Avoiding Einstellung

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It was hailed as the master plan of a retail genius. In early 2013 JC Penny (a US version of Debenhams) announced they were going to use the Apple playbook to transform the department store. Ron Johnson, inventor of the wildly successful Apple store, was taking over as CEO and bringing his team with him. Discount signs and clearance racks were out. Classy boutiques, funky market squares and ‘fair, everyday’ pricing were in. The share price soared. But customers fled. Within 18 months Ron was fired.

No other CEO had performed as badly in such a short space of time in the history of retail.

What went wrong? Well, Ron was experiencing the ‘Einstellung effect’ (ein-stel-lung).

Einstellung refers to a person’s predisposition to solve a problem in a manner that has worked for them before, when in fact a much better (often simpler) solution exists. They are the proverbial person with a hammer, seeing everything as a nail.

This is not  uncommon. Everyone is susceptible, and studies suggest it gets worse with age. But if we are to avoid stumbling through the 21st century with 20th century solutions we need an answer to Einstellung. Education is a good place to start the search.

Einstellung is everywhere

The current education system doesn’t help. In fact, it is making things far worse. The ‘great narrowing’ that happens from age 14 as young people move from a rich diet of many subject disciplines to nine, to three, and finally a single specialism means that our brightest minds leave university with essentially one way of thinking. They have been trained to be vulnerable to Einstellung.

The best specialists have range

A little known secret is that our gold medal experts have great breadth. A Nobel Prize winner is 22x more likely to be an amateur performer in the arts than an ‘average’ scientist. Roger Federer played multiple sports to a high level before finally choosing tennis, a common story amongst elite athletes but somehow lacking in the cut-through appeal of tales of sporting prodigies like Tiger Woods, who won golf tournaments as a toddler.

We don’t tell stories of range. If we did we might not be forcing children to decide what they want to be at age 16. This didn’t matter when we used to do the same job for 40 years. But as careers become more varied and complex, old approaches will need to be adapted or discarded entirely. Narrow thinking won’t work; we’ll need our leaders to understand complexity, think in networks and look at issues through multiple disciplinary lenses.

Steering clear of Einstellung

Here are a couple of concrete ways in which we can avoid the JC Penny problem.

1)      Grow Dragonfly eyes. Dragonflies have up to 30,000 ommatidia in each compound eye, each one collecting visual information, and together forming a mosaic image in the dragonfly’s brain. Imagine if we trained our own brains to work in this integrative way but with knowledge. Think like a historian and a scientist, empathise and do the maths.

2)     Make better analogies. Health warning: football analogies don’t cut it. Complex problems don’t follow strict rules like sport. Understanding ‘superconcepts’ can help us move beyond the clichés; these are big ideas that started in one discipline but are now relevant to many, such as evolution (started in biology, but applied in areas from computing to fashion) or entropy (thermodynamics, now used in migration planning or complex project management).

3)    Recruit for range. Look for CVs that demonstrate a curiosity across more than one area. Ask candidates how they bring their outside interests into their work. Reward the Federers who sampled broadly before they specialised.

Ron Johnson could have used a bit of psychology and some anthropological thinking. It turns out the JC Penny customers wanted to collect coupons and play the game of discount sales. That’s where they experienced in-store excitement. Total confidence in the wrong solution cost JC Penny billions of dollars.

But there are higher stakes elsewhere, in the realms of climate, conflict, democracy, and health. We need to step into the future with our eyes open (all of them).

P.S. One book we’ve taken a lot of inspiration from is Range by David Epstein. He argues that the most impactful people are those who draw knowledge from across domains, rather than deepening it in a single area. Check it out >>

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