The Benefit of Knowing Nothing. A Lesson for Business Leaders and Consultants

Change starts with you.

As business leaders and consultants, we frequently expect employees to change and adapt to new ways of working, regardless of their comfort level. For many people, change is very hard, there is anxiety, fear, and work can become very uncomfortable. The expectation to adapt can be nerve-wracking. I have experienced near-retirement employees consider leaving an organization over learning something new and adapting. Do you think change might be uncomfortable for this person? If we expect others to change and adapt, then we also need to know what that experience feels like. As a business leader, are you truly listening to where your employees, or are you driving results void of their experience?

When I am working as an organizational change consultant, and a company plans a significant transformation, it is my job to help employees adapt from where they are today, to a newly designed future state. The employee is expected to adapt to a completely new set of behaviors, rules, communication, and sometimes even changes in culture. Business leaders and consultants cannot expect others to easily adapt, if the leads cannot deal with uncertainty and learn to adapt themselves.

How can we learn to sit with uncertainty and adapt?

Much like playing golf, or playing the guitar, if you don’t practice, your skills will decline. Well, the same is true with adapting to change. The more we practice adapting, the more comfortably we will sit with uncertainty. How can we keep our skills sharp? I think I have played golf four times in my life. This would be uncomfortable for me, no question about it. I have two guitars, and I do not play very often. When I do, playing is humbling.

I recently spent a month in Tetouan, Morocco. A small town just south of Tangier. The population is nearly 500,000 people. I was there to attend an artist residency. If you are curious, you can view my paintings at marklesserart.com. I had the unique opportunity to work and learn from artists from all over the world, as well as Morocco. If you have spent some time in a country as culturally different as this one, then perhaps you know this feeling. Traveling to a rare new place, with the risk of culture shock is a great lesson in sitting with uncertainty.

My first lesson in adaptation, on this trip, began right away.

I flew from D.C. to Casablanca on an overnight flight. When I arrived, I discovered that my ride was cancelled. My new driver, who I had never met, was a retired commander in the Moroccan military. We would be driving three hours to Marrakech. The next day we would drive another 7 hours to Tetouan. He only spoke only Moroccan Arabic and French. I only spoke French, which is a joke because my French is terrible. Well, my French is good enough to be polite. Anyway, it was the only common language to for us to work with. English and Arabic were wasted on each other. We spent 36 hours together, driving and sharing meals with a huge language barrier and absolutely nothing in common. He seemed about my age. When we had lunch in Marrakech, and I decided to share photos of my family. His face lit up. He shared photos of his family. We had something in common. Additionally, it is also pretty easy to express a mutual appreciation for red meat and beer. We were connecting and eventually managed communicate effectively. At the end of our journey, we were friends.

Once I arrived in Tetouan, I felt an immediate assault of the senses. My artist friend, from Australia, called it the Moroccan Stampede. I walked through the tightly wound medina with no sense of north. The sights, sounds, and smells are in itself a culture shock. There is an old poem about Tetouan that still holds true today. Loosely translated, it describes the air as poison, the water bloody (in the streets, not from the faucet), and its health could make you sick. And it did! One person in our group ended up in the hospital and went home early. Another was too overwhelmed to stay. Others had to lie down at random moments because it was all too much to push on as if it was just another day, or just another trip to a comfortable city.

While my description may not inspire you to bring the family over the winter holidays, the air was also filled with mystique, and echoes of the sounds of the call to prayer. Most importantly, there was lots of space for gaining personal insight and reflection. It is no wonder that each day, I needed to retreat to my Riad, Hotel El Reducto, to rest from this cultural assault. This daily rest allowed me to learn, adapt, and be ready to proceed to the next day’s life lesson.

The dumbest person in a new city

One who arrives in a new town without understanding the language, the culture, the rules, the geography, the food, and the way of life of the people, is to be the dumbest person in a new city. And what a great place to be! When you are the dumbest person in a new city, you have the rare opportunity to learn to start where you are and adapt. Start where you are. A great lesson in any difficult situation. Anywhere is perfect.

Perhaps a trip such as this should be a requirement for any business leader expecting others to change, adapt, and share their story. People and their stories change the way we relate and go about the world. If you have had an experience like this which has shaped your work, please share with us.