Category Archives: Growth

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The Paradox of Progress

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Growth,Learning,Opportunity,Paradox,Potential,Trust

Progress can be elusive, even though we have experienced progress on so many dimensions for centuries. One of the reasons progress is so elusive is it requires us to embrace paradox. If we embrace paradox, we have the potential to accelerate and expand progress in unforeseen ways.

What do I mean by paradox? There are endless paradoxes to be addressed, but here I will focus on two. First, we as humans are all unique and all the same. Second, when we interact with each other, we need to both compete and collaborate.

Humans are unique and the same

Well, which is it? Both! There’s one school of thought that celebrates our unique individuality – we were all born with different attributes, we have lived in different environments, and we have evolved a complexity of being that would be challenging to replicate.

Another school of thought emphasizes that all humans are alike and share common attributes. We all seek to be treated with respect, we all have certain basic rights, and we all have certain basic material needs, like food and water.

There’s another perspective that focuses on the importance of diverse groups defined by gender, ethnic origins, age, or other attributes. From this perspective, individuals within groups are similar to each other, but the groups are unique in possessing certain attributes that are not shared by other groups, and that is ultimately what is most important.

We need to embrace all these perspectives. Imagine how much we could accomplish when we come together, driven by our common attributes, and unleash our uniqueness as individuals and as members of diverse groups to explore new approaches to achieving much greater progress.

We need to both compete and collaborate

How can we compete and collaborate? Isn’t it one or the other? No, it’s both.

Competition is a powerful driver of progress because it motivates participants to develop new and powerful ways to achieve more impact that is meaningful to others. In a competitive environment, speed is imperative, so there is a race to come up with better answers faster. Even more fundamentally, competition spurs many to come up with new and meaningful questions that no one has asked before, so that they can pursue different paths that will deliver much greater impact.

Competition is powerful, but collaboration makes it even more effective on so many levels. Think about it. If every individual competes with every other individual, the individuals each have access to limited talent and resources. If individuals come together and collaborate so that they can compete more effectively with others, they will create much more value more quickly than they ever could alone.

Collaboration works because humans are both unique and the same. We can come together because we share certain attributes that help us to build trust with each other. But collaboration also produces more value because we are all unique and can contribute different perspectives and ideas to evolve our approaches in addressing both opportunities and challenges.

Of course, individuals can come together and collaborate within a single organization, but collaboration extends well beyond that. Increasingly, our economy and society are being shaped by ecosystems that bring together many diverse organizations and individuals, so that they can leverage each other’s talents and resources far beyond any individual organization or group.

And collaboration is even more fundamental. Competition works best if there is broad agreement regarding the rules to govern competition so that it does not lead to harmful activity – that requires significant collaboration, ultimately on a global scale. In this context, the collaboration that works best is bottom-up, voluntary collaboration. Without this form of collaboration, competition can quickly become dysfunctional and destructive.

Competition also works much better if there are grassroots initiatives that bring people together to provide mutual aid in times of distress. This provides a safety cushion to ensure that everyone gets their most basic needs met, even when they confront unexpected challenges and difficulties. If these kinds of mutual aid initiatives are in place, we will be motivated to take more risk in exploring new ways to compete and deliver more value.

If anyone is doubtful about the mutually reinforcing effects of competition and collaboration, I would encourage you to visit Silicon Valley. Sociologists have studied the continued success of this region over decades and one factor they have highlighted is a culture that fosters both competition and collaboration.

Bottom line

We are becoming increasingly polarized as we seek to escape paradox. We are either extreme individualists embracing our uniqueness or extreme collectivists embracing our common needs and attributes. We are either avid free market advocates who champion competition as the way forward or we are advocates of alternative arrangements that seek to eliminate competition in favor of collaboration.

This polarization is a major barrier to progress. Until we embrace the paradox of progress and recognize that apparently contradictory approaches and values need to be woven together to create a better and more prosperous society, we will not unleash the progress that we all aspire to see.

We need to come together because we are so different, but have so many similarities. Competing with each other only works when we learn how to embrace collaboration. There’s so much potential to be unlocked when we see the power of paradox.


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Expanding Our Horizons

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Future,Growth,Opportunity,Potential

First, it was the oceans.

Then, it was the forests.

More recently, it became the cities.

Our evolutionary path

Has been long and winding.

Over millennia,

It has brought us closer together,

But we also remain deeply connected

With our homes of the past.

We will only thrive

When all our homes flourish.

Let’s expand our horizons

And imagine what is possible

When we connect

Across all our homes

In even richer ways

That nourish all the participants

And spawn even more participants.

Fertility and longevity

Will enrich all of us.


