Category Archives: Narratives

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Beyond Our Edge

Category:Collaboration,Creation Spaces,Edges,Emotions,Exploration,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Movements,Narratives,Opportunity,Passion,Potential,Trust

I’ve got some exciting news. I’ve opened up a new company – Beyond Our Edge, LLC.  Its goal is to motivate more and more people to come together and move beyond our edge so that we can achieve more of our potential together. Many of us are already drawn to our edge, but we’ll be much more likely to move beyond our edge if we come together on the journey. I’ve always been inspired by the African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.”

This move has been made possible by my retirement from Deloitte, even though I have no intention of “retiring.” I’m now free to venture beyond my edge and I’ll want to connect with others who share my passion for exploration and driving meaningful change.

My next book

In that context, my first priority is to finish writing my next book – its working title is “From Pressure to Passion.” Two triggers motivated me to write this book. First, even though my business career has been largely focused on business strategy, I’ve come to believe that achieving impact depends less on strategy and more on psychology – if we don’t see and understand the emotions that are driving our choices and actions, we’ll never achieve what we really need and want. Second, as I’ve traveled around the world over the past several years (well before the current pandemic), the dominant emotion that I encountered everywhere is fear – at the highest levels of organizations, on the front lines and out in the community.

While that fear is understandable – there are many reasons to be afraid – it’s also potentially very dysfunctional. We need to acknowledge the fear but, equally importantly, we need to find ways to cultivate hope and excitement that will motivate us to move forward in spite of our fear. My new book is partly about my personal journey from fear to hope and excitement, but it draws on that experience to outline approaches that we all can use to make that journey.

While my book focuses on helping people to make this personal journey, it also highlights the need to drive fundamental change in the environments that we live in. We’re in a world that’s rapidly evolving. It’s a paradoxical world – it provides exponentially expanding opportunity as well as mounting performance pressure.

Bringing movements together

Right now, most of us are experiencing mounting performance pressure, in part because all our institutions were designed for an earlier, more stable world. The institutions that provided stability in the past are increasingly proving ill-equipped for the rapidly changing world around us. We all see this. It’s a key reason that trust in all our institutions is eroding around the world. It’s also feeding our fear – the institutions that we thought we could rely on are increasingly failing us.

Our institutions have become significant barriers to our efforts to harness the exponentially expanding opportunity that’s now becoming available to us. So, even if we find ways to overcome our fear and take more bold moves to pursue opportunities, we’ll find our existing institutions standing in our way and limiting our potential for impact.

That’s why we need to drive change on two fronts – individual change and institutional change. For decades, we’ve had two movements proceeding in parallel – the human potential movement and social change movements. The challenge is that there’s very little interaction between these two movements – it’s either all about helping individuals to overcome their internal obstacles or driving change in the broader society or economy. Unless we can drive change on both fronts, we’ll never create the conditions that will enable all of us to achieve much more of our potential by harnessing exponentially expanding opportunity. We need to find ways to bring these two movements together.

Impact groups inspired by narratives

It will come as no surprise to those who’ve been following me to hear that I believe the key to bringing these two movements together is to focus on organizing small impact groups that can then connect and scale their efforts through broader networks and platforms.

Let me be clear – to harness exponentially expanding opportunities, we need to come together. If we act alone, we’ll only achieve a small fraction of the potential available to us. By coming together, we’ll be much more likely to overcome our fear and find the courage to move beyond our edges and achieve much more of our potential.

What will it take to bring us together? I’ve become a strong proponent of opportunity-based narratives that frame really big, inspiring opportunities in the future and that represent a call to action to all of us today, emphasizing that those opportunities will not be achieved unless we act together. Imagine what amazing things we could accomplish if we all came together?

Understanding edges

As we come together, we need to find ways to help each other move beyond our edge. In this context, edges have many meanings. At one level, edges are defined by areas of expertise – for example, marketing, economics or equipment maintenance. At another level, edges are defined by our comfort zones – where do we start to become uncomfortable when confronted with new experiences?

For many of us, edges create the image of a cliff where we need to be very careful or we’ll slip and slide into oblivion. I prefer to view edges as walls – they’re the boundaries that limit our ability to explore and discover more of our potential. And we can’t just look beyond the walls, we need to climb over the walls and explore the territory that’s been hidden from us.

Sure, venturing beyond these walls can be scary and make us very uncomfortable because we’re venturing into unknown territory, but we’re much more likely to make the journey if we’re joined by others whom we trust and who will provide us with support and encouragement. We’re also likely to learn more if we go together, rather than heading out alone. No matter how smart any of us are, we’ll learn a lot faster if we’re sharing experiences with others and learning through action together.

Bottom line

I’m hoping that my new book will become a catalyst to motivate more of us to venture beyond our edge together. Over the next several months, I’ll be looking to connect with others who share my conviction that there’s exponentially expanding opportunity available to all of us if we choose to address the root causes that are holding us back – the emotion of fear within all of us and the institutions that are increasingly serving as barriers to progress. It’s an unprecedented opportunity, but we need to act now, together, and venture beyond our edge.


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Learning Communities – The Journey Ahead

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

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

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

Communities of interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communities of impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Physical communities

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

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

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

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

Bottom line

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


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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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Connections and Context

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

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

Building deep trust-based relationships

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

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

Context matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Create shared context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deepening and scaling connections

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

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

Bottom line

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


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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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