Category Archives: Connections

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Growing Into Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why growth has a bad reputation

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

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

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

What’s the alternative?

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

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

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

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

Maybe there’s another perspective

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

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

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

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

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

Back to growth

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom line

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


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Support AND Challenge

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

 

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

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

We all need support

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

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

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

Challenging to support

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

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

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

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

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

The broader context

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

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

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

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

Coming together to accelerate learning

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

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

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

Scaling impact

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

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

Bottom line

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

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


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Emotion as the Foundation of Strategy

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

Credit to CuriousArtLab

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

The Big Shift in the world

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

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

The opportunity for strategy

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

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

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

Focusing on unmet emotional needs

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

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

Increasing leverage

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

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

Accelerating learning

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

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

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

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

Loyalty and the pull it generates

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

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

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

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

The Big Shift in strategy

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

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

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

The bottom line

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

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


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Leveraging Longevity: Evolve Your Narrative

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

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

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

The Boomer opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

The role of personal narrative

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

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

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

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

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

Fragmentation expands opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Boomers – an opportunity for everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom line

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

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


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 10

From the Gig Economy to the Guild Economy

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Creation Spaces,Flow,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Opportunity,Trust,Workgroups

More and more people are talking about the future of work. In those conversations, something that’s getting quite a bit of attention is the “gig economy,” where more and more work is being done by independent contractors and not by full-time employees. While that’s certainly an interesting trend, I prefer to look ahead and anticipate what’s next. In that context, I’d suggest that we’re going to evolve from a “gig economy” to a “guild economy.”

Forces at work

The growth of the gig economy is a result of many forces coming together. A core driver of the gig economy is the evolution of the scalable efficiency model that drives most of our large institutions. As I’ve written about elsewhere, the scalable efficiency model has shaped our large institutions around the world for at least the past century.

This model is driven by the belief that the key to success is to do things faster and cheaper at scale. Enormous wealth and institutional success have been the result, which is why institutional leaders are so wedded to this model.

But there’s a problem – actually, many problems. Efficiency is a diminishing returns proposition. The more efficient we become, the longer and harder we need to work to get the next increment of efficiency. Diminishing returns is a problem on its own, but it’s compounded by the fact that we live in a Big Shift world of mounting performance pressure – competition is intensifying, change is accelerating, and extreme disruptive events occur with increasing frequency.

The early growth of the gig economy

Rather than questioning the continuing value of scalable efficiency models, institutional leaders have a natural tendency to want to squeeze harder. One approach to cost-cutting that has gained increasing traction in the past several decades is the shift from full-time employees to contract labor. If the work to be done is variable, rather than constant, why pay a full-time employee when we could turn a fixed labor cost into a variable labor cost and simply hire a contract worker when a task needs to be done?

Even better, there’s an opportunity to save on labor costs because the employer doesn’t have to pay all those expensive employee benefits like health care insurance. When the work can be done remotely, the company can save even more money by finding contract workers in parts of the world where lower wages are the norm.

These are some of the reasons why gig work has grown rapidly over the past several decades. There’s also another reason which should be a bit of a red flag. I haven’t seen any statistics on this, but anecdotally I am seeing a growing number of workers leaving large institutions and striking out on their own because they are frustrated with the worker experience in large institutions. They’re driven by a desire to learn faster. They report to me that they’re developing their capabilities much more rapidly as an independent contractor than they ever could when they were stuck within one institution.

But, while there are some exceptions, most of the “gig work” being done today is done by individuals working on a transactional, project basis. They’re on their own. That’s what’s going to change.

The Big Shift and the imperative to learn faster

As I’ve already mentioned, the Big Shift is creating mounting performance pressure on all individuals and institutions. But, at the same time, the paradox is that the Big Shift is also creating exponentially expanding opportunity – we can create far more value with far less resource and far more quickly than would have been possible a few decades ago.

As we confront the paradox of the Big Shift, the imperative is to learn faster – that’s the most effective way to respond to mounting performance pressure, while at the same time addressing exponentially expanding opportunity. By learning faster, I mean creating new knowledge through action and reflection on impact achieved. Those who master the ability to learn faster will achieve much higher impact in a rapidly changing world.

