Re-Imagining the Potential of Achieving Your Potential

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Re-Imagining the Potential of Achieving Your Potential

Category:Connections,Context,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Passion,Potential

Many of us were living in fear, even before the current pandemic hit. But it’s interesting to me that, even in times of great fear, we have a hunger for hope. That’s been brought home to me by the number of people I’ve encountered (virtually) over the past several months who have observed that this crisis is prompting them to reflect on what really matters to them. And. most interestingly, they are actively seeking to accomplish more of what really matters to them, not just hold on to what they have today.

Let’s explore where this drive to achieve more of our potential might lead us.

What potential?

As humans, we all have infinite potential – we can cultivate a vast array of potential talents and accomplish amazing things. But, as motivated and talented as we might be, we’ll never be able to cultivate all those talents. We have to focus. Which of the infinite dimensions of potential will we choose to cultivate?

Passion can help us to focus. I’ve written extensively about passion, including here and here. To be clear, I’m focused on a very specific form of passion, something that I call the “passion of the explorer.” I encountered this form of passion in my research into arenas where there is sustained extreme performance improvement – I found that participants in these arenas had this specific form of passion.

People with this form of passion have three attributes: a long-term commitment to making an increasing impact in a chosen domain, a questing disposition and a connecting disposition. People with this form of passion have chosen a domain that deeply excites them – it could be anything from manufacturing or healthcare to knitting or big wave surfing.

This commitment to a domain, and to making an increasing impact in that domain, focuses us on the potential talents and abilities that we must develop in order to make an increasing impact in that domain. In my view, it is the most powerful motivation to learn and achieve more of our potential. If we find and cultivate this passion of the explorer, we will be driven to achieve the potential required to make a continually increasing impact in the domain. We will never let up – people who have this passion often talk about being in a marathon rather than a sprint because they recognize this is a long-term effort.

It’s the subject of another post, but I believe we all have this passion within us, waiting to be discovered. Some of us see it at a very early age but, for many, we still have not found it. In part, that’s because many of us have been told to forget about passion and simply acquire the skills necessary to earn a good living. In part, it’s because most of the institutions we work for are deeply suspicious of passion – people with this form of passion are not good at following orders and they are prone to take big risks in pursuit of the impact that matters to them. We’ve simply given up looking for the passion because our institutions and society discourage it.

That’s a tragedy, because that passion is there, waiting to be discovered and unleashed. And finding that passion will help us to achieve far more of our potential than any extrinsic motivations or simply grit or determination could make possible. By finding and focusing on our passion, we’ll achieve far more of our potential than randomly trying to cultivate as many of our talents as possible.

Achieving potential through impact on others

One interesting thing about passion is that it focuses us on increasing impact. That takes most of us outside of ourselves, because the impact is in the world around us, not inside us. That’s important because, many people, when they talk about achieving more of their potential, seem to be talking about going inward and just focusing on themselves as individuals. I’ve come to believe that the best way to achieve more of our potential as individuals is to connect more effectively with others in the world around us. And passion helps us to do this.

This happens in at least two ways. First, the way we measure increasing impact in a domain usually focuses on impact on others. Let’s say we’re passionate about designing tools and equipment that can help construction workers build better buildings. That requires a deep understanding of the context confronted by construction workers and the challenges they face as they go about their work. To develop that understanding, we would need to connect deeply with a broad range of construction workers. And, it would not be a one-time connection – we would need to stay connected so that we could explore how to have increasing impact on their work over time.

This doesn’t just apply to passion about designing products or interacting directly with customers in a marketing or sales context. Think about those who are passionate about fulfillment center operations (yes, there are those who are deeply passionate about this). Those people are driven to connect with both suppliers and logistics operators to understand how they can make more of a difference in their operations.

Now, I can hear the skeptics come up with examples of passion that are very much solo activities that don’t seem to involve impact on others. Think about people who are passionate about gardening – and it’s about cultivating their own garden, not the gardens of others. Or people who are passionate about woodworking and who don’t sell or share their extraordinary wood art with others.

There are certainly some extreme examples of people who are totally inwardly focused, but I would be cautious about whether those people are really passionate or driven by an obsession. There is a difference, something that I have explored here. One key difference is that passion helps build relationships and obsession inhibits them.

In this context, passionate people who are pursuing solo activities are still seeking to make an increasing impact, but the impact they are seeking is to inspire others and enrich the lives of others. Truly passionate gardeners show their gardens to others, not because they are showing off, but because they are driven to see what really has impact on others and to learn more about how to have even greater impact over time.

So, one way that the passion of the explorer helps to connect us with others is by inspiring us to achieve increasing impact on others. This passion motivates us to connect with others to understand the impact we are having and the potential for even more impact by addressing unmet needs or aspirations.

