Tag: innovation

The Vital Art of Changing Our Minds

Take a look at the picture above.  You might see a pretty landscape, confronting terrain or a climbing playground.  I stopped rock climbing at the age of 30.  As much as I loved it and saw others climbing safely and well, I became overwhelmed by the risks involved, so I stopped.  At 47 I have started climbing again –  I’ve changed my mind.

Now this may not sound like any kind of endorsement to you.  However, I believe that being able to change our minds at this level is vital, literally ‘life-giving’.  For at the heart of all of our seemingly intransigent problems is an issue of our mind’s view of the world and beliefs about what we should do and are capable of doing.  Expanding our mind’s view opens up new ways forward.

I am talking about something much deeper than integrating new information as it becomes available.  This is about addressing our fundamental and often unconscious beliefs and assumptions which underpin our mind’s view.  A vital part of our work as adults is to become conscious of them for they silently shape all our decisions and actions.  With awareness we can consider if they still serve us or those we care about and, if not, replace them.  Without this work we are guaranteed to be making limiting decisions affecting what we and others can achieve.

There is a plethora of research into the importance of early experiences and socialising on brain development.  Many of us will know the Jesuit saying of “give me the child for his first 7 years and I will give you the man”.  During this period we are building our first frameworks of beliefs for making sense of the world – without awareness or the ability to critique what we are absorbing.  We continue to build on this foundation throughout our lives, for humans are profoundly sense-making creatures.  We naturally piece together elements from our experiences which affirm the mindset and beliefs we have[1]

The multi-award winning film Sherpa[2] offers a powerful exposé of this process in action.  It explores the experiences of Sherpas and Western climbers at the time of the tragic ice avalanche on Everest in 2014 in which 16 Sherpas were killed.

Many of the people filmed present individually cohesive, yet mutually conflicting understandings of what is happening.

Tensions rose when the majority of Sherpas threatened to stop all climbing because they were angry with their government’s lack of support and out of respect for those killed.  The climbers were heavily invested in their objective of summiting Everest and many wanted to continue.  These are different and yet reasonable points of view.  Then during a terse discussion about the Sherpas, one Western climber asked his Expedition Leader “Can’t you talk to their owners?”   As the cinema audience gasped in horror at the slavery-era belief implied by this statement, I wondered what my version of that might be?

What’s certain is that we all have hidden beliefs which others would find bizarre and we need other people to help us uncover them.

An extra twist for leaders

Traditionally, leaders are paid to have the vision, set the strategy and drive the execution.  We believe we are responsible for finding the answer. This works very well for leading technical problems where similar matters have been successfully resolved before[3]

Increasingly we find that the proper understanding of the problem exists across multiple stakeholder groups.  For example:

  • What is the proper response to issues of environmental sustainability?
  • Is my Government doing the right thing about the economy, social policy, foreign policy?
  • How are disruptive technologies and Gen Y thinking going to influence my industry/business?

No one person can derive the solution to such complex issues as these.  They have to be co-created.  If you’re in a senior leadership role, you know this challenge well.  It requires a being able to step beyond our prejudices and preconceptions to engage others.


We can think we are expanding our thinking and testing our beliefs when actually we are still sourcing from within our paradigm.  An example of this is the AFR Business Summit held in Melbourne, Australia in March.  It was an excellent program with some superb speakers and panellists on the question of “risk or growth?”  A fair question for the business world.  What struck me was that concepts of growth were predicated on the conventional wisdom of increased consumption.  No one addressed current estimations that we are already consuming 1.6 times each year what the planet can sustainably produce.[4]

This reminded me of the wisdom in the humour of Douglas Adams.  He wrote in ‘Life the Universe and Everything’ of a spaceship hovering above Lords Cricket Ground in the UK protected by the most powerful force-field in the known universe – the Somebody Else’s Problem or SEP field.  “Any object around which an S.E.P. is applied will cease to be noticed, because any problems one may have understanding it (and therefore accepting its existence) become Somebody Else’s. An object becomes not so much invisible as unnoticed.”   The truth of this is both funny and frightening.

Changing our minds requires commitment and a sense of adventure

Otto Scharmer and his colleagues at the Presencing Institute, MIT have been helping leaders for the last 20 years to radically open their minds, hearts and wills to what is new, unknown and thereby generate radically different solutions.  As mentioned above, we need other people to help us uncover our hidden beliefs.  One powerful tool they teach is called an empathy walk.  It means deliberately seeking out someone who operates at the fringes of our community, perhaps holds opposing views and then deliberately suspending all judgment and preconceptions as we spend time with them.  Our aim is to see through their eyes, hear through their ears, feel through their skin, to understand how they love what they love and honour what they honour.  We don’t have to share their beliefs, yet we can discover how their world makes sense to them.  It’s a great antidote to that SEP field!

