What does it mean?

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What does it mean?

The Bird

In 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain with 3 ships. He was searching for a better route to the spice islands of South East Asia. Up until that time Europeans sailed around Africa and across the Indian Ocean, or used the Silk Road over land. Columbus boldly argued that sailing west across the Atlantic would be a better and shorter route. Most Europeans thought he was mad and were convinced that he would find nothing and die.

After weeks of sailing the food and water on the boats were going down and the crew wanted to turn back. Columbus insisted they keep going. They found nothing but open water. Finally the crew became desperate and demanded that the boats be turned around. Columbus agreed that if by the next morning nothing was found they would go back.

The following morning a lookout on one of the ships called out, look, it’s a bird. Since birds can’t fly in the middle of the ocean, Columbus realized they must be close to land and gave the order to keep going. Eventually they landed on one of the islands in what would become the Caribbean.

Anybody can recognize a bird. The important thing is to be able to understand what something means

It used to be that students got assignments and then went and looked for information, organized their data, inserted charts and visuals to make it look good, and then presented it. They were rarely asked to analyze the data, just to collect and present it. Window dressing is the term that’s used in English for trying to make something, (usually something that you know is lacking in substance) look good.

This doesn’t work today. Today you need to analyze data and tell people what it means

It also used to be that we didn’t have enough data. We were information starved. People who are over 50 clearly remember those days. You were given an assignment, perhaps to do a paper on the famous Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso. So what did you do? You went home and opened the encyclopedia and there were maybe 3 sentences on him.

But of course you copied it all down and yes you wrote large to take up more space on the mostly empty paper. Then you went to the library to see if you could find a book on Picasso, only to discover that the class smart asses had gone there directly from school and scooped up the one or two books on the shelves on the guy, and that one even left school early that day under the pretext of having a stomach ache in order to run to the library to get first choice.

So you were reduced to looking up Picasso in books about art in general and copying yet another paragraph. If you were in school prior to the internet age, you were information starved.

Today if you have to do a report on Picasso you go online and bingo, 2,700 websites. Today we are information inundated. It’s a big, big difference.

I recently gave a final individual project to a group of MBA students for a course in Business Ethics. Even though I warned them in class to be careful to answer the question that was asked, most students failed to do so. The project consisted on a quote from the head of a large international pharmaceutical company.

I asked students to evaluate the quote based on what they had learned in the course and to cite data from the course to back up their views. The project asked them to link the quote to the course. To do so they had to think about and analyze both the quote and the course.

Most students treated the project as one which required research one and gave me pages and pages of unnecessary data gleaned from the internet and outside sources. They could not break out of the find, organize and window-dress, and present model, even though I told them what I wanted and what I wanted them to avoid.

What does it mean?

I am constantly asking my MBA students, what does it mean? Many try and end up describing the bird. That’s what they’ve been taught to do. That’s what professors ask them to do, but MBA students have to be more than mere lookouts, they have to be able to run the ship, link information and make decisions.

Everyone has two reasons for doing anything, a good reason and the real reason

Today it’s important to discover the real reasons behind things. Students rarely ask enough questions and challenge enough things. They rarely ask why they need to buy an expensive textbook, an impressive relic that they end up opening only a handful of times during the course.

They rarely ask for the learning objectives behind an assignment which calls for them to do research and then present their findings in class, usually while the professor half dozes and while many of the non-presenting students surf the internet or play video games. They rarely ask why their projects are group instead of individual, even though they would learn more with individual assignments.

The Monkeys

There is a frequently told story about an experiment which used monkeys. A group of scientists placed 5 monkeys in a cage and in the middle, a ladder with bananas on top. Every time a monkey went up the ladder, the scientists soaked them all with cold water. The monkeys realized that going up the ladder meant punishment and thereafter none dared.

Scientists then substituted one of the monkeys. The first thing the new monkey did was go up the ladder. Immediately, the other monkeys beat him up. After several beatings, the new monkey learned not to go up the ladder, although he did not know why.

A 2nd monkey was substituted and the same thing happened. The first substituted monkey participated in the beating of the new monkey. A 3rd monkey was substituted and the same thing happened. Same when the 4th and 5th were substituted.

What was left was a group of monkeys that even though they had never received a cold shower continued to refrain from going up the ladder and would go so far as to beat up any of their kind who attempted to do so.

If it were possible to ask the monkeys why they did that…they would probably say, that’s how things are done here. And that is the way a lot of schools and the people who work in them act.

Schools don’t encourage students to question or challenge things. Schools are places to practice, take risks, ask questions, and turn things upside down and inside out. It’s a time to discover what doesn’t work. I always tell my MBA students, you’re not here to learn how things are done out there, so that you can go and duplicate them, you’re here to realize what’s wrong with the current business system so you can go out and change things, because if you don’t change them, no one will.

Schools teach people about the past. The famous case study method developed by Harvard University and used by MBA programs worldwide, studies what happened to a firm at a certain moment in their history. It’s all about the past. Schools deal with what has already happened and what can be measured and foreseen, not with uncertainty and the unknown.

Our educational models and methods do not teach us how to deal with the unknown as such. Education works to eliminate surprise from our lives and aims to anticipate everything to prevent chaos and disorder yet the unexpected is all around us. Adulthood is mainly about the quest for control. Adults spend most of the time trying to control everything and everyone.

Students don’t ask enough questions; then later at work they don’t ask enough questions either. It’s important to question everything so you can understand not only how things are done, but why they are done.

This article was written as part of an ongoing project to contribute ideas and consulting advice on a range of global problems by the World Innovation Team. Contributed by World Innovation Team General Director, Associate Professor Art Gogatz.


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