Astonishment and don’t know

'To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too quickly'. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

One of the words that has not yet come into common organizational usage is 'astonishment' and I'm just wondering why. As Lucy Kellaway points out we have a vast language of words that have become debased into corporate guff but 'astonishment' fortunately has not yet reached this point. So, while it is still untainted by being included in a competence framework or list of essential applicant capabilities let me suggest why it is a valuable characteristic to nurture.

'Astonishment' has appeared a couple of times this week in my in-box, once in the quote above and once in a Brain Pickings email in which poet, Wislawa Szymborska, argues that not-knowing, 'is the seedbed of our capacity for astonishment, which in turn gives meaning to our existence'.

I really liked that idea of 'not-knowing' being of huge value but, unfortunately, in most organizations it is something to be avoided at all costs. As an example, a few years ago, I was involved in a major piece of change work and was asked how many workshops I'd be running 2 years from the point I was being asked. I said I didn't know as I had no idea where things would be in the project in two years. The person asking me insisted I give him a reply so he could put a number in his spreadsheet for costing purposes. After some to-ing and fro-ing when he wouldn't accept 'I don't know' as an answer, I said 'OK, 72' and he went off satisfied and I went off astonished!

In design work not knowing is really helpful – it offers more than one possibility. I'm working through 'Designing Your Life' and the advice the authors keep giving is don't accept your first idea – be astonished at the range of possibilities you can generate. They encourage the reader to 'Remember, there are multiple great lives within you. You are legion.' What a terrific phrase.

And it's the same in organization design – typically leaders (or a leader) come up with an idea for a re-design and want to implement it without testing or prototyping or having generated options to their idea. They seem to be in thrall to the need to know, to measure, or to get things done quickly.

What would be different if they said 'We don't know how to best organize?' and started to explore the legion of possibilities. They might get more engaged employees, more trust in their approach, more people offering a range of suggestions and insights, and more options to test.

Their 'not knowing' could lead to astonishing positive outcomes. But, as Maria Popova says, 'to live with the untrammeled openendedness of such fertile not-knowing is no easy task in a world where certitudes are hoarded as the bargaining chips for status and achievement – a world bedeviled, as Rebecca Solnit memorably put it, by "a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate."

It's interesting the description of the roast upon the plate, because a colleague of mine, when presented with an organization chart and asked to 'get on and implement' it, laments that she has been presented with the 'oven-ready' version.

Maybe the desire for the known 'oven-ready' is a response to a leader's exhaustion. Graphic designer Milton Glaser suggests that sustaining interest over a long period is hard because, 'You sort of get tired, and indifferent, and, sometimes, defensive. And you kind of lose your capacity for astonishment -— and that's a great loss, because the world is a very astonishing place'.

How can we challenge the anxiety about 'don't know', and/or leader exhaustion in sustaining interest and open the way to finding or re-finding astonishment? I think we'd have healthier organizations if we accepted that there are many design options and it's worth the time taken to explore them?

One approach to achieve this is through impro(v) techniques. There's a great list of activities that could be adapted/used in participative organisation design workshops. Another approach is adapting some of the techniques of agile (see the free book Agile for Dummies sponsored by IBM), a third is to open the question 'how shall we re-organize' to a hackathon. They're all worth a go.

As we work in organizations should we let up on the need to know (or show we know) and instead be open to not knowing and allow astonishment?

What's your view?

NOTE: Look at the video clip of graphic designer Milton Glaser when he was 83, as he talks about his work, his life and his continuing astonishment.