But, here’s the challenge, the scalable efficiency model of our institutions is fundamentally hostile to this form of learning. It requires taking risk and improvising when the scalable efficiency model insists on tightly specifying and highly standardizing all tasks to be performed. It also insists that everyone deliver their results predictably and reliably without failure.

The impact on the gig economy

The gig economy, as it’s currently structured, also limits the potential to learn faster. Gig workers typically work as individuals and they are very transactionally driven. While gig workers can certainly learn by engaging as individuals in project work, that’s not the optimal way to learn. If we’re serious about accelerating learning and performance improvement, we need to come together in small groups (what I call “impact groups”) of 3-15 people who develop deep, trust-based relationships with each other based on a shared commitment to increasing impact.

We’re already starting to see some of that start to happen in the gig economy. Individual workers are discovering that there are others who share their passion and coming together so that they can work on projects as a group, rather than individuals.

I anticipate this is just the beginning. As gig workers begin to realize the need to accelerate their learning and performance improvement, they’re going to be driven to come together into small groups and offer their services as a group, rather than as individuals.

On the other side, institutions are going to begin to see that the real value of contract workers is the diversity of experience and expertise that they bring to the work. These contract workers can help the institution’s employees to learn faster by exposing them to different perspectives and approaches to addressing work. These institutions will begin to expand their focus beyond just cost savings and see gig workers as an opportunity to learn faster. While some of that may be accomplished in a “one-off” project with individual contractors, there will be even greater potential for learning if enduring, trust-based relationships are developed with specific gig groups over time.

The role of guilds

That sets the stage for a new way of organizing the gig economy. We’re going to begin to see impact groups forming and coming together into broader networks that will help them to learn even faster.

That’s where guilds come in. In Medieval times, guilds were a prominent way of organizing in urban areas to bring people together who were seeking to earn a living from a particular craft or trade. These guilds had many different roles, but a key one was to help their participants become better at their craft or trade. They were powerful learning organizations where participants learned through practice, rather than sitting in classrooms.

As independent workers become more aware of the imperative for accelerating learning, they will tend to affiliate into guilds that will help to connect them with others who might become part of their impact group and, more broadly, with other impact groups that share their passion for increasing impact in a particular set of activities. These guilds can help to knit together larger and larger networks of impact groups, generating something that I call “creation spaces,” to help scale and accelerate learning. For example, think of a guild that will help graphic designers to come together and learn from each other.

These guilds can play many different roles over time. One major role would be to provide the participants in their guilds with access to a variety of benefit programs like health care and life insurance that would be much more difficult to obtain as individuals. These guilds can also help to define and manage reputation systems that will help their participants to build a broader range of trust-based relationships. They can become rich environments for mutual aid among participants.

Beyond the gig economy, there’s another area that will see the re-emergence of guilds. That’s in product and service businesses that will increasingly fragment as customers demand more and more tailored products and services to serve their specific needs (see more about fragmentation trends in the economy here). The participants in these small, but very profitable, product and service businesses will see value in connecting with others in their particular domains so that they can all learn faster and create even more value with less resource. For example, think of a guild for craft chocolate companies that are serving very specific customer niches.

The potential limitations of guilds

In Medieval times, guilds had a mixed role. In part, they helped their members to learn faster together but, in another part, they often served as barriers to entry for others who wanted to practice the craft or trade. Often acting in collaboration with city governments, they would impose severe restrictions on those who could participate in a certain craft or trade. They often became very protectionist, limiting competition. (As you can see from the picture above, many of them excluded women)

The next generation of guilds needs to avoid the temptation to erect barriers. Rather than focusing on protecting existing stocks of knowledge, they need to be committed to enhancing and scaling flows of knowledge so that everyone can learn faster.

To address the opportunity to help participants to learn faster, these guilds need to find a way to move beyond fear of competition and foster the excitement that can come from addressing the exponentially expanding opportunities created by the Big Shift. Rather than embracing a scarcity mindset, these guilds need to cultivate an abundance mindset. They need to recognize that, the more people that come together, driven by a commitment to learn faster, the more opportunity there will be for value creation. It’s a very different heartset and mindset from the ones generated by the fear that is engulfing more and more of the world’s population.

