Scaling the Edge – Making It Personal

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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


  • 1

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.


  • 5

Loss Can Be Growth

Category:Crisis,Emotions,Learning,Loss,Opportunity

Flowers blossoming in Death Valley

This is a period of loss

For many of us.

Loss is hard to take.

Something or someone

Meaningful to us

Is gone,

Perhaps forever.

It fills us

With sadness and regret.

There’s an emptiness

That seeks to be filled.

Let’s view loss as an opportunity.

Take the time to reflect –

What was it that was so meaningful,

That is no longer there?

What we lost was unique,

But the meaning

May be found elsewhere.

We just need to know

What to look for.

A deeper understanding of meaning

And why our loss was so meaningful

Could help us in our journey ahead.

We would be more aware

Of the meaning that matters

And be more focused

In seeking it out.

Growth is about

Finding more meaning.

Loss can give us much more insight

Into the meaning

That will help us to

Grow and flourish

Far beyond

Where we are today.

If we prepare fertile ground,

Flowers will blossom,

And our lives will be a lot richer

And, it’s even possible that

What we have lost

May return,

But with much more richness.


  • 1

A Deep Dive Into the Passion of the Explorer

Category:Collaboration,Crisis,Emotions,Exploration,Learning,Passion,Potential

During the current pandemic, I’m struck by the number of people who have told me that this crisis has been a catalyst for them to reflect on what’s really important to them. Through reflection, they’ve come to realize that most of their time has been spent on activities that have little, if any, meaning for them.

As an optimist, I’d like to believe that is one positive outcome of the pandemic – it will be a catalyst for us to reflect on what really matters to us – what are we really passionate about? The challenge is that most of us have not yet found the passion that can provide us with a living. In fact, a survey that I recently completed of the US workforce indicates that, at most, only about 14% of US workers are passionate about the work they are doing.

There are many reasons for this. In part, we live in a society that tells us from an early age to focus on a career that will pay us well and that passion is something to be pursued after hours, as a hobby. We also work in institutions that are deeply suspicious of passion – passionate people tend to take risks and often deviate from their assigned tasks.

But the paradox is that we live in a world of mounting performance pressure where passion becomes the key to turning pressure into opportunity. To be clear, I’m talking about a very specific form of passion – the passion of the explorer – that emerged from my research into arenas where participants deliver sustained extreme performance improvement. This form of passion has three components:

  • A long-term commitment to achieving increasing impact in a specific domain
  • A questing disposition that seeks out new challenges
  • A connecting disposition that seeks to connect with others when addressing new challenges to achieve greater impact

People with this form of passion are motivated to learn faster and will be the most successful in a rapidly changing world. If you’re not passionate about the work you’re doing, you’ll fall further and further behind as you compete with people who are passionate. And, of course, you won’t find much meaning in your work to give you a sense of fulfillment.

I’m hopeful that this pandemic will drive more and more of us to embark on a quest to find and nurture our passion, and to find a way to make a living by pursuing our passion. In the new book that I’m writing, I focus on the lessons that I’ve learned on my journey to uncover my passion and integrate it with my profession.

On the side, I’ve been collaborating with Tracey Grose, who is putting together a program where I can share some of these lessons with others who are on a similar journey. Those who participate in this program will get a preview, and a deeper dive, into some of the approaches that I will be covering in this new book.

In this program, Catalyzing Impact, we’ll start by explaining why the passion of the explorer is becoming more and more central to success. It will help to reinforce the growing awareness that passion is not just a “nice to have,” but a “must have” if we are going to thrive in an increasingly challenging world.

But the bulk of the program will focus on the approaches that can help us to find and cultivate our passion of the explorer and then integrate it with our work. I will challenge everyone to find this passion within themselves, driven by a belief that we all, as human beings, have a capacity for, and hunger for, the passion of the explorer.

Part of this involves reflection on our past, but it also requires us to look ahead and reflect on what our view of the future is and how it shapes our actions today. It also will involve looking around and looking for patterns in people who inspire us and who give us energy.

