We’ve learned a lot since launching our business in 2011. Far and away the most impactful lesson we’ve learned is that the world is changing rapidly, and the best way to stay afloat in these ever-changing times is to adopt the practices of Exploratory Leadership.
Exploratory Leadership is the concept of motivating people (yourself included) to travel into the unknown in order to discover more possibility. This is how you will remain relevant and create your next level of impact. Exploring what you don’t know, quite like the prototypical image of the great explorers of the past, is the only way to learn fast enough to keep up with the unprecedented pace of today.
Put another way, as former astronaut Buzz Aldrin said to us once when visiting Minneapolis:
Explore or Expire.
To understand how to navigate uncertainty, we must understand why it exists in the first place.
HBR writer Lisa Lai puts it plainly: “Market conditions shift rapidly. Customers have more choices than ever. Resources are constrained. Executives leave, interims are appointed, and searches drag on.”
We’ll add to that: Consumers’ needs are in a constant state of evolution. Business models are quite literally expiring overnight. Unforeseen viruses can nearly shut down an entire country’s operations. You get the picture.
The path ahead is foggy no matter what business you’re in, so if you’re not exploring, you’re a Blockbuster in a world of Netflix. Which is to say – you’re expiring.
How do you prepare for the unknown if it is … unknown?
You can’t exactly prepare for what you don’t understand and cannot predict. But you can equip yourself with tools to better navigate uncertainty. Explorers without GPS and modern technology did it; we can do it too. It just looks a little different today.
A few months ago we came across a blog post that had one of the most beautifully articulated thoughts about the unknown. From Creative Mornings:
“Being lost is a collaboration between possibility and uncertainty. It’s an excuse to get one step closer to a more fulfilling life. What you were comfortable with may not be there anymore, but you will have the remarkable opportunity to reconnect with yourself and embrace discovery.”
The unknown, while it may lack your usual comfort and certainty, is where all the possibility lies. As said above, when you’re in the unknown you have the opportunity to reconnect with yourself and to discover – discover sights, sounds, trends, nuances of your everyday that you never noticed before.
The first step to preparing for tomorrow’s uncertainty is to understand the great possibility that comes with it.
The next step is to explore.
Why we explore
Seeking out answers to the unknown is, according to New York Times bestselling editor Georgia Frances King (who is also the Ideas Editor at Quartz), important to evolutionary innovation. In this absorbing article, King talks to a neuroscientist about perception and why we’ve evolved to be a curious species. Beau Lotto, neuroscientist, says in the article, “Our brain evolved to take what is meaningless and make it meaningful, what’s useless and make it useful.” So even if we don’t know what’s coming at us tomorrow, we can trust in the evolution of our brains to make a semblance of meaning out of it.
According to King, Lotto believes that if we only looked at our environments objectively (instead of subjectively, as we do), we’d never see the possibility around us. But “by encouraging curiosity and learning to recognize and analyze our biases, we can create a culture driven by creativity and experimentation instead of safe stoicism.”
What Lotto calls curiosity, creativity, and experimentation, we call exploration. For a rudimentary example of why exploration is essential in the unknown, Lotto talks in his book, Deviate, about exploration in the time of our ancestors (paraphrased by King):
“When you are sitting in your community, sheltered and protected, where everything is momentarily predictable, the last thing you want to do is say, “Hmmmm, I wonder what is on the other side of the hill?” Bad idea! The probability of dying just suddenly increased considerably. But it is because of that “mad” individual that the group has a better chance to survive in an environment that is dynamic – by learning what dangers or benefits are on the other side of that hill, and perhaps discovering new spaces of possibility that the group hadn’t known existed.”
Is the dire need for exploration in the unknown clearer now?
How to explore in 2020
Since we’re not cavemen perched on the side of a hill, exploration looks a little different today. Exploring the unknown tends to be more cerebral; exploring new ideas and concepts, testing new initiatives and collecting learnings from taking small steps – or peeking over the metaphorical hill.
Here are five ways to explore so you can be better prepared for whatever tomorrow brings:
Experience a new emotion
Joy. Awe. Gratitude. Experiencing emotions you don’t ordinarily experience takes you outside of the norm and brings you into a new world of possibility. What happens when you experience joy? Your body produces serotonin, the neurotransmitter called the “happiness chemical,” which is circulated through your blood and your central nervous system. It also produces another neurotransmitter, dopamine, which helps you focus. Similarily, awe makes you feel more connected and even altruistic. Experiencing these emotions if they are unfamiliar to you can drastically change the way you see the world. And as we’ve learned from the work of Beau Lotto and other neuroscientists: perception is everything.
Take small steps
In his new book, Wise Guy, marketing guru Guy Kawasaki says he learned from decades in the field that taking small steps can make a big difference in a short amount of time at little expense. Long-distance open-water swimmer Lynne Cox says the same thing. Small steps lead to quicker learning. Quicker learning is the equivalent of sneaking around the hill to see what’s around the corner, or what’s not immediately in view. As an example, say you want to produce a magazine. A small step to take instead of spending thousands of dollars designing a big launch is to write a couple of stories, draw a few comics, print them at home, and hand-bind them. Pass them out and see if they stick. This is a highly efficient way of learning if you’re producing what your users actually want. (Not to mention the amount of money and time you will save.)
Listen to different music
Music streaming services like Spotify and iTunes have curated lists tailored to whatever it is you want to explore. What would happen if you tapped into your nostalgia and spent a couple hours listening to hits from the 90s? You might be surprised by the ideas that come to your head, like old ways to approach new problems, for example. A 2017 study, as reported by TIME, found that listening to happy music helped people perform on tasks involving divergent thinking. Music strongly affects the brain. Playing around with new music can play a big role in how you think, and therefore, how you approach problems.
Pick up a new magazine
Our friends at Jump Associates have a fun ritual: Every time they travel by airplane together, they assign a letter of the alphabet to one another. Then, at the newsstand, they have to buy a magazine that starts with that letter. Not usually a reader of Modern Cat magazine? You never know what reading an issue cover to cover will do for your innovation.
Study a new subject
We spent a bit of time exploring new subjects while writing this article. First, the Quartz article by Georgia Frances King introduced us to the idea that our inability to see things objectively is a good thing for humanity because it has led to a lot of innovation. The article then introduced us to neuroscientist Beau Lotto, whose TED Talk opened our eyes, literally and figuratively, to dimensions of brain evolution we’d never before considered. Intrigued, we clicked on a few more links and found Lotto’s summary of what science is: “It celebrates not knowing in an attempt to find better questions.” Studying these new subjects, even at the surface-level we did, got us thinking in new ways, connecting dots and even understanding more about something we already had a good grasp on: the need for exploration.
As a species, we have evolved to avoid uncertainty. But we can’t thrive today unless we embrace and proactively explore it. Looking over the other side of the hill by way of exploring new subjects, ideas, emotions, and the like, increases your capacity to think broadly and quickly, as the more information you subject yourself to, the more possibilities you bring within your reach.
This year, we urge you to put exploration to the top of your priorities. It is the only way to navigate the one thing that’s certain about tomorrow: its uncertainty.
Is the idea of Exploratory Leadership new to you? Visit our Content Library for videos, articles, and exercises on this important leadership practice.