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Of Walls and Us

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In my professional life since 1986 I’ve always been in a privileged position what comes to being able to closely observe people, processes, innovation and disruption in very different environments. Partly due to my inquisitive curiosity, I’ve usually made quite an effort to put myself into the shoes of people I’ve met, mainly to understand their mental landscape, background and decision making processes.

Based on these encounters and some hundreds of management books and essays, I’ve come to understand that business is not science, but most people try to make it such using their own world view, with its assorted limitations and prejudices. Success, be it due to luck, talent, hard work, or usually a combination, easily solidifies these as dogmas. I’ve started calling them walls, due to my fascination with the cruel physical manifestations like the Berlin one.

I think that the most dangerous walls are the ones limiting your thinking – thought walls. They are reinforced time and again when new ideas are rejected and criticized. At one point, only the legacy way is accepted and dissidents are scorned – or burned. Religious fundamentalism is a prime example, but I’d say this happens a lot in typical workplaces too, quickly decreasing innovation and productivity.

Comfort walls are more benign, but their long term effects can be fatal for businesses. These are usually built in conflict-averse environments, in which people avoid confrontations at all costs and usually just choose the socially easier path, even though that would clearly increase workplace entropy and general inefficiency. A single good manager can overcome them, but lack of one may solidify them into Thought walls, and then it is usually too late.

Perceived authority walls are perhaps most common I’ve witnessed. People have very different beliefs – of belief systems – on which authorities (such as universities, nation states, EU, USA or large corporations such as Apple or Cisco) are to be respected and their views never questioned. I’ve met many otherwise smart people who, at the same time, simply cannot challenge anything that one of these authorities is promoting, or at least they quickly invoke a very plausible explanation on why a clearly unethical decision by an authority is justified. It’s ideological for these people, without ideology.

Trust boundary walls are my favorites, and perhaps the scariest for me. These are the limits of pure reason in a discourse between people with assumed trust relationship. They’re encountered when discussing a hypothetical situation like, say, a hybrid act of war against another state, using all current knowledge and intelligence both parties have. When scenarios and options are carefully analyzed, an awkward wall-hitting moment (too) many times arises when the other party suddenly starts to question the morality or values of the interlocutor, only due to her/his capability of understanding and presenting the extreme options too. These moments evoke bad visions of totalitarianism and thought crimes, and it usually takes me some time to get over them.

Status walls are the tightly held internal beliefs on your own capabilities as an expert, manager or leader. They are related to perceived authority walls and may look like comfort walls, but they are usually more black and white. I think they stem from upbringing and parents’ (perceived) social classes. Asking a person to think how she/he would decide as a CEO reveals a status wall quickly – you’ve hit it if the subject can’t even be contemplated.

Generational walls are more subtle, but very dividing. They are mostly age related, and mainfest themselves as either limited vision what comes to long term (beyond one’s lifetime) sustainability of the task at hand, or outright stalling of anything with goals in too distant future. My favorite example of being free of these walls is a CERN scientist I met long time ago – he was already in his 70s and was well aware that his results would be usable only after some 40 years; still his motivation and spirit were unmatched.

Empathy walls are related to Status walls while being more personal. I find empathy to be the most important managerial skill in order get the best out of our teams and individuals. It is hard, though, and most people find putting themselves, even as a thought experiment, into other people’s shoes either inappropriate or impossible. My way of managing these walls in my people has been to make myself vulnerable, by always extending trust more than I’d initially be comfortable with. This is usually detectable from my speech, body language and other traits, and it often makes people think, and many times empathize by accident.

We are all in our kind of walled garden, but I believe that recognizing and critically analyzing these walls greatly helps us becoming better in what we do and how we lead, treat and understand others around us. I’ve hit many walls of others (and my own), and although these experiences are hard and taxing, seeing just a few people overcoming their walls is something that actually gives me – meaning. In the end, the human spirit has no walls.

//Pasi

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