Achieving potential through collaborating with others

But the passion of the explorer motivates us to connect on another dimension as well. As I mentioned earlier, one of the attributes of the passion of the explorer is a connecting disposition. When confronted with new challenges and opportunities, people with this passion are driven to connect with others who might be able to help them come up with even better approaches to addressing those challenges and opportunities. They realize that, no matter how smart and talented they are, they will learn a lot faster and achieve more impact if they connect with others who share their passion or simply have expertise and insight that might help them come up with new ideas. People with the passion of the explorer are connected into much broader and more diverse networks than people who have not yet found their passion of the explorer.

So, passion motivates us to achieve more of our potential and drives us to connect with others on two levels. Rather than narrowing our horizons and isolating us, the drive to achieve more of our potential provides a powerful fuel to broaden and deepen our connection with others.

The power of diverse networks

That fuel becomes even more powerful when we begin to realize the network effects that it can unleash. As we’ve all come to realize, the value of participating in networks increases exponentially as the number of participants grows. In this context, we’ll begin to see that we can accelerate our ability to achieve more of our potential as we connect with more people, especially if they are motivated by a similar passion to achieve increasing impact in a given domain.

We can achieve even more of our potential if these expanding networks have greater diversity in terms of the backgrounds, skills and perspectives of the participants. If we’re just connecting with people who are similar to us, we’ll never learn as fast as when we connect with a more diverse set of people.

Of course, diversity can lead to fragmentation and loss of focus, but what makes this diversity so powerful is when everyone shares a commitment to achieving increasing impact in a specific domain and agrees on ways to measure that impact. Then we unleash the productive friction that can be a powerful driver of learning.

The need for institutional change

As we begin to realize the power of connection in helping us to achieve far more of our potential, we’ll begin to see how our institutional environment today limits our ability to connect, rather than expanding our ability to connect. As I’ve written about in the Big Shift perspective, our institutions today are driven by scalable efficiency models that focus on protecting existing stocks of knowledge, rather than helping us to participate in a broader range of flows of knowledge.

That’s why people with the passion of the explorer are often deeply frustrated within our existing institutions. They are often pounding the table, upset about the barriers that are preventing them from connecting in ways that will help them to increase their impact. That’s also why people with the passion of the explorer are often deeply suspect within our existing institutions – they’re the discontents and the troublemakers.

The growing realization that achieving more of our potential requires broader and richer ways of connecting with others will lead those with passion to see that our existing institutions are limiting our ability to achieve more of that potential. We need to shift from institutions that are driven by scalable efficiency models to institutions that are driven by scalable learning models, as I’ve written about here. This is a key reason why those who have been drawn into the human potential movement will eventually join forces with those who are drawn into social change movements. While largely separate today, these movements will need to come together to achieve their full potential, as I’ve written about here.

Bottom line

Achieving more of our potential is not an inward looking and isolating aspiration. If we truly understand that our potential is to make more of a meaningful difference in the domains that matter to us, we will begin to see that achieving more of our potential will require us to connect much more deeply and broadly with others. If we get this right, we will unleash powerful network effects that will enable us to learn at a much faster rate than we would have ever imagined possible and that will finally enable us to achieve exponential potential.


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Connecting for Impact

Category:Connections,Emotions,Movements,Narratives,Opportunity,Potential

For decades now, we’ve seen two types of movements unfolding around the world. They’re having impact, but they’re limited by their separation. Scalable and sustainable impact will hinge on finding ways to more effectively connect these parallel efforts.

Human potential

The human potential movement is one of these movements. In its current incarnation, it began to take shape in the 1960’s and 1970’s and has been steadily evolving since then. While many view this as a movement, the truth is that it’s actually a collection of strands that are addressing different dimensions of human potential – everything from stress reduction and bad habit elimination to spiritual growth and enhancing physical wellness.

What connects all these strands is a focus on the opportunity to help each of us achieve more of our potential as human beings. Participants in this movement are driven by the view that we as human beings have only tapped into a small portion of the potential that is available to all of us. There’s so much more potential to be accessed and drawn out.

Change movements

But there’s another set of movements that have been unfolding in parallel. These movements are focused on driving broader change in our economy and society. Once again there are many strands in this set of movements. Many of them are focused on addressing “wicked problems” like climate change, discrimination, disease, and unemployment. Others are focused on driving institutional change – think of movements to drive change in our schools or to cultivate more social responsibility in our commercial institutions. And many have broader social or political agendas, like challenging autocratic regimes or reducing barriers to movement across national boundaries.

Regardless of their specific focus, these movements are driven by the belief that we need to evolve beyond the institutions, economies and societies that today are often viewed as barriers to human development.

Barriers to impact

These two sets of movements have been moving in parallel over decades. But, here’s the thing. There’s very little interaction across these two sets of movements. One set of movements appears to believe that it’s all about us as individuals (or small self-help groups) and that it’s completely up to us to achieve more of our potential. The other set of movements seems to believe that it’s all about the institutions, economy and society that surround us and, if only we could change those, we would eliminate the forces that are creating massive problems for humanity.

