In a recent blogpost, the never less than excellent Doug Shaw discussed the challenge facing those who are seeking to overhaul our education system and in so doing referred to some startling facts about the loss over time of the skill of divergent thinking. A skill that seems vital for the collaborative work that is becoming increasingly important across many industry sectors and business functions. Serendipitously, I received this morning an email from my good friend David Goddin coming back to me on an invitation I extended to his son, Eoin, during a Twitter exchange back in May in response to a guest post he had written for David’s blog. I was struck by the clarity of what he wrote, unclouded as his thinking is by any cynicism or received wisdom and Doug’s post chimed neatly with the train of thought that speaking virtually with Eoin had provoked.
In previous posts on this blog and in articles I have written for Office Insight, I have touched on the need for business to do more to engage with schools and colleges to help prepare the future workforce for the world of work. I was curious to understand how a modern 12 year-old viewed work, so the question I posed to Eoin was “Why do people go to work?” Here is what he had to say:
Now, I can’t tell you whether Eoin is a typical 12 year-old or not. I know he’s a big fan of Star Wars, which means he’s got great taste in movies (in my opinion). What I can tell you is that I was completely blown away when I read what he had written. Not just because it was well composed but by what I might have chosen to refer to as the maturity of vision he displays. In the humdrum routine of daily working life we often lose sight of the contribution we make, however humble that contribution may be. If you ever doubt it’s value or the way it is viewed by someone whose divergent thinking capabilities are relatively undimmed just take another read of what Eoin wrote.
Like the adults referenced in the study Doug quotes in his blogpost whose divergent thinking has waned, we seemed until relatively recently to have forgotten the need for business to fulfil a socially useful function. The great financial crisis has been a shocking and painful reminder of our forgetfulness in this regard. Tapping into the still-fresh perspective of a bright and insightful 12 year-old shows that this sense of social responsibility might too be lost over time should we fail to foster this value throughout the course of whatever education system rises from the ashes.
If Eoin’s thinking about the world of work is not atypical then there are valuable lessons to be learned about the way we go about engaging with future entrants to the workplace. At school and throughout the education system, at all levels, we have a wonderful opportunity to harness that divergent thinking and intuitive understanding of the value of work. By nurturing the vision of the valuable and valued contribution work can make to wider society we might deal in advance with issues that are confounding reform of our welfare system. By being respectful and unpatronising toward the already well-developed understanding of what work is for we can more quickly engage in an authentic dialogue about what fulfilling and sustaining work they can aspire to.
There’s fear here too, of course. Fear of examining ourselves too closely and finding that the thinking of a 12 year-old is sharper and more perceptive than our own. Who would admit to that. Who would sit in a meeting with peers and senior executives and quote their son or daughter when the collective wisdom of generations of management gurus weighs heavily on the bookshelf across the room. We start the labelling, box ticking and generational guff at school. We carry that with us like a monkey on our backs and replicate it when we get to work. By then it’s a reassuring weight and we’re terrified of an alternative that is so far in our past we’ve forgotten how to consider it.
So, before it is too late, stop looking through a glass darkly. Man, take out those childish things from the cupboard of your memory and speak, understand and think as a child might once again. Find there a new hope.
Postscript – I am of course indebted to Eoin and David Goddin for their permission to publish this post but mostly to Eoin for being such a good sport and for inspiring me to think differently and look again. As a fan of the Star Wars films, he will no doubt be aware of Yoda’s exhortation to “unlearn what you have learned”. It is just as valid a lesson in the modern workplace as it is in the swamps of Dagobah.