#40 Wisdom

by Steven Cerri on January 14, 2008


What is it?

What’s your definition of wisdom?

I’ll tell you mine. Here it is….

“Wisdom is having lived long-enough so that you begin to understand those events, situations, life experiences, and conditions that are rare or only once-in-a-lifetime, and those that repeat themselves, either within the typical time span of a life or in the time span of hundreds or thousands of years.”

For example these are events that happen only once..

1. Your first child is born.

2. The first human lands on the moon.

3. The first atomic bomb is exploded.

4. The first human genome is decoded.

Here are some examples of things that repeat like revolutions of a giant, cosmic wheel..

1. Thousand of children are born every day.

2. Civilizations rise to world dominance and then dwindle to seeming insignificance except in historical terms.

3. Tyrants gain control and loose control.

4. Friends become enemies and then friends again.

5. People have wealth and then loose it and then…

6. Adolescents look for a way to distinguish themselves from their parents.

I believe it is impossible to acquire wisdom if all a person experiences are those events that happen only once. In order to see those events that happen over and over and over, a person must live long enough to “experience it” and then, hopefully, recognize what the heck is going on.

Therefore, my definition of wisdom requires a life in which the “repeatability of life” can be seen.

Implicit in this definition is the presumption that wisdom comes with age and therefore the converse is true… that youth cannot have wisdom. It’s difficult for young people to be wise unless they are voracious students of history. The flip side of that coin is that believing history may be a detriment to wisdom. Therefore, even with the best of intentions, history cannot be the sole source of wisdom.

All this leads me to this blog. Today I was reading an article in December 2007/January 2008 issue of Fast Company. The article, titled, “Get Back In The Box, How constraints can free your team’s thinking” was written by the two young authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath of the best selling book: “Made to Stick”. Now these are definitely smart guys, but in their article they were bemoaning the emphasis many business leaders place on attempting to motivate their teams by telling them to “think outside the box.” The authors’ premise is that “thinking outside the box” is not nearly as useful as actually thinking “inside a specific box”. Their position is that leaders should pick a “box” that is useful in moving the team where the leader want the team to go.


This brings me to two points which have the effect of raising my blood pressure.

The first is this idea that there are new ways to do EVERYTHING every five or so years. New fads in management and communication emerge on a regular basis, and frankly, there aren’t many new ways to manage and communicate every five years. The reason for this “management stability” is that we are dealing with the same major variable when we consider management, leadership, and communication; i.e., people.

I don’t think people have changed drastically over the past 100 years, let alone the last 20. I’m not talking about technology and cell phones, the internet etc. Certainly the environment changes. However, whether it’s a radio, television, cell phone, computer screen, or internet, it’s still the same human being at one or both ends of the communication process. And they haven’t changed; I guarantee you.

Just look around the world and you can see that from home to far off lands, we still often function with our primitive brains in full control. So lets not go looking for a new management and communication process every few years. We don’t need outside the box any more than we need inside the box. It seems that we just change the wrapping ON the box. In fact, my management and communication approaches worked when I was a middle manager, when I was a general manager, and they still work today as an entrepreneur, coach, and consultant. Better than most, I might add.

This fits right in with “thinking outside the box” versus our young friends telling us to “think inside a good box”. What a mind-trip this whole thing is. Forget the box. Forget outside and inside.

This brings me to the second blood-pressure-raising item; if these gentlemen were older my guess is that they would have written a very different article.

Inside or outside the box, it all has to do with framing, which has been around for decades, long before they were born. Setting the frame for “outside the box” is, according to the authors of this Fast Company article, starting with a “clean slate”. Well not really. For some people, thinking outside the box, is indeed starting with a clean slate. But for others, “thinking outside the box” means stretching the boundaries of what is acceptable but not starting with a clean slate. For others it is bringing in other disciplines, often known as “cross-disciplinary teams”. This means starting with a not-so-clean slate and adding even more dirt. Those who have been around a while understand all this as “framing”.

The approach the authors suggest in this article is to reject thinking outside the box as being too “unstructured”, too “indefinite”. They propose instead thinking “inside a specific box”, one that is defined as a model for where the team is to be headed. They go further to define the desired “box” as some “example” that the leader wants that is known to work and that confines the team to a arena that is not too large or ill-defined. Once again it’s basic framing. It’s no big deal and frankly it’s not worthy of a lot of attention. However…

Now you might be saying; “Well, come on Steven, you’re just trading one label for another. You use ‘framing’ and they use the ‘box.” “What’s the difference?” “You’re not really being fair to these guys.”

The bold quotes in the paragraph above are absolutely true. I am trading one label for another.

And that’s the question, isn’t it? What does it matter? Here is the reason I think this topic warrants a posting on my blog. Here is why it matters. Managers, leaders, and teams who understand and use the concept of framing know that this process has been around for 50 plus years. There is a great deal of literature on it. It’s been used, proven, used, and proven again and again. John Wooden, the fantastically successful coach of the UCLA Bruin basketball team used to focus his team obsessively on the basics of basketball. Dribble, shoot, practice, practice, and practice some more. Success was not to be found in famously elaborate moves. Success starts with doing the fundamentals well. And in management and communication, framing is a fundamental that, when done well, moves a team along.

And when it comes to managers, new managers as well as long-time managers, it seems they are constantly looking for that “silver bullet”, that little gold nugget, such that when it’s applied, will turn the team around and make the manager a leader. Just do this and all will be well!

Forget about it. Management, leadership, and communication success are the result of applying the basics of human behavior not in applying the latest fad. Not in being outside the box one year and inside the box the next and straddling it the next.

But that’s not quite it either. The real issue has to do with wisdom. We’re back to that. People follow for the same reasons now that they did a hundred years ago. They may follow different “things” now but they follow for the same reasons, and those reasons are deep within the psychological structure of human beings.

Leaders get people to follow for the same reasons now as they did a hundred years ago. The polls used in current political electioneering are not used to find what new processes people use when making their decisions regarding for whom to vote. The new poll processes are just using current techniques to discover more about how the deep, ancient drives embedded in human beings are manifesting in the current environment. But the drives are ancient. What framing provides is the wisdom of how to communicate, manage, and lead people in the present based on old programs. What the article provides is information that is not wisdom but is the latest way of looking at an old phenomenon. And the new view doesn’t bring success, only confusion, in my opinion.

In this article, the two authors lead managers, leaders, and team members to believe that there is a quick fix; in fact that there is a new fix.

“Let me have that one pill that will make everything all right.” “Lets adopt that new management technique and we’ll be able to be a successful team”. “If I can just master this ‘in the box thing’ I’ll be a great leader and manager.”

Forget about it! Just look at how fast the newest approach fades. Success doesn’t exist in the latest fad, it exists in finding what works and doing that, and finding what doesn’t work and not doing that. And it requires experience. The best combination is learning, experience, and flexibility, in or out of any box.

The truly successful communicators, managers, and leaders base their success on understanding the fundamentals of how people communicate, follow, and lead. In this Fast Company article, the authors of the book, “Made to Stick” base their suggestions on a small insignificant twist of a topic that has out-lived its fad-period. In or out of the box, that’s not management, leadership, or effective communication. (That was a rant, wasn’t it?)

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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