Édition #5

Cultivating “fly behaviour” in the younger generations

Maximilien BRABEC Corporate strategy and innovation practitioner and ESCP professor

Developing the younger generations’ ability for curiosity to increase a company’s capacity for innovation tenfold and put some magic back in our social attractiveness.

A former Nobel Prize winner¹ told us about an experiment that should interest companies: if you put a transparent jug with its spout facing the light and put bees and then flies inside it, the bees will immediately leave the jug by going towards the light, whereas the flies take longer because they don’t know that they have to go towards the light to get out. If you turn the jug the other way (with the base facing the light) and put the bees and flies back inside, the bees still go towards the light thinking that this is the way out. They all die from trying to get through the bottom of the jug, whereas all the flies escape through the neck in less than two minutes. This is “fly behaviour”.

WHAT DOES FLY-ATTITUDE OR “BEHAVING LIKE A FLY” TEACH COMPANIES?

The light embodies what we think we know and which has become obvious to us, or if you prefer, the “Current” model – referred to as “the A model” – on which the company’s development is based. The rotation of the jug corresponds to the discontinuities in our environment, such as: the planet, which can no longer cope with what we are doing to it; the explosion of data which is opening up new possibilities, particularly with AI (Artificial Intelligence); our relationship to work and the company, which is being turned upside down, or even the end of globalisation?

Stephen Hawking² testified in 1984 that the primary enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge, like bees who know that they must go towards the light to get out, even when this is no longer true. A study³ shows that this applies to every human being and to the collective intelligence of every company: the accumulation of illusions of knowledge unconsciously impairs our collective vision.

Consequently, as the jug turns, we seek to serve what we think we know, adapting our A to the changes in our environment towards an A’, then A”, thus inducing several collective biases:

1. Like the bees who did not realize that the jug had been turned round, we are unaware of discontinuities and even less so if the effects are slight or are disparaged.
2. As long as we have not behaved like flies, we cannot get away from our illusions of knowledge.
3. When the discontinuities become increasingly detrimental to our business, we rely more and more on our A, to reassure ourselves through A’. However, as a famous Airbus pilot4 who lost the use of his engines just after take-off suggests, we must be wary of obvious A solutions: he landed the plane on the Hudson River using a B solution that was forbidden but which saved all the passengers!
4. To adapt our A to the discontinuities is to suffer their progressively harmful effects which becomes anxietyprovoking for our whole group.

On the other hand, we can surf with the rotations in a “desirogenic” posture (editor’s note: by analogy with anxiogenic) so that, instead of being subjected to the jug’s rotations, we use them to create value.

All discontinuities have infinite potential for the creation of new value, provided we are equipped with a B. Just look at the fact that, over the last 20 years, B changes in strategy have been introduced by new input, despite significant investment by established players wanting to innovate (towards A’?). The most recent example is ChatGPT against the Metaverse, which is reported to have caused a $43 billion black hole5 for Meta.

“The accumulation of illusions of knowledge unconsciously impairs our collective vision.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF COHERENCE BETWEEN DISCOURSE AND ACTION FOR THE YOUNGER GENERATIONS

I sometimes bump into former students with whom we worked on innovation and strategy. They often tell me that the company they work for has announced a new B transformation which, according to my students, is actually an A’ when faced with turns of the jug that require turning towards a B. When I ask them why they did not react, they reply that it would not have had any effect, or that they do not want to make waves and are thinking of taking a B elsewhere.

Let us imagine that this behaviour is general after a company announces its B, which is actually more like an A’: the managers might think that everyone believes in the B, leading them to believe even more strongly that their A’ is a real B. We must not underestimate the risk of this type of generalization within your company, if only by considering the turn to a B that plane Earth’s current situation requires: can we continue to consider the economy, our historical A priority, while relegating environmental issues to the status of mere constraints at the service of the economy? When young people join a company whose actions put the financial aspect first, some may be shocked and for others it makes no sense (even if was the A direction in past decades).

As you read these comments, you may be thinking that we cannot do without economics, and you are right: however, we can no longer consider the economy as an end in itself, but rather as a constraint AND the result6 of a new environmental value B.

Recently, large consumer companies have reduced their product quantity without changing the size of the packaging or the price7. This reflects an economic practice first and foremost, which shows some disdain for the consumer and is an ecological aberration. If these companies claim in their vision statement that they are seeking to better serve their customers and environmental issues, their employees will be stunned by the inconsistency between what they say and what they do.

A study8 shows that the greater the gap between what we say and what we do, the greater the impression of hypocrisy that spreads internally. It has also been proven9 that company loyalty and employee
performance are correlated with their feeling of trust in their company and their manager. It is therefore necessary to proceed as follows:


Narrowing this gap is becoming essential for the new generations: it means announcing far fewer things in order to do them far better. To manage an effective reduction in this gap, an associated indicator is needed, called a “gapmeter” that is fed by surveys.

