What if a bunch of engineers at Google never came up to the search engine organization’s management and told them that there was a better way to work around electronic mailing? Oh well, there wouldn’t be any Gmail today. Thank God we didn’t have to see that day! But circling back, although there’s no doubt that this product could be directly attributed to Google’s ‘20% project’ – a cultural practice that allowed employees to devote 20% of their work hours to exercise creativity on projects they felt passionate about – it’s my personal conviction that were it not for Google’s adoption of the ‘Beginner’s Mind’ attitude, this remarkable idea might never have come about to touch our lives.
Traced in the roots of Zen Buddhism, the concept of beginner’s mind refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject. It presumes dispelling default understanding and past interactions, and casting light on a matter just like someone with no inkling of an idea would. It’s like you’re having to draw every time from scratch.
Even in today’s modern age, a general practice across many organizations is to follow a top-down approach. People at the top will make decisions and pass it down along the line for subordinates to pick up and execute. There’s very little role of the junior ranked executives in brainstorming sessions, let alone having a say in strategic decisions. While executive decision making is desirable at times, if the practice becomes a norm then that poses a greater challenge to an organization with respect to team morale, individual performance, product quality among other indicators.
As seasoned professionals, too often our bias and ego get caught up when we craft decisions. In times like this, the natural predilection is to draw on experience, and sometimes even, a ‘know-it-all’ mindset. But the danger of this is that it leads to missing out on opportunities. Confining ourselves to mental models of the world that are small and inhibited binds other possibilities.
Having a beginner’s mind summons a fresh change in perspective. It opens up new horizons that to a trained eye would appear barely. An apparent inexperience, if you will, can enable innovative solutions and renewed spirits to boost an organization’s bottom-line and reputation. Perhaps there’s no better example to drive the point home than the following.
During the production of Gorillas in the Mist, the acclaimed 1988 movie that depicted the adventures of Dian Fossey as she learned to communicate with rare gorillas in Africa, the film crew suddenly realized that they might soon run into a logistical nightmare. Furthermore, budget looked poised to overshoot and if the gorillas didn’t act in the exact way the manuscript was written, they would have to resort to a lower quality alternative, which would require dwarfs to wear gorilla suits on a soundstage to imitate.
When all this chaos was unfolding, in the middle of an emergency meeting an intern chimed in, ‘What if we let the gorillas write the story?’ Thinking this to be funny and unnecessary, the experts in the room dismissed the idea, wondering what she was doing there at the first place, and instantly went about scratching their heads looking for the perfect solution. Hours later, someone casually asked what she had meant. She said, ‘What if you sent a really good cinematographer into the jungle with a ton of film to shoot the gorillas?’ That way, they could write the story around what the gorillas did on film. Not only did this turn out to be a brilliant idea that cut the budget by half, but also the film grossed more than $61 million worldwide. Big win!
This kind of intervention is not only contained within the entertainment industry. The phenomenon can also be observed in advertisement, technology, and consulting fields among others. I personally know someone who’d joined a consulting firm as a sophomore in college and played a crucial role to win a number of international projects in a very short period. Using revolutionary ideas and superior business skills, he was quickly able to turn things around for a firm that wasn’t doing so well previously. And before long, he toppled many senior executives in the firm to become the CEO. Now that is huge!
The power of beginner’s mind can be immense. I’m a strong believer in this notion. It is no coincidence that firms, which are open to listening from bottom-up, hold the upper hand in a competitive landscape. Therefore, foster open discussions in your organization. Empower your junior staffs, interns, and sometimes even vendors to partake in important meetings. Encourage them to read outside academic text books, travel, and write – because these are critical elements that nurture creativity. And who knows your next product might just be what Gmail had turned out for Google. Long live the minds of beginners.
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