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Growing Into Growth

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Emotions,Exploration,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Opportunity,Potential,Uncategorized

I need help. I’m struggling with words. I’m trying to capture what excites me and motivates me to start a new chapter in my life.

Here’s the challenge: the word I am drawn to has received a very mixed reaction at best, and often a very negative reaction. What’s that word? It’s “growth.”

Growth has always excited me. I’ve come to believe that we humans have unlimited potential for growth – it’s why I cringe when I hear the phrase: “achieve my full potential.” I don’t believe anyone can achieve their “full potential” – no matter how much of our potential we achieve, there’s always more potential waiting to be drawn out. That’s why I keep saying that we’re not “human beings,” we’re “human becomings.”

Of course, growth has many different meanings. For many, growth tends to focus on physical size – whether of the body, a community or an economy. The desire is to find something that’s easy to measure, and that leads to an emphasis on physical entities – people and products.

For me, growth has a different meaning. It focuses first of all on growth of insight into the world around us. But it doesn’t stop there. Growth of insight has little value until and unless it is translated into growth of impact that is meaningful. That requires action, but it shifts the focus from the action itself to the impact achieved and how meaningful that impact is, both for those who are taking action and those who are benefiting from the action.

Why growth has a bad reputation

So, why does growth seem to have such a bad reputation? There are many reasons, but I believe that it stems from a zero-sum view of growth. In this view, one person’s growth can only occur at the expense of others. If you win, I lose.

How does that work? Well, let’s start with environmental impact. For many reasons, we have embraced a view of economic growth over the past couple of centuries that has led to serious damage of our global ecosystem, including pollution of water, the growth of carbon emissions and pollution of our atmosphere. While many have benefited from this economic growth, even more have suffered from its adverse effects.

Another force at work involves our shrinking time horizons when we pursue growth that is narrowly focused on material goods. We’re not focused on long-term economic growth; we’re focused on short-term material gains. If we’re focused narrowly on material goods in the very short-term, the quantity of goods is fixed – the only question is who will acquire them – you or me? Once again, while some will benefit from economic growth, it will be at the expense of others.

What’s the alternative?

As growth has acquired a bad reputation, many people have rallied around a number of other words – sustainability, regeneration, circular economy, and resilience are perhaps some of the most prominent ones.

What strikes me about all of these alternatives is their focus on holding on to what we have, or what we had. Take sustainability – we want to sustain what we have. Or regeneration – we want to generate what we once had. Or the circular economy – it’s all about re-using what we have. Resilience has many different meanings, but the one I hear most frequently is the desire to be able to “bounce back” to where we once were before some disruption happened.

While they tend to focus on somewhat different elements, they all share a static view of the world in the sense that the resources we have are a given and the question is how to re-use them so that we preserve what we have, or regenerate what we had, and reduce damage to others.

While the aspiration to avoid environmental damage and waste is certainly something we should all embrace, these alternatives strike me as inherently limiting. Is that all there is? Don’t we have the potential to create much greater meaningful and positive impact with far fewer resources over time?

Maybe there’s another perspective

What if we move from a zero-sum view of the world to a positive-sum view of the world? What if we believed that opportunity has the potential to expand for everyone, not just for a privileged few? And what if we believed that expanding opportunity generates even greater opportunity for everyone? What would that require?

First, it would require us to take a longer-term view of the world. Rather than just focusing on the short-term, we would need to look ahead and imagine how our ability to achieve greater positive impact can increase over time.

Second, we would also need to take a broader view of the world. Rather than just focusing narrowly on how to increase our own well-being, we would need to recognize that by increasing the well-being of others we can set into motion an increasing returns dynamic where everyone would achieve more and more of their potential and the well-being of all of us would expand significantly.

Third, we would need to deepen our view of impact. Rather than focusing just on material goods as a metric for growth, we would need to see that our greatest impact can come from motivating others to achieve more of their potential. The growth of others will help all of us to accelerate our own growth. This unleashes a powerful network effects dynamic where the more people who are motivated to achieve more of their potential, the more everyone will be motivated to achieve more of their potential.

Finally, we would need to focus on emotions as a key driver of motivation. If we’re driven by fear, we tend to narrow our focus to ourselves in the short-term. If we can cultivate hope and excitement, we can begin to see more opportunity for all, not just for ourselves. This, of course, is the theme of my new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, that will be published next month by McGraw Hill. I’ve come to believe that our emotions are shaping how our world is evolving and that there is a need to cultivate emotions that will help us to move forward in spite of the fear that is consuming more and more of us.

Back to growth

If we adopt a positive sum view of the world, now growth begins to become more attractive. The more any of us grow, the more all of us will be able to grow. And the potential for more growth becomes unlimited for two reasons.

First, as I’ve already indicated, we all have unlimited potential, so none of us will ever achieve our full potential in terms of delivering meaningful impact to those around us. Second, we live in a world of exponential improvement in technology performance that can help us to amplify our impact in ways that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago.

Growth focuses on the actions we’ll need to take and the impact we’ll need to achieve to help us to evolve flourishing societies and ecosystems. A key element of these flourishing societies and ecosystems is that they will continue to provide opportunity for all of us to increase our impact over time, while at the same time minimizing, and ultimately eliminating, any damage and waste that might occur as a by-product of growth.

This is why I’m reluctant to abandon growth as the way of framing the opportunity for all of us. What am I missing? Is there a better word to describe the opportunity ahead? I’m open to any and all suggestions.

And, just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that this opportunity will be an easy one to address. There will be many obstacles and challenges along the way. At a personal level, we need to find ways to move beyond the fear that consumes more and more of us and limits our potential for impact. We’ll need to cultivate emotions that will motivate us to take bold action and significantly increase our potential for impact. At a broader, social level, we need to focus on transforming our institutions and our societies so that they create environments that will help us to move beyond fear and provide us with the tools we’ll need to significantly increase our impact in ways that support a thriving global ecosystem and society. It will be a challenging journey, but a journey very much worth pursuing.

Bottom line

I’m seeking help in choosing the right word to frame the opportunity ahead. I’m attracted to “growth” because it highlights a dynamic and expanding opportunity that, if pursued in the right way, will lead to expanding opportunity for all. But, I also understand, that it can lead to some very negative reactions. I’m just not sure I can find a better word. Any and all suggestions are welcome. It will become the “north star” that will frame my efforts on the journey ahead.


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The Untapped Potential of Personal Narrative

Category:Collaboration,Emotions,Exploration,Learning,Narratives,Opportunity,Potential

We all have a personal narrative. For some of us, it is liberating and energizing, but for most of us, it is limiting and draining. The good news is that we all have ability to evolve our personal narrative to make it more fulfilling, if we choose to make the effort.

I’ve written about personal narrative before, including here and here, and it is a key theme in my new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, that will be coming out in a couple of months. For those who have not been following me, I should clarify that I have a very different view of personal narrative than most psychologists.

For psychologists, personal narrative involves looking back over our lives and crafting a story of the choices we made that brought us to where we are today. For me, personal narratives have two key components: our view of the future and our call to action to others.

When we look out into the future, are we focusing more on threat or opportunity? That view of the future will play a key role in shaping our emotions and actions today. Also, as we seek to address the threat or opportunity out in the future, are we asking for help from others or are we trying to go it alone?

We all have a personal narrative that’s driving us forward, but few of us have made the effort to make that personal narrative explicit, much less reflect on how well it might be serving our needs and potential for impact. That effort can be very rewarding, especially if we use it as a catalyst to evolve our narrative so that we are motivated to have much greater impact that is meaningful to us and can motivate others to join us in that effort.

Opportunities for evolution

Our personal narratives can evolve on multiple dimensions. Let’s start with our view of the future. In a world of mounting performance pressure, more and more of us have adopted a dystopian view of the future where threats are everywhere. The world is coming to an end, our societies our crumbling and our personal lives are more and more vulnerable to disruption.

While certainly understandable, that view of the future feeds our fear and makes us more risk averse and we become even more vulnerable to mounting performance pressure.

