Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Logic, Business, and Life

Much of the last century of business writing has been about applying logic, systems, and process to the work world. When you think of corporate planning, or business strategy, or even financial statements, most of what you see is rigid and linear.

The letter from the CEO in an annual report is a delightful example of this. "We see how the world is changing, and here is our three part plan to adapt for the future."

It doesn't take long--a day, perhaps--to see this as folly. Because it is impossible to predict what is going to happen even in the next hour, let alone in the next five years. Life and work are messy, changing in fits and starts. Andrew Grove, the former CEO of Intel, used to talk about "inflection points," or nonlinear (and thus unpredictable) points of change. An example of this might be the sudden shift away from more and more capable desktop computers to "the cloud," where the local PC has less capability rather than more, and where data and applications are hosted elsewhere. (For some other great examples of this disruptive innovation, see the work of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christenson.)

Our tendency as business people is to extrapolate from our current world, and to assume that the future will be just like today, only better. But life is not like that. Those who succeed are those who adapt fastest. And those who adapt fastest are those who have the least rigid concepts about the ways that things should work.

Mainframe makers did not succeed as PC makers. Laptop makers are not good at making mobile devices. Thinking about a PC as a small mainframe, or a phone as a small laptop, is only good to a point.

When we bring mindfulness to work, we begin to see how much of our work world, like the rest of life, is governed by our thoughts and concepts. And when those concepts begin to loosen, our ability to change and adapt increases.

Our contemplative work--the seeing through of our thoughts and concepts--isn't just at the heart of personal change. It is also at the heart of our ability to work effectively in an environment that is changing faster than ever.


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