I was privileged to have a long conversation many years ago with James Strong, former CEO and later Chairman of Qantas about the understanding he forged of people at all levels of the organisation.  This he developed by giving time and attention to people in their world, building connection and valuing their ideas.  Some might call this ‘management by walking around.’ However, the intention was akin to the empathy walk.

The gift of the empathy walk is discovering our hidden prejudices, assumptions and misunderstandings.  This awareness automatically changes us, enlarging our thinking so we become much better equipped as leaders.  We then have the mindset necessary to tap into the power of collective wisdom which reaches well beyond our experience – to truly lead innovation and to shape new paradigms.

I stopped climbing when I was 30 because I had run out of mental and emotional reserves.  I didn’t know at the time but I was struggling with a perfect storm of inherited beliefs of “don’t push your luck” and “don’t trust yourself”.  Each time I lead a climb successfully, rather than confirming my competence it became another lucky escape from what I believed was an inevitable accident.

The easy path is to walk away from what we find hard, to stick with what’s comfortable.  The personal challenges I encountered climbing were potentially life threatening. They certainly felt hard and intractable.  Bashing away at the problem directly wasn’t going to help.  So I went on a walk around it, intentionally experiencing new things and learning new models to adjust my fundamental belief structures.

At 47 I have no ambitions to be a great climber or alpinist.  I’ve left my run a bit late!   My intention is to be in wild places that nourish my spirit for as long as my body will let me.

The power of the journey is knowing that I can, we can, change some of the deepest and fundamental drivers behind how we show up every day, the impact and influence we have on other people and the solutions we see and support.  Whenever a problem feels too big to handle our best response is to practice the art of changing our minds.  For it breathes new hope into the biggest issues – no matter how complex and intransigent the challenge may seem.



[1]What statisticians have long referred to as confirmation bias.

[2] Award winning film Sherpa: Trouble on Everest http://sherpafilm.com/trailer/

[3] See publications by Ron Heifetz, Marty Linsky from the Kennedy School on Adaptive Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School.

[4] http://www.overshootday.org/earth-overshoot-day-debt-cant-ignore/

Why unoriginality is the key to innovation

I have not had an original thought.

While I run the risk of invoking witty criticism, I think this statement is true for all of us.  Paradoxically it offers an important insight into how we shape progress and lead significant and innovative change.

Let me explain.

The Western culture of individualism and the ‘healthy ego’ leads us to celebrate originality.  Our sense of identity and self-worth can be strongly linked to how I identify the contribution I make or how others perceive my unique legacy .  Indeed, the quality of my intellect and reasoning are strong predictors of the level of respect I will command in the business world – and what better way to demonstrate that than with truly original thought?

Yet our deepest thoughts were probably already considered by Aristotle or a Mesopotamian sage many centuries ago. Just not in our context, nor with our scientific knowledge or language.  This is why we can read ancient texts and be inspired and why Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is still labelled a best-seller after 2000 years!

Further, all over the world people are having the same insights as you and me concurrently. There seems to be a synchronicity shaped by our context.  Think of Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray who were separately and concurrently developing the telephone and filed for patents on the very same day[1].

A current example is the corporate leadership buzz around ‘mindfulness’.  Our technologically savvy and over-stimulated world is creating a hunger for inner peace. This wisdom has been part of the tradition of every great faith for centuries.  Now thousands of people around the world are firmly proclaiming the importance of meditation in business, social and religious contexts.  Each person’s insight is important in addressing a real issue and they are neither original nor unique.

Hmmm.  This starts to sound like heresy and what does this have to do with innovation?  After all individualism has been essential to the development of capitalism and the overwhelming growth in standards of living.  Our belief in meritocracy, human rights, democracy are all linked to individualism.

The first part of the answer lies in how powerfully and quickly we can effect change when we put ego aside and tap into the combined power of our collective wisdom and insights.  It’s there to be shared just as soon as we open our minds, hearts and will[2] and listen before we freely offer our own insights.  Then we achieve the seemingly impossible.

Take the stunning breakthroughs with prosthetic technologies.  Modern warfare (mines / IEDs) leaves more people alive but maimed.  The US Government made significant funding available to pioneer sophisticated options for people needing prosthetic limbs.  The requirement though was that learnings were to be shared – an open protocol was to be created.  The speed of progress has been breath-taking.  And although specific people are now patenting their own commercially lucrative variations, the collaborative and open sharing was a massive catalyst to what has occurred.  If you haven’t been following this one (and I can understand it may not be on your radar) check out IEEE / Spectrum.[3]  We are at a point where in a few short years prosthetic arms have evolved from having limited utility to now being able to handle delicate tasks and communicate sensation.  Imagine the joy of being able to hug your child, your spouse once more….