But there is an alternative view of the future. The same forces that are creating mounting performance pressure are also creating exponentially expanding opportunity – we can have far more impact, with far less resources and far more quickly than ever before. We need to make the effort to see those opportunities and to search for the opportunity that excites us the most.

If our view of the future is shaped by a really inspiring opportunity, we will begin to draw out emotions of hope and excitement that will motivate us to move boldly forward. We’ll find ourselves having much more meaningful impact and we’ll be driven to learn how to have even more impact in addressing this opportunity over time.

But there’s more. If we can focus on an opportunity in the future that really excites us, it increases our desire and ability to motivate others to join us in the quest to address this opportunity. Truth be told, most of us are pursuing personal narratives today that don’t provide a call to action for others to join us. Personal narratives that focus on a threat in the future tend to isolate us. As fear takes hold, we find it harder to trust others and we are more inclined to try to move forward on our own. That sense of isolation further intensifies the fear.

On the other hand, if we’ve found a really exciting opportunity out in the future, we can become very motivated to ask for help from others and, if the opportunity is appropriately framed, it can motivate many to invest time and effort in addressing the opportunity. This helps us to get significant leverage and have far more impact than if we try to do it all by ourselves. If it’s a big opportunity that will take years to achieve, it can also help us to build long-term, trust-based relationships that will play a significant role in overcoming our fear.

Challenges of evolution

When I talk about evolution of personal narrative, many people interpret this as writing up a new, and more fulfilling, narrative based on reflection of their existing narrative. I wish it were that easy. In my experience, personal narratives can’t evolve just by thinking and writing. They need to evolve through action – and it’s not just a one-time evolution, but a continual process of evolution shaped by actions taken and reflection on the impact achieved through action.

As we begin to focus on an opportunity in the future, we need to test and refine that opportunity through action now. We need to identify and pursue actions in the short-term (ideally weeks or a few months) that have potential to address that opportunity. As we pursue these actions, we need to reflect on whether those actions are generating the level of excitement we anticipated and whether they are helping us to make progress towards achieving the opportunity. If not, we need to either evolve our view of the opportunity that would be most exciting to us or our view of the actions that would have the greatest impact in making progress.

We also need to start reaching out to those we think could be most helpful with a call for them to join us in our quest to address the opportunity we’ve identified. Are they really investing the time and effort required to address the opportunity? Are they achieving real impact from their efforts?

If not, we need to further evolve our personal narrative. Is the opportunity we’ve identified big enough to motivate others to participate? Have we identified the right people to address the opportunity ahead? Can we frame the call to action in a way that would help them (and us) to achieve greater impact?

Our personal narratives are capable of, and require, continual evolution if we are going to achieve the impact that is most meaningful to us. There is always the potential to achieve more. In fact, if we’re truly excited about the opportunity we are identifying, we will be constantly seeking ways to have greater impact.

Effective personal narratives will trigger a learning mindset. We’ll be excited by the opportunity to have more and more impact over time. And we’ll realize that the most effective way to learn is through action, not just sitting in a chair and thinking about it.

And, it’s not just learning through action – it’s learning through action together with others. No matter how smart we are as individuals, we’ll learn a lot faster if we can come together with others who share our excitement about the opportunity we’ve identified. That’s why it’s so important to have a call to action to others that excites and motivates others to come together and constantly seek to increase impact.

Bottom line

Our personal narratives have untapped potential, no matter how well framed they are today. If we’re going to unleash more and more of that potential, we need to commit to continually evolve our personal narratives by acting together with others in ways that help us to learn faster.


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Support AND Challenge

Category:Collaboration,Connections,Emotions,Learning,Narratives,Opportunity,Passion,Trust

 

In our world of growing pressure, the question increasingly becomes: are you going to support me or are you going to challenge me? Which is it? Well, my answer is that it’s both – it has to be both.

In our Big Shift world, we need to come together in order to move from mounting performance pressure to exponentially expanding opportunity. But, let me hasten to add, that coming together doesn’t just mean to support each other. We’ll also need to find ways to challenge each other – deeply and continuously.

We all need support

In these difficult times, we hear a lot about the need to collaborate, whether it’s coming together in small teams or building broader networks of collaboration to access a diverse set of expertise and resources. While the calls for collaboration differ a lot in their focus, most of them seem to emphasizie the need to come together to support each other.

This is essential in our challenging world. If we continue to try to do it all by ourselves, we’ll find ourselves increasingly isolated and vulnerable to fear as we become overwhelmed by the challenges ahead. No matter how smart any of us are, we’ll learn a lot faster if we come together, especially if we come together with others who bring diverse expertise and backgrounds to the situation at hand.

We can all use the support of others. But it’s not just about ideas and expertise. It’s about emotions. These are scary times. We crave the emotional support of others, especially when we run into unexpected roadblocks or failures along the way. We need others to be there for us and reassure us that our efforts are not in vain and we should not give in to the fear that we’ll sink when we’re trying to swim in choppy waters.

Challenging to support

So, support becomes essential to avoid surrender and provide us with the motivation to continue swimming. But, support alone isn’t enough. If we’re going to move beyond mounting performance pressure and finally find ways to harness exponentially expanding opportunity, we also need to be challenged. We need others to constantly challenge us to aim higher and expand the impact that we are seeking.

But, wait a minute – isn’t challenging the opposite of support? If you’re challenging someone, aren’t you trying to put them down?

Well, here’s the paradox. Successful collaboration in the Big Shift world requires both support and challenge. In fact, the most powerful way to support someone in this rapidly changing world is to challenge them to achieve even greater impact. If we’re not constantly seeking to accelerate our performance improvement, we’ll quickly find ourselves marginalized and certainly not in a position to target exponentially expanding opportunity.

But challenging in the context of collaboration isn’t easy. It requires a shared commitment to achieve growing impact in an area of significant opportunity. If all the participants share that commitment, they won’t just welcome challenges, they’ll seek them out. They’ll recognize that challenges to existing approaches will help them to develop new approaches that can deliver even more impact. They’ll realize that they’re not being challenged to be put down, but instead because others are excited, as they are, about the potential for even more impact.

In my research, I’ve identified this kind of challenging to achieve better and better outcomes as productive friction. In the scalable efficiency institutions that dominate our world today, friction is viewed as bad. We need to eliminate it wherever it surfaces so that we can perform our activities faster and cheaper. In the Big Shift world, friction in the form of challenging each other is not only OK, it’s essential to accelerate performance improvement. But the friction has to be productive and that requires mutual respect, shaped by a shared commitment to achieve better and better outcomes.

The broader context

So, what’s required to build that kind of shared commitment? Well, those who have been following me know my answer – the passion of the explorer. It’s a very specific form of passion that I’ve identified in my research and written about extensively, including here and here.

People who have this kind of passion are committed to achieving increasing impact in a specific domain that is usually fairly broadly defined, like wellness, manufacturing or gardening. No matter how successful they have been in the past in their chosen domain, people with this passion are driven to find ways to achieve even greater impact. They are constantly asking for help from others as they try to take their impact to the next level and they are excited by challenges.

And, how does one cultivate this passion of the explorer? There are many paths to this form of passion but one powerful catalyst is a specific form of narrative – opportunity-based narratives. Once again, I’ve written about this extensively, including here and here. I draw an important distinction between stories and narratives. From my perspective, opportunity-based narratives are about a big and inspiring opportunity out in the future that will only be achieved if people come together and act together to address the opportunity – it’s a powerful call to action.

People who are inspired by the opportunity will often find the passion of the explorer surfacing within them. They will be inspired to come together and support and challenge each other to achieve greater impact in their efforts to address the opportunity.

Coming together to accelerate learning

People who develop this form of passion tend to come together in small groups – I call them impact groups. These groups usually have somewhere between 3-15 participants. They find that, if the groups grow any larger, the deep, trust-based relationships required to learn faster together begin to weaken. As the number of participants expands, they will spin out other impact groups.

These impact groups are focused on action and impact; they’re not just discussion groups talking about ideas. They’re relentlessly focused on taking action and then assessing the impact that has been achieved from that action. Their goal is learn together through action so that they can have more and more impact over time.

