Embrace the outliers

Rob Adams of the innovation agency Six Fingers will be looking at new theories and ideas emerging in the world that are contributing towards change in society, life and our ways of working

Text: Rob Adams 
Image: Saskia Kropff

Unexpected. Since anything unexpected could be the topic, it’s essentially a free hand to write a column. So this column could literally be about anything at all.

About how George Tupou I eventually became king of Tonga by preventing the island state from being colonised. Cleverly observing how kingdoms were defined from the perspective of Western powers, he had a crown made, named Haydn’s Opus 76no. 3 as the national anthem, and enacted a law. And just like that, Tonga was suddenly a constitutional monarchy and could not be occupied. Very unexpected, because all of the other islands were colonised by Western powers.

Or about Annie Kopchovsky, better known as Annie Londonderry (after a brand of spring water; brand sponsorship existed even in the late 19th century) who decided to bicycle around the world. She saw herself as epitomising the ‘new woman’ and wanted to fight for women’s liberty by showing that they were capable of doing anything. Annie Kopchovsky therefore became a role model for women.

To address this last question, we tend to hold people with a strong focus in high regard, those who know exactly what they want. This focus helps ensure they won’t stray from their goal. Focus is the prerequisite of specialisation. Be it sports, science, art or any another field. Specialisation has many benefits, but it also has its downside. Several, in fact. Animals that are specialised and live within their particular niche can quickly become extinct when circumstances change. Let’s take one of my favourite animals as an example, the dodo. It used to happily thrive on Mauritius, until it was completely and unexpectedly confronted by Dutch sailors in the 17th century and the animals they had brought with them such as dogs and rats. Having no natural enemies and consequently being very trusting, the dodo suddenly became a convenient target and rapidly died out. The same applies to companies.

‘One major disadvantage of specialisation is that a lot of things that lie outside the chosen area of focus will go unnoticed’

One major disadvantage of specialisation is that a lot of things that lie outside the chosen area of focus will go unnoticed. Focus is like using a torch at night, you can only see the things that you light up yourself. By focusing, you only shine the light on where you expect to find something, and once you find it, you instantly stop looking. You have, in fact, found what you were looking for. This greatly reduces your chances of spotting something extraordinary. Your odds of meeting someone who thinks in a completely different way decrease. The greatest danger of this is that, as a company, you start to build your truth in a way that ensures that the information you receive corresponds to the image you are seeking. Anything that doesn’t fit is quickly seen as misinformation or bad research. This creates a dominant logic that prevents unexpected information and developments from penetrating through to you. Bringing with it all manner of risks.

What if your focus was instead to be open to anything that is different? To seek out the things you do not understand? To prepare yourself for an encounter with the unexpected? What would this lead to? The unexpected, perhaps. I certainly hope so.

Prepare yourself to see what you normally wouldn’t notice. Keep looking once you think you have found what you are looking for. Not surprisingly, the opposite of ‘unexpected’ is ‘what you expect’. But that is far from interesting here. More importantly, your own focus is what limits the ‘unexpected’. So avoid only noticing what fits into your world view. Look for colours that aren’t already on your palette. Be open to anomalies, they are what make the world more interesting.

To quote the ancient Roman Seneca: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Loosely translated: Beware of focus, embrace the outliers.

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