Even before the disruptions of the past months we’ve all experienced problems so complex that it seems almost impossible to find a solution. And if the disruption is a big and unexpected beast, getting the necessary perspective can be a complex problem in itself.
Remember the parable of the blind men and the elephant? A group of blind men try to understand, describe and explain an elephant. One touches its sharp tusk and declares the animal’s like a spear; another touches the leg and because it’s round, rough and rooted to the ground, it must be a tree; a third touches the tail and supposes it could be a broom or perhaps a rope that’s frayed. None of these men is right, but then again, none of them is wrong. It’s a matter of what they experience, what they know and what they think they perceive.
The blind men can’t stand back far enough to consider the whole animal and without a sense of the whole, their individual perceptions just add to the confusion and potential chaos. That’s the same difficulty business leaders encounter with complex problems; potentially being a little too close to one element of the situation prevents seeing the whole. But perhaps, if we can’t gain the necessary perspective, we can understand the thinking—the knowledge and the bias—that gives us both the right and the wrong view of the beast.
Centuries ago, Aristotle spoke of three kinds of knowledge. Techne, the knowledge of craft—the command of the tools and methods necessary to create. For a business leader, this might be the techniques of management. Episteme, the knowledge of the basic laws of the world—how a business works and how it functions in the business environment. And phronesis, the ability to see the trade-offs of values where there is no clear right or wrong. Each of these areas of knowledge is the result of different thinking. You wouldn’t use the thinking processes that manufacture gears and bearings to design a marketing campaign or the thinking that sets out a marketing plan to make strategic decisions on acquisitions and mergers.
But businesses, particularly in this disruptive time, encounter elements of each of these perspectives in the problems they confront. It becomes the leader’s job to know and understand these modes of thinking, the perspectives they engender, and to combine those perspectives into a picture of the whole. Only then can the problem be addressed.
Massive disruption and its problems have occupied our attention over the past months. With this issue, we hoped that sharing our thinking might help find a way to get our arms around this beast.
Dr. Annette L. Ranft
Dean and Wells Fargo Professor
Harbert College of Business