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.
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.
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.
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.