The other day, I was watching Inc.'s very own Issie Lapowsky's Malcolm Gladwell interview. They were discussing Gladwell's most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, when the topic of "Desirable Difficulties" was brought up in their conversation.
As the theory goes, introducing certain difficulties into the learning process can greatly improve long-term retention of the learned material and helps one to develop other complementary skills needed to succeed. For example, Gladwell pointed out that many great business leaders (including Steve Jobs of Apple; Ingvar Kamprad of Ikea; and Bill Hewlett of Hewlett Packard) suffered from dyslexia. He suggested that, as a result, these people developed other skills that enabled their great personal success. They learned to listen, delegate, negotiate and build teams in order to get things done.
This got me thinking, " Can we apply this same theory to an organization?" Indeed, can a business improve its institutional knowledge (and, therefore, become more successful over time) through the introduction of "desirable difficulties"?
Upon some lengthy consideration, I landed on my response. It is a resounding, "No!"
While the introduction of "desirable difficulties" may help an individual with information retention, it can disrupt a business entity that has no inherent capacity to seek out alternative means to success. Therefore, it is through the elimination of "undesirable difficulties" that businesses can drive growth and success.
Consider the impact that these common organizational difficulties may have on your business and you'll better understand how I landed where I did:
Substandard wages. You can't attract and retain the best and brightest, if you're unwilling to pay for the best. Substandard or unequal pay will not only limit your ability to compete for resources, it can materially impact the quality of the products and services that you offer as sub-par wages often deliver sub-par performance.
Minimal advancement opportunities. In the past, I've written on the importance of ambition in selecting talent. If you can't provide a career path that is appealing to ambitious job seekers, you'll end up with mediocre talent, at best.
Second-rate equipment, tools and facilities. Failure looms large on the horizon, if you can't provide an environment and working conditions that enable success and achievement. A properly fitted physical plant is needed to drive performance and encourage your people to work to their highest capability.
Uninspiring supervision and limited training. Creating a culture that lacks outstanding leadership and management will crater even the best business idea. Provide little or no training and you're dooming your people to frustration and burn-out. This (un)desirable difficulty must be avoided at all costs!
Lack of recognition and appreciation. Neglect your people and you'll strip them of any sense of company pride. Withhold recognition for their outstanding performance and you'll wipe out all sense of pride in their work.
To close, it was Nietzche in 1888 who suggested "that which does not kill us makes us stronger." Who am I to argue? By applying the theory of "desirable difficulties", we may encourage an individual to put in a greater effort to understand new material than they would normally devote, leading to their greater learning and retention. However, as the examples outlined above suggest, the theory does not apply to organizations where difficulties must be eliminated so to pave the way to unbridled success.
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