Navigating Complexity – Part Four: Cultivating An Attitude of Openness

Navigating your way through complexity in a rapidly changing, information-saturated world

In my previous posts, I noted some of the factors that combine to create an incredibly turbulent, complex, rapidly changing, and information-saturated world in which we find ourselves.  Our ability to navigate these turbulent waters is the single biggest challenge we will face for the balance of our careers.

Because these times are unprecedented, we need to intentionally create some mechanisms to help us.  If we’re smart and intentional, we can build some routines, attitudes, and competencies into our personal lives and into our businesses that will help us to survive and thrive, even in these unprecedented times.

I offered the analogy of a sailboat, which can sail almost directly into the wind because of the dynamic tension between two opposing forces – the keel which holds it down, and the sails which drive it forward. One without the other renders the boat unusable.  But, when the keel and sails are in balance, it becomes a thing of magic, allowing the sailor to maneuver safely in even the most difficult of situations.

That’s the idea.  To successfully navigate our unprecedented and complex world, we need to build into our lives and businesses certain disciplines, systems, attitudes, and habits that hold us down and, just as intentionally, building in those things that drive us forward.  In other words, to build sails and keels into our lives and businesses. The dynamic tension between these opposing forces is what will empower us to survive and thrive.

In my previous posts, I articulated the first sail – an acceptance of personal responsibility – and the first keel – an articulated vision or purpose.

Here’s my next recommendation for a ‘sail’ – a discipline or character trait that will drive us forward.

Sail #2:  – An attitude of openness.

It seems like this attitude is gradually disappearing from our culture.  That’s unfortunate, for those who remain stuck in the comfortable status quo will be passed by in the inevitable movement of our society.

Let’s dig into this.  First, a definition of ‘attitude.’ I like the Wikipedia definition:  an individual’s predisposed state of mind regarding a value and it is precipitated through a responsive expression towards a person, place, thing, or event (the attitude object) which in turn influences the individual’s thought and action.

We form our attitudes over time by repeating certain thoughts and feelings.  Those repetitive thoughts become a habit and that habit eventually predisposes us to a certain response toward some stimulus.  When we encounter a certain specific person, place, thing, or event, we fall back on our habit of thought – the attitude – and then think and act in a way that is stimulated by the attitude.

In one sense, it’s a shortcut to an action.  We don’t have to think about the circumstances that present themselves to us, we just act in accordance with our predetermined habits of thought.  So, attitudes allow us to be mindless and act irrationally, rather than mind-full and rational.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I have an attitude about academic education – that it is almost always good and should be pursued.  My friend does not have that same attitude.  He encounters an opportunity to pursue a year of college education.  At the same time, he’s looking at a well-paying job in a business that one of his friends owns.  My knee-jerk advice to him is to pursue college.  I offer that because of my attitude.  And that absolves me from having to consider the details of his situation.  I can short-cut my advice by relying on my attitude.

We are not born with attitudes; we acquire them over time.  Many of our attitudes are the result of repetitive things we heard or did as a child.  We form attitudes that color our behavior about many of the key things in life:  marriage, children, religion, politics, race, etc., primarily as a result of the repetitive influences in our formative years.

As adults, however, we are responsible for our attitudes. Because they are acquired, they can be changed or eliminated.  Much of our growth as responsible, rational adults comes when we consider the truth or lack of it behind many of our attitudes.  Is academic education, for example, a panacea for every circumstance and person?  Probably not.  If I am a responsible adult, I ought to re-think that attitude in light of my best understanding of reality.  In other words, I ought to be mind-full and not mind-less.

So, attitudes are learned, and we can change them, eliminate them and acquire them by conscious, rational choices.

This leads us to the one particular attitude we’re focusing on at the moment:  an attitude of openness.

A businessperson exhibits this attitude when he/she is willing to consider opinions that are different, technologies that are currently unused in the business, and ideas and attitudes that may be outside of current comfort zones.

Here’s the issue:  It is easy and comfortable to remain within our comfort zones: Content with the way things are regarding every aspect of our business – our products, our markets, our people, or processes and systems, etc.   Yet, because we live in a rapidly changing world, the status quo today will become history tomorrow.  We can never be fully content with the status quo.

If we are going to survive and thrive in our complex, rapidly changing world, we need to regularly change ourselves and our organizations. That necessary change and growth can only occur when we challenge the status quo and edge ourselves out of our comfort zones. 

And, in order to do that, we need to constantly engage with new ideas, new processes, and new people.  It is only when we engage with that which differs from what we currently think or do that we grow and change.

It may have been appropriate in years gone by to think of openness as passive – you would generally consider whatever came at you.  So, you’d listen to your executives and employees, consider what your customers said, give an audience to the latest thing from your vendors, etc.

Today, however, an attitude of openness requires a proactive approach.  It’s not enough to consider what comes your way, you now must aggressively seek the new and different.

Individually, that means things like:

  • Making it a practice to attend industry conferences.
  • Reading the magazines and blog posts of well-regarded thinkers whether they be in your industry or not.
  • Reading regularly – a book a month at the minimum.
  • On a regular basis, taking classes and courses in areas that are outside of your comfort zones.
  • Meeting with people – not only employees and folks inside your organization but also with those outside. One of my clients has a habit of “having lunch once a month with a good thinker outside of my industry.”
  • Proactively listening and absorbing information from a wide variety of sources.

If you are responsible for a business or organization, you would proactively mandate and empower many of your employees to do the same things(above) that you do. That means that you:

  • Require key employees to attend industry conferences, seminars, and workshops.
  • Regularly read and report on new ideas from industry magazines and blogs.
  • Read and report on books – at least once a month.
  • Take a certain number of classes each year.
  • Attend meetings at which the topic is ‘What’s a new good idea we might be able to implement here?”
  • Learn to proactively listen.

Clearly, if you can pull this off, you’ll be manifesting an attitude of openness, and your personal and organizational ship will fill its sails with power and energy to change, grow and develop.  And, if you have embedded a personal and organizational mission, value, and vision into your personal and corporate psyche, you will have the keel in place so that you have something to measure the ideas by.

Add these two sails:  An acceptance of personal responsibility and an attitude of openness, to your ship which is fit with the keel of a published mission, vision, and values statement, and you are well on your way to building the infrastructure that will allow you to navigate your way through complexity in a rapidly changing, information-saturated world.


Dave Kahle
Dave Kahle
YOUR business can be much more than just a money-making enterprise. Helping you achieve that potential is Dave Kahle’s passion. He has been helping business grow for 30 years. The author of The Good Book on Business, he’s written 12 other books, which have been published in eight languages and distributed around the world, and has presented in 47 states and 11 countries. He has personally and contractually worked with over 459 companies, and touched thousands of others through his seminars, speaking engagements, and webinars. You’ll find him challenging your paradigms and prompting you to think more deeply.

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