The following interview is reproduced with permission from the editors of the Spring 2008 edition of Communique. The Magazine of the Network for Quality and Competitiveness - in the beautiful country of Nepal.
Interviewer: Mr. Unwin, you are an acclaimed innovative thinker, speaker and writer. Working on innovation and creativity at that high level, where you belong, must be lonely. What are the major drivers of your motivation and continuous nourishment to continue the excellent work you do?
Steve: I’m not sure that I deserve such a glowing introduction but thank you. This is an interesting question to begin with. I understand why you ask about loneliness. Much of the thinking and writing is done alone, and when you have a new idea, at that moment I suppose that by definition you are in a minority of one. It can feel like you are the single fish swimming in the opposite direction to the shoal, but I think there is a difference between being alone and being lonely.
It might appear that a new idea belongs to me, but we are the sum of the connections we’ve made to people, and the connections they have made with others. The new idea is the product of these connections. It perhaps finds a voice in me, but it belongs to all of us. Part of my work is to share these thoughts and ideas, ideas that in truth we all already know. It’s just that in our busy lives we don’t find the time to realise that we know.
Interviewer: So your motivation is to share?
Steve: It’s something I love to do. I try not to simply share what I’ve learned, but to help others have the same joy of learning something new, of having an insight. There’s no better feeling than seeing that sparkle in someone’s eyes, or hearing from someone who has connected with something I’ve written.
Interviewer: You see that they have changed?
Steve: Exactly. My work is about change, and also about life, because life is defined by the presence of change. Though I sit alone to write, at the best moments it is a very emotional experience and I feel totally connected to something important for all of us. At these moments although I’m alone, the feeling is the exact opposite of loneliness.
Interviewer: So being alone is not lonely?
Steve: Certainly sometimes it isn’t, and of course it’s also possible to be very lonely even in the middle of a crowd.
Interviewer: You do have a lot of strong arguments and powerful presentations about inter-connectedness, which changes things thereby bringing about uncertainty. And as things are uncertain, you argue, it may be futile to plan. For many people, this comes as a shock questioning their conventional wisdom. Can you help them with their uneasiness?
Steve: I think that sometimes conventional wisdom is the least questioned, so it is a good idea to question it from time to time.
At the heart of my understanding is a belief in people’s abilities and their ability to deal with change. After all we are the culmination, so far at least, of a process that began with little more than a cloud of hydrogen atoms 11 billion years ago. Now that’s quite an impressive change process, so I think we should perhaps believe in our abilities a little more than we do.
Interviewer: But how does that link with planning?
Steve: Well imagine a house catches fire, and a passer-by rushes in to save the family inside. He or she becomes a hero and we call this person extraordinary.
Interviewer: I guess they are.
Steve: Yes but imagine our passer-by had set off a little earlier or later, or had taken a different route, and not seen the fire. Would they be any less extraordinary? You see I think we are all extraordinary, but sadly many of us might live an entire lifetime without ever having the opportunity to find out. In my presentations I try to illuminate the world as it is. If we see a world of connections that create uncertainty, this is the world speaking of how things are, not me. It seems that the world describes uncertainty, yet much of what we do denies this.We simplify things, ignoring connections and uncertainty to make things easy for people. We often do this with good intent, but when we do we are no longer dealing with the real world. We make things easy because we don’t believe how extraordinary everyone is.
Interviewer: And planning?
Steve: Plans are a great example of this. We ignore the changing world and draw up plans in January of what we will do in December, or make plans on Monday of what we will do on Friday. We then ignore what’s really happening in the world and instead follow our plan of what we thought or hoped would happen.
We think of our plan as a set of answers to challenges we will face. We need a new way of understanding planning.
Interviewer: But if we have no plans?
Steve: Of course it’s frightening to think of having no answers, but think of the passer-by seeing the first wisps of smoke. They had no plan of what to do, but they had an ability to create a plan in an instant to deal with change. It is this ability to respond, that we need. Instead of the mechanistic process and documents of planning, we need the ability to plan, re-plan, re-plan again and again in every instant. It’s a process of evaluation, of reacting to the moment, trying things, stretching and growing. It’s how a cloud of gas became you and me. I call this change-ability, or simply being alive. Too often at work we aren’t encouraged to be really alive.
Interviewer: So it’s a shift from having plans to being able to plan, is that right?
Steve: Yes, that’s a very good way of putting it. Plans are like footprints in the sand, a path to follow, planning is the ability to take steps, whatever steps are needed now, this instant. It’s the difference between doing and being, doing a plan and being capable of planning. Paradoxically, the more we rely on having plans, the less we are able to dynamically plan to meet the moment. After all, no amount of planning by the passer-by would have stopped the house from catching fire. And to deal with the situation they had to throw away all of their plans for what they were going to do at that moment.
When we create plans we deny people this ability. We refuse to believe that they are extraordinary, and whilst we think we make life easier for them, we actually deny them the vibrancy of being truly alive.
We shouldn’t be setting fire to houses of course, but we should be creating space in which people can be extraordinary, and what most people mean by ‘plans’ doesn’t do this.
Interviewer: On one hand, you say asking a right question is very important in our learning and innovation is imperative. On the other, you love to communicate using quotations - sure full of wisdoms, but they are statements (mostly old) and not questions. How do you reconcile this apparent contradiction?
Steve: You are right, I use lots of pictures and quotations. One reason for this is I don’t want the audience to be listening to my voice, I really want them to be listening to their own voice, the voice inside them.
Interviewer: And the different voices of those quoted helps this.
Steve: Yes, and of course quotations also remind us that we can connect not just with people around us, but also with people from the past who have travelled this path. It is true that the quotations don’t have question marks, but that doesn’t mean that they are not questions. If I might use one of my favourite quotations from the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Niels Bohr. What he said was “Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question"
This is an incredibly powerful message. Niels Bohr was working in the area of quantum physics, but he was speaking of everything. He said in the most elegant way I know, that nothing is certain. Everything we think we know is worthy of being questioned.
Interviewer: So we should question everything?
Steve: Yes, I think we should put a question mark on everything we hear and everything we see. Not for the sake of argument, but in the spirit of exploration. For example if I say ‘The sky is blue’ it has no question mark, but if you choose to hear one, then you may begin to think:-.
Yes here on Earth the sky is blue, but on the moon it is black, and on other planets it may be red, green or any other colour depending on the effects of the atmosphere. Even here on Earth it has not always been blue. It wasn’t blue when the Earth was being created and may not always remain blue. Of course the sky isn’t blue at night. Perhaps it is blue to humans, but do we know how animals and insects see it. Perhaps they see something different. You see that even the simplest statement about something we might easily take for granted, if seen as a question, opens up a host of avenues to explore, new things to see and new ways of seeing.
Interviewer: Yes I see that.
Steve: And of course each of these can be seen with a question mark to lead to more and more exploration, and the opportunity to create something new. In a changing world answers tell us about what was. We need questions to learn about what will be, or as Einstein put it. "Imagination is more important than knowledge for while knowledge points to all there is, imagination points to all there will be.”
And after all, life’s is just so much more interesting when seen through questions rather than answers.
Interviewer: Steve, many thanks for your time.
Steve: It’s been a pleasure, they were interesting questions and I’ve certainly learned from answering them. I hope your readers do too.