Posted on April 24, 2020

Dr. Pablo Martin de Holan, Dean of HEC Paris in Qatar, a Qatar Foundation partner university, on why humility and curiosity are the key to accepting change and reaping the benefits of innovation.

Since the beginning of time, people have wondered about the future, but technological progress was traditionally slow: for example, there were innovations invented in 1600 that did not take off until around 1850, and it took about 90 years - from 1900 to 1990 - for the majority of households to use them.

The Industrial Revolution, and more recently the digital era, unleashed a wave of ‘creative disruption’ and developed technological innovations that fundamentally changed the way we live and work. Yet, to profit from the potential of these innovations, we need to implement them effectively. And that is a problem, as there is ample evidence that adopting new technologies –especially those that are very innovative – is extremely tough. This is because new technologies require that we change at least some of our old ways, and adjusting to change is very difficult for most of us: as many have noted, the past has strong ’inertial’ forces. That creates a dilemma: to realize the potential of the new, we must get rid of the old, but doing so requires so much effort and generates so much discomfort that many people and organizations choose to avoid it, even if they know the old no longer fits. 

Given that a leader’s job is to help others implement the transition between old and new – and, before that, to understand when one needs to replace the other or when the old is just fine –understanding the blockages helps to reduce the chances of failure. Research tells us that three factors are essential. First, we have the often-forgotten incentives. Most economic behavior is motivated by immediate incentives, and often the incentives are misaligned with the outcomes we would like to obtain. Experience shows that it is not a good idea to “plow the future with old oxen,” as a poet once wrote:  New technologies require new behaviors, and new behaviors appear when the rewards we give are aligned with the new objectives, instead of the old ones. 

It took COVID-19 for some firms to start teleworking by necessity, even though the technology that enables this has been around for at least 10 years.  Similarly, many organizations want to empower employees through a high level of customer intimacy and enabling the agility to act, yet they do not reward them even though we have the tools to measure and reward those who go beyond the call of duty, instead of rewarding nobody, or rewarding everybody, or offering such rewards in an impressionistic manner. Incentives create behaviors, yet it is common to try to incentivize new behaviors with old tools, and that tends not to work very well.

Incentives are powerful, but they only partially explain the problem. In addition to them, we have two internal factors that are essential for the implementation of innovation.  The first is humility, which is understood as the capacity to accept our irreducible imperfection and leads us to accept that technologies have a life cycle, and that what was good at one given moment may not be as good at the next. Humility is accepting that, often, we must start anew and learn things that will replace what we knew before. It is not a burden: it is the cycle of life.

We should not underestimate the difficulty that most of us have in relinquishing the past, and how dearly we hang on to things simply because they worked before and because it is laborious to relearn them again. Good leaders help people around them understand that sticking to something simply because we have spent a lot of time learning it is not necessarily a good idea; and that accepting that what we know, and the tools we use, are temporary and may be replaced is a healthy way to deal with life and its uncertainties. Nothing lasts forever, including our knowledge.

Humility works best when it goes hand in hand with curiosity, which can be described as the interest in unexplored possibilities, in all the things we do not know and things that could be, in the belief that we can always do things differently and that perhaps we can find something better. Curiosity can lead to the desire to improve things through a combination of caring, hard work, and the tools and technologies at our disposal. Even though different people have different degrees of humility and curiosity, both vary according to circumstances and can be developed if we choose to do so, very much like Emotional Intelligence. It is the job of the leader to help people develop these and other valuable skills that make us not just better at work, but also better human beings.

Many years from now, when historians are looking at our time, they will probably agree that our era saw lifelong learning appear as a defining feature of work and life: a never-ending process of learning, unlearning, and relearning how to do what we do. We can say with great confidence that to succeed in our times, all of us need to see the world with a state of mind that embraces change, because it is rooted in the humility and curiosity required to accept that, in the end, the only thing humans can know is how little they do know.  That is one thing that will never change.