There’s a great story famously told by Russell Herman Cromwell, an American Baptist minister and founder of Temple University. The story is an ancient Persian tale of a wealthy but dissatisfied farmer who sells his farm and travels the world to look for a diamond mine. After years of looking, the farmer’s search ends fruitlessly and he tragically dies in poverty. Meanwhile, the man who buys the farmer’s land finds a shiny black rock one day in one of the streams that runs through the property. As it turns out, that shiny black rock is a diamond! Thrilled with his discovery, the new owner starts looking everywhere and soon finds that the farm is littered with literally acres of diamonds.
So, right there on the property the farmer sold to finance his worldwide search for a diamond mine, is one of the most lucrative diamond mines in the world. Its jewels decorate the crowns of monarchs. The moral of the story, of course, is that sometimes what we are looking for is right there under our noses if we just know how to look for it.
(Quick note: If you’re a history buff who loves this story, you can listen to a grainy recording of the original story.)
The sad truth is that too many companies have a corporate culture like the farmer who couldn’t see that he was surrounded by acres of diamonds.
But where are these gems?
Why is that? Why does it happen? Why do we miss what’s right in front of us?
Your Brain Hates to Change
The reason? A company’s collective brain and its culture are getting in the way. As the great Anais Nin wrote in Seduction of the Minotaur, the problem is that “we don’t see the world as it is; we see the world as we are.” Indeed!
The problem is right there in our brains. But don’t think you cannot do anything about that.
Modern neuroscience and functional MRIs are starting to reveal to us the inner workings of the brain. We now know that we are born with a brain full of potential. Then as we grow up, we form perceptual mind maps and “stories” in our brain that help craft our reality. Once those stories and mind maps are in place, we tend to see the world through that lens, no matter what new information comes in. Then we filter and sort what is going on around us — including those business opportunities and unmet needs that we only recognize if they fit our perceptions and existing stories.
Some of the most insightful research on the topic comes from the Neuroscience and Leadership Institute. I particularly like the work which David Rock and his colleagues publish on culture change. A terrific article of theirs that helps many of our clients is “Lead Change with the Brain in Mind.”
But You Are Probably Aware Of The Challenges In Your Business Today.
Take a moment and think about that. We are hard-wired to see things in a way that feeds the stories we are already telling ourselves. That’s why we stay stuck our constrained reality. And why company culture can keep us stuck there, too.
As humans, we hate to change. Our brains try to fit what we see and hear into what we think should be there. Not only that, our brains actually create a chemical reaction and use even more energy to learn something new. On top of that, our brain already uses 25% of the body’s energy! Think about the last time you had to sit down and learn something new — it was hard!
Now multiply that by the size of a company employee base and you start to see what’s going on. Companies stall when the people running them have to work really hard to alter old thought and action patterns.
The question is: How can companies overcome our natural resistance and see, feel and think in new ways so that their acres of diamonds are not disregarded or destroyed?
The Company Culture Imperative
The answer is to embrace the methods of corporate anthropology so that we can see our world and our company as it is, not as we are.
Companies are made up of people, and just like every culture we’ve built since the time of cavemen, companies have cultures with a shared set of core values, beliefs and behaviors. It’s part of what makes us human, and companies have cultures because companies are made up of people.
In order not to just feed everything that happens into the existing collective story which companies already tell themselves — just like our individual brains do — they must stay vigilant and observant. If looking for diamonds in its own fields isn’t intentionally built into a company culture, acre after acre of diamonds are left undiscovered and right underfoot.
Conversely, to build a company culture that is constantly looking for the diamonds in plain sight takes intention and needs to be designed as part of the business itself. Make it part of the “way we do things here.”
One of the best ways I know of to hunt for diamonds on your own “farm” is to step out of your business and take a fresh look at what you are doing. Think “Undercover Boss” and experience your business as your customers and your employees do. Shop your company and see how easy, or not easy, it is to do business with you. Spend a day in the life of your customers and shadow them. See what you learn by not selling anything but listening. Do “a little anthropology.”
Maybe Our Anthropology Starter Kit Could Help?
If you are ready to find your “acres of diamonds,” we’ve created a starter kit to get you on your way. Give it a try and let us know how you do.
In it, you will find four things you can try. Introduce them to your team. See if they can step out and look at your business with more open minds, fresh eyes and a readiness to see what is all around them. Remember, as John Seely Brown said: “The way forward is all around you.”
Want To Know More?
Want to dig deeper and lose those anchors holding you back? This might be a good time to get a copy of my new book, “On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights.” In it, I share with you seven stories of companies, perhaps like yours, that were “on the brink,” yet ready to soar. They just needed to step out and see what was all around them. There are lots of insights to share and an anthropology tool kit that might be of help to you as you embark on your own diamond-seeking journey.
Enjoy the read. Let us know what you find in your acres of diamonds.
Corporate Anthropologist | President and CEO