It’s within this context that participants both support and challenge each other. They recognize that they are venturing out into new frontiers that have not yet been explored and that there are lot of risks along the way. They’re there for each other when someone stumbles along the way. But they’re also constantly seeking a better approach to make even more progress towards the bigger opportunity ahead. They are challenging each other to find a better way.

Scaling impact

When I talk about impact groups, people often become concerned that the potential for impact becomes very limited because each group must remain relatively small in terms of the number of participants. While understandable, that concern is not warranted. Impact groups can connect with each other into broader networks that enable more and more participants to reach out and learn from each other. The platforms required to do this are still relatively early stage in their development, but there’s a significant untapped opportunity for learning platforms to scale the impact of these groups.

In fact, these learning platforms will harness two levels of network effects. There’s the basic network effect that emerges simply from the growing number of groups and participants in those groups as they find ways to connect on the same platform. But there’s an even more powerful form of network effect that comes from the opportunity to accelerate learning and performance improvement as more and more participants are motivated to learn together. It’s this second form of network effect that will ultimately enable participants to address exponentially expanding opportunities.

Bottom line

If we’re serious about moving beyond mounting performance pressure to address exponentially expanding opportunity, we’ll need to collaborate, but collaboration isn’t just about supporting each other. Collaboration in a rapidly changing world requires a willingness and eagerness to challenge each other. The paradox is that the most effective way to support each other in a rapidly changing world is to challenge each other. It’s not choosing to support or challenge – it’s recognizing that one cannot exist without the other.

The best way to do that is to cultivate the passion of the explorer among participants in small groups. And the best way to cultivate the passion of the explorer and draw people together is by framing an inspiring opportunity-based narrative.


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Emotion as the Foundation of Strategy

Category:Collaboration,Connections,Context,Emotions,Leadership,Learning,Narratives,Opportunity,Strategy,Trust

Credit to CuriousArtLab

As we head further into the new decade, we need to reflect on how the world is changing on so many levels. Given all these changes, it’s perhaps time to reassess our approach to strategy. At the risk of being viewed as a heretic, let me suggest that the successful strategies going forward will be strongly rooted in addressing the emotions of participants, rather than simply relying on facts and figures.

The Big Shift in the world

We are in the early stages of a Big Shift that is transforming our global economy, something that I have written about a lot, including here and here. This Big Shift is creating exponentially expanding opportunity – we can create far more value with far less resources far more quickly. The paradox is that, at the same time, the Big Shift is creating mounting performance pressure, making it more and more challenging to sustain the performance we’ve enjoyed in the past.

How do we resolve this paradox and make the journey from mounting performance pressure to exponentially expanding opportunity? We need to re-think strategy at a fundamental level and focus much more on the emotions of all participants so that we can truly unleash the power of pull.

The opportunity for strategy

The opportunity for strategy in the next decade and beyond is to unleash ways to deliver more and more value with fewer and fewer resources. If we’re going to succeed at that, we need to be able to anticipate the rapidly evolving unmet needs of the people we are trying to reach. We then need to be able to find ways to increase leverage, mobilizing the resources of others. We also need to find ways to accelerate learning – not learning in the form of training programs sharing existing knowledge, but learning in the form of action with others in ways that can rapidly increase impact over time by creating new knowledge in a rapidly changing world.

In the industrial age that brought us to where we are today, unmet needs were largely defined in material terms – what products and services could address our material needs, whether it involved our physical needs for food, or our broader needs to be comfortable in the physical world, like homes and cars. Meeting those material needs has been more and more successful, despite temporary setbacks like financial crises or pandemics.

Certainly, there are still large segments of the population with significant material needs, especially in trying times like this pandemic. But the mounting performance pressure of the Big Shift is also generating unmet needs at the emotional level. More and more of us are becoming consumed with the emotion of fear – and given the long-term forces shaping our world today, that fear is likely to intensify. While fear is certainly understandable, we as humans don’t want to live in fear – we have a deep hunger for hope and excitement. The institutions that understand and act to address that unmet emotional need will create enormous value for their stakeholders. Now, tell me, when was the last time you sat through a strategy discussion that began with an effort to understand the emotional needs of the participants being served by your institution?

Focusing on unmet emotional needs

The successful strategies of the next decade will begin with cultivating a deep understanding of these unmet emotional needs and then developing unique approaches that are effective in addressing these emotional needs. In this context, I have written extensively about institutional narratives, including here and here, which I believe can become a powerful instrument to build much deeper relationships with stakeholders by addressing their unmet emotional needs. I hasten to add that these new strategies will not be focused on manipulating the emotions of participants, but instead deeply understanding these emotional needs, why they exist, and how they can be addressed.

In this context, we need to be careful to “Zoom Out and Zoom In.” Don’t just look at the emotions around you today. Look ahead and anticipate how long-term forces will generate much deeper unmet emotional needs and then look for the highest impact steps you can take today to begin address those unmet needs.

Increasing leverage

But this is just the beginning. To harness the exponential opportunities that are being created by the Big Shift, all institutions will need to be much more aggressive in seeking leverage. The key to successful strategies will be to deliver significant value with as few of your own resources as possible. The global connectivity that is being fostered by the Big Shift makes it far easier to connect with a broader range of third-party resources.

But the ability to connect makes it even more important to understand what will be required to motivate third parties to invest the time and resources required to amplify the impact of your own products and services. Once again, this involves delving deeply into the emotions of the third parties that can be most helpful to you. Sure, you can and will have to offer them material rewards for collaborating with you, but you’re going to get much greater value from them if you can find ways to build trust and excite them about the longer-term opportunities for impact that can be created by coming together.

Accelerating learning

This is particularly powerful because of another strategic lever that is becoming more and more important in the Big Shift. In a rapidly changing world, the ability to learn faster becomes key to success. To be clear, I’m not talking about learning in the form of going to classes and getting credentials. I’m talking about the most powerful form of learning which is creating new knowledge through action. And, no matter how smart we are as individuals or individual institutions, we will learn a lot faster if we act together with others and challenge each other to find more creative ways to deliver more impact. In this Big Shift world, this form of learning becomes The Only Sustainable Edge.

This takes leverage to another level. When they talk about leverage, most strategists focus on transactions to access existing expertise and resources from third parties. While that is certainly helpful, the most powerful form of leverage is learning leverage, where participants come together to learn faster together.

But what’s required to motivate participants to learn faster together? My experience suggests that participants learn much faster together if they are excited by an opportunity to create more impact that is meaningful to them. Once again, though, this requires a deep understanding of the emotions of the participants. We need to understand where there’s fear and how that fear can be overcome by cultivating excitement.

Learning in the form of creating new knowledge can generate a lot of fear. After all, it’s risky. It’s never been done before. It could fail. But those who are excited about an opportunity that’s never been achieved before are driven to learn faster. They actively seek out opportunities to learn and are challenging themselves and others to find ways to achieve even greater impact. They are restless when they are not learning.

Loyalty and the pull it generates

In the end, all of this comes together in a powerful way. If we are able to excite participants about a meaningful opportunity that can bring people together and help them to learn faster together, what happens? We develop deep loyalty. This is no longer about short-term transactions that can be measured in material terms. This is about building deep and lasting trust-based relationships where we can see impact that matters to all the participants.

In a more connected world, loyalty matters. With all the connectivity we’ve created, it has become far easier to leave someone who is not meeting our needs and connect with someone else. This is a growing challenge for all institutions, especially in a world of eroding trust. Loyalty will be a powerful source of strategic advantage because it unleashes a virtuous cycle of more rapid learning with greater and greater impact.

But, it’s not just about loyalty. It’s about the Power of Pull. If we’re addressing significant unmet emotional needs of participants, word of mouth will spread and more and more participants will seek us out and want to find ways to build deeper relationships with us. Network effects will take hold and we’ll begin to see exponentially expanding impact and this in turn will unleash another virtuous cycle that will  pull more and more participants together.

I should hasten to add that this exponential opportunity will not be available for all businesses. As I’ve written elsewhere, businesses will face a painful choice in the decades ahead in terms of defining more clearly what business they are in. While all businesses will benefit by shifting to strategies that are focused on the emotions of participants, the exponential opportunity will be largely reserved for businesses that choose to become “trusted advisors.” That’s a largely untapped business opportunity today, even though everyone claims to be a “trusted advisor” to their customers.

