by Raphael Louis Vitton and Oseas Ramirez Assad
Remember William Hung (aka Hung Hing Cheong), the now world-famous American Idol singer of Ricky Martin’s hit song “She Bangs”? We love William. Over a decade and a half ago (early 2004), he entertained us all with his charisma (he says) and with his unconscious example of the Dunning-Kruger effect (others say).
The Dunning-Kruger effect is “a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is” — Wikipedia. Psychologists Dunning and Kruger say that “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self.” They write that for a given skill, unconsciously incompetent people will:
- fail to recognize their own lack of skill
- fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
- recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only AFTER they are exposed to training for that skill
UNCONSCIOUSLY INCOMPETENT TO CONSCIOUSLY COMPETENT
William Hung’s (and many other Idol’s) example of unconscious incompetence on live TV in front of millions of people satisfies at least one of the primary premises of the show. It lets the audience feel superior and relieved (for the moment) that at least we’re not THAT clueless about our own talents and abilities — as far as we know anyway. However, the Dunning-Kruger effect (aka the American Idol effect), like most cognitive biases, is a condition that we ALL can suffer from in our professions as well. Thankfully, we can all overcome it too, with a deliberate approach to training, rewiring default/reactive habits, surrounding ourselves with reliable feedback loops, increased mental complexity, increased levels of emotional intelligence and expanded curiosity muscles. (Note: The best way to develop curiosity muscles is by first working on the humility muscles.)
We are often unconsciously unaware of our own incompetence, in fact, that David Dunning goes on to say in the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast that “of all the irony of the things we don’t know, the one thing we definitely don’t know is where the borderline is between our knowledge and our ignorance.” That, he says, applies to everything including our decision-making in everyday life, not to mention the highly valued business decision-making arena of our professional life. It applies to our role as leaders of our family, our community and our company.
This psychological insight illuminates one reason why so many executives have heard themselves (including myself) say that innovation is hard. Maybe we say that because we don’t want to take responsibility or blame. Maybe it’s because we like to self-congratulate and brag about ourselves for doing the hard things that others won’t. Maybe we’ve bought into the party line. Either way though, innovation (change) is not hard or easy. It just is what it is. “Hard” or “easy” is not an attribute of innovation or change but merely a relative comparison of two things: 1) the challenge and 2) our ability/inability to respond to the challenge effectively.
Whether the challenge is to sing a hit song on the American Idol stage, squat 300 pounds or respond to changing market conditions in my industry, there are two ways to approach it: I can say, “singing at a world-class level is hard,” ignoring my own competence/ability/skill level, or I can say, “singing at an elite level is hard for me. My vocal skills/muscles aren’t skilled/strong enough to sing at that level yet.” But we don’t say that. We say it’s too hard to do. “HARD” is only relative to our ability to respond to the challenge of singing the song (on key), lifting the weight or accomplishing the innovation goal. If our muscles aren’t ready for the innovation challenge, then the challenge/change is harder for us. But that same challenge is NOT hard for many other leaders. Change (innovation) is not hard for teams and leaders who operate from higher levels of consciousness — less subject to pitfalls of outdated thinking patterns. Conscious leaders make better innovation leaders. Their cognitive muscles, mental models, mindsets, relationship/teaming productivity and fear/stress management skills are developed/trained and ready to respond effectively to VUCA (i.e., volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity). But you can’t work on it if you don’t even notice it.
NOTICING THE GAP IS A GOOD THING
We likely don’t even realize that we are blaming innovation/change for our own lack of ability to respond effectively to changes in our business environment and market conditions. Years of neglecting the change-readiness individual and collective leadership development work are a root cause that explains the leadership complexity gap. That’s why we are unconscious and unaware — we don’t know we are. If we don’t notice it, we can’t work on it. Conversely, if we do notice it, then we can choose whether or not to work on it. Either way, it’s better than falling victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect.
We can’t just try harder. That doesn’t work. Trying harder is not the same as deliberately training our innovation/change muscles to be able to respond better.
Experienced innovation leaders and conscious business Jedi (like Oseas Ramirez Assad, co-founder of Startup // Cisco) inside of David’s (startups) and Goliath’s (large corporations) will agree that innovation/change is easier when you:
REactivating your company’s startup DNA will require you to face entrenched cultural norms, fear of change, career risk and other obstacles that will require you to be working from well beyond your current level. You will need to be working from your “next level” of thinking — more open and more grounded as a conscious leader. This grounding is the platform to recognize old/new paradigms (yours and others), to be less blissfully ignorant, to engage in difficult conversations/healthy debates, to untangle explicit agenda versus hidden/unconscious competing commitments, their feelings versus emotional triggers, etc. Getting to our next level of Jedi thinking and behaving takes practice.
- Even the biggest companies were startups once
- Design a grass roots effort and apply startup innovation best practices that are right for your company (e.g., lean startup, BMC, design thinking, service design)
Focus on training mindsets, biases and core values (to help amplify the new growth strategy and fulfill the company purpose). This is an essential part of an innovation-centric lifestyle. Innovation can only be driven by a conscious leader who embodies the right mindsets, is aware of his/her own biases, and actively works to defuse them. Otherwise, people will immediately spot the incongruousness and slew of organizational contradictions. This will speak louder than the mindset itself.
- Build a strong cultural foundation of expanded capabilities that help increase conscious awareness, broaden cognitive diversity, and deepen mental complexity and emotional intelligence
- Apply startup constraints and bend/ignore rules as long as it’s clearly aligned with shared goals and core values
Target corporate antibodies (e.g., the fear of failure). You will have to earn the right to influence the corporate system. Even if you have the hierarchical authority, you will need moral and social authority (e.g., trust, respect, confidence) for the community of people to want to follow you. You could try and force them to follow you via command and control techniques, but compliance does not generate the same energy or integrity as inviting voluntary commitment.
The moral/social authority that is earned by being a more conscious leader will always be surprisingly more powerful and sustainable.
- Address the organizational contradictions, competing initiatives, undiscussables and cultural/social norms (policies) designed to preserve/protect the status quo
- Don’t just train alone; train together (cross-functionally) in a way that builds relationships and engagement across the enterprise (breaking down silos)
CONSCIOUS LEADERS MAKE BETTER INNOVATION LEADERS
They consistently deliver better results to the organization — it is as straightforward as that — for the sake of better business outcomes. The current leadership complexity gap clearly suggests that innovation leadership and transformation is a learned capability — a muscle group that has to be developed/trained for the gap to be closed.
The only way for our businesses to be more conscious is for our leaders to be more awake/self-aware. We need more men and women working from higher levels of consciousness — especially those who are responsible for implementing innovation strategies and those pursuing a new master plan of any kind.
The goal is to help leaders of organizations see more, plus collaborate better, plus feel stronger, becoming more agile in the face of uncertainty and fear. “Getting in the reps” of deliberate practice is what helps leaders more quickly and more effectively get to the complex problem-solving.
We need to pursue mastery of the fundamentals of conscious business. This practical approach helps leaders respond more resourcefully under stress, and it upgrades their operating systems with the intent of shifting to a culture with higher standards of performance, relationships and purpose.
Then again, we could be wrong. What if William Hung can sing really well…and we are the ones who are all tone deaf?