  • 6

From Expert to Explorer

Category:Exploration,Growth,Institutional Innovation,Leadership,Learning,Opportunity,Passion,Trust,Uncategorized

We are in a Big Shift from experts to explorers. What do I mean by this? We live in societies around the world where “experts” run the show. Given the profound changes that are unfolding in our global economies and societies, we need to shift to explorers who can help us craft new pathways that can create far more value for all of us. Let me explore this in more detail.

Our heritage

Over the past century, we have witnessed the growth of large institutions around the world that have been driven by a “scalable efficiency” model. In this model, the key to success is to do what we have always done, faster and cheaper, at scale.

This model worked very well in a more stable world. The large institutions that run our economies and societies have embraced this model and were able to scale at a rapid rate globally.

In the scalable efficiency model, leadership is awarded to “experts.” These are people who have relevant academic degrees and experience in running similar institutions. Evaluating experts requires a deep dive into their past to ensure they have acquired the knowledge required to manage tightly specified processes and demonstrated the ability to squeeze harder so that all relevant activities can be done faster and cheaper.

Experts have ambition. They are driven to accumulate more credentials and experience that will help them to achieve even greater influence and power than they currently have. But they’re not excited about the unknown – if anything, they are in denial or resisting the unknown.

In a Big Shift world with mounting performance pressure, we trusted leaders who had the relevant expertise – it was all about credentials. These were leaders who claimed to have the answers to all the relevant questions and these claims were credible because they had the relevant credentials.

These leaders embraced the “command and control” approach that governs all scalable efficiency institutions. People needed to obey their commands because the leaders were the experts with all the answers. If they deviated from the scripts and process manuals that were provided to them, they were likely to be fired. Experts pursued a push-based model of resource allocation, pushing the right people and resources into the right places to meet their forecasts of demand.

Our future

We are in the early stages of a profound transformation of our global economy and society. To navigate successfully through these changes, we will need to embrace a very different leadership model. We will need to seek out and nurture explorers, rather than experts.

What do I mean by explorers? I am talking about people who have found and are pursuing a very specific form of passion – I call it the “passion of the explorer.”  These people are excited about opportunities to have more and more impact in domains that matter to them. They are constantly seeking new challenges that can help them to learn faster by creating new knowledge that never existed before. They also are actively seeking help from others in addressing these new challenges – they freely acknowledge that they don’t know the answers and that they need help in finding the answers.

As you can see, explorers are very different from experts. They are looking ahead to anticipate emerging opportunities and recognize that existing knowledge is becoming obsolete at an accelerating rate. As leaders, they are framing powerful and inspiring questions that can pull more and more people to them in an effort to explore and discover answers that can create far more impact that is meaningful.

I don’t want to suggest that experts cannot become explorers. Experts – those with significant credentials and experience – can also be driven by the passion of the explorer. But then they become explorers – they are excited about the questions that don’t yet have answers and the opportunities ahead that have not yet been addressed.

Rather than motivating people with fear, explorers seek to draw out the passion of the explorer in others, so that more and more people are excited about venturing out into new territories and addressing emerging opportunities. Explorers create work environments that support exploration and accelerate learning by drawing people together and focusing them on emerging opportunities. Rather than organizing into hierarchical command and control structures, explorers focus on becoming a catalyst for bringing people together into small impact groups that are focused on action and impact and then expanding impact by organizing larger and larger networks of impact groups.

Explorers generate a very different form of trust compared with experts. Rather than focusing on credentials and past experience, explorers demonstrate a commitment to addressing unmet needs that are meaningful to people. They are constantly seeking out new unmet needs and make it clear they are determined overcome whatever obstacles and barriers that stand in their way as they address those needs. People trust explorers because they see that determination and excitement that will let nothing stand in their way.

While experts tend to be inward looking, focused on how to do existing activities faster and cheaper, explorers are outward looking. They are constantly searching for new unmet needs of stakeholders that can help them to create far more value.

I’ve become a strong proponent of the explorer leadership model in part because of more than 40 years of experience in Silicon Valley. I’ve seen the extraordinary value that explorers can create in startups. Unfortunately, once these startups achieve some scale, investors begin to pressure the explorers to hire “adult supervision.” That means they want the explorers to hire experts who can implement more traditional ways of doing business at scale. As a result, many of these companies becoming captives of the experts.

Why is the explorer leadership model so important? Organizations that continue to pursue the expert model will experience diminishing returns at best – the more efficient one becomes, the long and harder they will need to work to get the next increment of efficiency. In contrast, organizations embracing the explorer model are able to unleash exponentially expanding value. The paradox of the Big Shift is that, at the same time that it creates mounting performance pressure for all of us, it is also creating exponentially expanding opportunities – we can create far more value, far more quickly, and with far less resources than ever before. Explorers are driven to find and address those opportunities.

Bottom line

We’re on the cusp of a profound shift in leadership models. The expert model that served us so well over the past century is now proving less and less useful. We need to embrace a very different model – the explorer model. This model will help us to unleash the exponential value creation opportunities generated by the Big Shift and help all of us to achieve more and more of our potential. This isn’t just an opportunity – it’s an imperative, given our rapidly changing world. The best is yet to come.


