jonathan MacDonald, he explained how business leaders can begin to expand their thinking. As a highly sought after world-renowned speaker and the owner of the Thought Expansion Network, he advises top business leaders about how they can maximize their opportunities within an environment of perpetual change.
In part 2, he explains how business leaders can expand their thinking and uncover new possibilties in a rapidly changing business environment.
Amy Morin: I’ve heard you talk about the 98% of the stuff you don’t know you don’t know. If we don’t know something, and we seem to be getting fine without it, why do we need to change that?
Jonathan MacDonald: I’m interested in the concept that there is, perhaps, 1% of stuff we know, 1% of stuff we know we don’t know and 98% of stuff we don’t know we don’t know. Regardless of the actual percentages, I think we’d all accept there’s stuff we have no idea about, and some would accept that within that stuff, it’s more than likely there are opportunities we are missing out on.
Morin: Are you seeing times when companies are missing out because they aren’t exploring those opportunities?
MacDonald: I was recently speaking to a board of directors from a Fortune 10 company who asked me whether they needed to know more than they already knew, in order to make the right decisions. Bearing in mind this is a company that has pretty much consistently increased in share price over several decades, the evidence shows they’ve always had the right knowledge to perform. The key word here is ‘had’ by the way. My answer then, as now, is that it’s less about your knowledge of historical performance and more about your level of comfort with what you know today. In the past we could feel comfort from a predictable competitive environment, relatively long product lifecycles, and a moderate rate of change. If we succeeded, this was the context within which we did.
Morin: Why is it that business leaders can no longer base decisions on the knowledge of their historical performance, but in the past they could?
MacDonald: Consumer expectations were fairly standard and our media channels were controllable only by corporations. We weren’t flooded with the information, nor the alerts and bleeps that make up the soundtrack of today that, according to the 2013 LexisNexis International Workplace Productivity Survey, is causing a measurable loss in productivity and motivation where a majority of workers in every market – 62% on average- admit that the quality of their work suffers at times because they can’t sort through the information they need fast enough. To compound this noisy and counter-productive landscape, today’s context is one where change gets progressively faster and this very moment is the slowest pace of change we’ll ever experience.
Morin: How is the rate of change affecting today’s business environment?
MacDonald: John Chen, the current CEO of BlackBerry, told the Financial Times in early 2014 that there’s a “50:50 chance” the turnaround will work, citing unpredictability as the main reason. In the MIT/Capgemini study of 1500 senior executives in 2013, 80% of respondents said it was critical for their organization to undertake transformation in the next two years, however 63% said the pace of change inside their organization was too slow. Unpredictability was again cited as the main reason.
This echoes what I hear from the CEOs I speak with each week. I hear them express a private lack of certainty that I didn’t hear a decade ago. I get taken to one side and the leaders of the largest brands in the world confess they aren’t sure who to believe, what to think and ultimately what to do. They are realizing that feeling comfortable with what they know is actually one of the worst positions to be in. My conclusion for them, as for you, is that we need to move away from ignorance being bliss, toward the stark reality that ignorance is bust.
Morin: What questions can business leaders ask themselves to begin uncovering the 98% of stuff they don’t know they don’t know?
MacDonald: These are the four questions that keep business leaders awake at night, and if they don’t, they should:
- Are my past assumptions a good prediction of the future?
- Am I comfortable that my assumptions can withstand perpetual and unpredictable change?
- Am I comfortable that I’m armed with what I need to make the best decisions?
- Am I comfortable that the sources of information I use are the most valid to the task?
It is this expansive thinking that directly and empirically impacts success. Luckily, every business can improve their chances if they choose to prioritize thought expansion. Those who choose not to do this have literally nobody to blame but themselves. Or, as George Buckley (Chairman, President and CEO of 3M) once said, “If you don’t invest in the future and don’t plan for the future, there won’t be one.”