Making a Dent in the Universe

11/11/2013 11:19 | Updated 23 January 2014

I've had a pretty thought-provoking week on the other side of the Atlantic. Travelling always seems to expand the mind and give one some time to think, but this week it's been less to do with the opportunity for reflection and more to do with a handful of seemingly-unrelated comments that were made to me in passing. As is so often the way in this constantly-connected age, these comments sent me deep into a world of 'Google-hopping', hunting more information, following link after link - irretrievably distracting me from the meeting at hand.

The first diversion was the mention of a book called What Got You Here Won't Get You There; the second was a Steve Jobs quote, "We're here to make a dent in the universe. Otherwise, why even be here?"; and the third was the introduction of a US Government concept called Grand Challenges.

Starting with the latter, Grand Challenge terminology has been around since the 1980s. It was initially used by the US Government during the Cold War to refer to the big, broad, problems in science and technology, solutions for which would only be enabled by the application of high performance computing resources. Since then, the terminology has been adopted by President Obama as the centerpiece of his 'Strategy for American Innovation'; USAID also uses it and has five grand challenges for development - i.e., challenges where the appropriate application of science and technology can have transformational effects; and Bill and Melinda Gates use the concept to stimulate unorthodox thinking on persistent challenges in global health. Reading about the way that Grand Challenge thinking has been applied, it got me thinking how many of my clients, or indeed even my own country, know what their Grand Challenges are? If we knew what the UK's Grand Challenges were, we would be much better positioned to evaluate the political manifestos that will be appearing over the next 12 months. As an everyday punter I take great interest in the flow of commitments coming out of Downing Street, but I'm not sure that I understand what's glueing them all together. This knowledge would enable me to filter out the tactical from the strategic.

Having read about that, someone in my meeting then quoted Steve Jobs, which given that my MacBook is currently on the blink could have sent me into a spiral. Instead it was more directional than I had expected. It got me thinking about two things: firstly, what dents I might have already made in the universe (if any)? And, secondly, what grand challenges might I be able to contribute towards in the coming years - with a view to making sure that the resulting dent is more than just aesthetic? I think that coupling Grand Challenge thinking with Job's 'denting' concept could be a powerful framework for a business to adapt. Post recession, many businesses are re-evaluating their role in society. Could they combine these two concepts to help define their core purpose and therefore their relevance?

Then, to top off the day, the final piece of the jigsaw was the mention of a book, written by one of the world's foremost leadership coaches, Marshall Goldsmith. His theory is that we need to continually re-evaluate our characteristics in order to get what we want out of our careers. I'm not great at that kind of thing, so my mind immediately switched to how this linked to the other two concepts that I had just explored. I ended up concluding that his thinking had some serious corporate applicability. So often, businesses are told by management consultants to focus on their core competencies, cultures and signature institutional behaviours. But perhaps in some cases, it's this much-vaunted focus on culture that's holding them back for making a meaningful dent. Goldsmith has spent his career helping global leaders overcome their unconscious annoying habits and become more successful. Perhaps the time has now come for him to switch over to businesses - helping organisations to overcome their own obstacles (inaccurately labelled as strengths) and find relevance?

One of the core tenants of Goldsmith's framework is the development of a "to stop" list, focusing on all of the things that, as an individual, you are going to stop doing. Most of my clients have a "to do" list, but I can't think of any that have a list of things they are intentionally planning not to do any more. I'm betting that such a list would represent a great place to start a transformation.