  • 3

Authors Shaping My Journey

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Context,Emotions,Exploration,Fear,Growth,Learning,Opportunity,Potential,Trust

I’ve often been asked what authors have most influenced me. There are so many that I find that question overwhelming. However, I’m going to focus in this post on four authors who, when woven together, form a tapestry that has shaped my thinking for decades.

Carlota Perez – A unique period of history

Carlota has taught at many universities and in 2002 wrote an eye-opening book, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital. She looked back in history over several centuries and studied five technological revolutions, including the steam engine, electricity and the automobile. At the risk of over-simplifying her perspective, she found that each technological revolution followed a similar pattern. It started with a burst of innovation in one or more core technologies that led to significant performance improvement, but then the performance improvement leveled off fairly quickly. That set the stage for another burst of innovation in the infrastructures required to deliver the technology to the economy and society but, then again, the performance improvement of the infrastructures leveled off fairly quickly. That then set the stage for everyone in the economy to figure out how to adapt to the change and get the most value from the technology.

While she included digital technology as one of her technological revolutions, she under-estimated the extent to which digital technology has deviated from the pattern of earlier technology revolutions. Rather than quickly leveling off in performance improvement, both the core technology and the infrastructures required to deliver that technology to the economy have continued to improve exponentially in performance improvement.

This analysis led me to see that we are in a very different era from any other in history, one that is catalyzing exponential change over an unknown number of decades. This creates both a significant challenge and opportunity, as we strive to find ways to create more and more value from the exponential changes playing out around us.

Jane Jacobs – Cities as a catalyst for economic growth

Jane was a prolific author, starting with her classic work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961. Throughout her many books, Jane argued that cities were a key catalyst of economic growth. She inspired quite a bit of controversy by her perspective that top-down urban planning was actually a hindrance to economic growth. Her view was that the potential of cities could only be unleashed through bottom-up organic growth. She argued that the growth and prosperity of cities resulted from a growing diversity of innovators and entrepreneurs who were drawn to cities because of their ability to connect and scale their efforts. The diversity and density of these initiatives has led to the kind of growth and prosperity that we see in ecosystems in nature.

Jane’s perspective led me to more deeply appreciate the role of cities in economic growth around the world. We can accomplish so much more if we come together with many others. But we need to evolve our cities through interactions at the local level, rather than relying on urban planning “experts” to determine what is best for us.

Annalee Saxenian – Cultures as a catalyst for growth within regions

Annalee is a professor at Berkeley who wrote an inspiring book in 1994 – Regional Advantage. She was intrigued by the differing trajectories of two major digital technology centers from the 1970’s in the US – Route 128 around Boston and Silicon Valley. While both began as major technology centers, over several decades Silicon Valley maintained a significant leadership in innovation in digital technology while Route 128 declined in importance. What explained this divergence in trajectories?

Annalee assembles convincing evidence that a major factor in the different paths of these two regions was the very different cultures that dominated each region. In Route 128, economic activity was dominated by a few large vertically integrated companies where employees went to work for their entire careers and rarely interacted with people outside their company. In contrast, Silicon Valley developed a culture where employees transitioning from one company to another every few years was not only accepted, but expected. Also, people often came together outside their companies with people from other companies and they were motivated to ask for help in addressing really challenging problems. The result was a culture that fostered widespread collaboration and collective learning.

Annalee’s research inspired me to see that people coming together in certain areas can unleash much greater innovation and growth if they adopt a culture that fosters connection and learning among a growing number of people. It’s not just enough for people to be together in the same area. They need to reach out and build relationships in ways that will help them to learn faster.

Carol Dweck – Mindsets as a catalyst for growth

Carol is a professor at Stanford University and in 2006 published an extraordinary book – Mindset. The book suggests that people can be placed on a continuum of beliefs ranging from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset tend to believe that they have been given a fixed set of abilities, intelligence, and talents. At the other end of the spectrum, people with a growth mindset believe their talents and abilities can always be further developed through effort and persistence.

These are fundamental beliefs that shape one’s view of oneself and of the world around us. People with a fixed mindset tend to adopt a “win/lose” view of the world with constant competition to see who can capture the most for themselves. People with a growth mindset see the potential for continued growth of performance by everyone. They will be much more motivated to come together and help each other to draw out more and more of their potential.

The good news is that Carol believes that we can evolve our mindsets. If we develop a fixed mindset in our early childhood, we can shift into a growth mindset over time, but we need to make a conscious effort to do that.

