Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Secret

When you don’t know how to do something, you suspect that those who do know how share a special secret. If someone would just whisper to you the special secret, then you could do it too: whistle a tune, or maybe ride a bike. Of course, there is no special secret – no single piece of information that makes all the difference. Instead, you learn most interesting things by doing. You engage the challenge in your own way, fail a lot, and possibly make it work for you. You learn.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead long ago made the point that valuable learning comes not from being told a fact. Recited facts are “inert” ideas disconnected from the fullness of our understanding. Valuable learning, says Whitehead, means discovering “living” knowledge: ideas “utilised, tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.” Yet we persist in believing the myth of the special secret.

I run into the myth of the special secret often because I am a teacher and parent. Children and executives often come to me in their search for one or another special secret, wanting to skip a rope, design a product, write an essay, throw a ball, run a company, or what have you. I remember when my son Willie wanted to be able to ride a bike. I removed his “training wheels” and there he was standing out in the street, superhero flames on his helmet, two-wheeled bike in hand, waiting for me to tell him the special secret that all bike riders know.

About now, what if we dropped a business school professor into this situation? What would he say? “Willie should not be doing this. Bike riding is not his ‘core competence.’ Willie should outsource bike riding to Bobby down the road, for whom bike-riding is a core competence. They can form a partnership.”

Fortunately for Willie, his patient mother stepped in. Every day for a week she ran next to him up and down the street, catching him as he fell, so he could learn. The process of discovering living knowledge is not easy, but it pays off. Now Willie knows how to ride. And he knows the secret: that there is no secret.

The same problem comes up in business all the time. How often have you been in a meeting when someone at the table proclaims “That is not our core competence!” All go quiet, the core competence trump card having been played. We are taught that companies should only do what they already know how to do.

So where do organizational capabilities come from?

Wrong answer: Organizational capabilities come from researching “best business practice.” I often have executives come to Stanford thinking they will write down inert ideas told to them by professors. There can be some value in this exercise, but frankly you could parrot inert ideas more efficiently using information technology. Besides, everybody else can easily find out these inert ideas too. A list of best practices will not make you a great company, any more than finding a recipe will make you a great cook.

Right answer: Design your organization so that it develops new capabilities. We know that some companies learn much better than others. Make it your job, as a leader, to help your organization be better at learning. Structure your organization so that your people must engage with important, unsolved problems. Establish routines that allow for failure and reward those who try to discover – regardless of the ultimate outcome. Build a culture that values discovering over knowing, becoming over being. Lead by design, and don’t forget the secret: There is no secret.


For more on the “process philosophy” of Alfred North Whitehead, read his essay Aims of Education.