Philosophy for Business – surely a giant waste of time…portfolioPublished September 2, 2011 at 4:43 pm No Comments
Philosophy is not renowned for its practical applications in the wider world outside the ivory towers and the panelled rooms of the professional thinking classes. Can philosophy really teach us anything about how to do business?
Well – of course – that does depend on what you mean by philosophy.
On the one hand there is academic philosophy, which has a reputation for intellectual isolationism and dislocation from the ‘real’ world. And it probably is the case that 95% of everything ever written under the banner ‘philosophy’ is unintelligible to 95% of the population. And quite a lot of it – while it might be immensely clever – is also quite dull.
But there is another end to the philosophy spectrum – the funky end – the interactive and the anti-intellectual end. This is the domain of Practical Philosophy and it doesn’t feature large in the academic departments – it’s existence being hushed up like that of a disreputable cousin. This kind of philosophy is not just something that you think about – it is something that you do, and it’s something that you do with other people.
This second kind of philosophy – the interactive kind – is where we will find any practical business applications.
- Disagreement without argument
Contemporary culture tends to prioritise the idea that questions have a right answer, and that if you get the answer right you are smart, and if you get the answer wrong you are thick. This model is undeniably present in the education system and it follows us through into the world of work where our status, self-worth and market value are largely determined by our position on the Smart – Thick axis. This makes us reluctant to take any risk that might expose a gap in our knowledge or a short-coming in our understanding because to do so would be to admit an intellectual weakness. Much safer to keep your head down and stick to what you know even if what you know isn’t working particularly well.
Practical Philosophy, on the other hand, is all about asking questions that don’t have one right answer and then exploring the ideas that fall out. When a group of people do this together – that’s Dialogue. In this kind of Dialogue exploring the ideas is more important than getting the answer right, disagreement doesn’t necessarily mean argument , and we have the opportunity to discuss something that matters without the nascent fear of being judged and found wanting.
We carry around in our brain a vast and magnificent framework of interconnected concepts and ideas that is the matrix of meaning we use to interpret the world, and the platform of understanding we use to make decisions. We all have one of these more-or-less coherent and extensive frameworks of ideas, we couldn’t function without it, but we hardly ever have the opportunity to take any piece of it out and have a good hard look. There is no common cultural framework, within business or without, where we can share our understanding of our own understanding with other people and say, ’this is what I think – what do you think?’.
Practical Philosophy creates Dialogue – a single conversation between a group of people where they can think, talk and deliberate about stuff that matters with a trained facilitator on hand to keep things moving, focussed and friendly. This is an opportunity for participants to go spelunking in understanding. It is a collaborative space where ideas can be shared, compared and expanded. It is a way to harness the collective intellectual power in the room, focus it on one single concept, idea or question, and blow the lid off.
- The philosophy of success
Take Success for example – not the operational parameters of success, not the modelling of behaviours of successful people, not the criteria of success for this project, or that meeting, or the next quarter – but the concept of success itself. What does it mean? How does it fit within your framework of concepts? How does it relate to other concepts like failure and fear and risk and achievement and happiness? How does it relate to other peoples’ concepts of success, and what effect does your understanding of success have on your life?
The concept of Success is one of the central planks of our cultural existence – it defines our expectations, reorganises our values, sets the boundaries on what we believe we can achieve, and twiddles the knobs of happiness. In a culture where success is prized and pursued, unless we have an understanding of what success actually is we run the risk of getting somewhere we don’t really want to be. And so it goes with a raft of other Big Ideas that form the undergirding of our lives.
This is the domain of Practical Philosophy. This is not merely a brainstorming method or a teambuilding exercise or a communications seminar. It is big-picture dialogue, and fundamentally it is a bunch of people sitting around talking about stuff that matters, with the shared goal of progressing towards understanding. It is also a set of tools and techniques that make this mindset possible, give permission for it to happen, and facilitate the process.
- The bottom line
So – philosophy for business does not scour the works of the great thinkers for insights into modern management issues – It does not plunder the dictionary of philosophical quotations for inspirational pick-me-ups. Instead it is an invitation to participate in an orchestrated enquiry into ideas that we share by virtue of being alive, not by virtue of being in business. The benefit for business is that thinking and talking like this in groups improves the quality of the thinking and talking, and improves the quality of the groups.
It is possible that there are businesses out there that have no need for this kind of thing – but that’s not the only possibility.