By Dan Fine, Management Consultant at Hive Business
Faced with a problem, most people try to come up with a solution that feels right. Often, though, something that agrees with the version of reality you’ve derived from your life experience won’t work because reality is complex. The writer GK Chesterton lamented the tendency of humans to fall into this trap and refuse to learn from it.
In some fields of human activity it’s too easy, he said, to pretend that change — almost any change — is a worthwhile response to any problem. Unless we are careful to remember that we have only a fragmentary understanding of reality, we are perpetually at risk of inadvertently trampling and destroying things we don’t understand in the mistaken belief we are making things better.
A nice illustration of this “do no harm” refrain is Chesterton’s analogy about a fence: “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road.
“The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.'”
A century later this is still an uncomfortable message for many people to hear because it’s asking us to acknowledge what we don’t know. It’s saying that in order to have a hope of making things better we must first put the unknown centre stage. That’s scary.
That it takes strength to break out of this ‘make believe control’ pattern and admit our blind spots is a central tenet of the philosophy behind our consultancy service at Hive. We won’t just sign off the first answers that come up and sound right and respectable. We’re more interested in establishing a mechanism in your business that enables you to get to the truth.
That’s why, I think, this work is 50% science and 50% art. We will do an objective financial analysis of your business and gather facts empirically, but we will also dig deeper to understand the story and contextualise those facts. For example, we won’t flag up your high spending on staff if we know you’re gearing up to add £1m of revenue.
The art comes with understanding your future and not being a prescriptive adviser. Some really effective people take the same tack. US general Stanley McChrystal says you should never to walk into a room with a bag of solutions because you’ll only alienate people. Similarly I’ve heard Jocko Willink, Jordan Peterson and Jordan Belfort, the man nicknamed “the Wolf of Wall Street”, all emphasise to men the futility of being “right” in spousal arguments.
This might sound like a joke but they are sincere. They’re saying a husband is often better off pausing and thinking and accepting that there may be aspects to his wife’s figurative fence that he’s missing. That in fact they are headed full steam off the edge off a cliff they can’t see, but would rather be ‘right’ than avoid the fall. (It’s worth saying that this knowledge has been hard won for Belfort who is on his third wife, as have other lessons in his life.)
The point here is that being right can be counterproductive if it’s not used well. At Hive our team works according to this ethos: everyone needs to be a decent interlocutor, committed to the war rather than obsessed with winning every battle. Similarly we want to support our clients in letting go of feeling right all the time, and move through complexity by enjoying a deeper meaning and purpose.