Weaving the tapestry

While these authors address a widely different array of topics, I find that their perspectives weave together in a powerful way. Carlota Perez sets the stage by looking at history and helping us to see how different the current stage of technological innovation is from many previous eras. Digital technology has launched a period of exponential change that continues to unfold and will likely shape many decades ahead. In a world of exponential change, thriving and flourishing will depend on finding ways to learn faster. Exponential change also means that we need to shift our focus from learning the form of sharing existing knowledge, which is becoming obsolete at an accelerating rate, to learning in the form of creating entirely new knowledge as we confront new situations never encountered before. So, how do we do that?

This is where Jane Jacobs comes in. She focuses our attention on the role of cities in bringing us together and the power of geographic connection in helping to drive greater innovation and learning.

But then it is Annalee Saxenian’s turn to remind us that culture shapes how people connect. It’s not enough for people to be in the geographic area – they need to embrace cultures that will encourage them to connect and build deeper, trust-based relationships so that they can express vulnerability and ask for help in addressing really challenging questions.

And, of course, we then need to turn to Carol Dweck who shifts our attention to the beliefs about ourselves that shape our choices and actions, and the kinds of relationships we will build with others. If we don’t have a growth mindset, we are very unlikely to build the deeper, trust-based relationships that can unleash the potential of living closer together in urban areas. As a result, we’ll be unlikely to unleash to exponential potential that can come from learning faster in an exponentially changing environment.

But, is that all there is? As those who follow me will recall, I’ve come to believe that heartset is even more fundamental than mindset and will help to shape the mindsets that guide us. We need to focus on the emotions that are shaping our choices and actions. That’s what led me to write my latest book, The Journey Beyond Fear.

A coincidence?

Here’s an interesting observation. All four authors that have had a profound influence on my view of the world are women. Is that just a coincidence?

I don’t believe so. I believe it’s an interesting indicator of the profound differences that define the feminine archetype and the masculine archetype in our societies around the world, something that I have explored here. Women who represent the feminine archetype are much more likely to focus on deeper, long-term relationships, adopt a holistic approach to understand the world around us, and embrace change as a powerful catalyst for growth and learning. These four authors, each in their own way, demonstrate the feminine archetype in action. I am very grateful for their insights and different perspectives from the “conventional wisdom” of the masculine archetype that rules much of our world.

Bottom line

We live in an exponentially changing world that unleashes the potential for exponential learning. But, to address that potential, we need to come together and build much deeper, trust-based relationships. And to do that, we need to embrace a growth mindset where we see extraordinary potential that we can all cultivate that will help us to achieve much greater impact that is meaningful to us, and to others. This will require us to challenge and change many of the beliefs and practices that have guided our behavior in the past. Most fundamentally, we need to address and overcome the emotion of fear that motivates us to resist change and distance ourselves from others.


  • 0

Cultivating and Connecting Capabilities

Category:Collaboration,Connections,Edges,Exploration,Growth,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Opportunity,Passion,Transformation

I’ve long been a contrarian regarding our current view of learning in our work environments. I’ve come to believe that it is a growing barrier to progress. If we’re going to prosper and flourish, we need to embrace a very different approach to learning, one that is much more consistent with our humanity.

Skills versus capabilities

When I talk to leaders about learning, their focus is on learning “new” skills. They are concerned that, in a rapidly changing world, many skills are becoming obsolete. If workers are going to continue to be productive, they need to learn “new” skills. These skills aren’t really new, they’re just skills that most workers haven’t yet acquired. They need to be taught the skills.

Here’s where I start to be a contrarian. I challenge our narrow focus on skills and believe we need to expand our focus in learning to include capabilities. What’s the distinction? Skills are very valuable in a specific context – for example, how to operate a machine or how to use certain applications on a computer. Capabilities, in contrast, are valuable in all contexts – examples include curiosity, imagination and creativity. I’ve written extensively about this distinction here (pdf).

Connecting capabilities to support a new form of learning

Of course, some leaders are beginning to pay attention to capabilities, but they tend to approach them in isolation. We’ve all seen creativity workshops or imagination exercises. What’s missing is the need to connect capabilities. While each capability has some value on its own, the real potential comes when capabilities are combined.

Think about it. Curiosity is about exploration, venturing out into areas that have yet to be understood. But curiosity alone has only limited value. We need to cultivate connection and empathy so that we can form deeper and broader relationships with others. Exploring in isolation is much less rewarding than exploration with others. As we explore, we need imagination to come up with new ideas regarding how to create more value from the areas we are exploring. And ideas alone are not that helpful. We need creativity to help us develop and deploy approaches to help us to actually create the value that our imagination suggested we could pursue.

Done right, connecting these capabilities can unleash a virtuous cycle of learning. As we develop and deploy approaches to creating value with our creativity, our curiosity will gain come into play as we explore the impact that we have achieved. We can come together to imagine even more promising approaches and create even more value.

But this learning is very different from the learning that consumes the attention of most leaders today. When leaders talk about learning, they almost without exception are talking about learning in the form of sharing existing knowledge. This learning occurs in training rooms or through online video courses.