How much more quickly might we have developed communication technology had Bell and Gray openly shared their learnings and worked together, rather than engaging in a race to the patent office?  What other technological breakthroughs might be just around the corner?

The second part of the answer is that we may have no choice.  Leaders I work with keep encountering the same insight:  the opportunities they are really excited about and the complex challenges that they see go way beyond traditional concepts of business.  Hierarchical and individualistic approaches to leadership are insufficient to the task.  They won’t work.

Take the exemplary success of Unilever in moving to a genuine position of sustainability. They began by throwing out conventional wisdom around making quarterly forecasts to market analysts as this was driving short-termism. Instead, the people at Unilever have worked closely with their entire ecosystem of suppliers, customers and communities to think longer term about transforming the business.  They have moved a long way towards their goal of doubling revenues while enacting their three-point sustainability plan: to help more than a billion people improve their health and wellbeing, to halve the environmental footprint of their products, and to source 100% of agricultural raw materials sustainably.  Read any of the interviews with Paul Polman for an insight into his philosophy and approach.[4]  He is a man who radiates pride in what he and his team have collectively achieved.

There is excellent work being done in developing new leadership models. Two in particular are Otto Scharmer and the ‘Presencing Institute’ based out of MIT and Ron Heifetz and Martin Linsky’s work on Adaptive Leadership at Harvard. These present models of co-creative and future focused leadership versus authority-based and historically-grounded leadership.   I am sure there are others you know of and value– I would love to hear about them.

However, discussions about moving towards collaborative styles of leadership have been happening for decades.  So something is getting in the way of turning talk into action in all but a few exemplary instances.

I have worked for years with leaders who honestly desired to become ‘more collaborative’.  The biggest impediments they had to overcome were perceived threats to identity, status and sense of control…  To put it bluntly threats to people’s egos. “How can I trust you to understand my world, my priorities and to execute things to my standards or with my quality of vision?  Am I to share the glory?? After all, who remembers Elisha Gray?”

This happens while we operate according to a sense of purpose or meaning which focuses on our individual achievement.

Fulfilling an individual’s ambitions is not leadership – and certainly not the leadership we need right now. As leaders we are called think bigger and wider than we ever have before.

The paradigm for businesses is changing from “profit is good” to a recognition that “a business cannot thrive in a community that fails”. [5] Indeed there is much convincing commentary that our consumption- growth based business models are broken: we already consume about 1.5 times what the planet can sustainably produce.[6]

The function of leadership at Unilver involved creating space where ego can be put to one side among people who might believe they have nothing in common and indeed are in competition, building space for thoughtful and assertive challenge and deep, appreciative listening and learning.  Leading means to become a channel for what needs to emerge, the future that needs to be created[7].  The solutions created at Unilver look very different to what any individual might have conceived and deliver a win/win/win.  That is something to be rightly proud of.

In summary, if you know you are wedded to the concept of ‘your idea’ or are motivated by recognition of the part you play, you are stopping yourself from leading in a way that matters, a way that is urgently needed.  The invitation is to step beyond this and lead something larger than yourself, knowing that you won’t be doing this on your own.  The world is waiting.


Ruth McCance is an Executive Confidante, Coach and Faciliator with over 20 years’ experience in guiding people on their leadership journey, as they navigate change for themselves and their organisations. Beginning on the basis that we lead through the quality of our relationships, she will help you develop a ‘symphonised’ way of leading which harnesses not just your own power but the power of those around you.   

Ruth’s vision is of a world where the most powerful organisations are guided by people who lead through difference, not despite difference, leaving a legacy of amazing achievements by establishing deeply connected human networks.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invention_of_the_telephone#Electro-magnetic_transmitters_and_receivers

[2] Otto Scharmer ‘Leading from the Emerging Future’  various citations incl. Introduction and Chapter 8 available at http://www.ottoscharmer.com/publications/books – though I recommend the whole book.

[3] http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/biomedical/bionics/dean-kamen-luke-arm-prosthesis-receives-fda-approval

http://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/bionics/special-report-prosthetic-arms; http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/medical-robots/darpa-and-osrf-developing-nextgen-prosthetic-limbs-in-simulation-and-reality

[4] [4] Here’s a recent article  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/inclusive-capitalism/paul-polman-why-the-role_b_7652954.html?ir=Australia

[5] Paul Polman, CEO Unilever .  For a fuller outline of Polman’s position see any of the many articles posted.  Here’s a recent one http://www.huffingtonpost.com/inclusive-capitalism/paul-polman-why-the-role_b_7652954.html?ir=Australia

[6] http://www.ottoscharmer.com/sites/default/files/2011_BMZ_Forum_Scharmer.pdf

[7] These concepts are beautifully explored in Otto Scharmer’s book Leading from the Emerging Future, which also contains some moving and inspiring case studies of transformations happening around the world.