I have a very different perspective. I believe that, until we find a way to more effectively connect these two sets of movements, we will only achieve a small fragment of the unlimited potential that is truly available to us.

Let’s dive into this. Look at the human potential movement. It’s absolutely the case that we need to recognize that we have far more potential than we have so far achieved, and it is up to us to take action to improve ourselves. But we can only do so much. If we’re surrounded by institutions, economies and societies that are seeking to limit our potential, we’ll soon run into roadblocks and obstacles that, at best, will limit our ability to advance and, at worst, will undermine our efforts and eventually lead us to give up in frustration.

On the other side, let’s look at the broader change movements. If we seek to transform our institutions, economy and society to remove obstacles to human development, we’ll see limited impact from these efforts unless all of us as individuals are motivated to achieve more of our potential. If we as individuals fail to see the potential that is ours to achieve, we’ll continue to live our lives as before and fail to enjoy the potential benefits of our new surroundings. Even worse, we may join calls to return to our earlier institutions, economy and society because we find this new environment so alien and uncomfortable.

Connecting human potential and change movements

Now, imagine what we could accomplish if we connected these movements. On the one side, we would be cultivating a hunger within individuals to achieve more of their potential and launching them on a quest to grow and develop so that they can have much more of an impact that matters to them. On the other side, we would be transforming our institutions, economy and society with the specific intent to create environments that will encourage the efforts of everyone to achieve more of their potential and, most importantly, provide them with opportunities to accelerate their growth and amplify their potential.

We would be launching a virtuous cycle. The more people see obstacles and roadblocks to their development being removed, the more motivated they will be to raise their aspirations and pursue their quest with even more energy. And the more we see how our institutions, economy and society are drawing out more of the potential that resides within all of us, the more motivated we will be to continue on the transformation journey and evolve our environments in ways that draw out even more of that potential. Rather than limiting our impact and undermining our ability to sustain it, we would be creating the conditions to unleash exponential potential, forever.

Focusing on the opportunity that can bring us together

But there’s more. One of the challenges facing the broader change movements is they have tended to adopt an approach that plays to fear and anger. The reason we need to change is because, if we don’t, we’re all going to die or, worse, fall into some dystopia that will never end.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been studying (and participating in) movements for most of my life and the most successful movements throughout history have been driven by something I call opportunity-based narratives. As many of you know, I make a key distinction between stories and narratives, even though most of us view these two words as meaning the same thing.

For me, the distinction (briefly) is that stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle and an end – and they’re not about the audience, they’re about other people. In contrast, narratives for me are open-ended. There is no end, yet. There’s a major threat or opportunity out in the future and it’s not yet clear how this will be resolved. The resolution of the narrative hinges on you – it is a call to action to the audience, telling them that their choices and actions are going to play a key role in resolving the narrative. (For those who want to read more about this, check out here and here.)

Narratives differ in terms of whether they focus on a threat or opportunity out in the future. I believe the most successful movements have relied on opportunity-based narratives because opportunities can inspire and motivate people to come together, overcome their fear, take risks and make bold moves. If we focus on threats, this tends to intensify fear, erode trust, polarize, and increase risk-aversion.

The broader change movements will have much more impact if they shift from threat-based narratives to opportunity-based narratives. By focusing on opportunities, these movements can help to overcome the polarization that increasingly challenges our societies and motivate people to come together in a quest to achieve an inspiring opportunity. They will help to connect us in ways that scale rapidly and harness the network effects that are required to drive fundamental change.

Framing broader opportunities

But there’s even more. As I mentioned before, both the human potential movements and the social change movements are not single movements, but instead a diverse set of movements that are at risk of becoming siloed. Take the example of the human potential movements. While they broadly fit under the umbrella of “human potential”, their focus tends to be on more narrowly defined opportunities like physical wellness or cultivating creativity.

While it’s certainly OK to target these specific opportunities, the ability to connect and scale more broadly hinges on framing an inspiring opportunity that embraces all these more specific opportunities. It would show how our efforts are part of something much bigger and that we are ultimately all in a quest for the same thing.

The umbrella name “human potential” needs more attention and effort to frame the broader opportunity to help all of us achieve more of our potential. We need to understand that human potential is a many-faceted opportunity and that we will be limiting our potential by focusing only on one dimension of our potential. It would also help to underscore that human potential is ultimately unlimited, especially if we take a more holistic view of that potential and come together to help each other achieve that potential.

Social change movements tend to be even more siloed, driven by their focus on very specific threats like pollution, poverty and sickness. There’s an opportunity here as well to expand our horizons as we shift from threat-based narratives to opportunity-based narratives. Once again, it’s fine to frame a specific opportunity like finding ways to more effectively integrate marginalized portions of our population into our economy and society. But how does this specific opportunity connect with a range of other opportunities driving the need for social change?

