Culture

Thinking rationally? Think again: Eddie Obeng at TEDGlobal 2012

Eddie Obeng runs Pentacle, an online business school where he teaches “new world management.” He also has more energy than seems quite feasible in one human being. Soon after his arrival onstage, it’s clear why he won the unofficial award in rehearsals for “most words per minute.” Hold tight. This is quite a trip.

Obeng starts off by giving the audience a test, asking them to look at an onscreen image and tell us which line is longer. “It’s the same!” everyone dutifully replies, harking back to school tricks of old. “No! They’re not the same!” Obeng splutters excitedly in reply. He changed the rules, and he did it to demonstrate what’s been going on all around us. “It happened at midnight while we were asleep. They switched all the rules around. The way to run a business or country has been flipped. You missed this one?”

The problem with this change in the rules is that we all still behave according to the same old rules. “We respond rationally to a world we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists.” The audience laughs, a little nervously.

Obeng brings up companies that make their executives draw up planning forecasts and budgets — which are obsolete before they’re even published. We’re meant to be good at making things happen, he says. But if you were to describe a product launch in terms of a family of five going on vacation from London to Hong Kong on a budget of £3,000, the outcome wouldn’t be pretty. “The family ends up in Sulawesi having spent £4,000 and having lost two of the kids.”

The thing is, even eminent economists get this wrong. Obeng cites Tim Brown of IDEO, who has argued of late for the importance of “big” design. Why, Obeng wonders, was design ever small? “Why did we ever build these hierarchies? What’s going on?” The fact is, we haven’t noticed that the world has changed exponentially. Technology and other many forces have shifted our worlds and lives dramatically. “You are sitting at the headwaters of a global corporation if you’re connected to the Internet,” he says. “Every time you tweet, a third of your followers follow from a country that’s not your own. Global is the new scale. People think this is a metaphor but it’s a reality.”

Yes, of course it’s possible that we might learn to deal with this change. But there’s another problem: we still expect that there is one right answer. And that’s not the case. The turgid rate of change within corporations means learning is flat. The pace of change has overtaken the pace of learning. “We solve last year’s problems without thinking about the future,” says Obeng, who is speaking so quickly the audience doesn’t quite know whether to laugh or shush others so they can make sure they don’t miss a word. “If you haven’t understood the world you’re living in, it’s impossible to think that the solution you’re coming up with fits.”

Back to CEOs and their relentless requests for innovation. “Take risks and be creative!” they exhort, while their workers promptly hear “Do creative things and then I’ll fire you!” Our attitude toward failure and doing things differently needs to be transformed. “If you do something no one has ever done before and it fails, how should you be treated? To free pizzas!” he says.

Obeng closes by telling us he gave up his safe teaching job to set up Pentacle in order to preach this message to as many people as he can reach. (“And I haven’t lost my house yet.”) He concludes: “Next time you’re making your absolutely sensible and rational decision, wonder if this still makes sense in our world after midnight.” Big cheers, perhaps for the fact that he said more words in 12 minutes than most people utter in a day.

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Photo: Ryan Lash