The Big Shift in strategy

Looking back over decades, the focus of strategy has shifted in a profound way. Certainly the early days of business strategy focused on analyzing the structure of markets and industries to identify positions that could create sustainable strategic advantage.

In the past couple of decades, we’ve seen a shift away from strategies of structure to strategies of movement. Given the accelerating pace of change, the emphasis in strategy has been on how to move faster – agility has become the buzzword.

I believe we’re now on the cusp of another shift in strategy from movement to emotion. The strategies that will succeed in the future are those that focus on the emotions of the participants and find ways to cultivate deep, long-term, and trust-based relationships among a growing array of participants by meeting their deepest emotional needs. To be clear, structure and movement are still relevant, but only in the context of a deep understanding of the emotional environment. That’s a dimension that’s been largely ignored by the previous schools of strategy.

The bottom line

Strategy is ultimately about how to deliver greater impact and value with less resources in a way that is sustainable and rewarding to the provider. It’s all about doing more with less over the long-term. The strategies that generated success in the past are proving less and less effective in a rapidly changing world. To succeed in the future, we will need to evolve strategies that are shaped by a deep understanding of the emotional context and focused on addressing the unmet emotional needs of the participants. Those who do this well will succeed in tapping into the exponentially expanding opportunities created by the Big Shift.

While this post has focused on strategies for institutions, I would suggest that this shift in strategy also applies to us as individuals. But that’s a topic for another blog post


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Leveraging Longevity: Evolve Your Narrative

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Emotions,Narratives,Passion

I am a contrarian. At a time when we are wrestling around the world with a pandemic that seems to keep coming back for more, I want to focus on some of the long-term trends that will be shaping our lives in the decades ahead and creating expanding opportunity. Now, more than ever, we should address that opportunity, even though it may seem a bit counter-intuitive.

One long-term trend that we should not ignore is that, even with pandemics, the average life span of people around the world is likely to continue to extend significantly. This presents both challenges and opportunities.

The Boomer opportunity

For many people, a longer life comes as a surprise. To the extent they have saved money along the way, they may find that they have not saved enough – they didn’t expect to live that long. At the same time, many are now seeing that there’s an opportunity to define a whole new chapter in their life – a chapter where they can aspire to having an impact that is much more meaningful to them and to others.

There’s a significant shift within the Boomer generation in the United States. In the past, the assumption was that someone would retire and then go out and golf or play bridge for a few years until the Grim Reaper would come and take them away.

Now, fewer and fewer Boomers are willing to embrace that path. They’re viewing retirement as an opportunity to step back and reflect on what really matters to them and find ways to make a difference that matters. In this context, I highly recommend the book “Disrupt Aging” by Jo Ann Jenkins, the CEO of the AARP.

For many, they are continuing to work and earn money, but they are shifting to work that excites them and motivates them to have an impact. Often, they are taking a hobby that really has excited them throughout their life like wood-working or gardening and finding a way to make a living from it. In other cases, they are dedicating more time to community initiatives that are meaningful to them.

Some fortunate Boomers already know what really excites them, but my research indicates that is a very small number. The challenge is that this generation grew up in a world where the key message was to go find a job that could earn a decent living. It was all about income and status in the community. The message was, if you have a passion or are really excited about something, pursue that in your leisure time, but don’t let it distract you from doing what’s necessary to advance in your chosen career.  And, if you don’t have a passion, that’s fine – very few people are capable of passion and it’s often a distraction from making a good living.

So, many Boomers are now facing the challenge and opportunity of finding out what really excites them. How do they do that? Well, that’s a key focus of my new book, The Journey Beyond Fear. It won’t be published until May, but I can give you some hints regarding approaches that have been helpful for me and others whom I’ve worked with.

The role of personal narrative

One approach is to make an effort to articulate and reflect on the personal narrative that is shaping your choices and actions today. As I’ve written about here, here, and here, I have a very different view of narrative than most. In this context, it involves looking ahead and determining whether your view of the future is shaped by threat or opportunity. If it’s an opportunity that really inspires and excites you, what is that opportunity and why do you find it so exciting?

Many people find that articulating their personal narrative is an eye-opener. More and more of us are driven by a view of a significant threat out in the future – e.g., loss of income, erosion of cultural values, or illness. We’re driven by fear.

Articulating our personal narrative can become a catalyst to begin the search for opportunities that really excite and inspire us.

This search can lead to discovering for the first time the passion of the explorer that lies within all of us, waiting to be found and drawn out. Again, I have a very specific view of passion that I’ve written about here and here. I’ve come to believe that the passion of the explorer is key to motivate us to have increasing impact in an area that is truly meaningful to us. And I’ve also come to believe that we’ll have much more impact if we can find ways to integrate our passion with the work that helps us to earn a living.

OK, I can hear the skeptics among us saying that this is all a hopeless fantasy. Even if we could discover our passion, we could never make a living from it. Well, but that’s what’s so interesting about the Boomers. Many of them (but certainly not all) have accumulated savings and have the ability to pursue something that, at least in its early stages, may not generate significant revenue.

Fragmentation expands opportunity

But this is where another long-term trend comes into play that I believe will help more and more Boomers to find and pursue something that is really meaningful to them and to others. Many years ago, I led a research effort looking at fragmentation and concentration trends in the global economy – the primary research report can be accessed here.

Long story short, we found that a significant part of the economy is fragmenting over time. What’s fragmenting are product and service businesses. It started in digital product businesses like videos, music and software, but this fragmentation trend is increasingly spreading into physical product businesses like craft beer and craft chocolate.

There are many forces at work driving this trend. It starts with the increasing desire of customers for products and services that are tailored to their specific needs and that will evolve quickly as their needs evolve. Customers are less and less willing to settle for highly standardized, mass market products.

On the supply side, the fragmentation of these businesses is supported by the increasing availability of scale intensive resources that significantly reduce the cost of entering and building a business. Think about it. If it’s a physical product, we can find a contract manufacturer to produce the product. We can rely on massive logistics networks to get the product from the factory to the customer. We can use online market platforms to find and connect with relevant customers, wherever they are in the world.

We actually need less and less investment to get started in these product and service businesses. Now, because of fragmentation, these businesses are unlikely to become massive, global corporations, but they can certainly provide a comfortable living for a small number of people who come together to build and operate the business.

And this is what more and more Boomers are discovering. As they evolve a personal narrative that is focused on an opportunity that is exciting and meaningful to them and to others, they can begin to build a business to address that opportunity and draw out the passion of the explorer. Now, that expanding life span becomes energizing, rather than intimidating – it’s an opportunity to find a way to make a difference that’s rewarding for everyone involved. It helps to motivate Boomers to invest the time and effort to articulate and evolve a personal narrative and, in the process, to discover that long hidden passion of the explorer.

And, yes, we need to acknowledge that the pandemic period can be very challenging for starting a new business, especially if it involves personal contact with customers, given widespread restrictions on business activity. Nevertheless, this is the window that Boomers can use to gain clarity around the opportunity that excites them and begin to prepare for the launch of a business when the restrictions ease.

Also, I have been talking about the opportunity in terms of a business, but the opportunity could take many different forms, including charities, local community initiatives to strengthen the community or much broader movements to drive significant change. While I haven’t done specific research on these other approaches to impact (except for movements), I believe that many of the forces that are making it easier to start new product and service businesses will also make it easier to launch other, non-commercial initiatives.

A growing number of people, including Chip Conley, with his Modern Elder Academy, and Marc Freedman, with his Encore.org initiative, are recognizing the growing desire of Boomers to find ways to have meaningful impact and mobilizing to support them on their journey.

Beyond the Boomers – an opportunity for everyone

So far, I’ve been talking about this in terms of Boomers and the opportunity created by longer life spans. But, if we focus on the other trend of fragmentation of product and service businesses, we can begin to see how this applies to all of us, regardless of our current age. Wherever we are in our life’s journey, we now have more and more opportunity to pursue work that’s exciting and meaningful, and not just a source of income.

But the key is to make the effort to reflect on what is most exciting and meaningful to us. There’s now a significant incentive to do this.

