I am forever getting lost in Amsterdam, which is odd as it’s quite a small city. The problem comes from the way it’s arranged in a series of concentric horseshoe shapes around the canals. This makes it very pretty, you are always walking next to water and surrounded by the tall and distinctive merchants houses, but it also constantly takes you off course. If you’re on the east side of the city and you start walking south, you end up facing west at the end of the road!
There is an unintentional side effect of all these curves and my constant sense of displacement: i keep finding new places to explore, interesting back streets, small shops, many coffee houses, strange houseboats. Whether i can ever find my way back to them again is another matter entirely though.
Getting lost to be found is no surprise in learning: as we build our foundations, we have to constantly challenge ourselves, once we have the broad outline, we need to strike out into the unknown again to put the flesh on it. Getting lost is a great way to find your way around a new city: you start by learning areas in isolations and then, gradually, tie them together into one large mental map.
Getting lost in learning was always a feature of my research and postgraduate work. An interesting side road would open up and i’d wander down it, marvelling at the architecture and peering in through the open windows. On the one hand, it made the journey much longer, but on the plus side, it made it much more interesting.
Then there’s the law of unintended consequences: not everything can be planned. It’s sometimes on those forays into the unknown that we find out the most important things of all. Yesterday turned up a delightful art cafe that i would never have found down a back street, and in the cafe i got talking to the girl at the bar who told me where to find some great music. I unintentionally learnt something.
There is value in structure, in having a map of what we need to learn, but there is value in getting lost too, in wandering around to see what takes our fancy. I always ask myself this question when we look at learning systems that deliberately prevent certain groups of people from accessing resources: making some materials only available to managers, sales teams or subject matter experts. If there is no commercial sensitivity, why are we so obsessed with hiding our knowledge away and building a gate at the entrance to the street?
If someone working in advertising wants to learn about leadership, why not let them? It’s just possible that they’ll bring a different perspective from you or me and make a leap forward that would forever be beyond us. Our different backgrounds and interests, alongside a healthy curiosity, can deliver unexpected results.
The command and control attitude that hides so much knowledge away is the antithesis of innovation and creativity: two things modern businesses need. We cannot mitigate for innovation purely by putting process in place, it relies on unintended leaps of imagination. It’s the spark that lets us create something new, and that spark is ignited by mixing things up, by wandering the streets of knowledge until something catches.
So i have spent my first two weeks in Amsterdam largely lost at a micro scale, but building a strong sense of location at the macro. From my apartment, i have now ventured north, south, east and west. I can reliably find my way to the museums, the stations, various cafes and eateries, but i can also do so by multiple paths, some of them mainstream, some obscure. I still frequently find myself ninety degrees out, unexpectedly emerging somewhere i know but didn’t expect, but i enjoy these forays just as much.
Organisations need to allow a certain amount of wandering around the corridors, through the accumulated knowledge, we need to mix things up a bit, create cross channel communities and be unafraid to cross boundaries. Creativity is a fire that needs fuel: relationships, knowledge, technologies, resources, we have to feed it to feel the heat.
We should welcome the curious, encourage adventure and introduce just a little uncertainty into the process of learning. You never know what it will turn up.