Here’s a superb thought experiment for you and your team. What if everything you think you know is wrong?

Just in case you think this is too big a thought experiment, let me tell you about an event that is shaking the scientific community – and quite possibly the world as we know it.

Scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN have discovered something that could change everything. They have discovered a particle that looks as if it might move at faster than the speed of light. If you know anything about science, you’ll probably know that “nothing moves faster than the speed of light”. But maybe that’s not true. You can read an article about this here. The world’s most expensive and ambitious science experiment has come up with the possibility that neutrinos move faster than light.

The scientific community has reacted with scepticism and disbelief. And the race is now on to prove the experiment wrong. It would astounding if it turns out to be true. Much of the basis of modern science would be called into question.

While it’s not certain yet, it is a glorious thought experiment, isn’t it? And a bit ironic, too. When Einstein’s theories first reached his colleagues, there was general outcry – how could it be? The simple headline was that time was not time. It changed, and could be “faster” or “slower” under certain circumstances. Only light was constant in the speed it moved (OK, that’s too simple a summary, but it will do for this blog entry).

So, how should scientists respond to this new news? Should they rabidly decry it, ignore it, disbelieve it? That’s the great thing about science. Even though some scientists are dubious about the experiment, they still give space for it to be discussed. They might spend every hour of every day for a few months trying to disprove it, but at least they allow the idea to have some life (see here for a recent suggestion by an Italian team that one of the parts of the original experiment is flawed).

One of the reasons for this is that science knows for sure that it doesn’t have the final answers yet. In fact, we know for sure that something about current scientific theories is wrong (or at least, incomplete). There are a few key theories that explain different parts of the universe, but they don’t connect with each other. Worse – they even appear to contradict each other. We don’t even know how light really works, for example, with it acting as both a wave and a particle at the same time. That’s why some of the world’s leading scientists are spending much of their time trying to find “the grand unifying theory of everything”.

It might just help them to tear up the texbook, and start from a point where everything we thought we knew for sure is open for discussion and reinvention. And that’s the thought experiment.

Now, what if you and your team start 2012 with a few hours in that thought space? What if everything you know about [marketing / talent management / leadership / productivity / sales / investment / facilities management / add your business function here] is wrong?

I know it probably isn’t. But what if it was?

We live in a time of tremendous change. It’s not just that the world is changing quickly or significantly, but that the trajectory of change remains so uncertain that’s causing stress. Has there been a time in recent history when the future was as uncertain as it is now? In this time of disruptive change, what if some of the rules of success and failure are actually changing? I am sure that they won’t ALL change. But if some of them are changing, how can you be sure which ones are?

The music industry, Netflix, the pharmaceutical industry, the death of Steve Jobs and changes this will bring to Apple, newspapers (especially tabloids in Britain), the Republican presidential nomination circus, the demise of Woolworths, Borders, American Airlines (not gone, but hurting), the American car industry… I could go on with a list that extends a long way down your screen. All are examples of companies or industries where the rules have been rewritten in just the past few months.

Structural change is a new reality. But it’s a reality that’s going to be with us for some time.

Different times require a different script. New rules need new thinking.

So maybe it’s not so crazy after all to tear up the book and ask, “what if everything we know about our business is wrong, and what would we do about it?”

All the best for 2012, and the thought experiments that will get you through it successfully.

Let me know what thought experiments you will investigate with your team. I’d love to hear stories from your industry and function.

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