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Could you have saved Rotterdam from destruction?

Posted to Gurteen Knowledge-Log by David Gurteen on 27 February 2019



Could you have saved Rotterdam from destruction?
WeblogGurteen Knowledge Log
Knowledge LetterAppears in the Gurteen Knowledge Letter issue: 224
Posted DateWednesday 27 February 2019 12:05 GMT
Posted ByDavid Gurteen

I recently wrote a post in my blook Knowledge is not power. This little hypothetical story by Arie de Geus from his1999 book The Living Company:Growth sums up the concept in an intriguing manner.

Imagine that it is 1920 and you have somehow been granted absolute power to predict the future. You happen to visit the mayor of Rotterdam and, during that time, you describe in vivid detail what is going to happen to his town over the next 25 years.

Thus, in an otherwise perfectly normal working day, the mayor hears about the advent of the Weimar Republic, hyperinflation, the 1929 stock exchange crash, the Great Depression that followed, the rise of Nazism in Germany with its (for Rotterdam) damaging economic policy of autarchy, the outbreak of the second world war, the carpet bombing of the town's city centre and, finally, the systematic destruction of the town's port installation during the calamitous winter of 1945.

The mayor listens to this information placidly. He gives every sign of believing you. And then he asks, “If you were in my shoes, hearing all of this, amid all the other opinions and facts that reach me during the course of my day, what would you reasonably expect me to do about this information?“

What is it reasonable to expect the mayor to do? When I ask this question in discussion groups, we always reach the same answer: there is nothing the mayor can be expected to do. Even if he gives your prediction a higher degree of credibility than most of the other information which reached him, he would have neither the courage nor the powers of persuasion to take the far-reaching decision that is required by such a prediction.

The future cannot be predicted. But, even if it could, we would not dare to act on the prediction.

Now suppose a time traveller returned to the present day from 2120 and told us in graphic detail what was to become of the world as a consequence of global warming. We already have a pretty good idea of the consequences but now we know for sure. Would it make any difference whatsoever?

Even with perfect knowledge. Even if we could accurately predict the future, more often than not, we do not have the ability to act on that knowledge.

Knowledge is not power. The self-motivation and the ability to act on knowledge and to influence and work with people (especially those in authority) is power.

How do we each improve our agency to act? This is the question that consumes my thinking right now.

If you are interested in Knowledge Management, the Knowledge Café or the role of conversation in organizational life then you my be interested in this online book I am writing on Conversational Leadership
David Gurteen

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