And crises like the pandemic can also become a catalyst. I’m struck by the number of people I’ve talked to who have told me that the pandemic has caused them to step back and take the time to reflect on what really matters to them. Many of them have been quite disappointed to discover that most of their time is being spent on things that do not matter to them, often because they were driven by a sense of fear that pre-dated the pandemic. But now they’re on a quest to change that.

The pandemic is just one manifestation of the much broader trend towards mounting performance pressure in our global economy. Fear is a natural human reaction to a world of mounting performance pressure. But here’s the thing. We’ll be much better able to respond to the growing pressure if we can find something that excites and motivates us, rather than just pushing forward on a path that has little meaning.

And the paradox is that the same forces that are generating mounting performance pressure are also creating expanding opportunity. But we need to find ways to discover and focus on the opportunities that are most meaningful to us if we are going to overcome the pressure.

This applies to all of us, including those who are marginalized in our communities and struggling to stay alive, much less earn a decent living. We need to mobilize to create environments that will help all of us to find the motivation and resources to achieve impact that matters.

Bottom line

Long-term forces are making it more and more important for us to step back and reflect on our personal narrative so that we can focus more effectively on emerging opportunities that can help us achieve more meaningful impact. By framing these opportunities, we can draw out the passion of the explorer that will help us to address growing pressure and connect with others on the rewarding journey that awaits us. The pandemic is a significant near-term obstacle to be overcome, but it can become a catalyst for action if we stay focused on the opportunities ahead.

<For those who are interested in learning more about how to articulate, reflect on, and evolve your personal narrative to achieve more meaningful impact, check out some of the online courses that I offer here.>


  • 0

Scaling the Edge – Making It Personal

Category:Uncategorized

I’ve been writing about a very different approach to transformation for over a decade, including here. My writing so far has focused on the imperative for institutions to adopt this approach to transformation in rapidly changing times. In this post, I’ll make the case that it’s also an imperative for us to pursue as individuals.

Scaling the edge

We’re in the early stages of a Big Shift that will transform our global economy and society. This Big Shift will require a fundamental transformation of all our institutions – companies, governments, universities, non-profits, etc. But, having been involved with institutional transformation efforts for decades, my key message to all institutional leaders is to never, ever under-estimate the power of the immune system and antibodies that exist in all large, traditional institutions. At the slightest indication of change, the immune system mobilizes to crush those efforts and defend the existing approaches that have led to success in the past.

This is the reason that the conventional approaches to transformation – I call them the “top down, big bang” approaches – have an extremely high failure rate. So, is there an alternative?

I have become a strong proponent of an alternative approach that I call “scaling the edge.” Rather than trying to transform the core of the existing institution, this approach focuses on driving change on the “edge” of the institution. What do I mean by edge?

It’s a part of the institution today that has relatively modest resources and impact but, if we understand the long-term forces that are re-shaping the relevant markets and arenas for the institution, that edge has the potential to scale rapidly to the point where it will become the new core of the institution.

The commitment is to scale the edge as rapidly as possible and to drive transformation on the edge, rather than trying to get the core to transform. As the edge scales, it will pull more and more of the people and resources from the core out to the edge. In a world of accelerating change, edges can scale at a pace that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. Before we know it, the edge has scaled to the point where it has become the new core of the institution, not just a diversification effort or growth initiative.

In scaling the edge, the key is to minimize the likelihood that the immune system in the core will mobilize to try to block the scaling edge initiative. In prior research, I’ve identified 12 design principles for scaling edge initiatives in institutions that can help to keep the immune system at bay.

Making it personal

But is scaling the edge only for institutions? I’ve come to believe that it can also provide some helpful guidance for us as individuals, as we confront the same imperative for transformation that our institutions face.

We have our own immune system that we should never under-estimate. The immune system operates at two levels. First, there are the beliefs we have about what is required for success and happiness. Those beliefs come from many sources. Some of the beliefs are shaped by our experiences to date, but many of the beliefs come from our families, communities and broader societies that we live in. From an early age, we’ve been taught that certain approaches lead to success and happiness and encouraged to follow those approaches. Regardless of how those beliefs came to embraced, we understandably tend to resist efforts to shift to alternative approaches.

But, to really understand the source of our personal immune system, we need to go one level deeper – we need to move beyond mindset to heartset. Our actions are shaped by our emotions, not just our beliefs.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the dominant emotion that more and more of us are experiencing is fear. Fear is surfacing for many reasons, but a key underlying driver of this emotion is the mounting performance pressure that more and more of us are experiencing. In this context, the emotion of fear is very understandable.

At the same time, though, we need to accept that that fear is a key driver of our personal immune system. When we’re driven by fear, we have a tendency to shrink our time horizons and become more and more risk averse. We want to hold on to the beliefs and approaches that we currently have, rather than venturing out into uncharted territories.

So, what do we do? How do we respond to the imperative to transform while keeping our immune system at bay?

Passion of the explorer

For some of us, the lucky few, the answer is relatively easy – pursue your passion of the explorer. Some of us have found and cultivated our passion of the explorer that motivates us to move forward in spite of our fear. This passion of the explorer generates excitement within us when we’re confronted by new and unexpected challenges because those challenges will help us to have more and more impact in the domain that we have chosen. I should caution here that I am talking about a very specific form of passion that emerged from my research and that I have written about extensively, including here and here.

But, here’s the challenge. Very few of us have been fortunate enough to find and cultivate our passion of the explorer. There are many reasons for this, but a key one is that we live and work in societies and institutions that are deeply suspect of passion. Passionate people are risk-takers, they ask too many questions and they too often deviate from the scripts they’ve been assigned – they’re viewed as trouble-makers in institutions and societies that value conformity and risk avoidance. In the face of this suspicion of passion, many of us have simply given up our search for the passion of the explorer and done our best to “fit in.”

So, in the absence of this passion, how do we overcome the immune system deep within each of us and pursue our transformation as individuals so that we can thrive in a rapidly changing society?

Finding an edge that will unleash your passion

Try scaling the edge. Rather than transforming ourselves overnight, find an edge that can help drive our transformation. How do we do that?

We need to look ahead and look around to scan the horizon for opportunities that have the potential to drive very significant impact. There are two parts to this quest. First, we need to gather enough evidence to convince us that these are opportunities that could create significant impact. This is about evolving our beliefs so that we can begin to focus on opportunities that are really big enough to drive our personal transformation.

But then we also need to reflect on whether that potential for impact really inspires and excites us – we need to move beyond beliefs to emotions. The edges that will motivate us to drive some challenging personal transformation must be exciting enough that they will encourage us to move beyond our comfort zone and continually venture out into territories that can seem very intimidating.

The edge needs to be a seedbed for cultivating the passion of the explorer. As we look at potential edges to scale in our personal lives, we need to look within and see what emotions are being triggered. We may not feel intense excitement at the outset, but we need to at least feel the potential for that excitement to blossom as we move forward. And, if we feel that excitement start to wane as we begin to confront unexpected challenges, we need to be prepared to shift to a different edge to drive our personal transformation efforts.

Finding our edge is about selecting an edge that has the potential to draw out the passion of the explorer. We need to unleash the emotions that will help us to move forward in spite of our fear.

Scaling our edge then involves selecting actions that will help us to quickly demonstrate significant impact in the edge domain with modest effort. If the early actions require significant effort, we’re much more likely to draw out the immune system within us, driven by fear of failure. On the other hand, if the early actions yield significant impact, we’re much more likely to gain more confidence and become even more excited about the opportunity to have even more impact as we move forward.

Before we know it, our actions on our chosen edge will begin to expand in scope and we’ll find more and more of our time and attention consumed by the opportunity to scale the edge.

A personal example of scaling the edge

I have scaled an edge many times in my life. As one example, I was a partner with McKinsey & Company, helping to open their Silicon Valley office and working with clients to evolve their strategies in a world that was increasingly being shaped by digital computing. In the early 1990’s, I saw the emergence of the Internet as a promising new digital platform and I became very excited by its potential to help connect people and create significant value for the economy and society. That became my new edge.