While not dismissing that form of learning, I again want to be a contrarian and suggest there’s a very different form of learning that is becoming much more necessary and valuable. It’s learning in the form of creating entirely new knowledge that never existed before. That form of learning occurs in the workplace, pursued by people who come together and take action as they cultivate the capabilities just described and address previously unseen opportunities to create more value.

While most leaders would acknowledge that this form of learning is important, they tend to confine it to small parts of the organization – research departments and/or innovation centers.

Cultivating capabilities

So, if capabilities are so important, how do we cultivate them? Here’s the good news. These capabilities are all innate within us. You don’t believe me? Let’s go to a playground and look at children 5 or 6 years old. Show me one that doesn’t have these capabilities as they play.

Unfortunately, our schools and our work environments have sought to crush these capabilities. We are taught to simply follow detailed instructions, reliably and efficiently, without asking too many questions or deviating from the assigned tasks. This is the key to success in the scalable efficiency institutions that dominate our world today.

Those capabilities may be hidden for many of us, but they are still there, waiting to be drawn out. How can we draw them out? It will be challenging because it will require very different work environments. We need work environments that will cultivate a very specific form of passion – the passion of the explorer (pdf).

The passion of the explorer has three components. People with this passion are committed to, and excited about, achieving more and more impact that is meaningful in a specific domain. When confronted with unexpected challenges, they become excited about the opportunity to achieve even greater impact. Finally, their first instinct when confronted with an unexpected challenge is how to connect with others who can help them get to a better answer faster.

People with this passion are driven to draw out and cultivate the capabilities I discussed earlier. They are excited about the opportunity to learn in the form of creating new knowledge. Curiosity, connection, imagination and creativity are essential for this kind of learning and they deeply value all these capabilities. They understand that these capabilities are deeply connected and should not be viewed in isolation.

But, here’s the problem. Our work environments today are deeply suspicious of people with the passion of the explorer. These people ask too many questions, they take too many risks, and they deviate from the process manual. That’s why, based on my research (pdf), only about 14% of US workers have this form of passion in their work.

Unleashing passion and capabilities

So, how do we change this? It won’t be easy. It will require us to transform the institutional models that shape all large institutions around the world. As I’ve written about here (pdf), the prevailing institutional model is scalable efficiency where the key to success to do things faster and cheaper at scale. This model has driven the growth of large institutions over the past century but, in the Big Shift, the paradox is that scalable efficiency is becoming less and less efficient because it has a hard time dealing with the accelerating pace of change.

We need to make a shift from the institutional model of scalable efficiency to a model of scalable learning. As already discussed, the focus of this new institutional model is on learning in the form of creating new knowledge by mobilizing people throughout an organization to come together and address unseen problems and opportunities to create more value. These models can scale even further by building networks of relationships among people that extend far beyond a single institution.

The scalable learning model focuses on cultivating the capabilities already discussed and recognizes that the passion of the explorer is the most powerful motivator for people to draw out and exercise these capabilities. It encourages everyone to find and pursue their passion of the explorer.

The scalable learning model challenges virtually all the beliefs and practices that prevail in our existing scalable efficiency models. For this reason, it will be very challenging for existing large institutions to make the transition. As I’ve written about here (pdf), the most effective way for large institutions to transition will be to scale the edge, rather than pursuing “big bang” top-down change programs that seek transform the core of the institution.

As challenging as it might be, the transition will be deeply rewarding. At its best, the scalable efficiency model is a diminishing returns model – the more efficient we become, the longer and harder we have to work to achieve the next increment of efficiency. In contrast, the scalable learning model is an increasing returns model where value can grow exponentially as learning expands its horizons and accelerates.

Bottom line

We live in a rapidly changing world where the most valuable and necessary learning for everyone is learning in the form of creating new knowledge. This form of learning requires a combination of uniquely human capabilities – curiosity, connection, imagination and creativity. People who find and pursue the passion of the explorer are powerfully motivated to develop these capabilities. If we all are going to embrace the passion of the explorer, we need to transform our institutions. It won’t be easy, but the rewards will be enormous. Let’s get started.


  • 2

What Does Strategy Really Mean?

Category:Collaboration,Emotions,Future,Growth,Institutional Innovation,Leadership,Learning,Opportunity,Strategy,Transformation

Strategy is a commonly used word, but it’s rarely defined. I’ve become concerned that we are using the term “strategy” much too loosely in our business world. We can gain considerable insight by making an effort to define the term and reflecting on what makes it so valuable in a rapidly changing world.

What does strategy mean today?

Again, business strategy is rarely defined by those using the term. When I search for a definition of the term, I get many examples like the following

  • a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim
  • a plan of actions that fit together to reach a clear destination

Stepping back, I find it hard to differentiate between this meaning of strategy and an operating plan. Is that all it is? An operating plan?

