We can’t solve 21st century problems with 20th century thinking

One of the reasons I love working with thought leaders is because they’re prepared to do something about the shortcomings of the world we’ve collectively created.

The common ground of the people we love to work with is, broadly speaking, better lives for people – the desire to help people reject some existing minimum standard and embrace something that’s currently ‘above and beyond’ for their industries or communities. The ideas that make life, businesses, and our society better.

It is in our nature to push for those things, to want more and to improve the quality of life for our people. To be a thought leader is to take your expertise and use that to address any one of the pick-and-mix of challenges our world desperately needs to solve. 

That’s going to take some bravery.

It’s important to let go of the status quo

If we want to try and solve today’s challenges – and let’s be honest, there are plenty that deserve examination – then we have to accept that they’ve emerged because certain situations or problems have gone on unchecked. They are relics of the past. So to accept the status quo is to say that we’re okay with the world as it is – or perhaps, as it was.

This might explain some of the romanticisation of even the recent past, and the belief that the past was simpler than the present. I’d argue it’s because the past is known. It contains all the knowledge we’ve back-filled; it’s the completed connect-the-dots picture. The present meanwhile is a fresh riddle, wracked with blind anxiety.

But this leads us to tend to accept ideas that perpetuate the status quo, since they provide continuity with that simplified past. “We’ve always done it that way” of course is one of the most pernicious phrases – and it should be banned in business. My suspicion is that it’s fear-related: we know it worked well enough before, and if we change things, then we’re going to face risks and uncertainties. That is inevitable, but that line of thinking is also regressive, since it represents ideologies that emerged from the challenges of the past.

To accept that we need action to make a better world means acknowledging that we’ve made mistakes and errors of judgement, or simply we know more now and can make better decisions. That also means interrogating the present and the dominant modes of thinking in order to find something better. That’s where thought leadership comes in. 

Good, small changes

One client we’ve recently worked with is Nathan Donaldson, who published his first book Unicorns Over Rainbows in 2023. Nathan’s a good sort, has one of the best workplaces in the country, and he introduced us to a simple but effective way of embracing change.

My DISC personality befits engineering or accountancy – I need all the information before I can agree to an idea. But that also tends to result in a lot of fence-sitting, always waiting for one more crumb of data before making a big decision. Not so helpful when you want to get stuff done. 

Nathan’s idea is straightforward enough: make small changes; give yourself permission to fail (small), and learn from those mistakes.

I did say it was simple. And as we worked with Nathan, I found myself getting more comfortable with saying “Let’s try it and see what happens.”

See, sometimes, solving problems can seem overwhelming or daunting. We may feel that we have to make drastic changes or take huge risks – and therefore the current way of being is just fine for now. But this is not always the case. Instead, we need to embrace incremental improvements that nudge us in the direction we want to go.

Within “Good, Small Change” is the idea that we can grow by accepting that our current methodologies and ideas could be better, and then experimenting with something new to see how we can evolve. Once that’s embedded in a (workplace) culture, a thought leadership perspective often soon emerges.

We’re going to have to try something new

When it comes to problem solving our way to a better world, we’re going to have to be open to new perspectives and ideas. We need to have the humility to recognise when an older idea is no longer useful or relevant, and when a new idea is worth trying. 

We also need to use thinking skills to evaluate the pros and cons of different options, and to establish criteria for what good change looks like. 

20th century thinking might have worked then, but that world is long gone. It’s time to look at what ideas are going to work in the world we have today. We need to be willing to say ‘yes’ to new approaches, new technologies, new methods, and new opportunities. We need to embrace experimentation and exploration, and learn from our failures as well as our successes.

We also need to let go of strategies or ideas that no longer work or serve us well. We need to be flexible and adaptable, and not cling to outdated or ineffective solutions. We need to recognise when it is time to move on from the outdated and outmoded ideologies of the past, and try something different. We might even make a better world as a result.

If you’re driven to make the world a better place with your ideas, get in touch with us today.