We will also look at the work that consumes much of our lives and focus on the activities, if any, that generate excitement within us. While many of us will not find ways to cultivate passion in the work that we are currently pursuing, there are sometimes opportunities to evolve our current work in ways that are more aligned with the passion of the explorer that we are uncovering.

More likely than not, we’ll find many elements that could be indicators of the passion that resides within us. Part of our effort will be to weave these elements together as we begin to see underlying patterns that connect what at first appear to be diverse elements. While some will be struck with a sudden revelation of the passion within themselves, for many this will be the beginning of a longer journey of exploration.

Part of the program will be designed to help participants pursue their exploration beyond the program. In this context, I will highlight the role that impact groups can play in our journey. My experience is that journeys become a lot more enriching and enlightening when made together with others.

I’ve become a strong proponent of participation in small impact groups – they typically involve 3-15 people. The participants in these impact groups share a commitment to a quest – in this case, it is the effort to find and cultivate a passion of the explorer. They meet on a regular basis – usually weekly, if not more frequently – and they build deep, trust-based relationships with each other as they pursue their journey together. They challenge each other to make more progress, but they also encourage and support each other when they run into unexpected obstacles or challenges.

This program will help participants to understand the value of these impact groups. It will provide guidance on how to bring these impact groups together and how to manage these impact groups so that participants can get the most value from their interactions.

The intent is for the program to be a catalyst for discovery and to motivate people to pursue a journey that is designed to help them discover and cultivate their passion of the explorer and to find ways to integrate that passion with their work so that they can increase their impact in a meaningful way in all dimensions of their lives. I hope you will be able to join Tracey and me in this program – please sign up here.


  • 23

Beyond Our Edge

Category:Collaboration,Creation Spaces,Edges,Emotions,Exploration,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Movements,Narratives,Opportunity,Passion,Potential,Trust

I’ve got some exciting news. I’ve opened up a new company – Beyond Our Edge, LLC.  Its goal is to motivate more and more people to come together and move beyond our edge so that we can achieve more of our potential together. Many of us are already drawn to our edge, but we’ll be much more likely to move beyond our edge if we come together on the journey. I’ve always been inspired by the African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.”

This move has been made possible by my retirement from Deloitte, even though I have no intention of “retiring.” I’m now free to venture beyond my edge and I’ll want to connect with others who share my passion for exploration and driving meaningful change.

My next book

In that context, my first priority is to finish writing my next book – its working title is “From Pressure to Passion.” Two triggers motivated me to write this book. First, even though my business career has been largely focused on business strategy, I’ve come to believe that achieving impact depends less on strategy and more on psychology – if we don’t see and understand the emotions that are driving our choices and actions, we’ll never achieve what we really need and want. Second, as I’ve traveled around the world over the past several years (well before the current pandemic), the dominant emotion that I encountered everywhere is fear – at the highest levels of organizations, on the front lines and out in the community.

While that fear is understandable – there are many reasons to be afraid – it’s also potentially very dysfunctional. We need to acknowledge the fear but, equally importantly, we need to find ways to cultivate hope and excitement that will motivate us to move forward in spite of our fear. My new book is partly about my personal journey from fear to hope and excitement, but it draws on that experience to outline approaches that we all can use to make that journey.

While my book focuses on helping people to make this personal journey, it also highlights the need to drive fundamental change in the environments that we live in. We’re in a world that’s rapidly evolving. It’s a paradoxical world – it provides exponentially expanding opportunity as well as mounting performance pressure.

Bringing movements together

Right now, most of us are experiencing mounting performance pressure, in part because all our institutions were designed for an earlier, more stable world. The institutions that provided stability in the past are increasingly proving ill-equipped for the rapidly changing world around us. We all see this. It’s a key reason that trust in all our institutions is eroding around the world. It’s also feeding our fear – the institutions that we thought we could rely on are increasingly failing us.

Our institutions have become significant barriers to our efforts to harness the exponentially expanding opportunity that’s now becoming available to us. So, even if we find ways to overcome our fear and take more bold moves to pursue opportunities, we’ll find our existing institutions standing in our way and limiting our potential for impact.