I spent time exploring the start-ups that were pioneering Internet businesses. I then did a consulting project with a major telecom company and convinced them that there was a significant investment opportunity in building out Internet-related infrastructure. That motivated me to launch an Electronic Commerce Practice for McKinsey in 1993, at a time when most of my partners had never even heard of the Internet. It became the most rapidly growing practice in the firm globally. I was then motivated to write two books exploring the business opportunities created by the Internet and they became best-sellers. The rest, as they say, is history.

What got me started on this edge was the inspiring opportunity created by a new generation of technology that had the potential to become a very significant business. But what kept me going was the deep excitement that I experienced as I pursued a set of more and more ambitious initiatives that had growing impact in this domain. I scaled the edge to the point where it became the new core of my life.

Bottom line

We are in a world that demands personal transformation, as well as institutional and social transformation. As we address this imperative, we need to acknowledge and overcome the immune system that resides within all of us and actively resists change. Scaling the edge can provide us with a launchpad to drive that transformation and discover our passion of the explorer that will drive us to continue to evolve throughout our lives. Once we discover that passion of the explorer, we will turn mounting performance pressure into exponentially expanding opportunity.


  • 2

Zoom Out/Zoom In – Making It Personal

Category:Uncategorized

I’ve been writing about a very different approach to strategy for over a decade, including here. My writing so far has focused on the imperative for institutions to adopt this approach to strategy in rapidly changing times. In this post, I’ll make the case that it’s also an imperative for us to pursue as individuals.

Zoom out/zoom in strategy

So, what is zoom out/zoom in? To be clear, it’s not about video conferencing. For those who haven’t been following me, let me offer a very brief summary of zoom out/zoom in strategies. These strategies focus on two very different time horizons. The first time horizon – the zoom out horizon – is 10-20 years. On this horizon, the key questions are:

  • What will my relevant market or arena look like 10-20 years from now?
  • What kind of company or institution will I need to have in order to thrive in that market or arena?

The second time horizon – the zoom in horizon – is very different, it’s 6-12 months. On that horizon, the key questions are:

  • What are the 2-3 initiatives (no more) that I could pursue in the next 6-12 months that would have the greatest impact in accelerating my movement towards the longer-term opportunity I’ve identified?
  • Have I committed a critical mass of resources to these 2-3 initiatives in the next 6-12 months?
  • How would I measure progress and success for these 2-3 initiatives?

Why is this approach to strategy so powerful? First, it helps us to develop focus based on a significant long-term opportunity. In a world where we tend to shrink our time horizons and just react to whatever is going on in the moment, that can be very helpful. Second, it emphasizes the importance of near-term action and impact. Third, it cultivates a learning mindset because we can learn from those short-term actions. The impact we achieve will help us to refine our view of the longer-term opportunity and evolve our short-term actions to have even more impact over time.

This approach to strategy becomes increasingly necessary in the Big Shift world where all institutions confront mounting performance pressure and exponentially expanding opportunity (how’s that for a paradox?). But, guess what? It’s not just institutions that live in this Big Shift world – we all are living in this Big Shift world as individuals, and we have a similar set of challenges and opportunities.

Zoom out/zoom in for individuals

Most of us are so consumed by all that’s going on around us that we rarely look ahead to anticipate the opportunity that could help us to achieve much more of our potential and have far greater impact on those who matter around us. Without a sense of what that opportunity might be, we become lost in the demands of the moment.

And, as challenging as it might be, we need to make the effort to zoom out 10 – 20 years. If we just focus on the next 1-2 years, we’ll likely focus on an opportunity that is interesting, but that pales in comparison to the kinds of opportunities that we could address in the next one or two decades. We need to venture beyond our comfort zone to see for the first time what is becoming possible and achievable.

Yes, looking ahead that far is very challenging in rapidly changing times, but it will force us to focus on the trends that are more predictable. We don’t need to define the opportunity in great detail now – we just need to have enough detail that it can help us to make the choices that matter today.

And then, of course, there’s the need to zoom in to identify the 2-3 initiatives that we could take over the next 6-12 months that would have the greatest impact in accelerating our movement towards the longer-term opportunity. Are we really focusing on the actions that matter the most? Are we tracking our progress that we’re making and reflecting on what we could do to have even more impact?

Here’s another question. For those 2-3 short-term initiatives, are we trying to do them by ourselves? Or are we actively asking others for help and to join us in our efforts to have even more impact? No matter how smart and capable we are as individuals, we’ll likely have a lot more impact if we can motivate others to join us and leverage our own efforts.

The emotional impact of zoom out/zoom in

Our actions are ultimately shaped by our emotions. Zoom out/zoom in approaches can be powerful in evolving our emotions and motivate us to make an effort that would have otherwise seemed to be impossible.

Here’s one of our biggest challenges. As I’ve written elsewhere, more and more of us are experiencing fear as our dominant emotion. While an understandable human reaction to the mounting performance pressure that we experience on a daily basis, fear can also be very limiting. It shrinks our time horizons, increases our risk averseness and erodes our trust in others. We can be caught in a vicious cycle – as fear limits our impact, we become more afraid and limit our impact even more, and the cycle spirals downward.

How do we escape this vicious cycle? Zoom out/zoom in can help on multiple levels. First, it focuses our attention on a really big opportunity to achieve much more impact than we have ever had. Rather than becoming consumed by near-term pressure, we can begin to be inspired by unprecedented opportunity. It can help to motivate us to act and take risk in the short-term because the opportunity is so exciting.

And the zoom in focus also helps us to overcome our fear. It frames actions we can take in the short term that will have tangible impact. We don’t have to wait a long time to see tangible results. And, as we begin to see the impact that we’re achieving in the short-term, it helps us to overcome the skepticism about that longer-term opportunity. Is it just a fantasy that can never be achieved? No, we’re actually seeing impact now – this is worth pursuing.

This is also why it’s so important to frame the zoom in initiatives as collaborations with others versus solo efforts. If we invite others to join us in our near-term initiatives, we’ll find that we’re leveraging our own time and resources for more impact. And, more importantly, we’ll also be encouraged by the fact that others share our excitement and interest in achieving near-term impact. It will reinforce our own excitement and reduce our fear because we have the support of others.

Tying this to personal narratives

Those who have followed me in the past, will begin to see a strong connection between zoom out/zoom in approaches for individuals and the potential of personal narratives that I’ve explored in many previous posts, including here, here and here.

Personal narratives, the way I define them, are about the future, not the past. They’re focused on either a significant threat or opportunity out in the future that shapes our emotions and actions. They also should be a call to action to others. What are we asking others to do to help us in addressing the threat or opportunity that’s most meaningful to us out in the future?

While we all live our lives shaped by our personal narrative, few of us have made the effort to articulate that personal narrative, much less reflect on whether it is the best personal narrative for us. Those of us who do make this effort often find that we are primarily motivated by a view of threat in the future, not opportunity. That feeds the fear.

And when we articulate our personal narrative, we often discover that we don’t really have a call to action to others – we’re addressing the threat on our own, without the help of others. That also feeds the fear – we’re alone and isolated.

The zoom out/zoom in approach that I’ve outlined above can be very helpful in getting us to re-frame our personal narrative. Rather than focusing on threats out in the future, this approach encourages us to identify a really big opportunity in the future that can help us to achieve much more of our potential and have greater impact on those who matter to us.

The zoom in focus helps us to see what actions we can take in the short-term that will expand and accelerate our impact. It also encourages us to look around and identify others who might be motivated by the same big opportunity in the future. We can then frame a call to action for them that will help us to overcome our isolation and leverage our own short-term efforts.

In short, the zoom out/zoom in approach can help to frame a personal narrative that will have far greater impact than the personal narrative we’ve been pursuing thus far. It could even help us to discover and pursue our passion of the explorer!

Bottom line

The zoom out/zoom in strategy approach is not just for institutions, it’s for all of us as individuals. And, it’s not just about strategy. It’s about emotions. The zoom out/zoom in approach can help all of us to overcome the fear that increasingly dominates our lives and cultivate a sense of hope and excitement that will motivate us to move forward in spite of the fear. Done well, it can also help us to draw out the passion of the explorer, but that’s food for another blog post.