HOW CAN WE DEVELOP OUR COLLECTIVE CURIOSITY?

Basically, newcomers to an organisation are more likely to behave like flies because they are not yet influenced by collective beliefs. Like a young child, they are constantly asking “why?”. However, a new employee already loses 20% of this propensity to question after just 6 months with a company¹0. I am sure you will agree that, even if asking a new employee to draw up a “fresh eyes” report after 6 months is a first step, it is not sufficient to cultivate this aptitude: we need to set up a collective programme to develop this capacity for curiosity.

“Fundamentally, newcomers to an organisation are more likely to behave like flies because they are not yet influenced by the collective beliefs.”

During this process, new recruits are given value by involving the rest of the team, including managers and executives, in a collective “curiosity” machine. Ask yourself how many times you have heard your team asking “why?”. If this figure is falling, then your curiosity is waning. It is a good idea to set up a second indicator, a “whymeter”, which can be used to manage the increase in the number of whys (AI knows how to do this).
Another reason for encouraging “whys” is the fact that young people are no longer fully exploiting their potential for curiosity, because of assisted curiosity¹¹, produced unbeknownst to them by the apps on their smartphones.

LET THE YOUNGER GENERATIONS BE THE DRIVING FORCE BEHIND THEIR OWN ACTS OF CURIOSITY

There are 2 fundamental approaches for developing the wonder machine, which need to be iterated and combined continually, with young people in particular as the players and catalysts of this dynamic:

1. Experiment with “Fresh Eyes” feedback: the only way¹² to purge our false beliefs consists of experimenting with all kinds of hypotheses that dissent from our A, provided that we strictly establish what we think we are going to get, our “Expectations”, so that we can confront these with the “Unexpecteds” that we obtain afterwards. These experiments must cost 1,000 times less than a standard experiment, or proof of concept, in order to carry out 1,000 times more of them in a changing world.

2. Undertake “Fresh Eyes” expeditions: this is about seizing subjects that are not obvious in relation to our A and proposing them to our group. Each person takes charge of their own journey on one of these subjects, looking with fresh eyes along the way: grasping everything we did not know that we did not know (Confucius). This is followed by a stage of compiling the “fresh eyes” feedback, which reveals new possibilities. Jules Verne was able to write the story of Apollo 11 125 years ahead of time, not because he was a visionary, but because he liked to indulge in fly behaviour: going to meet the astrophysicists of the time to be amazed by their work.

This second approach is different from “learning expeditions”: it goes far beyond management teams, involving each individual as a player in their own exploration; each individual has a responsibility to the group for seizing and rigorously documenting all the amazing things they encounter along the way.
Here are the benefits¹³ of developing this kind of fly behaviour in your group, particularly with the younger generations:
»More innovation and beneficial change.
»Freer communication and less conflict.
»Better collective performance.
»Fewer errors in decision-making.

TO CONCLUDE

Any company collective can become visionary and equip itself with a B that can surf the waves of change, particularly if it uses the invaluable skills of young people, provided that they have confidence in the company and their manager, and that they actively participate in a recurring and exciting programme of “fly behaviour”. This is more likely to attract them and results in greater commitment on their part.


1 Maurice Maeterlink, winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize for Literature, from his book The Life of the Bee.
2 A famous theoretical physicist who received many awards for his work.
3 MIT M Halassa – Prefontal Cortex Regulates Sensory Filtering, MIT, 2019.
4 Chesley Sullenberger – Vol US Airways 1549, January 2019.
5 Les Echos, July 2023 – Zuckerberg’s metaverse, a $43B black hole.
6 Harvard Bus study showing that more eco-innovative companies are more profitable – The performance frontier.
7 Shrinkflation process.
8 Journal of Business Ethics, 2022 – When Aspirational Talk Backfires: The Role of Moral Judgements in Employees’ Hypocrisy Interpretation.
9 Frontiers in Psychology, janvier 2021 – The Neuroscience of Organizational Trust and Business Performance: Findings From United States Working Adults and an Intervention at an Online Retailer.
10 Harvard Business Review, 2018 – Spotlight on curiosity
11 See the revelations in the book The attention economy : understanding the new currency of business – Thomas H. Davenport, John C. Beck – September 2002
12 M Halassa MIT, 2019 – Prefontal Cortex Regulates Sensory Filtering
13 Harvard Business Review, 2018 – Spotlight on curiosity

Maximilien BRABEC
Maximilien BRABEC
Maximilien has been working with businesses on strategy and innovation for over 20 years and is convinced that, as our environment is changing, businesses need to reinvent themselves rather than simply adapting.
He has drawn on feedback and the findings of recent studies to develop and implement new approaches to strategy and innovation along these lines, as a professor at ESCP, through various award-winning books, in Harvard articles and as a BPI and APM (Management Progress Association) expert.