That’s why we need to drive change on two fronts – individual change and institutional change. For decades, we’ve had two movements proceeding in parallel – the human potential movement and social change movements. The challenge is that there’s very little interaction between these two movements – it’s either all about helping individuals to overcome their internal obstacles or driving change in the broader society or economy. Unless we can drive change on both fronts, we’ll never create the conditions that will enable all of us to achieve much more of our potential by harnessing exponentially expanding opportunity. We need to find ways to bring these two movements together.

Impact groups inspired by narratives

It will come as no surprise to those who’ve been following me to hear that I believe the key to bringing these two movements together is to focus on organizing small impact groups that can then connect and scale their efforts through broader networks and platforms.

Let me be clear – to harness exponentially expanding opportunities, we need to come together. If we act alone, we’ll only achieve a small fraction of the potential available to us. By coming together, we’ll be much more likely to overcome our fear and find the courage to move beyond our edges and achieve much more of our potential.

What will it take to bring us together? I’ve become a strong proponent of opportunity-based narratives that frame really big, inspiring opportunities in the future and that represent a call to action to all of us today, emphasizing that those opportunities will not be achieved unless we act together. Imagine what amazing things we could accomplish if we all came together?

Understanding edges

As we come together, we need to find ways to help each other move beyond our edge. In this context, edges have many meanings. At one level, edges are defined by areas of expertise – for example, marketing, economics or equipment maintenance. At another level, edges are defined by our comfort zones – where do we start to become uncomfortable when confronted with new experiences?

For many of us, edges create the image of a cliff where we need to be very careful or we’ll slip and slide into oblivion. I prefer to view edges as walls – they’re the boundaries that limit our ability to explore and discover more of our potential. And we can’t just look beyond the walls, we need to climb over the walls and explore the territory that’s been hidden from us.

Sure, venturing beyond these walls can be scary and make us very uncomfortable because we’re venturing into unknown territory, but we’re much more likely to make the journey if we’re joined by others whom we trust and who will provide us with support and encouragement. We’re also likely to learn more if we go together, rather than heading out alone. No matter how smart any of us are, we’ll learn a lot faster if we’re sharing experiences with others and learning through action together.

Bottom line

I’m hoping that my new book will become a catalyst to motivate more of us to venture beyond our edge together. Over the next several months, I’ll be looking to connect with others who share my conviction that there’s exponentially expanding opportunity available to all of us if we choose to address the root causes that are holding us back – the emotion of fear within all of us and the institutions that are increasingly serving as barriers to progress. It’s an unprecedented opportunity, but we need to act now, together, and venture beyond our edge.


  • 1

Direction, Not Destination

Category:Learning,Opportunity,Poem,Potential

We’re all on a journey.

Or we should be.

Many of us have stopped,

And remain stuck,

Afraid of what

Might lie ahead.

Some of us are on a journey

Dictated by others,

In an effort to please.

As we embrace our own journey

Avoid the advice

To pick a destination.

Our journey is without end.

There is no destination.

But let’s not wander aimlessly.

We need to find a direction

So that we can make progress

And keep looking ahead.

That direction

Needs to be our own direction,

Not someone else’s.

It’s the direction

That fills us with excitement

And drives us

To keep moving forward.

When we find that direction,

We’ll be unstoppable

And make great progress.

Our journey will be without end

Because there’s so much to explore

And experience.

We’ll savor what we see,

But we’ll always be drawn

Beyond the horizon.


  • 2

Far Beyond Fear

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Emotions,Opportunity,Poem

Look far to overcome fear

And go far.

Fear shrinks our horizons,

Both in time and distance.

We become consumed

By the moment

And by what’s near us.

We lose perspective on

What’s ahead

And what’s in the world

Around us.

We need to

Expand our horizons.

If we look far enough ahead

We will see really big opportunities

If we look far enough around,

We will see many people who can help us

Achieve those opportunities

We’re not alone.

To look far

We need to look within.

Within, we will find

What we need.

We all have

A hunger for impact.

We all want to make a difference,

A big difference.

That will drive us to look far

And move far beyond our fear.


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