One of my favorite shows just started its eleventh season. It is the X-Files. Watching agents Moulder and Scully deal with various supposed conspiracies, monsters and other abnormal behavior associated with aliens (the science fiction ones, not the terrestrial, international border crossing ones), the various hidden agendas and conspiracy leaders obviously got me to thinking about all the parallels that can be drawn between the television show and what actually goes on in business. In the X-Files it is said that “the truth is out there”. That may not truly be the case in business, although one would hope so. With that being said, when searching for answers out there in business, it may be best to remember this little gem: Question Everything.
Since we are crossing the science fiction with the business schools of management here, we probably ought to start with a quote from one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, Robert Heinlein. He said:
“If “everybody knows” such-and-such, then it ain’t so, by at least ten thousand to one.”
There have been many instances in my career where I have taken on a new role where the phrase “Challenge and opportunity” was involved. At first, I thought this was a management code phrase for a bad thing because that was what those around told me it was. They all knew that the issues and challenges plaguing the operation were deep rooted, endemic and impossible to fix. Many had gone before me and none had been successful.
What I learned was that these challenges and opportunities really are opportunities. They should be sought out, not avoided. They are not easily solved or corrected, but few issues in business ever are. The truth that was out there, was that the solution was not to be found in fixing the issues that others had supposedly identified and already (unsuccessfully) dealt with. Everybody knew that those were the only real issues, and everybody knew that none of the solutions that had been applied worked.
And as Heinlein noted everybody was usually wrong.
When I first take on a new opportunity and challenge, I probably ask a bunch of dumb questions. There are many who think that is the only type of question I am capable of asking. I could see the exasperation on the faces of those that I asked. I was new to the role. I wasn’t fully experienced in it. My questions were probably dumb. It is not a bad thing to own the truth.
That was okay. As I got smarter about the situation, so did my questions.
Invariably I ended up coming back to the original dumb questions. These were the ones that were usually answered with lines such as “That’s the way we do it” or “That process evolved over time” or “It was the result of an event that occurred several years ago”. These were in effect the “everybody knows” we do it that way response.
The eventual solutions invariably came from questioning these “everybody knows” basic tenets of the unit’s operation. Just because that was the way it has been done, doesn’t mean it is the correct, or proper way to do it.
I found that most issues associated with the “challenge and opportunity” performance of a business stemmed from the basics of how the business was set up to run. Too many times it is the symptoms associated with the improper basic assumptions or alignments of an organization that are focused on. These are the easiest things to see, and hence the most visible to treat.
Notice that I said treat, not cure.
If a business performance issue is large enough to be visible to management to the extent that it is felt that a change is needed, it is usually not a superficial, easily recognizable symptom, that is the cause. It usually relates to a basic way that the business is done. Treating a symptom does not cure the problem.
When it comes to this level of business examination, everybody becomes a stakeholder. Everybody has agreed to do it “that way”. And as a result, there will be resistance from everybody when it comes to questioning, and even changing what has been viewed by so many as basic to the way the business has been run.
This means that when questioning everything, be sure to do it on an individual level. When digging in to any organizational or operational can of worms it is best to do it on an individual basis. Jumping back to our science fiction, alien based school of business management thought, Tommy Lee Jones summed up this phenomenon best when he was discussing whether or not to let everyone on earth know that the earth was in danger of being destroyed by aliens in the first Men in Black (MiB) movie. He said:
“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it!”
He was pointing out that people in a group will do, say and act differently than they do as an individual. There is much that has been written about the psychology of groups (and mobs). Most of what has been written is succinctly summed up in what the quote from MiB.
This is no different in business. Almost every individual, will separately acknowledge that a change must be implemented, However, when the individuals are placed in a group, the group will almost always unanimously state that no change is possible, or if change is in fact needed, it is the other groups, and not theirs that must change. This is the group fear of change and the unknown.
We have to remember that science fiction and change in business actually have a lot in common. I think Arthur C. Clarke, another great science fiction writer put it best. He said:
“…science fiction is something that could happen – but usually you wouldn’t want it to.”
When it comes to change in business, it can also be described as something that could happen, but usually most people don’t really want it to. Change means incrementing in risk on both an individual and group level. It is doing something that hasn’t been done before. It requires leaving the current comfort zone. It is as Captain Kirk intoned in the prolog to Star Trek (both the original series and the movies):
“To boldly go where no one has gone before….”
Not everybody is built to be that adventurous. Either in space exploration, or business. That is why process has been created, introduced, and flourished in business. Process is designed to reduce the need for judgment, and add predictability and hence comfort. It in effect, tries to remove the adventure from business.
As such, it also adds impedance and resistance to the need, introduction and acceptance of change. If everyone in the process knows and accepts their role in the process, then any change introduced to the fundamental functions associated with the business will probably affect all of their roles. No one likes to have their role affected by an external entity, regardless of who or what that entity is. Hence, they will either directly or indirectly resist or impede the proposed change.
This effect is usually the genesis of the everyone knows it can’t be done phenomenon.
This brings us to the final intersection between business and science fiction (at least in this article). Terry Pratchett, author of the satirical and humorous “Discworld” series of books put it best:
“It is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you’re attempting can’t be done.”
Not knowing that an issue “can’t be fixed” is probably the key to fixing it. If everyone knows that is the way that things are done, then it is probably a very good place to start looking for solutions. If everyone is resistant to change, then it is probably a good bet that change is what is needed most in that organization.
When changing, you have to question everything. Especially those topics which everyone believes don’t need to be questioned. This is precisely because all the topics that everyone does believe need to be questioned, have probably already been questioned, and didn’t provide the solution. The truth is probably out there, but if you don’t question everything, there is a very good chance that you will miss it in favor of the more easily digested and implemented symptomatic solution, which is probably the one that everybody knows is the right one.
And remember what Heinlein said about what everybody knows…..