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Cultivating combined wisdom
The complex, systemic challenges we face can only be solved together
“Why would anyone think they’re smarter than everyone?” — COO client.
How can we work well with others, so we cooperate and collaborate in ways that combine our individual insights, ideas, and inspirations to solve complex problems and create new value to society in all forms — not just financial?
Over the past 35 years my professional work has focused on helping organisations create cultures of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness that unlock the combined wisdom required for continuously creating new value.
I first encountered this kind of culture myself when I joined one of the world’s leading open innovation labs, based in Cambridge (UK), in the early 1980’s.
At the lab, we helped clients apply science, technology, and engineering to create new value through product and service innovation.
Alongside our technical contributions, we often needed to help clients overcome barriers, break down silos, and remove blockages preventing people combining their wisdom to co-create new value.
When, in the late 1980s, one of our long-standing clients asked me if I could “come and help make our people behave more like your people” it launched the career path I’ve been on ever since.
Over the subsequent three decades, working with real world organisations throughout Europe, Asia, and the US, I’ve learned that creating a culture that’s fit for an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable future involves a deep appreciation of, and focus on, the pivotal role of mindsets in how organisational cultures are created, changed, and sustained.
On a practical, day-to-day level, people experience and express organisational culture as the way we do things round here.
After people have been working together for a few months, the culture has become embodied in their mindsets and enacted in their actions and interactions.
Embodiment and enaction together form a mutually reinforcing dynamic that embeds a culture within an organisation.
The relationship between culture and mindsets is therefore deeply systemic.
Specifically, culture is the system of mindsets that forms and informs people’s awareness of the way we do things round here.
In other words, people’s mindsets about the way we do things round here are systemically dependent on the mindsets of the key influencers within the organisation.
These key influencers are not always in the most senior positions.
What makes them key is that their enacted attitudes and behaviours, originating from their embodied mindsets, send out the main signs, signals, clues, and cues from which others infer “the way we do things around here”.
In this way, the mindsets of the key influencers, which give rise to their attitudes and behaviours, systemically influence the mindsets, and therefore attitudes and behaviours of everyone else.
That's why the highest leverage way to change the culture of a community is by bringing about a mindset shift in the key influencers.
What I’d experienced in those early years at the open innovation lab, and became more and more clear over the subsequent decades helping clients create similar cultures, is that there’s a specific mindset that unblocks, unlocks, and unleashes the combined wisdom of people working purposefully together — a 2D3D mindset.
What is a 2D3D mindset?
It’s simply the mindset that recognises that no matter how important, experienced, or senior we may be, none of us ever sees the whole picture in any situation.
Each of us only ever has a partial 2D perspective on a 3D reality that none of us can ever see in its entirety.
An individual’s own 2D perspective can of course become greatly enriched over time by understanding, appreciating, and learning from experience, and through the insights, ideas, and inspirations arising from the 2D perspectives of others.
But even then, no individual can ever capture the whole of any situation — the so called “God’s eye view”.
I still recall how refreshingly inspiring I found my early years at the Cambridge lab, working with world-class scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians who embodied and exemplified what I later came to recognise as the 2D3D mindset.
Many of my colleagues were acknowledged and/or celebrated experts at the leading edge of their fields, and it would have been easy for them to feel they had a right to expect others to defer to their 2D perspectives.
But they’d realised that doing so would stifle their own learning, smother innovation, and strangle the agility and adaptiveness of both the lab, and its clients.
This realisation led to the ego-free culture that characterised the lab.
The powerful role of 2D3D mindsets in cultivating combined wisdom is simple enough to understand, appreciate, and accept in theory.
But it turns out it’s not so easy to put into practice.
That’s because we readily fall into the trap of identifying with our 2D perspectives; even more so if we mostly associate with others who see things the same way we do.
The more closely we identify ourselves with our perspectives, the more attached we become to them, cannot see beyond them, and become blind to what others see that we’re missing.
“Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision to be the limits of the world.” — Arthur Schopenhauer.
If my perspective is enmeshed with my identity, then when my perspective gets challenged, it feels like a threat to my very survival.
Understandably, this triggers strong psychological defence mechanisms including denial, blame and justification, and powerful negative emotions, like fear, anger, and rejection — resulting in my existing 2D perspective becoming even more deeply entrenched.
When this happens, it seems self-evident that the cause of my negative emotions is the other person’s behaviour.
So I look at the other person as the one who needs to change, ignoring the real reason for my negative emotions — my identity-perspective enmeshment.
On the other hand, when my identity is not so enmeshed and someone challenges my perspective, I don’t feel so threatened and can engage with them and their perspectives in a more effective 2D3D manner.
Unfortunately, over the past two decades there’s been an increasing trend towards identifying ever more deeply with our 2D perspectives, resulting in greater fragmentation into cliques, in-groups, and warring factions.
This trend has been amplified and accelerated by the attention-grabbing algorithms that power social media platforms, as former Google ethicist Tristan Harris described in his 2019 US Senate testimony:
“As magicians know, to manipulate someone, you don’t have to overwhelm their strengths, you just have to overwhelm their weaknesses. While futurists were looking out for the moment when technology would surpass human strengths and steal our jobs, we missed the much earlier point where technology surpasses human weaknesses. It’s already happened. By preying on human weaknesses — fear, outrage, vanity — technology has been downgrading our well-being, while upgrading machines.”
Social media technology, in its drive to monetise our attention, pushes us ever more deeply into identifying with our 2D perspectives, making it harder to understand, appreciate, and value others whose diverse 2D perspectives shine light on aspects we haven’t previously seen in our complex, uncertain and dynamically unpredictable 3D world.
This has significant and sinister effects, as Harris describes:
“Society faces an urgent, existential threat from parasitic tech platforms. Technology’s outpacing of human weaknesses is only getting worse — from more powerful addiction to more power deep fakes. Just as our world problems go up in complexity and urgency — climate change, inequality, public health — our capacities to make sense of the world and act together is going down. Unless we change course right now, this is checkmate on humanity.”
No knight in shining armour is going to ride up on their white charger and save us. It will take purposeful, deep, human-to-human dialogue amongst diverse individuals and groups to cultivate the combined wisdom needed to address the complex, systemic challenges we face in our organisations, society, and the world.
In the absence of such dialogue, we will continue to be sucked into battles of 2D perspectives.
We will discuss — literally smash to pieces the 2D perspectives of others.
We will debate — literally beat down others who hold different 2D perspectives.
We will definitely not achieve what we need.
The better way is to adopt and operate from 2D3D mindsets.
But 2D3D mindsets cannot be demanded, imposed on, or required of others. People adopt 2D3D mindsets when they’re sufficiently inspired and influenced by the example of others who’ve already adopted them.
The bottom line: if you want to cultivate combined wisdom in a group, organisation, or society at large, you need to “be the change you want to see in the world”.
Will you rise to the challenge?
Private conversation with the Chief Operating Officer of a global financial services firm, describing his frustration with the attitude of several of his senior executive colleagues.
Consider my colleague Paul Barnett’s definition of “value to society” as “contributions to sustainable widely shared prosperity, measured in terms of human flourishing and wellbeing.”
I described this culture in an interview with Oscar Venhuis and Dr Richard Claydon of EQ Lab in 2021, available on YouTube here.
“Optimizing for Engagement: Understanding the Use of Persuasive Technology on Internet Platforms” June 25, 2019 testimony to US Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet — download p10.
Ibid (Tristan Harris Senate testimony).
This quotation is often attributed to M.K. “Mahatma” Gandhi, although there is no reliable documentary evidence for this. M.K.’s grandson Arun Gandhi attributes the quote to his famous grandfather. It’s always possible Arun did indeed hear it from his grandfather, but as he was only 14 when M.K. died, few regard this a reliable source.