Few people would admit to being averse to learning. But what’s selling at the bookstores these days suggests many of us are. It is most obvious in politics, but in business, too, the best-selling books fly off the shelves largely because they are affirmations of readers’ already firmly held beliefs rather than good-faith explorations of something new. I can’t count how many times people ultimately admit that a management book worked for them because it expressed and substantiated ideas about commercial success that they have long felt are true.
In short, rather than seeking out contrary or little-understood points of view, many of us need so badly to be told we’re right that we’ll pay people to do it.
The intensity of our desire to avoid cognitive dissonance is proportional to how important the ideas are to us. We seem to learn well enough when the subject is of interest but no (direct) importance to our lives: Most of us would abandon quarks for string theory in a heartbeat. But if it affects how we think of ourselves and our place in the world, it becomes almost impossible to leave dry land. The implication is that the more meaningful learning might be, the more difficult it is to achieve.
For example, it’s only too common a sight for executives to parachute into radically new circumstances only to be quickly convinced that the principles that have served them well so far are just the ticket in their new surroundings.
That’s why managers need to read more science fiction. When a story is placed in a radically different context—beyond time and place to different species, dimensions, you name it—a reader (or movie or TV viewer) develops affection or asperity for the characters, only to find that those with whom one sympathizes have very different views on issues of moment. Or, even more disquieting, one discovers that the villains of the piece are motivated by beliefs eerily similar to one’s own.
For example, in the original Planet of the Apes, one of the movie’s opening scenes features a chimpanzee—the least sympathetic simian species that exists on the planet—complaining about the quota system that’s keeping him down. When the film was released in 1968, affirmative action was being hotly debated, and by using an objectionable character to voice opposition to that policy, viewers could consider anew their own views on the topic. The movie ends with the astronaut protagonist cursing humanity’s stupidity upon realizing that the planet on which he has landed is an Earth ruled by apes in the aftermath of a nuclear war. This was trenchant social commentary at a time when nuclear stockpiles were increasing despite the Cuban missile crisis less than six years earlier.
Can there be an analog to the sci-fi sucker punch in management books? Is it possible to draw readers into a situation and then reveal that the tale has been about them all along?
There have been a number of attempts to write plot-driven stories that explain key management principles, but few have managed to stretch our palate rather than devolving into intellectual comfort food. Eli Goldratt’s The Goal comes as close as anything I’ve seen, and is perhaps unique in progressing toward a new genre of management writing while still achieving commercial success. The protagonist, Alex Rogo, is a plant manager with whom we immediately sympathize. As the story unfolds, he is forced to abandon a number of principles that had guided his actions. This sets up the cognitive dissonance that makes learning possible: If Alex is a nice guy, and you identify with him, then you either have to change your opinion of Alex or learn what he learns.
So where does this leave us? I’ve found that the best I can do is to treat every new book and every set of examples as if they were science fiction, so removed from my own experience that there is no direct connection to anything that matters to me. I make a conscious effort to approach new ideas with an open mind and work hard to take the ideas of others first on their own terms, and then worry about what their conclusions say about my view of how the world works.
This is often a struggle, primarily because business writers beat you over the head with how their ideas apply to you. But when I succeed in defeating those efforts, in divorcing my world from the one they are describing, I can take seriously the notion that execution matters more than strategy (apostasy!); that successful innovation requires frequent failure (sacrilege!); or that shareholder value is the ultimate corporate objective (blasphemy!). And only then can I succeed in challenging what I already believe to be true—and actually learn something.