We need to invest more time and effort in framing an over-arching opportunity that can show how a growing range of social change movements are in fact connected and that they are all ultimately driven by a quest for a much broader opportunity. What if the bigger opportunity is to evolve a society, economy and institutions that helps all of us to come together in ways that will achieve more of our potential?

The biggest opportunity of all

And the biggest opportunity of all is one that can help to foster greater connection across personal growth movements and social change movements. What if the bigger opportunity that inspires all of us is to foster the motivation and conditions that will help all of us come together to achieve more and more of our infinitely expanding potential? In part, this is driven by a recognition that our potential as individuals will be dramatically expanded when we find ways to connect and collaborate in our quest to achieve greater impact. And, in part, this is driven by a recognition that achieving more and more of our potential hinges on both intrinsic motivation and environments that provide us with the support we need to have even greater impact.

Bottom line

The good news is that we have growing movement to unleash more of the potential that resides within us. We need to find ways to connect all this activity so that it can achieve even more impact. That begins by framing a broader, inspiring opportunity that shows how many of the initiatives already under way are in fact helping us to address a much bigger opportunity. By focusing on that broader and inspiring opportunity, we also will be able to attract a growing number of participants who see that they too can make a difference on something that matters to all of us.


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Leaders Learn

Category:Collaboration,Leadership,Learning

If you’re not learning,

You’re not a leader.

If you’re learning alone,

You’re not a leader.

Leaders mobilize many

To learn together.

They inspire others with awesome opportunities,

Inviting people to come together

And venture out to the edge,

Beyond their comfort zone.

Leaders pose powerful questions

And ask for help from others

To find the answers.

These questions focus,

Inspire

And challenge,

While building trust.

They urge us all to explore

Uncharted land

And expand our horizons

While driven by a shared quest.

Leaders inspire others

To lead others

In their quest for answers

That matter

Which, of course,

Will only lead to more questions

To be pursued

In a never-ending quest

For expanding opportunity

For everyone.

Don’t measure leaders

By the number of followers.

Instead measure leaders

By the number of leaders

They unleash.

Dare I say?

Leaders inspire us

To pursue our exponential potential.


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Strategies for the Launch Decade

Category:Crisis,Launch Decade,Opportunity,Strategy

Several months ago, I wrote a blog post celebrating the beginning of a new decade – I called it the Launch Decade. This was just as the current COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to surface in Wuhan, China. As an optimist, I view global crises like this one as a launchpad to drive significant positive change.

But that certainly won’t happen on its own. We need to adopt approaches that will help us to navigate through these trying times and target the significant opportunities that lie ahead. For a long time, I’ve been a proponent of three approaches that become even more compelling in times of great change – zoom out/zoom in strategies, shaping strategies and leveraged growth.

Zoom out/zoom in strategies

This is an approach to strategy that has been pursued by some of the most successful tech companies in Silicon Valley, as I have written about here. This strategy focuses on two time horizons.

The Zoom Out time horizon is 10-20 years and the two questions on this horizon are: What will relevant markets or industries look like 10-20 years from now? What are the implications for the kind of business or company we will need to become in order to thrive in this market or industry?

The Zoom In time horizon is very different – it’s 6-12 months. On this time horizon the key questions are: What are the 2-3 initiatives (no more) that we could pursue in the next 6-12 months that would have the greatest ability to accelerate our movement towards the longer-term opportunity we have identified? Do we have a critical mass of resources committed in the next 6-12 months to these 2-3 initiatives? How would we measure success – what are the metrics that matter?

This approach to strategy becomes even more compelling in times of great pressure like today, where there is a strong urge to shrink our time horizons and just sense and respond as quickly as we can to whatever is going on. While understandable, a reactive approach risks spreading ourselves too thin as we try to sense and respond to everything.

The zoom out/zoom in approach to strategy helps us to focus on a very big, long-term opportunity so that we can prioritize our near-term actions for the greatest long-term impact and avoid the risk that we incrementalize our way into oblivion. At the same time, this approach to strategy also emphasizes the need for aggressive short-term action and the opportunity to learn from that action. At a time when all our institutions are going to be coping with the challenge of limited resources, this approach can help to focus those scarce resources to move quickly and target significant emerging opportunities.

Shaping strategies

Crises like the one we are in can be catalysts for significant restructuring of markets and industries. Those who move forward assuming their market or industry will continue in its current form are likely to be in for a big surprise.

In this environment, there’s a significant opportunity to pursue shaping strategies, which I’ve written about in more depth here. Rather than passively trying to anticipate what the future might look like, shaping strategies seek to restructure markets and industries in ways that put the shaper in a privileged position.

Without going into too much detail here, shaping strategies consist of three components. First, they begin with a long-term shaping vision of what the industry or market could look like 10-20 years from now (note the intersection with zoom out/zoom in strategies) and they frame this vision in a way that highlights significant opportunities for a large number of other participants, and not just for the shaper. The goal here is to motivate many third parties to come together and invest to support the shaping strategy.

