Genevieve Bell on the Value of Humanities in an Executive Role

Genevieve Bell

Genevieve Bell, is perhaps the most powerful and influential social scientist in the tech industry. Speaking to Christian Madsbjerg in an excerpt from The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems, she says something quite profound on executive management and cognitive dissonance.

I’ve been really struck by what it takes to be an executive at a company like Intel. Increasingly, much like in my own training in the social sciences, it requires holding these multiple competing realities in one’s head at the same time. An executive has to be able to hold the reality of what the company needs to be now with what it needs to be ten years from now, and these concepts are often at odds with one another. You also have to hold the realities of different markets in your head that have completely different formulations of success. In the US, you have to think about miles per gallon and environmentally sensitive processes, and in China you just have to go really fast. For Intel executives from a culture of engineering, this is really hard. They are taught to think that dissonance should be resolved in the design: “There is one answer, and we have to get it right.”

And a few sentences later she explained how we lose track of what’s important to our customer. “Moore’s Law stated that semiconductors were going to get smaller,” Bell explained, “but it didn’t tell us anything about what people were going to do with them or why a consumer should be interested. It started to become increasingly clear to all of us that consumers just didn’t care about the same things that we cared about. They weren’t necessarily engaged in our narrative.”

While not a silver bullet, one thing I see more and more through my engagements with companies is the value of humanities. Humanities offer a different perspective on the same problems, often with different (and better) results, they bring a better sense of people and their behaviours. When you’re solving difficult problems you want cognitive diversity.

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