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Am I alone? I confess any connection between Albert Einstein and the role of a CEO had totally escaped me. But then I heard the boss of a leading UK company say this in an interview on BBC News:

"We find we're not very good at predicting the future. So, what we tend to focus on are what are the things we don't think are going to change.

"Customers care about: do you have the right products? [am I] going to get them at a great price? and can I get them in a convenient way?"

He was responding to a question about how to cope with rapidly changing developments in IT and his thinking seemed thoroughly grounded and thought-through. In essence he was saying, don’t be distracted or intimidated by what’s dazzling and new; be guided by what’s dependably, fundamentally certain.

But seeing beneath appearances that can be misleading to focus on what doesn’t change is what mathematicians and physicists call seeking symmetry or invariance. A planet and a ping-pong ball, for example, appear to be massively different things but some of the fundamental ‘laws’ describing their motion turn out to be identical.

In 1905 Einstein began a revolution in physics by thinking about a wonderful invariance: the speed of light. It doesn’t matter whether a light source is moving away from you or towards you, the speed at which the light comes to you is always the same. Because this is so, despite what common sense would suggest, time and space are not fixed but relative. Both change in very weird ways at very high speeds.

Attention to this invariance proved very successful in physics in at least three ways:

  1. First, it enabled scientists to account for what till then had been inexplicable (the motion of the planet Mercury).
  2. Secondly, it pointed to the existence of things no one had ever dreamt of (gravitational waves) and
  3. Thirdly it helped us invent things (satellite communications).

True, giant leaps in understanding like these make comparison with the way organisations work sound a bit far-fetched. But beneath the unreliable appearances there are points in common. The business symmetries quoted above are robust. Try reversing them and imagining how well an organisation would succeed if it focused on the wrong products at an extravagant price and made them inconvenient to obtain – irrespective of its particular business.

And these business symmetries function well in deciding how to develop the business, in sifting competing initiatives, in being sure choices are based on fundamental priorities rather than on superficially attractive opportunities. They act like sentries at the CEO’s office door whose perennial challenge is, ‘Great solution! Now how does this further our fundamental business priorities?’

In the world of Further Education, attention to fundamental symmetries would make any college principal think carefully about the wisdom of pursuing attractively funded initiatives or adopting Government advice or requirements without first thinking through whether or how they fit with the college’s mission.

And they don’t just help with deciding strategy. By keeping the college’s invariant purpose constantly present in everyone’s minds, a college principal can motivate staff and unleash their creativity. It means the organisation’s development doesn’t just depend on the whims or insights of one individual at the top; everyone, everyone can feel they’re directly connected to the great values, the great purpose that drives the corporate endeavour and anyone, anyone can come up with suggestions that will assist it.

So, there’s a degree of humility in that answer the CEO gave the journalist. The role is not about the exercise of personal power but about identifying and harnessing the enormous potential stored in an organisation’s fundamental purpose.

Not too dissimilar perhaps from the scientist’s humility. As Richard Feynman memorably said: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations (and human egos, we might add), for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

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