Second, shaping strategies deploy a shaping platform with the explicit goal of improving the economics of participation for these third parties. These platforms are designed to reduce the investment required to participate and to accelerate the ability to earn returns on investments made.

Third, shaping strategies involve a set of initiatives designed to overcome the potential skepticism of third parties by demonstrating the commitment of the shaper to the strategy and the ability of the shaper to successfully pursue the strategy. This could involve making a bold move on its own or potentially announcing partnerships with large players that would give the shaper access to key resources.

Shaping strategies are especially powerful in times of crises. Crises tend to challenge our current approaches to markets or industries and make participants more open to new approaches than they might be when the market or industry is doing well. By emphasizing the need to mobilize investment from a large number of third parties, shaping strategies also help the shaper to significantly increase impact, even when faced with the challenge of limited resources in the short-term.

Not all companies will choose to be shapers, but the choice is to shape or be shaped. If we choose not to be shapers, then we need to recognize that, in times of rapid change, other companies will emerge as shapers of our relevant markets or industries. We need to anticipate who those companies might be and find ways to participate effectively in the markets or industries they will restructure.

Leveraged growth

When companies address the need for growth, they tend to focus on two options – make or buy. We can grow either through internal investment and organic growth or by going out and making a major acquisition. In either case, growth requires significant resources – something that can be especially challenging as we come out of an economic downturn.

But the good news is that there’s a third option that is rarely considered, much less actively pursued. It’s what I call leveraged growth, an approach that I’ve written about here. This approach involves connecting with and mobilizing a growing number of third parties who can deliver value to your customers and capturing some of that value for ourselves. This approach to growth has been pioneered by companies in Asia and there’s a lot that Western companies can learn from their experience.

Think about the implications of this approach as we emerge from the current crisis. Companies that can show significant growth without a major commitment of resources are likely to be richly rewarded.

Beyond companies

So far, I’ve been framing these approaches in the context of companies. I hasten to suggest that these approaches are not just relevant for companies. They apply to all our institutions that are wrestling with the challenges of the current crisis – governments, schools, community organizations, NGO’s, etc.

But, there’s more. They also apply to us as individuals. Now, more than ever, we need to zoom out and zoom in to bring more focus into our lives so that we can achieve more impact that’s really meaningful to us. We need to find more creative ways to shape our context so that we can achieve even more impact. And our personal success will hinge on our ability to mobilize others who can provide value to those who matter to us, so that we’re not trying to do it all ourselves.

Bottom line

Crises can be launchpads for significant positive change. But that change will not happen on its own. It’s up to us to overcome our fear and to take action. And we’ll have a lot more impact if we come together with others, inspired by shared opportunities. If we do this right, we have an opportunity to unleash the exponential potential that resides within all of us and that is hungering to be drawn out.


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Exponential Potential

Category:Collaboration,Learning,Opportunity,Potential

We’ve all been encouraged

“Achieve your full potential”

While offered with the best of intentions,

That limits our potential.

If we achieve our full potential

Is that all there is?

There’s so much more.

What if our potential

Is exponential?

What if we find that achieving

More of our potential

Unlocks even more of our potential?

What if we find that,

By connecting with others,

We create even more potential,

For all of us

Individually and collectively?

If we unleash this potential

It will soon go exponential

Without any end in sight.

But it will only remain potential

Unless we commit to act

Together

To explore

The frontiers around us.

The sky is not the limit

And maybe the universe isn’t either.

The more we embrace our exponential potential,

The more motivated we will be

To act together

To pursue it

Regardless of the risk.

We all have a hunger

Deep inside us

To achieve more.

We need to feed

That hunger

And watch in awe

As we grow

Beyond any limits

We might have imagined.


  • 6

Small Smart Moves

Category:Collaboration,Opportunity,Small moves

Our world is overwhelming.

Competition intensifies

Complexity escalates

Change accelerates

Viruses spread

Pressure grows.

Such a world

Pulls us to passivity

As we feel the fear.

Small moves appear futile

And big moves are overwhelming.

But, what if the small moves

Were smartly made?

What if we pulled

Out of the pressures of the moment

And looked ahead

To see really big emerging opportunities?

What if we looked around

And found others

Who could be motivated

To join us?

What if we found some small moves

That could yield rapid impact

And help us to learn faster?

Those small moves,

Smartly made,

Could set very big things in motion,

Helping us

To address exponentially expanding opportunity.

It’s time to move.


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Connections and Context

Category:Connections,Context,Creation Spaces,Flow,Learning,Narratives,Trust

As we sit in physical isolation, what better time to reflect on what helps to nurture deep connections with others? This is a natural sequel to my earlier blog post on viral flows.

Building deep trust-based relationships

As you probably know, I’ve long been a champion of flows that will help all of us to learn faster and to achieve more of our potential. The richest flows are those that occur among people as they interact with each other and build deeper relationships.

