CEO Blog January 2021: What does it mean to truly understand?

Anyone running anything needs an understanding of the future. The old axiom of 'not planning beyond circumstances you can conceive' (because to do so is a waste of time) is fine as long as you can conceive at least a useful distance ahead. That's difficult for organisations at the moment: the pace of the challenges and ambition; the variables; the permutations, and the uncertainty means we have to work harder to build our understanding. This requirement goes beyond being merely 'informed' - the keyword is understanding. 

 'Understanding' is a concept bandied around and ironically probably not well understood. Many students have to grasp the notions of researching, interpreting, challenging sources, and analysis. They quickly also learn that very few issues lend themselves to one interpretation. This is nicely summarised by Mile's Law, which states: "Where you stand depends on where you sit." The point being that interpretation is influenced and often warped by one's point of view.  

Most people recognise that information on its own is often of limited worth. For a start, there is more available now than ever before, quality can be an issue, and sometimes information on its own begs more questions. We all know that information needs to be analysed to move it towards useful 'intelligence' that, in turn, builds a form of understanding. I suppose if one refines things further, like good whiskey, we might add to this process the 'judgement' that experience brings. We probably call this wisdom. Of course, this basic process has taken on greater meaning in the digital age where big data is sifted by algorithms to provide conclusions or drive decision making. Mile's Law has been updated in debates around AI ethics and the risk of enshrined software bias. However, fundamentally understanding and wisdom remain human attributes. 

Any inbox will show there is no end of commentary across all topics. Wading through helpful pieces of pocket analysis can consume vast tracts of time. One has to be selective. Here, the credibility of the analyst is all-important. There is a difference between someone saying on Twitter – "inflation is set to rise by 0.5%", and the Office for Budget Responsibility saying it. The dream for those who need understanding is to hear from people who really know what they are talking about. To learn from others who are finding, or have found, answers to the same questions you have. 

WIG has been addressing the challenge of understanding for 37 years. After all, our purpose is to increase cooperation, understanding, and learning across the public, private and NfP sectors. Although experience and culture vary across the sectors, the challenges are remarkably similar. WIG is configured and trusted to bring our members together to talk with and hear from the right people (senior leaders who are actually forging policy, have dealt with challenges at scale, or are subject matter experts) about the topics that matter to our members most. More than this, WIG offers the priceless opportunity to connect and talk to others across our wide membership about their analysis, approaches, and lessons. This goes well beyond 'sense-checking.' No one needs to be told that a problem shared is a problem halved or that mutual understanding and learning is a massive multiplier. Looking to the challenges ahead that face all leaders, applying such a multiplier to one's understanding is not a luxury. So let's increase our understanding together in the year ahead.


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