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The case for the ‘Beginner’s Mind’

In 1975 Steve Sasson came to his board of directors at Kodak with discovery. He demonstrated a device that incorporated a camera connected to a cassette which served as a storage device. From the cassette, one could display the captured photos on a screen. Sasson had essentially prototyped the first digital camera.

We all know how this invention changed the industry in the coming years, but what is perhaps more eye opening is to hear the feedback Sasson received:

They were convinced that no one would ever want to look at their pictures on a television set. Print had been with us for over 100 years, no one was complaining about prints, they were very inexpensive…”

In spite of this, driven by his own curiosity, Sasson continued working on the project for the next decade, perfecting and tweaking his design until in 1989 he produced a viable, go to market model of an early digital SLR camera. Spurred on by his breakthrough, he approached the board once again, convinced they would share his excitement, but yet again the Kodak executives turned him away, claiming it would do nothing but disrupt their existing business, which at the time was thriving.

Sasson was quoted in the New York Times,

“When we built that camera, the argument was over, it was just a matter of time, and yet Kodak didn’t really embrace any of it. That camera never saw the light of day.”

The Goose and the Golden egg it laid was under their very nose, but they simply ignored it.

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When Kodak did eventually introduce their own digital camera 18 years later, it was too little too late, the Japanese companies already had a strong foothold in the marketplace and Kodak, the one-time

behemoth of the photo industry eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2013.

It would have been clear to any objective onlookers that this breakthrough discovery left the camera industry at technological inflection point. And yet, board of the biggest company in the industry simply ignored it – how could that be?

This lack for foresight by established company is not isolated to this single anecdote. The DVD rental company, Blockbuster is another great example. In 2000 they had the chance to buy Reed Hastings’ Netflix for $50 Million. The CEO turned the opportunity down, predicting that the digital streaming market would remain a ‘very small niche business.’ In 2010 Blockbuster closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy. Its entire business model had been disrupted by online digital streaming.

It seems as though organizations, once large and established are at risk of becoming too stuck in their own internal processes to see what was going on in the world around them.

Whilst so much of company building relies on implementing processes systems to ensure smooth operation & scalability, if unchecked, these same structures may become a prison of rigidity. If we fail to constantly challenge them, they can result in myopic thinking in organizations, which can lead to poor decision making when looking to the future.

Could this also apply to us as individuals? How many of us move forward out of the momentum of our past actions? Are we ever guilty of holding on too tightly to our old habits identities, without questioning our basic assumptions?

At times, I see this same pattern in myself. There is always a temptation to operate with a sunk cost fallacy, assuming that just because you have invested so much time and effort into a certain project that if more if is invested, and the ship will inevitably right its course.

After all, habit formation is biologically hardwired into human beings, an area in the midline of the brain called the basal ganglia is exclusively dedicated to the adoption and retention of these. If habits are biologically ingrained into each of us, then they can be hardwired into teams & organizations. For better or worse.

For us as individuals & as organizations, the best preventative medicine lies in striving to always keep a ‘beginners mind’. Constantly questioning our core assumptions and never assuming anything. Although processes and systems are of vital importance, we must not become a slave to them.

‘In a beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in an expert’s mind there are few’

Shunryu Suzuki

The word Shoshin, seen derives from Zen Buddhism, and refers to having a sense of openness and eagerness to see old problems through new eyes. It is a term often used in the study of both Zen and Martial Arts.

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