This is because the most valuable knowledge is tacit knowledge – new knowledge that we have acquired as we act in our specific contexts and that we have a hard time articulating for ourselves, much less for anyone else. As my colleague, John Seely Brown, likes to say, tacit knowledge is very “sticky” – it doesn’t flow easily because it’s challenging to share. The most effective way of accessing tacit knowledge is by forming deep, trust-based relationships that allow us to work closely together and watch each other in action.

Context matters

So, what’s required to build these deep, trust-based relationships? Well, of course, many things, but let me start by focusing on context. People trust each other only if they believe that the other person really understands who they are. And understanding who someone is involves the ability to read their context. None of us live in complete isolation, even in these trying times. We have a rich social and economic context that shapes our emotions, beliefs and actions.

Who are the people who matter to us and why? What are the economic pressures and opportunities that can motivate us to act? What is it in our environment that inspires us or, alternatively, fills us with fear? What are we trying to improve in our environment and why? Alternatively, what obstacles or barriers are we confronting in our environment that are limiting our ability to have the impact that matters to us?

The more we can show that we understand the context of the people we’re connecting with, and what they’re trying to achieve in that context, the more likely those people will be to trust us. And here’s the catch – contexts are fractal. Each context resides within a broader context.

For example, someone’s immediate context may be their nuclear family, their home and their job. But that context is shaped by a broader context of their extended family, their neighborhood and the department they work in. And that context in turn is shaped by a broader network of relationships, the town or city that the neighborhood is located in and the institution that the department resides in. I could go on, but you get the point.

We need to make an effort to understand those broader contexts for all the people we’re connecting with so that we have a rich understanding of the many factors that may be shaping their emotions, beliefs and actions.

And it becomes even more challenging. No context is static. In a rapidly changing world, the contexts we live in are rapidly evolving. We need to try to understand the dynamics that are shaping the context of others. The most powerful way to build trust is to anticipate how someone’s context is evolving and how their needs and aspirations might evolve as a result.

Create shared context

Building deep relationships is not just about reading context. It’s also about creating new context. How do we do that?

There are many ways, but one powerful approach is to frame an inspiring opportunity and powerful questions that need to be answered in order to address the opportunity. If we can frame an opportunity that can motivate us to come together and collaborate on shared goals, we’re much more likely to trust each other than if we see ourselves as operating in separate contexts with independent goals.

This leads me into my work on opportunity-based narratives. As I’ve written before, I make an important distinction between stories and narratives, even though most people use these terms as synonyms.

For me, a story is self-contained – it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories are about the story teller or some other people, they’re not about you, the people in the audience. In contrast, for me, a narrative is open-ended – it focuses on an opportunity or threat out in the future. It isn’t yet clear whether the opportunity or threat will be successfully addressed. The resolution of the narrative ultimately depends on you, in the audience – your choices and actions will determine how the narrative resolves. Narratives thus represent a powerful call to action.

For reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, I believe opportunity-based narratives are particularly powerful in a time of mounting pressure when more and more of us are experiencing the emotion of fear. They can help us to overcome that fear because we’re coming together to achieve something that is exciting and inspiring.

Opportunity-based narratives can provide a context for framing powerful questions. What are the questions that need to be answered before the opportunity can be realized? Once again, these questions are a call to action, but they’re much more.

They provide an opportunity to express vulnerability – to openly acknowledge that we don’t yet have the answers we need and that we need help. Willingness to express vulnerability builds trust and that builds much deeper relationships. These questions also provide a very tangible context for our relationships with others – we’re coming together with the goal of answering challenging questions that can provide the key to unlocking big opportunities.

Deepening and scaling connections

Here’s a challenge. Really deep relationships don’t scale. This is why I’ve become a champion of creation spaces which I’ve explored in greater depth here. The basic building block of creation spaces is a small group of 5-15 people who come together very frequently (often several times each week) and who are committed to acting in effort to achieve a shared outcome. Their interactions focus on framing the actions that can have the greatest impact and reflecting on the impact that has already been achieved in a continuing effort to accelerate impact. By coming together in this way, the participants in each small group develop deep trust-based relationships with each other.

But how do these connections scale? These small groups come together into networks that provide a way for participants to connect more broadly in their quest to scale impact. They are connecting because they are inspired by the same long-term opportunity and driven to answer the questions that stand in the way of achieving the opportunity. These networks provide a context for collaboration in the quest to address a shared opportunity.

Bottom line

Context matters for cultivating connections. But don’t just take context as a given that needs to be seen and understood. That’s just the beginning. The most powerful way to cultivate connections at scale is to shape a new shared context that can bring more and more people together and encourage them to build deeper relationships with each other. Shaping shared context can help all participants to learn at an accelerating rate and recognize that they can accomplish a lot more together than they could ever achieve on their own.


  • 1

Bore Down Into Boredom

Category:Collaboration,Emotions,Opportunity

In a time of crisis,

Why are so many

Complaining of boredom?

