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42: The answer to life the universe and everything – How our quest for answers is paralysing us.

image-42Most of us have been there, frantically typing searches into Google and getting more and more frustrated when the answer fails to appear. From time immemorial humans have been on a quest for knowledge, libraries have been filled, minutiae recorded and more recently data centres combined with cloud services allow us to store and access more information than we ever thought possible. After all, knowledge is power, or is it?

It appeared in recent political events related to Brexit and the US Presidential election that people are increasingly willing to question the value of ‘experts’ and their knowledge to predict what the outcome from a vote would look like. Regardless of your political leaning, I believe there is an interesting lesson to be learnt here; the missing dimension in all our knowledge is ‘time’. Still this doesn’t stop us trying to predict what the future might hold based on past experience. This experience increasingly takes the form of electronic records, data and knowledge, manipulated using complex modelling where possible. Where previously we trusted an expert to look after a specific activity, we now expect all this activity to be measured, tracked, recorded and any subsequent value proven. This evidence based approach is thought to remove risk and reassures various layers of managers that funds are spent wisely.

It isn’t difficult to see how this obsession with data is slowing us down, but I believe that this risk averse behaviour, facilitated by knowledge, is doing much more than simply slowing us. Chris Kane’s and Ashley Muller’s blogs capture the realisation that we are stuck in our silos, seriously hampering our ability to adapt to a world which is experiencing almost unprecedented change. The paradox we’re now seeing suggests that the faster things change, the more organisational siloes feel the need to evaluate and demonstrate that what they are doing is right. Forever looking back and inwards, rarely looking forward and out.

So what is the answer?

Recently I had the privilege of visiting Sky Central in West London. Nick Green showed me round and it’s clear that Nick and Neil Usher and their team at Sky had managed to dissolve some of the traditional siloes. Their creation demonstrates that you can integrate people, place and technology to enhance employee engagement and thus productivity. The question I therefor had to ask Nick was: “What metrics or data did you use to support taking this approach?” The answer? “We didn’t really use any; we just agreed it was the right thing to do.” Waving his arms indicating the wonderful space he then said: “It’s obvious for all to see”.

Clearly, the outcome of this project couldn’t have been obvious before it was built. It was an idea, a concept, something in the future. Full of uncertainty and ambiguity, but it seems that the vision, courage and leadership of a few individuals overcame the desire to know all the answers from the outset. So if we are looking to create the opportunity for real change, rather than looking for the answer, perhaps we just need to get comfortable with not knowing the answer.