Category Archives: Institutional Innovation

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Re-Imagining the Potential of Achieving Your Potential

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

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

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

What potential?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Achieving potential through impact on others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Achieving potential through collaborating with others

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

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

The power of diverse networks

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

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

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

The need for institutional change

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

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

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

Bottom line

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


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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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