If you’re bored,

Look within,

Look ahead,

And look around.

Explore inside

To discover the potential

That is waiting to be drawn out.

Then reflect on the emotions

That are holding you back.

Look ahead to imagine

The impact that you might achieve

As you cultivate your potential.

What’s the big opportunity

That could inspire you

To move forward

And overcome the emotions

That are holding you back?

What are the first steps

You could take today

To move forward

In your quest?

Look around to find others

Who might be inspired

By that same opportunity for impact.

Reach out to them

And begin a conversation

To explore together.

As you embark on this journey

Notice the boredom receding

And the awesome blossom

Of a new life

Beginning to take shape.


  • 3

Viral Flows

Category:Crisis,Emotions,Flow,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Narratives,Strategy

For over a decade, I’ve been writing about the Big Shift. There are many dimensions to this shift, but our current crisis highlights the role of flows. In this post, I want to explore the paradox of flows – flows can be both a source of exponential growth and a source of severe regression. We need to understand both dimensions of flows if we want to flourish.

What are flows?

Flows take many different forms. My focus has been on the flows of knowledge that feed learning by helping to create new knowledge at an accelerating pace. At their foundation, these flows involve connections across people, including serendipitous connections that weren’t anticipated. Urbanization around the world has been accelerating for decades precisely because we have an intuitive sense that we will learn faster in densely populated areas than we ever could, even with all our digital infrastructures and connectivity, in small towns or rural areas.

The flows of people, and the knowledge we all possess, including tacit knowledge, are augmented by other kinds of flows – data, goods and money. These flows have expanded globally for decades and are supporting the flows of knowledge that help us to accelerate learning. They have been a key driver of increasing global prosperity and the rapid reduction in poverty in more and more countries.

There’s a growing realization that, the more of us who participate in these flows, the faster we will all learn. The more inclusive the flows become, the more we will all prosper, as the learning goes exponential.

Systems that thrive are ones that increase the flows over time – here I have been very much influenced by the work of Adrian Bejan and his Constructal Law:  there is a universal tendency toward design in nature, in the physics of everything, to evolve configurations so that they flow more easily, to create greater access to the currents they move.

The dark side of flows

But not all flows accelerate learning. Some flows become significant barriers to learning. What do I mean?

Let me start with something that has increasingly occupied my attention. Emotions tend to spread virally. If many people are feeling a certain way, other people around them become susceptible to the same feelings.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I am struck by the spread of fear as the dominant emotion globally – and that was before the current crisis! Fear can be contagious – if everyone around me is afraid, I am more likely to become afraid as well.

Emotions tend to cascade on their own, but they spread even more rapidly when amplified by news media that tend to focus on the latest disaster or crisis. When was the last time you heard a good news story (and I’m talking about even before the current crisis)? And, let’s not even mention the spread of fake news designed to amplify fear.

Emotions differ in terms of their impact on learning, but fear is one that has great potential to inhibit learning. If I’m afraid, I shorten my time horizons, I become much more risk averse and I become much less trusting of others. I’m much more likely to block the flows that will help me to learn faster because they increase uncertainty. Instead of flows, I seek stability.

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, fear in turn can become a catalyst for other emotions that become barriers to learning – hatred, anger, stress and loneliness. These can go viral as well. When we experience these emotions, we need to look within to determine whether and how fear might be shaping these emotions. Many of us are unwilling to express fear because it’s viewed as a sign of weakness, so we manifest fear through other emotions.

Of course, there are other flows that can become barriers to learning. Viruses of all types – human and digital – can spread rapidly and block our efforts to learn faster. The more connected we are, the more vulnerable we can become to these viruses. We need to find more effective ways to anticipate the emergence of these viruses, contain their spread and limit the damage they can cause. We need to understand how destructive these viruses can be, not just in the short-term, but also in the longer-term, if we allow them to diminish the flows that support learning.

Crises as a catalyst for change – and progress

Crises can, of course, strengthen the barriers to learning and change, but historical experience also suggests that they can become catalysts for change by providing us with an opportunity to reflect on our experience and explore new approaches that can help us to achieve more. They may provide us with a greater appreciation for the flows that accelerate learning and increase our desire to strengthen the flows that accelerate learning. My hope is that our current crisis will drive us to expand the flows that accelerate learning and find ways to reduce the impact of flows that are obstacles to learning.

Let me offer one example. Over the past several decades, Western companies have increasingly outsourced activities and off-shored them in the quest to reduce costs. We have seen the growth of global supply chains.

But here’s the problem. These global supply chains are exactly what the name implies – rigid connections among a select few participants that are tightly managed to become as efficient as possible. Scalable efficiency at its best!

While very efficient in stable times, these supply chains become vulnerable to disruption when large-scale, unexpected events occur. In rapidly changing times, we need to move from supply chains to supply networks. Rather than a very limited number of suppliers in our supply chain, we need to expand our reach to encompass much larger and more diverse networks of participants so that we can become much more flexible in responding to unanticipated events.