The bottom line

The imperative to learn faster is going to motivate individuals to come together in very different ways. In at least one dimension, our future may represent a return to the past, when we see the re-emergence of guilds. Rather than isolated individuals driven by fear as they confront mounting performance pressures, we are likely to see people coming together, excited about the opportunity to learn faster and embrace exponentially expanding opportunity.


  • 3

Exploring the Pyramid of Trust

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Creation Spaces,Emotions,Passion,Trust

 

Trust is eroding in all our institutions around the world. Most people are aware of the many surveys documenting this, but few have really explored why this trust is eroding, much less what we need to do to restore trust. We can easily get caught up in the headlines of the moment that offer graphic evidence of lack of trust, but we need to move beyond the headlines and probe deeper into what is going on across all institutions and all societies.

I’m going to suggest that we need to recognize that the foundations of trust are shifting and that we need to focus on building a new pyramid of trust. That pyramid of trust can help us to come together in ways that will enable all of us to flourish.

I’ve been writing about trust for quite a while. Almost 10 years ago, I came back to the topic in my blog “Resolving the Trust Paradox” and more recently I wrote a blog post on “Re-Building Trust in Our Institutions.” I won’t re-visit all of that here.

Setting some context

Let me start here with several observations from my earlier work that provide context for the trust framework that I’m going to share here.

Institutional disconnect. First, in the Big Shift that has been transforming our global economy for decades, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there’s a growing disconnect between the way our institutions are run and the way our world is evolving. That’s a key driver of the erosion of trust – we intuitively see that growing disconnect and recognize that our institutions are less and less fit for the world they operate in.

Feeling fear. Second, as we see that growing disconnect, we understandably feel more fear. The institutions that we thought we could rely on are falling short in terms of addressing our needs. That feeds the fear, especially in a world of mounting performance pressure. And the more fear we feel, the less willing we become to trust others, which makes us even more fearful, setting into motion of vicious cycle of growing fear and loss of trust.

From skill to will. Third, the foundations of trust are shifting. In earlier days, trust was established by looking at the past. Trust was about demonstrated skill. Do the people have the right credentials and have they been able to reliably deliver as promised? In a more stable world, that was enough to build and maintain trust. The past was a reasonable indicator of future results.

No more. In a more rapidly changing and uncertain world, performance in the past is no longer a reliable indicator of performance in the future. Skills are becoming obsolete at an accelerating rate and, with new and unexpected situations emerging on a regular basis, new and very different outcomes may be required in the future.

In a rapidly changing and uncertain world, the basis of trust shifts from skill to will. Rather than looking to the past, we’re increasingly looking ahead to determine whether we can trust people and institutions. Do they have the will required to confront unexpected situations and find ways to deliver impact that matters to us, regardless of the unforeseen obstacles and barriers standing in their way? They may not have the necessary skills, expertise and resources today to address these obstacles and barriers, but we can be assured that they will do whatever is required to deliver the impact that matters to us.

That’s a high bar for trust. To meet that bar, we’ll need to focus on building a pyramid of trust. Let me explain.

To build deep trust with others, we’re going to have cultivate multiple layers of trust, with each layer building on the layer(s) underneath it.

The layers of the pyramid

Humility. At the base of the trust pyramid is humility. It’s the acknowledgement by the person or institution that they will never have all the skills and resources required to address an expanding array of unanticipated challenges and obstacles. This humility means that the person or institution will more quickly recognize when they are encountering something beyond their current capacity and be more willing to ask for help from others in addressing challenges and obstacles. If we encounter people who present themselves as having the capacity to address any and all challenges, we know one of two things: either they’re clueless about the range of challenges they will face or they’re lying. In either case, we would do well not to trust them.

Values and integrity. The next level of the pyramid focuses on intentions and values. Looking ahead, does the person or institution have a core set of values that will provide appropriate guard-rails for its actions, ensuring that it will act with integrity and a commitment to avoiding harm to others, regardless of the unexpected situations that emerge? This isn’t about speeches and mission statements; it’s about actions. Are their actions consistent with their values?