  • 4

Capabilities and Emotions

Category:Uncategorized

We live in a rapidly changing world (and I’m not just talking about pandemics). In that world, capabilities, and not skills, will be a key determinant of success. Our emotions will often become a significant obstacle in our effort to cultivate those capabilities. If we’re serious about cultivating capabilities, we need to evolve our emotions and find ways to move from fear to passion.

The role of capabilities

I’ve done a lot of research on the growing importance of capabilities, summarized here and here. Everyone is talking about the need for re-skilling, but alarmingly few are even acknowledging the role of capabilities, much less focusing on them. Let’s define terms. Skills are generally abilities that have value in a specific context or environment, like how to operate a certain kind of machine in a certain type of factory – and we generally have to be trained in those skills. Capabilities, in contrast, have value in all contexts and environments and many of them are innate in all of us, including curiosity, imagination, creativity and empathy.

As we move into the Contextual Age, capabilities help us to quickly and effectively address unanticipated situations so that we can deliver increasing impact. The key to delivering meaningful impact starts with the ability to ask powerful questions based on a deep understanding of the needs of diverse stakeholders and then to imagine entirely new approaches to delivering impact and then to creatively deploy those approaches. And these same capabilities help us to quickly see the impact that is being achieved and evolve our approaches in ways that deliver ever increasing impact.

As if that weren’t enough, these capabilities also help us to develop whatever skills are required to deliver that impact. Skills are still important, but the capabilities help us to figure out what skills are most important in specific contexts. Even better, these capabilities then help us to learn the skills required.

Cultivating capabilities

So, what’s required to cultivate those capabilities? As I mentioned before, these capabilities are innate in all of us. If you don’t believe me, go to a playground and watch children 6 or 7 years old and show me one that doesn’t have the capabilities I’ve described. I use the metaphor of the human muscle to describe our capabilities. We all have them, but some of us choose to exercise them and they grow stronger. Many of us don’t exercise them and they atrophy. But, guess what? They’re still there, waiting to be exercised.

Given that, we need to focus on creating environments that will encourage people to exercise these capabilities and provide the tools to help them cultivate the capabilities. Unfortunately, most of our work environments today are hostile to these capabilities. Take curiosity. Asking questions in many work environments today is viewed as a sign of weakness – you’re supposed to know what to do. Go read the manual.

So, there’s a lot we can do to create welcoming and supportive environments for cultivating capabilities. But, there’s more.

The role of emotions

To cultivate capabilities, we need to focus on the emotions that are shaping our choices and actions. As I’ve written elsewhere, we’re living in a world where the dominant emotion is fear. What happens when we’re driven by fear? We tend not to exercise the capabilities that I’ve been describing. We’re reluctant to ask questions because it will make us look weak. We tend to shy away from being imaginative or creative because that involves taking risk. We tend to be less empathetic because our focus is on protecting ourselves, rather than trying to understand the needs of others.

So, in a world shaped by fear, our capabilities will atrophy. A vicious cycle sets into motion – the more our capabilities atrophy, the more pressure we’ll experience and the more fear will become the dominant emotion, leading us to exercise our capabilities even less. And we go into a downward spiral.

Motivating ourselves

How do we escape this downward spiral? First, we need to acknowledge our fear. Many of us are reluctant to do that because, again, it is viewed as a sign of weakness. But, until we acknowledge our fear, we’ll never see how limiting it is and we’ll never find the motivation to move beyond fear.

Once we acknowledge our fear, we need to reflect on how it reduces our motivation to exercise our capabilities and, as a result, limits our potential for growth. As we begin to see what an obstacle it has become, we can begin to explore various approaches that can help us to move forward in spite of our fear. (We’ll never eliminate our fear – the key is to find the motivation to move forward in spite of the fear.) Those approaches include evolving our personal narrative and finding the passion of the explorer that is patiently waiting to be discovered in all of us.

Motivating others

That’s what we can do for ourselves. What can we do for others? How can we motivate others to move beyond their fear?

I’ll suggest three things: framing inspiring opportunities, posing powerful questions and staging initiatives for impact.

Frame inspiring opportunities. People who live in fear are focused on threats that they see in the future. We can shift that perception by focusing attention on unprecedented and inspiring opportunities that lie ahead in our future. This builds on the paradox that I have described about the Big Shift that is transforming our world. At the same time that the Big Shift creates mounting performance pressure, it also creates exponentially expanding opportunity – we can create far more value with far less resources and far more quickly than would have been possible a decade or two ago. If the opportunity is inspiring enough, it will motivate people to overcome their fear and take risks in pursuit of that opportunity.

Pose powerful questions. The willingness to move forward will be strengthened by powerful questions related to that inspiring opportunity. Any really big opportunity out in the future has a lot of questions attached to it. If we already had all the answers, the opportunity would already have been addressed. Powerful questions can be a strong motivator for action – they are a call to action and learning. They help to focus us and bring us together in a quest for answers.

Questions also reassure us that no one knows all the answers and that it’s OK to ask questions and ask for help. That also helps to move forward in spite of fear. We know that we can ask for help along the way.

Stage initiatives for impact. There’s another way to help people overcome fear. Be thoughtful about staging initiatives for impact. This is a key lesson that I learned from my video gaming days. A key design principle of video games is to stage the challenges. The early challenges can be addressed with relatively modest effort and help to reassure the gamers that they can succeed in their bigger quest.

If people can see quick and tangible impact from their efforts, it helps to build their confidence and willingness to take even more risk as they move forward. It will also help them to learn about what’s required to achieve even more impact.

Bottom line

If we’re serious about cultivating capabilities in ourselves and in others, we’ll need to address our emotions. We’ll need to find ways to make the journey beyond fear. We’ll never get rid of our fear, but we can find ways to move forward in spite of our fear, especially if we can build excitement about addressing opportunities that are in front of us. As we move from fear to hope and excitement, we will cultivate capabilities that will help us to have more and more meaningful impact in the world around us. A wonderful virtuous cycle will be unleashed.


  • 0

Shaping Our Lives

Category:Uncategorized

We live in trying times. Pressure is mounting and we’re increasingly confronting things that we never expected, like the current pandemic. But it goes well beyond the pandemic. For decades, we’ve been facing intensifying competition, accelerating change and encounters with extreme, disruptive events. For individuals, the competition involves workers from lower wage, developing economies as well as artificial intelligence and robotics which are increasingly taking over work that was previously done by humans. The work we thought we could count on looks increasingly precarious.

In this kind of environment, we naturally tend to fall into a reactive mindset and mode of behavior. We become consumed by the latest events and overwhelmed by how much we need to respond to; by the constant push and pull that has become daily life. We lose any sense of focus or prioritization.

The paradox

But, there’s an interesting paradox. Our current pandemic is creating all kinds of new challenges, but it’s also becoming a catalyst for reflection. I’m struck by the number of people in my network of acquaintances who have told me that the pandemic has prompted them to step back and reflect on what is really important and meaningful to them. For many, they are realizing that their work hours are consumed by routine tasks and endless meetings that produce very little impact. And their work hours are crowding out time that they could be spending with friends and family or use for volunteering on projects that really excite them. As they’ve reflected, they’ve come to realize that they’ve been consumed by activities that are not meaningful. It has been an “a-ha!” moment for many.

A pivotal moment in time

In this moment, there’s no better time to evolve our personal narratives so that we can make our lives more meaningful and increase our impact on things that matter.

Those of you who have been following me for some time know that I have a very distinctive view of personal narratives – something that I’ve written about here and here.

Briefly, I believe our personal narratives answer two key questions about our lives:

  1. First, looking ahead, am I primarily motivated by a perception of future threat or opportunity?
  2. Second, what is my call to action to others in helping me to address that threat or opportunity?

Our answers to those two questions shape our lives in profound ways.

We all have a personal narrative, but here’s the thing. Few of us have made the effort to make that personal narrative explicit to ourselves, much less reflect on whether the personal narrative really is one that can help us to achieve more of our potential and achieve impact that really matters to us.