I have to say that, when I talk with leaders about their strategy, I’m often directed to their five-year plan. That’s their strategy. Yet, when I read through the five year plan, it very much seems like an operating plan. It specifies goals to be achieved and the actions that will need to be taken to achieve the goals.

This approach to strategy is very consistent with the institutional model of “scalable efficiency” that I’ve written about here. It certainly gives people a sense of direction and specifies the actions required to become more efficient at scale. But is this really a strategy?

We certainly need operating plans but, in my view, strategy provides a context for developing these operating plans – it’s not the operating plan itself.

What will strategy need to become?

We live in a world of intensifying competition and accelerating change, something that I call the Big Shift. In this kind of world, strategy needs to evolve into something very different. Strategy will be about anticipating growing unmet needs of people outside the organization and developing approaches that can deliver more and more distinctive impact over time by addressing those needs.

Successful strategies will

  • Anticipate growing unmet needs of people outside the organization
  • Develop rewarding approaches that
  •         can deliver more and more impact over time with fewer and fewer resources
  •         are fundamentally different from any other provider
  •         are very difficult to replicate
  • Evolve those approaches in response to a rapidly changing environment

Anticipating growing unmet needs

In a rapidly changing world, we need to look ahead and try to anticipate emerging opportunities that can create enormous value with relatively modest effort. Rather than focusing on the five year time horizon of the five year “strategy” plans that are so prevalent today, we should seek to look ahead 10 – 20 years since that will encourage us to see the most significant changes ahead. I have called this the Zoom Out/Zoom In approach to strategy.

In looking ahead, we need to start by anticipating the growing unmet needs of the people our organization will be seeking to serve. We should start by asking whether these will be the same people we are serving today or whether there will be others that we might want to, or need to, serve 10-20 years from now.

We then need to explore how the unmet needs of these people are likely to evolve. Why are these needs evolving? What are the trends that are shaping these needs? What unmet needs are likely to be most meaningful to these people?

In this context, we need to move beyond the material world and make a concerted effort to understand the evolving emotions of the people we are seeking to serve. To what extent is fear shaping their choices and actions? What would really excite them and motivate them to achieve much greater impact? These emotions will shape how meaningful the unmet needs are.

Developing approaches that create value for the providers as well as people being served

Anticipating meaningful unmet needs of people provides an important foundation for successful strategies, but it’s just the beginning. Strategy requires developing ways of meeting those unmet needs in ways that will create growing value for the provider as well as for the people being served.

In our Big Shift world, successful strategies will focus on leveraged growth. This means discovering ways to deliver more and more value with fewer and fewer resources. It stands in sharp contrast with the approaches of large institutions today which focus on scalable efficiency – how to provide the same products and services faster and cheaper using internal resources.

Leveraged growth shifts the focus from cost to value delivered. It seeks to rapidly expand the value being delivered by orchestrating larger and larger networks of third-party providers who can help to address the unmet needs of the people being served. By doing this, the provider will restructure the broader market and industry, pursuing what I have described as a “shaping strategy.” Rather than simply taking existing industry structures for granted, shaping strategies recognize that, in a rapidly changing world, we have far greater ability to restructure entire industries to our advantage.

The value being delivered from these growing networks needs to be very different from the value that other providers are delivering. It needs to be value that is carefully tailored to meet the unmet needs of the people being served in much more effective ways than any other provider is delivering.

Equally importantly, the value needs to be very difficult for other providers to replicate. Once other providers see how powerful this value is in attracting a growing number of people to the provider offering it, they will make significant efforts to replicate it. Winning strategies deploy approaches that are very challenging, if not impossible, to replicate.

It’s important to emphasize that these approaches are not yet operating plans. They are high level efforts to frame ways of delivering more and more distinctive value. These approaches then provide a foundation for much more detailed operating plans that focus on how to deliver this value.

Rapidly evolving approaches to delivering value

In a rapidly changing world, any strategy, no matter how effective at the outset, will need to evolve quickly to anticipate changing needs and resources. That’s why successful strategies in the future will ultimately need to be learning strategies driven by leaders with a learning mindset.

Leaders need to pursue their strategies with a desire to learn on two fronts. First, what impact are they achieving with their current approach? Where are they achieving more impact than they expected and why? And where are they achieving less impact than expected and why? This is learning through action and can be very powerful especially given the increasing ability to unleash richer and more real-time feedback loops.

To pursue learning through action, leaders will need to make a fundamental shift from the current institutional models of scalable efficiency to institutional models that seek scalable learning. In this context, it’s important to emphasize that the most necessary form of learning is learning in the form of creating new knowledge, not just sharing existing knowledge. To scale this form of learning, it needs to spread beyond necessary research centers or innovation centers – it should be an imperative for all participants in the organization. It should also not be limited to participants within the provider’s organization – the provider should seek to pursue this form of learning among all participants within the growing ecosystem of providers that it orchestrates in pursuit of leveraged growth.