Commitment to impact. That leads to the next level of the pyramid – is the person or institution committed to delivering impact that matters to me? That commitment has multiple dimensions. Since my needs and aspirations are unique to me – is there a commitment to understanding what my individual needs and aspirations really are? Equally important, since we live in a rapidly changing world, is there a commitment to anticipating how my individual needs and aspirations are likely to evolve? Finally, does this all translate into a commitment to deliver impact that matters to me? Is there a commitment to action and results, and not just understanding who I am and what I need and want? Integrity matters, but ultimately it is impact that matters. (In this context, see an article I recently wrote for Harvard Business Review on the untapped opportunity to deliver more value back to customers based on the data that businesses receive from their customers,)

Excitement about impact. Commitment is important, but it’s not sufficient. We all know people who were committed to achieving something, but then failed to deliver. They ran into unforeseen obstacles and became frustrated and overwhelmed, and finally gave up. To really trust someone or some group in terms of their ability to deliver impact that matters to us, it’s important to reach the next level of the trust pyramid – we need to see genuine excitement about addressing unexpected challenges in delivering the impact that matters to us. That excitement will help to ensure that, whatever the obstacles, the person or institution will find a way to overcome them and not give up.

This level of the pyramid takes us beyond mindset and into heartset. The best intentions and the most genuine commitment are helpful, but ultimately it’s emotions that will determine outcomes in a world where we confront unexpected challenges and obstacles. If we give into fear, we are far more likely to fall short of delivering the impact that matters to others. On the other hand, if we’re genuinely excited by unexpected challenges and obstacles, we’ll end up doing whatever is necessary to deliver the impact that matters. We should never overlook the emotions that are driving the actions of others.

Those who have followed me in the past will realize that I’m now talking about a very specific form of passion – the passion of the explorer. We can trust those who have this passion because they have a questing disposition – they’re constantly seeking out new challenges and opportunities and driven to deliver more and more impact that matters in the domain they have chosen.

The other dimension of the trust pyramid

So far, I’ve been exploring the layers of the pyramid. But let me be clear. This isn’t a trust triangle, it’s a trust pyramid. Triangles are two-dimensional, but pyramids add a critical third dimension. What’s on that dimension? People.

Here’s the thing. Trust is about people – and the more people the better. Sure, we can have trust between two individuals. Think about the relationship you might have with your significant other.

But, as deep as the trust might become between two individuals, it’s likely to grow even deeper when the trust extends across more individuals. Think about it.

No matter how well-intentioned, committed and excited an individual might be, that person is likely to achieve much greater impact when she/he is collaborating in deep, trust-based relationships with a broader group of people who share those same intentions, commitment and excitement. Looking ahead, I’m much more likely to trust a group of individuals who have deep, trust-based relationships with each other than I would trust any one individual.

But the key is that these individuals need to have built deep, trust-based relationships with each other. They’re not just coming together because their employer told them to or because they have a contractual relationship with each other. As I’ve written elsewhere, there are limits to the size that these impact groups can attain – typically, these deep, trust-based relationships begin to become less deep if the group expands beyond about 15 people.

These small impact groups can increase their potential for impact by coming together into broader networks (a specific form of network that I call “creation spaces”) so that they can more readily access the skills, expertise and resources of more people. The existence of these broader networks can also help to strengthen the trust that I might have in any particular impact group.

Implications for institutions

So, how does this connect back to our trust in institutions, rather than individuals or small impact groups? Increasingly, trust in a rapidly changing world hinges on trust at the level of individuals. The challenge for institutions is to find ways to connect people in deep, trust-based relationships, both within their institutions and with a broader set of stakeholders, including customers. If the individuals trust each other, they will begin to trust the institutions that helped to bring them together and build deep, trust-based relationships with each other.

This is in sharp contrast to a general trend by our institutions, driven by scalable efficiency, to automate transactions and eliminate people from the equation wherever possible. While it’s certainly OK to automate specific transactions, the opportunity is to find ways to build long-term relationships that will connect people and help to build deeper trust. Part of the erosion of trust in institutions is that we are having less and less personal contact with the institutions that matter to us.

