Environmental Abrasion

Dr Anthony Howard

June 7, 2022

There is an old saying attributed to Confucius, about ‘being born in interesting times’ that I often reflect on. To say it is ‘interesting times’ would be an understatement, with just so much going on.

Sitting on a tractor slashing the grass on my property reminded me of the life that exists beyond the algorithms. I began thinking about how the environment confronts us with reality in a way that screens do not, and found myself wondering:

Does technology make us less innovative, because we don’t have to problem solve in the real world?

A Google search at my address reveals scattered properties, irregular roads, and a small village a few kilometres away. Google will help you find your way here, but it’s a poor guide to what lies on the horizon and what hides beneath your feet when you arrive. Searching and discovery are entirely different operations.

When you reach our property you will be struck by the beauty of the leaves and the colours of the distant mountains. You will feel the warmth of the sunshine, and subtle movements of the afternoon breeze. As we stroll through the paddocks the alpacas will stand alert, ready to issue a warning cry if they sense danger, and the sheep will momentarily lift their heads from grazing. Meanwhile, I will have ‘snake-eyes’ on, searching the undergrowth for a concealed serpent, listening for the rustle of leaves or grass, alert to the danger that could strike without warning. You will miss this, since your screen life has robbed you of environmental awareness.

I have been concerned for some time that algorithms are hindering, rather than helping, executive creativity. Events during the pandemic confirmed this view. As my keynotes, workshops, and direct CEO mentoring transferred to online, the conversations became more performative and less generative. We turned up and turned on for zoom, performing for our audience while watching our own performance in the top corner of the screen. The three dimensional world was flattened to a two dimensional map, removing the spark of creativity that is generated when we rub up against one another and against the environment. And that 2D world renders innovation difficult. However, when confronted by uncertainty, unknowns, and rapid change in foreign environments, you need to be truly innovative. The opportunities to learn and innovate decrease in line with a decrease in obstacles to be overcome.
As we emerge from the pandemic, and see the wreckage of failed businesses, debt-laden governments, and global labour shortages, the size and complexity of the task before us becomes increasingly clear: to find a level of performance that we perhaps have never enjoyed before.

 

The task before us requires a level of innovation perhaps beyond anything we have experienced.

However, we are expecting people to innovate and perform, to resolve extraordinarily difficult challenges, when they are suffering from two years of isolation and anxiety, while facing an unknown and uncertain future.

 

We face a human, rather than technological, challenge.

Technology ultimately only aids the search, not the discovery. It can builds maps, but prevent us from seeing the territory. Let us not lose sight of the fact that what is seen on screen is a curated image. The being of a person or thing is replaced by a digital representation. That is not you on my laptop, however, it is most definitely you on my lounge.
Information mediated to us via technology is usually portrayed as truth, of showing things as they truly are. If that is the case, then any desire to discover reality by engaging with the wider world is undermined. In short, friction-free technology removes the innovative impact of environmental abrasion.

As technology eliminates friction, it reduces innovation, and so we need to intentionally create environmental abrasion, where the surroundings stimulate the imagination, which in turn fosters innovation. This involves getting out of the office and away from devices, going to the theatre or art gallery. The musician John Mayer took a holiday from technology in order to foster creativity, claiming ‘great ideas have to gather. They have to pass the test of withstanding thirteen different moods, four different months and sixty different edits.’ (https://www.zenbusiness.com/blog/social-media-killing-creativity).

Creating environmental abrasion means getting on a plane, and visiting very different businesses and situations. If you are a bank CEO, don’t visit another bank to hear how they resolved the challenges you both face. Go somewhere different, and learn about different challenges and solutions. When Brian Collinsthe well-known designer and educator, accepts a new design brief, he insists that everyone on the assignment begins by reading three books that have nothing to do with the project.

Peter Drucker says that innovation is not simply a different approach, plotting a different path to one’s destination, but rather a different way of thinking that creates the possibility of an entirely new destination. This is what happens when one steps out into the world of friction, and rubs up against the environment.

In order to be truly innovative, we need to get out of our bubble and into a different world, with new sets of ideas and relationships, that in turn generate new questions and often surprising insights. Doing so enables us to find the unasked question, the unexplored alleyway, the unexamined assumptions.

This has been a life-long practice, involving coffee and conversations in different countries, with a wide range of people. I drafted this while sitting in a coffee shop in London, plotting the travel on the Tube to my next meeting. The London Underground app is enormously helpful for visitors, and removes the friction of confusion and doubt, the challenge of looking at screens in the station to try and decipher when and where to go, lowering the risk of getting lost in the rail system. However, the app also removes environmental abrasion: the need to stop and ask strangers for directions, the need to engage our internal GPS, to consider which way lies north, and whether this street runs toward or away from my destination. It eliminates the real possibility, and excitement, of an unexpected discovery.

There is no need to solve a problem, such as how to get to a meeting on time, if an online search delivers a solution. True innovators flourish when they are discovering problems, not when they are merely searching for solutions. Whether Collins, Mayer, or myself, we are all creating environmental abrasion. And it’s uncomfortable as you discover the snakes in your backyard. But it fosters innovation when you learn how to live with them. And, getting out into the world creates the real possibility of discovering a pearl of great price or a nugget of gold.

Let me know what happens when you walk on the beach, climb a mountain, or visit a zoo … and let me know how I can help you create more environmental abrasion in your world. While I enjoy keynotes, what I love is working conversations with Boards or executive teams, helping you find and follow a noble purpose, and put the person at the centre of strategy and action.

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About the Author

Dr. Anthony Howard

Dr Anthony Howard is a CEO, entrepreneur, thought leader, philosopher, and author who focuses his energies on helping high level leaders excel in their leadership. People started calling him ‘the CEO Whisperer’ over a decade ago, as they recognised his uncommon insights about people in complex challenging leadership roles, combined with an understanding of the true nature of leadership, and how it impacts communities and corporations.

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