In the 1930s, the Nobel prize winner Lord Rutherford introduced a rule in his team that when they met, they could only ever share about what they were ignorant or confused about. They could only share how their projects weren’t going to plan. This prevented them focusing only on positives or feeling pressure to display and prove their knowledge and expertise to one-another.
One of the Rutherford’s team members, Reg Revans, later became the founder of ‘action learning’ – the art of posing and receiving questions that resonates with Socrates: ‘wisdom begins in wonder’, ‘I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance’. In Revan’s view, knowledge and expert skills provide cleverness but it is only through questions and reflection that wisdom emerges.
The thing that appeals to me is the humility and openness it implies. It’s a trait in some leaders to aspire to the hero, the know-all, the better-than-the-other, the expert who needs no help or advice. It leads to blinkered perspectives, defensive posturing, relational isolation, devaluing of others. Against that backdrop, choosing vulnerability feels deeply counterintuitive.
I read another stimulating idea, this time on MindTools, called, ‘Reverse Brainstorming’. It has a similar counterintuitive feel to it. It’s a fun approach that enables movement in thinking and practice using a creative lateral thinking technique. So, for example, instead of asking ‘how do I solve or prevent this problem?’, it proposes asking ‘what could I do to cause the problem?’
Instead of asking, ‘how could I achieve the desired results’, ‘what could I do practically to undermine the results?’ It reminds me of ‘Negative Brainstorming’, an approach to surfacing problems with an idea or proposal (and thereby provide opportunity to address them) by proactively encouraging participants to think of and articulate every reason they can why it won’t work.
The theme is a willingness to share openly and actively encourage questions and critique as a way of being, of leading, of learning, of moving forward. It demands courage to make oneself vulnerable and draws out the best in others by welcoming and valuing even the most critical voices. It requires a deep sense of inner security - and rests more on belief than competence.