Frozen Knowledge Can Be Deadly
Like many stories about Einstein, this one is likely more fiction than fact. But we like the truth in the point that it makes.
While teaching at Princeton in the 1930s and 40s, Albert Einstein was often criticized for giving the same final exam to his students. For more than 20 years, each semester ended with the same test with the identical questions.
After a few years, students began to figure out the predictability of the exams. So did his fellow Professors. At one point, a colleague asked Einstein why on earth he would continue to use the same final exam questions year after year, especially since his students were on to him. Einstein smiled and replied, “Because the answers keep changing.”
Knowledge that stays static in any way becomes frozen in time. As leaders sit in a given role for a long period of time, frozen knowledge can create havoc with their decisions and choices. The challenge for every leader is to test and retest the assumptions they make about the knowledge claims central to their work.
In today’s fast-moving marketplace, just as in Einstein’s time, what we know and depend on as facts evolve. Sometimes more quickly than leaders can readily see. So, the safe bet is to presume whatever so-called facts a leader relies upon are generally outdated or just plain wrong after a year or two. Here’s the kicker. Leaders always resist learning what they think they already know.
Fighting the urge to keep our beliefs and facts stagnant is what smart leaders do. Write down the key facts and assumptions you operate from and spend a little time reading and listening to subject-matter experts about them. You might be surprised at how much has changed since you last put those facts in your pocket and called it a day. Frozen knowledge is sometimes more dangerous than no knowledge at all. Leaders and what they know must continue to evolve, even while the questions stay static.