Second, the learning should not just be about reacting to the impact achieved from action already undertaken. The learning should also result from relentlessly tracking the trends that led the leadership to believe that specific and significant unmet needs are emerging among the people being served. Are those trends evolving as expected? Are there other trends that will also play a significant role in shaping those unmet needs? In what ways could these evolving trends help to anticipate even more significant unmet needs?

Learning in the form of creating new knowledge by acting together with others requires cultivating a set of capabilities among all participants – curiosity, connection, imagination, and creativity. That’s curiosity in exploring what’s changing, connecting with others to explore how the world is changing, imagination in seeing how the world and new opportunities are evolving, creativity in developing approaches that can deliver more and more value to the customers.

These capabilities are often highly suspect within existing organizations where the focus is on doing the assigned tasks without asking questions or deviating from the script. As a result, these capabilities, if they exist, are siloed in research labs or innovation centers.

This is one reason that successful strategies will be so difficult to replicate. They’re not a fixed target. They will be continually evolving as leaders learn how to deliver even more distinctive value.

Bottom line

Strategy is an evolving approach on how to achieve greater impact over time that is meaningful to the participants with the least amount of effort (and that is very difficult for other providers to replicate). It’s very difficult for existing organizations to pursue, which is why the five year plan has become the default strategy for most organizations. It may be difficult to pursue, but it will be increasingly necessary for success in a rapidly changing world.


  • 0

The Untapped Opportunity of Institutional Narratives

Category:Emotions,Fear,Growth,Leadership,Narratives,Opportunity,Strategy

Everything I do is connected, even when the connections aren’t immediately apparent, even to me. Almost 15 years ago, I started writing about shaping strategies as a powerful way to unleash enormous value for companies – including here and here. Much more recently, I published The Journey Beyond Fear, a book that explored the role that narratives can play in helping to motivate people to achieve much greater impact that is meaningful to them. In that book, I discussed how institutional narratives can help organizations connect more deeply with their customers and third parties to create more value. Unfortunately, I have not yet made the connection between institutional narratives and shaping strategies explicit, even though they are deeply connected.

Institutional narratives

For those who haven’t read my writing, let me start by explaining what these two approaches are. Institutional narratives are not stories, even though most people view them as synonymous. For me, stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories are also about the story teller or some other people, real or imagined, but they’re not about you.

In contrast, narratives are open-ended. There’s some kind of big threat or opportunity out in the future and it’s not clear how the narrative will be resolved. The resolution of the narrative hinges on the listeners in the audience – it’s a call to action to them to determine how the narrative will be resolved.

In this context, institutional narratives are not about the institution. They are about some big, inspiring opportunity for the customers and stakeholders and the action they will need to take to address the opportunity. There are very few examples of this kind of institutional narrative, but a classic one was the narrative by Apple Computer in the 1990s that was condensed to the slogan “Think Different.”

Shaping strategies

Shaping strategies focus on opportunities to restructure entire markets or arenas in ways that create significant value for the shapers. Shaping strategies mobilize a large number of third parties to pursue the restructuring of the market or arena.

Shaping strategies rely on three elements. First, there’s a shaping view that focuses on what the new market or arena structure could look like and the benefits it could provide to the participants. Second, there’s a shaping platform that helps participants to come together and achieve greater impact with less effort. Third, there are shaping acts and assets which the shaper can use to demonstrate its commitment to pursuing the shaping opportunity.

Most organizations take the existing market or arena structure as a given and focus on how to thrive in the existing structure. In a world of accelerating change, the challenge is that existing structures are rapidly becoming obsolete. The missed opportunity is to imagine and pursue a new structure that could create far more value. Some of the most successful shapers in the business world have been Dee Hock (Visa), Malcolm McLean (containerized shipping), Victor Fung (Li & Fung), Bill Gates (Microsoft), and Marc Benioff (Salesforce.com).

Connecting 

So, what’s the connection between institutional narratives and shaping strategies? The connection is through the shaping view. When I originally developed the perspective on shaping strategies, I saw shaping views as very business-like, focusing on risks and rewards. As I’ve shared before, Dee Hock, the founder of Visa opened up my eyes. In one of our conversations, he cautioned me that it was not about risk and reward, it was about fear and hope, because that was ultimately what motivated people to act. It was an “a-ha” moment for me that helped me shift my attention to the world of emotions, which became the focus of The Journey Beyond Fear.

Institutional narratives emerged in my thinking as a way for organizations to create much deeper emotional connections with their customers and stakeholders. By framing really inspiring opportunities for those outside the organization, institutional narratives communicate a much deeper understanding of what really motivates these participants and help move people from fear to excitement as they look into the future.