But there’s more. Companies that move in this direction tend to take a very short-term, static view of their network. They need to access a given set of resources or services, so the focus is on how to do the best short-term transactions – buy low, sell high.

The supply networks that will thrive in the future are those that focus on how to cultivate scalable learning over time among all the participants – what kinds of long-term relationships can be built that will accelerate learning and performance improvement among all the participants? These are very different kinds of networks, but they can be very powerful in terms of harnessing network effects and increasing returns. Evolving networks in this direction can be very challenging because they will require fundamentally different business and technology architectures, but the rewards will be significant. And the current crisis could be a powerful catalyst in motivating us to move in this direction.

Broader institutional change

Moving from supply chains to supply networks is just one dimension of much larger institutional change that we will need to drive if we want to strengthen flows that accelerate learning. As I’ve written before, we are in the early stages of a Big Shift that will require profound institutional transformation. Our institutions today are driven by a model of scalable efficiency. In the quest for scalable efficiency, we have tightly specified all activities that need to be performed, highly standardized those activities and tightly integrated all those activities. In other words, we have created institutions that are highly resistant to flows.

In order to thrive in a rapidly changing world, we need to shift our institutional models from scalable efficiency to scalable learning. Scalable learning institutions focus on creating environments that will help all participants – not just those in research labs or innovation centers – to learn faster in the workplace by addressing unseen problems and opportunities to create more value. These institutions seek to expand their participation in a broader range of more diverse flows so that they can accelerate learning.

Dampening the negative effects of flows

To tap into the potential of crises to accelerate learning we’ll also need to find ways to dampen the negative effects of flows – here, I’m referring to the spread of fear as the dominant emotion. What can we do to reverse that?

Those of you who’ve been following me for a while can anticipate my answer – we need to frame inspiring, opportunity-based narratives that can help people to overcome their fear and move forward together. As some of you know, I make a significant distinction between stories and narratives which you can find here.

We very much need people who can frame these opportunity-based narratives and motivate people to take near-term action that can help them to learn faster in their quest to achieve the longer-term opportunities identified by the narratives.

Just as fear can become contagious, the emotions cultivated by opportunity-based narratives – excitement, hope and passion – can become contagious as well, helping others to overcome their fear and join forces in the quest for something inspiring. Rather than becoming barriers to learning, these emotions can become powerful accelerators of learning. People with passion flourish in flows while those without passion can be overwhelmed.

Flows and filters

Flows can become overwhelming if we don’t have a way to focus. This is another powerful role of opportunity-based narratives – they help to focus us together on inspiring opportunities. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by flows and being pulled in a thousand different directions at once, we can begin to apply filters to help us find the flows that will help us to learn faster to address the specific opportunities that have been defined.

In this context, I’ve become a strong proponent of zoom out/zoom in approaches to strategy. These approaches focus on two very different time horizons in parallel – 10-20 years and 6-12 months. On the zoom-out side, the challenge is to align around a view of the longer-term future and the opportunities that will emerge in that future. On the zoom-in side, the challenge is to align around 2-3 initiatives that can be taken in the next 6-12 months that will have the greatest impact in accelerating movement towards the longer-term opportunity.

This approach to strategy is certainly relevant to businesses that have become increasingly consumed by short-term quarterly results and responding to whatever is happening in the moment. But it can also be very valuable for all other institutions and communities and even for each of us as individuals.

This strategy is powerful on many dimensions, but on one key dimension, it helps people to overcome their fear by framing a powerful longer-term opportunity (see the connection with opportunity-based narratives?) and then focusing them on near-term action that can deliver quick impact and build confidence that the longer-term opportunity can be achieved.

Bottom line

Crises can be a catalyst for change. It is up to us whether we choose to harness this potential for change. We have an opportunity to drive change that will significantly expand and enrich the flows that can help all of us to learn faster and achieve far more of our potential. We all have an opportunity to flourish by learning faster together. Let’s find ways to make learning viral.

In this context, I cringe at the use of the word “resilience” in describing how we should respond to this crisis. As I’ve written before, most people use resilience with the intention of “bouncing back” – getting back to where we were is the goal. Why would we want to just get back to where we were? Why not view this as an opportunity to leap forward by learning from our experience and driving the change that will help all of us to get better faster?


  • 5

The Pandemic Paradox

Category:Uncategorized

We’re surrounded by sickness

Hiding from a hideous bug

While flowers bloom

And Spring spreads its wings.

Crises can narrow our vision

But crises can also be a catalyst

For reflection and learning.

Crises can push us

To hold on to old ways,

But they can also pull us

To explore new ways.

Crises can isolate us,

But they can also

Bring us together.

Crises can make us risk averse,

But they can also

Motivate us to be bold

And take more risk.

Let’s not just

Settle for bouncing back.

Instead, let’s view crises

As a launchpad

So we can spring together

To new levels of achievement.


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