An inverted pyramid?

I like the pyramid image, but I’m concerned that it visually gives more space to the lower levels of the pyramid, while reducing the space for the higher levels of the pyramid. In one sense, this works – the lower levels are foundational and, without them, there’s no opportunity to cultivate the higher levels of the pyramid.

On the other hand, as I reflect on the pyramid of trust, I’ve become convinced that the higher levels of the pyramid are ultimately much more powerful in building deep trust that can motivate people to build enduring relationships. I’ll resist the temptation to invert the pyramid since that might give the impression of instability.

Just recognize that, at least for me, the higher levels of the pyramid are ultimately where the winners and the losers will be determined in terms of who is able to re-build trust.

Bottom line

Rebuilding trust in our institutions is an imperative. To succeed in this challenge, we need to address trust holistically. We need to recognize that the foundations of trust are shifting and that many layers of trust will need to be cultivated. We also need to address the opportunity to strengthen trust by connecting people into impact groups, so that they can become even more excited about the opportunity to deliver impact that matters to others. It’s ultimately all about people, finding ways to move beyond short-term transactions and instead build deeper and enduring relationships that can help all to achieve more of their potential.


  • 0

Learning Communities – The Journey Ahead

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Creation Spaces,Learning,Narratives,Opportunity,Passion

Now, more than ever, we need to learn faster. In a rapidly changing world, learning becomes a key driver of survival, not to mention success. But it’s a very different form of learning from the one we experienced in school or in our training programs – that learning is about sharing existing knowledge. That can be helpful but, in a rapidly changing world, keep in mind that existing knowledge becomes obsolete at an accelerating rate.

In this kind of world, the most valuable form of learning is creating new knowledge through action and by working together. How do we do that? We need to find ways to come together and participate in communities – but they’re a very different form of community than the ones that most of us know today.

Communities of interest

Many of us participate in communities of interest. They take many different forms. They could be a book club that meets monthly to discuss an interesting book. They could be an online social media group that comes together around a shared interest like gardening or blockchain. They could be a group that comes together in conferences framed around particular areas of interest – anything from certain genres of music to personal growth or business domains like marketing or digital technology.

These communities can vary significantly in size, ranging from 5-10 people in a book club to thousands of people at a large conference or in a social media group.

Participants in these groups share an interest and enjoy connecting with others to discuss this interest. Sure, there’s some learning that occurs in these groups but it’s fairly random and mainly about sharing existing knowledge.

Most of these communities are not driven to learn faster together. They’re just an opportunity to enjoy time together around shared interests. I wrote about the virtual version of these communities of interest more than 20 years ago in my book, Net Gain.

What’s missing in most of these communities of interest is an experienced and motivated moderator who can help the group to learn faster together. Moderators can be powerful catalysts for conversation and can help to focus the conversation on powerful questions that can inspire participants to come up with new ideas and insights as they embark on a shared quest to venture into areas they have not explored yet.

These groups also generally don’t create opportunities to step back and reflect. Do the participants carve out time on a regular basis to step back and reflect on what they’ve learned and on what new questions are emerging from their conversations? That’s very rare, but can be hugely valuable in focusing new learning.

Communities of impact

These are very different forms of communities. Participants in these communities are driven by a desire to act together in ways that can achieve increasing impact in a particular domain. It’s not just about action for the sake of action, it’s about achieving specific forms of impact. They are relentless in measuring that impact and seeking ways to increase their impact over time. That’s what motivates them to learn – they are seeking to discover new approaches that will help them to achieve more impact with less effort and fewer resources.

The core unit in these communities of impact is a small group of people – typically 5-15 people. In some of my other writing, I have referred to these units as “cells” or “teams.” These impact groups remain small because their success hinges on forming deep, trust-based relationships with each other. The participants in these impact groups get to know each other extremely well, both in terms of their strengths and their weaknesses, as well as their motivations. As I’ll discuss in another blog post, deep trust is a key to accelerating learning when it involves creating new knowledge. If the impact group gets much beyond 15 people, those deep, trust-based relationships become more challenging to build and maintain among all the participants.