For decades, I lived my life adhering to a personal narrative that had been shaped by my childhood experiences. Like most of us, I had not articulated that narrative to myself. It wasn’t until I was almost 50 that I finally attempted to articulate the narrative that had been driving my life.

It was challenging but it changed my life. It helped me to evolve the narrative so that I could focus on needs that were deep inside me and shape a future that was much more fulfilling. It was an awakening that I found richly rewarding on so many levels.

Turn your pandemic pause into pandemic progress

What better time than now to step back and reflect on our personal narrative? This is why I have accepted the invitation from Trisha Stezzi and her Significance Learning Center to develop a complete 9-week virtual live-taught program on this exact topic called:  Harnessing Your Personal Narrative. You can watch my free master class there as well.

If you’re interested, please sign up here. As a Charter Member of the Course, you’ll receive a 15% discount.

In closing, I firmly believe that now is the time for all of us to come together and find ways to evolve much more meaningful and impactful connections with one another and work on securing a more fruitful future.  To make some of the “a-ha!” moments from above the new normal. Understanding what your personal narrative is and learning how to use it to change your trajectory – all of our trajectories – is the critical first step. That is my mission in this course – to challenge and inspire you to shape your lives through the evolution of your personal narrative.  I truly look forward to the one-one-one interaction and personal support I’ll be able to offer you throughout the 9-weeks of this course, exclusively hosted at Significance Learning Center.


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From Shareholder to Stakeholder Market Economies

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Context,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Opportunity,Passion,Potential,Trust

What better day than Labor Day in the U.S. to address the growing discussion about shareholders and stakeholders in market economies?

In recent years, there’s been more and more discussion about the need to expand corporate horizons beyond just serving shareholders to serving a broader range of “stakeholders.” While at one level this is long overdue, I fear the need is being expressed too narrowly.

It’s often framed as a choice – do we serve shareholders or serve other stakeholders, like employees, customers, business partners and community members? I’d like to suggest that it’s not an either/or choice but a both/and. Given the way the world is changing, the best way to generate expanding returns for shareholders is to find more creative ways of serving the evolving needs of all stakeholders. Those who continue to focus narrowly on shareholder interests will be increasingly marginalized and prove to be a deep disappointment to their shareholders.

Why is this true? Let’s look at how the world is changing, building on some of the perspectives that I outlined in my book The Power of Pull.

Diminishing returns from current approaches

For over a century, we’ve lived in a global industrial economy where the key to economic success was achieving economies of scale in asset intensive businesses. Those asset intensive businesses required massive investment and shareholders were increasingly demanding short-term returns on their investments.

This led to the emergence and growth of the scalable efficiency institutional model that has ruled the business world. The key to economic success was to become more and more efficient at scale, with a relentless focus on cost reduction and delivering short-term quarterly returns to shareholders.

But here’s the problem. The world is changing. What was efficient and successful in the past is becoming less and less successful over time. Need some evidence for this assertion? Check out the work I have done on return on asset trends for all public companies in the US. It turns out that from 1965 until today, return on assets for all public companies has declined by 75%, it has been a long and sustained erosion. (I know the link I provided only showed results up to 2015 but we have recently updated this to 2019 – the trend continues, and I will be writing more about this soon.)

Now, I will point out that return on assets is not the same as return to shareholders. It turns out that over this time, return to shareholders has also declined, but the decline has been cushioned by a series of financial engineering measures designed to serve the needs of shareholders – adding debt to the balance sheet, and increasing dividends and stock buybacks. Companies are remaining focused on serving the shareholder, but this is not a sustainable approach in a world of decreasing return on assets. There’s only so much debt that can be added to the balance sheet and less cash available to increase dividends and stock buybacks.

The scalable efficiency model

This erosion in return on assets is particularly ironic because we increasingly live in a global economy where much more value can be created with far less resources and far more quickly than was ever imaginable a few decades ago. What’s preventing us from harnessing this opportunity? It’s the scalable efficiency model.

Scalable efficiency encourages us to squeeze all other stakeholders in our never-ending quest to become more efficient. Employees? Keep their salaries as low as possible while increasing their production quotas. Business partners? Seek to get as much from them while paying them as little as possible. Customers? Raise your prices wherever possible and find ways to lower the production costs, even if quality may suffer. Community members? They’re a distraction – stay focused on the means of production.

But here’s the problem. Scalable efficiency is a diminishing returns proposition. The more efficient we become, the longer and harder we have to work to get the next increment of efficiency. The paradox is that, the more we focus on delivering short-term returns to shareholders through scalable efficiency, the lower those returns will be over time.

This approach diverts our attention from the opportunity to create more value – all our attention is focused on cutting costs. In a world of exponentially expanding opportunity, that’s a big loss. Here’s another paradox: the more we focus on delivering exponentially expanding value to shareholders, the more we will need to commit to address the needs of all stakeholders. Why is that?

Addressing the context of all stakeholders

Value depends on a deep understanding of context – the context of all stakeholders. It’s a key reason that I’ve suggested we’re moving from the Industrial Age to the Contextual Age.

It starts with the customer. Customers are becoming more and more powerful and increasingly insisting on products and services that are tailored to their specific and rapidly evolving needs. Understanding and anticipating those needs requires a rich understanding of the context of our customers. The most successful companies will be those who don’t just wait for customers to tell them what they need, but who instead invest the time and effort to anticipate those needs – and who understand the needs that are most fundamental and rapidly expanding.

But, that’s just the beginning. The companies that will be most successful will harness the potential for expanding leverage – creating more much more value with far less resources of their own. They will deliver much greater returns to shareholders. But the focus on leverage requires a deep understanding of the context of an expanding array of potential business partners. Understanding the context of business partners helps to identify their needs and what would motivate them to devote more time and effort to delivering more value to you and your customers. You will be much more successful in harnessing the power of pull and expanding your ecosystem of business partners if you understand and serve their needs.

And, of course, there are your employees. In a rapidly changing world, it has become a truism that employees are going to have to commit to lifelong learning. The learning that is most valuable is learning in the form of creating new knowledge through action together with others. The institutions that succeed in the future will be those who make the journey from scalable efficiency to scalable learning.

But few people are asking what’s the motivation to learn. The unstated assumption is that it’s fear – if you don’t learn faster, you’ll lose your job. While fear can motivate some learning, it’s a very limited motivator, especially when the learning involves risk-taking and working closely with others. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the passion of the explorer is a much more powerful motivator for learning.

The challenge is that very few workers today have that kind of passion for their work, as some of my recent research demonstrated. If we are really committed to cultivating that passion in our workforce, we need to develop a much deeper understanding of the personal context of our employees and what kind of impact has the most value and meaning for them. If we’re not addressing this value and meaning for our employees, we will not be successful in motivating them to learn faster and find ways to deliver more and more value to their colleagues, business partners and customers. We will not pull out of them more and more of their potential.

And, if we’re serious about serving the needs and delivering more and more value to our customers, business partners and employees, that inevitably leads to addressing another set of stakeholders – members of the communities we live and operate in. Our communities are a key element of the context for all of our stakeholders. If our communities are not thriving, then our other stakeholders will find it much more challenging to achieve the potential and impact that is most meaningful to them. The companies that understand the needs of their communities and actively contribute to their flourishing will be much more successful in creating value for their other stakeholders.

Bottom line

To harness the exponentially expanding opportunities that are emerging in our Big Shift world, we need to become much more aggressive in creating and delivering value for all our stakeholders. Shareholders will receive far more value from companies that find ways to expand leverage and accelerate learning. Those are the companies that will create much more value with far less resources and far more quickly than other companies. But leverage and learning require a deep commitment to all stakeholders – understanding their context and the value that is most meaningful to them and committing to deliver value to them. By addressing the needs of all stakeholders, companies will unleash the network effects that can create exponentially expanding value for shareholders, and for all stakeholders.


NEW BOOK

My new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, will be published by McGraw Hill on May 25. It starts with the observation that fear is becoming the dominant emotion for people around the world. While understandable, fear is also very limiting.

The book explores a variety of approaches we can pursue to cultivate emotions of hope and excitement that will help us to move forward despite fear and achieve more of our potential. It's received some great endorsements! You can pre-order the book at Amazon.

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