As baby boomers, we experience both amazement and disappointment when we reflect on our childhood dreams of technology advancements in our lifetime. Clearly, the internet and smartphones have placed a dizzying array of information and computing power at our fingertips and yes, we can even see the people we talk to on the phone. But, we are still waiting for our flying cars. While some argue that we live in the most rapidly changing time in history, others point to the genius in the generation that saw the introduction of electricity, the telephone, cars and planes and how those made a greater impact in daily life.
The Age of Discovery
Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna go back even further in their book, Age of Discovery to compare the rapid technical and social changes of the early years of the European Renaissance (1450 to 1550) with our current time period starting in 1990. This single century featured historical heavyweights Columbus, Magellan, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Gutenberg, Luther, and Copernicus. Their discoveries and ideas shook the existing institutional foundations and opened up new worlds of possibilities for many.
Goldin and Kutarna’s comparison between these two periods is more about the parallels in conditions rather than the scale and scope. They note the more popular definition of renaissance is “a rare moment of mass flourishing,” but they prefer to see it also as “a contest for the future when the stakes are highest.” With mass flourishing comes shifts in power and expectations.
While the advancements in our lifetime have led to dramatic increases in education (global illiteracy rate has dropped from 43% to 16% since 1980), health (number of children’s deaths from the four main categories of infectious diseases has been halved since 1990), and economics (since 1990 the percent of the global population that is “extremely poor” has dropped from 43% to 12%), we have also seen greater concentrations of wealth. The top 62 billionaires control more wealth than the bottom half of humanity. So, while technology advancements are generally good for everyone in an absolute sense, they also create relative winners and losers that can greatly diminish the opportunity for greater and sustained gains.
The broader gains can also create unintended consequences that change the direction of a mass flourishing. In the European Renaissance improved conditions led to population growth, which then led to high unemployment. We see a similar dynamic today with improved healthcare and education providing a population bubble of better educated young people looking for meaningful work in economies that are not growing fast enough to generate the sufficient number of jobs. Political instability is a natural result. Goldin and Kutarna note, “We have picked clean the low hanging fruit. What are the big problems we face today that we are not solving.”
Most of us are not tasked with solving the “big problems” but they increasingly define the context for the decisions we do make. At an organizational and personal level, we have to ask, “What is the best way to navigate through a time of great flourishing and great risk?”
Fostering Collective Genius
To participate in a great flourishing we need to become part of the “genius of the age.” It is easy to focus on the great individuals like Da Vinci or Columbus and miss how much they were a product of an environment created by others. Goldin and Kutarna identify three conditions to foster “collective genius.”
Promote Idea Flow
The first condition is velocity, variety, and richness of idea flow. It is at the intersection of knowledge domains that the most interesting innovations are produced. That was true for Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press and it is true today as well. Different ideas properly circulated allow for a rich combination of solutions to be discovered and tested.
Create a Community of Thinkers
The second condition is a well-educated pool of thinkers to process the ideas and refine them. Notice this condition is about a community of thinkers, not the lone savant. Participation in community allows the sometimes long gestation periods of breakthrough ideas to survive multi-generational thinking that may be required.
The third condition is a private and social incentive for risk-taking. Interestingly, the European Renaissance emerged in an environment of small, weak states rather than a strong administrative center. This struggling environment helped to focus on the most important problems like defense and economic growth and rewarded those who took the risk to provide solutions.
The Risk of Complexity and Concentration
Before asking how we can create these conditions in our organizations, let’s first identify some of the risk we must mitigate. Goldin and Kutarna identify the risks of complexity and concentration that emerge from a world that is rapidly connecting and developing. With complexity, the hardest part of a problem is seeing it. There are simply too many factors and combinations to assign definitive cause and effect relationships. This explains why even our best and brightest seem to consistently make mistakes in economic and foreign policy. Concentration risk is a product of information sharing where individuals can now make better choices. The problem is that those choices drive most people to pursue the same resources. Everyone wants to live in the location with the most opportunity and enjoy the latest technology. This creates scary scenarios of pandemics, environmental disasters, and water and fuel shortages.
The Leader’s Role
As a leader, the question I need to answer is “how do I create an organizational renaissance that encourages collective genius but also avoids the risks of complexity and concentration.” As noted above the European Renaissance did not emerge from centralized planning. A leader cannot dictate individual or group behavior that leads to breakthrough ideas. But leaders can evaluate their current environments to determine how the current system is either promoting or limiting the generation and receptivity of new ideas. Leaders can promote greater concentration risk by signaling only certain ideas coming from certain individuals aligning with certain viewpoints are truly valued. It doesn’t take long for individuals to set all navigation systems to end up at the same point if that is the only point from which ideas will be accepted. Similarly, leaders can limit the velocity and variety of ideas if there is not an investment in community learning. This requires creating a community capable of trust and diversity. This kind of community is more likely to reduce the risk of complexity as the community continually test and experiment with new ideas. The cost of complexity is greatest when organizations believe they know more than they do.
A Continuing Genius
Finally, leaders have to reward people who speak “tentative truth.” Leaders often fall to the temptation to listen to the loudest, most confident voice. The renaissance thinker never arrives at the perfect solution because he recognizes the effects of change and complexity. There is only the solution in the moment while continuing to discover the next better version of the solution.
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