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You Don’t Know Who You Are


I've been doing a bit of teaching to a Masters class in Digital Marketing recently. Some of the work that has been originated by the class around digital business models has been something of an eye opener to me. Not so much for the ideas (excellent in quality though many of them were), but for the approach that the students took. An approach that was properly unconstrained by what you might call 'traditional' thinking. The kind of thinking that kills disruptive ideas because they are, well, disruptive, and don't naturally fit within the confines of the current ways of doing stuff. It seemed to be a perfectly natural thing for those students to challenge some pretty fundamental assumptions.

The interesting thing is that this is invariably the place we come from. When we come into the world and start to learn how to talk we ask a lot of questions that begin with why? When we start in the big wide world of work we often question (maybe not always in public) why things are done as they are.

As reported in this account of Eric Schmidt's keynote lecture at the Google Zeitgeist event the other day, Google make a point of asking bright sparks fresh out of college for their opinion on how they should tackle some of the trickier challenges that Google faces, because they see things from a fresh perspective. Innovation comes from people questioning the dominant way of thinking and status quo.

Sadly in most organisations, the opposite happens. Induction processes focus on 'teaching' the ways things are done within the organisation. Rewards focus on how well candidates fit within those parameters. Challenges to the status quo are not listened to because that person has not been in the business long enough to 'understand' why things are as they are. The irony is that in doing this they are confining a large part of the value that those people can bring to the company.

In that amazing Austin Kleon post (How To Steal Like An Artist) that got shortlisted for Post Of The Month back in March, he references this Rainn Wilson (who apparently played Dwight in the US version of The Office) quote that drove him nuts because it felt like a license for many people to put off making things: “If you don’t know who you are or what you’re about or what you believe in it’s really pretty impossible to be creative”. Instead in his experience, he says, it's in the act of making things that we figure out who we are.

Similarly I think, it is in the act of challenging themselves and creating new ways of creating, producing and doing that organisations really find out who they are. And a good place to start with that is by paying attention to the thinking of those that are new to your business, and the bright young things in your company. The point is that as an organisation, you're not going to find out what's really possible until you challenge some of the hardwired assumptions in your business. In other words, you don't know who you are until you know what you can do, and you don't know what you can do until you cut the crap and start doing it.

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