For this reason, institutional narratives can become the foundation for a powerful shaping view. Once leaders have framed the really inspiring opportunity that can excite and motivate participants to take action, they can take the institutional narrative to another level by focusing on defining a market or arena structure that can help participants to address the exciting opportunity out in the future. This could attract a growing number of participants to join in the effort to evolve this new market or arena structure.

Exploring an example

So, what would this look like in practice? Let’s look at the wellness arena.  More and more people are becoming focused on strengthening their wellness and not just waiting until they get sick to get help and support. Today, the wellness business is highly fragmented with wellness coaches and a growing array of wellness service providers, ranging from gyms to nutrition experts.

I believe there’s a significant opportunity for wellness coaches to evolve into trusted advisors that orchestrate growing networks of specialized service providers to serve the needs of their clients. This could be a platform for significant growth by mobilizing more and more diverse expertise based on larger and larger networks of participants.

To address this opportunity, a small wellness coaching business today could begin by framing an institutional narrative that focuses on the growing ability of people to improve their wellness, driven by new technology and deeper understanding of what our bodies need to function at better and better levels. The narrative would emphasize that this opportunity requires action from people inspired by the opportunity to improve wellness to adopt new practices – it won’t just happen on its own.

This opportunity for improved wellness can then provide the context for framing an opportunity for a growing number of third parties to come together into a broader network that will be orchestrated by the wellness coaching business. Because these third parties will bring a very diverse set of skills and capabilities, the network will be a lot more effective in improving the wellness of its clients. These third parties can become excited by the potential to improve the wellness of clients much more than if they were just operating as isolated service providers.

This institutional narrative can thus become the foundation for a powerful shaping view. The institutional narrative focuses on cultivating emotions of excitement and passion among both clients and third parties that can help the clients. This will motivate them to act boldly to pursue the opportunity. A more detailed shaping view can then help to provide the third parties with a road map to guide them in the actions they can take to come together and address the opportunity. It will  also help them to see how they can collaborate in ways that will create more value for clients as well as for themselves.

Bottom line

Institutional narratives can play many different roles in helping organizations to connect more deeply with their customers and stakeholders so that they all can achieve greater impact. One key role of institutional narratives is to motivate third parties to come together and act more boldly in ways that will restructure an entire market or arena. Based on my research, there are very few examples of organizations that have made the effort to develop a powerful institutional narrative, but there are even fewer examples of organizations that have pursued the potential of institutional narratives to support shaping strategies. This is an untapped potential that needs to be addressed.


  • 2

The Old Becomes the New

Category:Exploration,Growth,Opportunity,Paradox,Passion,Poem,Potential

As we enter the New Year,

Let’s not become consumed

By the newness.

It’s an opportunity

To look within

And to see

What’s always been there,

Waiting to be discovered

And drawn out.

It’s not new.

It’s been there

From the beginning.

What’s new

Is our willingness to see more of it

And pursue more of it.

And it’s not just within

One of us.

It’s within all of us.

What is it?

It’s our spirit

That wants to make a difference

That is more and more meaningful

To us

And to others.

We’ve all been in touch

With our spirit,

But we’ve only experienced

A small part of it.

There’s so much more

To be discovered

And nurtured.

In this New Year,

Let’s make the effort

To nurture

What is already there,

So that we can all thrive.


  • 4

The Present Is a Present

Category:Community,Connections,Growth,Opportunity,Poem,Potential

During this holiday season,

We are showered with gifts.

But gifts are things.

Gifts can distract us

From a present that really matters.

Let’s never forget

That our present

That matters the most

Is the present.

We are so lucky to be in the present.

Without the present,

Nothing matters.

The present has so much to offer.

Yet, we are too often distracted

By what happened in the past

Or what might happen in the future.

We need to spend more time in the present

And savor all that it has to offer us now.

The present can also be shared with others,

Making it much richer for all.

We should also never forget

That the present

Is a time when we can act

And make the present even richer

For us and for others.

If we act with others in the present,

The present can grow

In ways that we never imagined.

The present is a present

That keeps on giving.

Let’s be grateful.


  • 2

Embracing Paradox

Category:Connections,Exploration,Growth,Learning,Opportunity,Paradox

We live in a world

Of either/or,

Not both/and.

This is a world

Where reason rules

And does not tolerate

Exceptions to the rules.

But that’s not the world

We really live in.

We’ll never see

The full richness of our world

And we’ll learn a lot less

If we choose not to see

Its complexity and contradiction

And its endless mystery

Hiding beneath the surface.

Paradox can help us to learn

As long as we welcome it

And explore it,

Grateful for its ability

To challenge our deeply held beliefs

And tightly enforced rules.


NEW BOOK

(if you've read the book, click here)

My new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, starts with the observation that fear is becoming the dominant emotion for people around the world. While understandable, fear is also very limiting.

LEARN MORE
BUY NOW

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. You can order the book at Amazon.

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