These impact groups meet on a frequent basis – usually at least weekly and potentially even daily. As they form deep, trust-based relationships with each other, they become more willing to express their vulnerabilities and ask for help from others in their group. Participants in these impact groups connect on an emotional level and not just an intellectual level. They challenge each other if they sense that participants are becoming too passive or losing the excitement that motivates them to move beyond their comfort zone and they support each other when they sense that participants are becoming frustrated or overwhelmed by the roadblocks or obstacles they are encountering.

Participants in these impact groups are often driven by a very specific form of passion. I call it the “passion of the explorer” and I’ve written widely about it, including here and here. These impact groups can be found in areas that display sustained extreme performance improvement, including extreme sports and online war games.

Communities of impact scale by finding ways to connect the small impact groups into broader networks, that I have called “creation spaces.” In these creation spaces, impact groups can interact with the broader community and learn from the initiatives and experiences of the other impact groups in the community. These impact groups can pose questions to the broader network to see if anyone has any ideas or suggestions on how to come up with high impact answers. They can observe the approaches and impact achieved by other groups and develop new insights on how to achieve even more impact. There’s an interesting balance that emerges within these communities of impact – at one level, the impact groups are competing with each other to see who can achieve even greater impact but, at another level, they are collaborating with each other because they are driven by a shared commitment to increase impact.

Unfortunately, these communities of impact are very rare in our business and personal life. If we’re really committed to creating new knowledge through action together, we need to find ways to cultivate more of these communities of impact. This usually begins by finding an area that we are passionate about and then seeking to connect with others that share this passion and a desire to achieve increasing impact in that domain.

Often participating in these communities of impact can deepen our passion.  It can be very invigorating to connect with others who share our passion and to act together in ways that deliver increasing impact. That can help us to overcome our fear and deepen our excitement about the opportunity to make a real difference in areas that are meaningful to us.

These communities of impact can emerge from local initiatives, but they can also be catalyzed by organizers who see the potential for scaling learning. One powerful organizing tool to help cultivate communities of impact is something that I call opportunity-based narratives, that I have written about here and here. These narratives are very different from stories. They frame an inspiring opportunity out in the future, but they make it clear that addressing this opportunity requires many people to come together and take action. They are a call to action and a call to learn since they make it clear that the opportunity itself, and the approaches to addressing the opportunity, are not yet fully defined.

These opportunity-based narratives can help to focus the initiatives and learning of the participants in the communities of impact. They leave a lot of room for local improvisation, but they help to cultivate a shared commitment to the kind of impact that will make a real difference in helping this opportunity to materialize.

Physical communities

So, what does this have to do with the physical communities that we all live in? Most of these communities have a long history and they have basically become communities of convenience. We live there because we were raised there or because we were drawn by an opportunity for work or because of an attraction to a particular climate, setting or lifestyle. We likely have friends there but, unless it’s a very small town or neighborhood, we certainly don’t know everyone there.

Unfortunately, for an increasing number of physical communities, we’ve lost a deep sense of connection with the community and commitment to the success of the overall community. We have become increasingly passive and/or polarized.

Here’s an idea. What if we framed an opportunity-based narrative for our physical community – what amazing things could we accomplish if we all came together and committed to increasing our impact in addressing a shared opportunity? We could transform physical communities into communities of impact, starting with small impact groups, but rapidly scaling into networks that draw together more and more members of the community.

It can be done. Forty years ago, I was drawn to a physical community – Silicon Valley. There were many factors that attracted me, but one of the most powerful ones was the sense that this was a community driven by an opportunity-based narrative. More and more people were coming to Silicon Valley from all over the world because they were drawn by the opportunity to change the world by harnessing the growing potential of digital technology. It provided a sense of connection and shared commitment to increasing impact that I’ve found deeply inspiring for a number of decades.

Bottom line

We live in a world that is rapidly changing, bringing both exponentially expanding opportunity and mounting performance pressures. Harnessing the opportunity and overcoming the pressure will require all of us to learn faster, together. We can do that through communities of impact. If we can find ways to evolve our existing communities of interest and physical communities into communities of impact, we will find ways to come together to achieve far more of our potential. Let’s get started.


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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.


NEW BOOK

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

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

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