Category Archives: Emotions

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Connecting for Impact

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

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

Human potential

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

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

Change movements

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

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

Barriers to impact

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

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

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

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

Connecting human potential and change movements

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

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

Focusing on the opportunity that can bring us together

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

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

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

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

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

Framing broader opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

The biggest opportunity of all

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

Bottom line

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


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Bore Down Into Boredom

Category:Collaboration,Emotions,Opportunity

In a time of crisis,

Why are so many

Complaining of boredom?

If you’re bored,

Look within,

Look ahead,

And look around.

Explore inside

To discover the potential

That is waiting to be drawn out.

Then reflect on the emotions

That are holding you back.

Look ahead to imagine

The impact that you might achieve

As you cultivate your potential.

What’s the big opportunity

That could inspire you

To move forward

And overcome the emotions

That are holding you back?

What are the first steps

You could take today

To move forward

In your quest?

Look around to find others

Who might be inspired

By that same opportunity for impact.

Reach out to them

And begin a conversation

To explore together.

As you embark on this journey

Notice the boredom receding

And the awesome blossom

Of a new life

Beginning to take shape.


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Viral Flows

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

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

What are flows?

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

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

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

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

The dark side of flows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crises as a catalyst for change – and progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broader institutional change

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

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

Dampening the negative effects of flows

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

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

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

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

Flows and filters

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

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

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

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

Bottom line

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

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


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