Home' acuity : Acuity Aug 14 Contents Profito ergo sum
Too often, business leaders dismiss philosophy as an trifling dalliance. But actually it could be
the path to overcome all sorts of business problems, both large and small.
BY TIM DEAN
I'M GOING TO hazard a guess that
you're at least a tiny bit cynical that
philosophy might not have anything to
offer your business. Maybe even more
than a tiny bit cynical.
But the thing is, you're already doing
philosophy. Every time you think about
ideas, what they mean or how they fit
together, every time you reflect on your
values to help guide decisions, every
time you formulate an argument, every
time you tackle an ethical dilemma,
you're doing philosophy. The question
is: are you doing it well? And could you
be doing it better?
Philosophy isn't just the musings of
long dead white guys. It is a discipline
-- a set of thinking tools -- that helps
us to make better sense of the world
Twentieth century British
philosopher Bertrand Russell spoke of
the power of philosophy to challenge
assumptions and to cut through
prejudices, habitual beliefs and the
unexamined dogma that passes for
common sense. To the degree that
our decisions are informed by our
beliefs and values -- or by unexamined
common sense -- then we might benefit
from having a clearer understanding of
what those beliefs and values are.
One of the primary applications
of philosophical thinking is critical
examination of the assumptions we
hold about the world. Philosophy
encourages us to wonder how things
could, or should, be different.
We all normalise the world around
us, transforming from the wide-eyed
children marvelling at the strangeness
of the world to complacent adults who
take the way things are for granted. Yet
if we allow ourselves to become stuck
believing there is only a single way of
thinking, or one way of doing things,
then we constrain the kinds of decisions
we can make, and this can often have
detrimental effects on responding to
the challenges posed by a dynamic
According to John Armstrong, who
spent several years as the philosopher-
in-residence at the Melbourne Business
School, taking assumptions for granted
can also stifle innovation.
"When we see step changes in an
industry it's often because someone has
come up with a much better insight into
what you can offer people and what
they might want. We often think of that
as a marketing or creative issue, but
it's basically philosophical: what is the
good, what is the kind of happiness that
we are offering as a business," he says.
A crucial step in understanding the
way we assume the world to be is to
clarify our beliefs and values. Often our
beliefs and values are buried just under
the surface of our actions, directing
our behaviour even though we might
struggle to say precisely what they are.
Socrates was famous for teasing out
the implicit ideas buried in people's
judgements, often surprising them
with how fuzzy and inconsistent they
were. While I wouldn't necessarily
recommend practising brand of
dialectic in the workplace -- it's a great
way to make new enemies -- there
is value in employing some critical
scrutiny on your own beliefs and those
that underpin your business.
When he was philosopher-in-
residence, Armstrong ran a series
of events that sought to encourage
reflection on hidden beliefs and the
fuzzy ideas that inform them.
"The key thing is trying to get clear
about our ideas, particularly when
those ideas have a kind of inbuilt
messiness to them," he says.
Armstrong recently put this process
into practice when he consulted for
a design firm that was struggling to
understand its values and communicate
them effectively to clients. Its existing
mission statement was bland and
generic, and didn't represent what truly
motivated the business.
"They were really struggling to get big
contracts, because they were struggling
to explain how their design could grip
their client's imagination.
"Their aim wasn't to do it on the
cheap, but to produce a product that
people really wanted. And they were
losing out because they couldn't
convey, in a really compelling way, what
it was they stood for.
"Despite being architects, they were
really unimaginative about what they
were offering. They had just never thought
about it, so they couldn't communicate it.
They couldn't work out what it was, about
what they loved, that they wanted other
people to love, and they became really
dumb when they wanted to talk about it.
So that meant they couldn't sell the best
of themselves to the big developers they
wanted to work with."
Armstrong used the tools of
philosophy to successfully help
them uncover the values that really
motivated the business and then how
best to articulate them to clients.
BUSINESS SHARPER THINKING
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