Category Archives: Opportunity

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Growing Into Growth

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Emotions,Exploration,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Opportunity,Potential,Uncategorized

I need help. I’m struggling with words. I’m trying to capture what excites me and motivates me to start a new chapter in my life.

Here’s the challenge: the word I am drawn to has received a very mixed reaction at best, and often a very negative reaction. What’s that word? It’s “growth.”

Growth has always excited me. I’ve come to believe that we humans have unlimited potential for growth – it’s why I cringe when I hear the phrase: “achieve my full potential.” I don’t believe anyone can achieve their “full potential” – no matter how much of our potential we achieve, there’s always more potential waiting to be drawn out. That’s why I keep saying that we’re not “human beings,” we’re “human becomings.”

Of course, growth has many different meanings. For many, growth tends to focus on physical size – whether of the body, a community or an economy. The desire is to find something that’s easy to measure, and that leads to an emphasis on physical entities – people and products.

For me, growth has a different meaning. It focuses first of all on growth of insight into the world around us. But it doesn’t stop there. Growth of insight has little value until and unless it is translated into growth of impact that is meaningful. That requires action, but it shifts the focus from the action itself to the impact achieved and how meaningful that impact is, both for those who are taking action and those who are benefiting from the action.

Why growth has a bad reputation

So, why does growth seem to have such a bad reputation? There are many reasons, but I believe that it stems from a zero-sum view of growth. In this view, one person’s growth can only occur at the expense of others. If you win, I lose.

How does that work? Well, let’s start with environmental impact. For many reasons, we have embraced a view of economic growth over the past couple of centuries that has led to serious damage of our global ecosystem, including pollution of water, the growth of carbon emissions and pollution of our atmosphere. While many have benefited from this economic growth, even more have suffered from its adverse effects.

Another force at work involves our shrinking time horizons when we pursue growth that is narrowly focused on material goods. We’re not focused on long-term economic growth; we’re focused on short-term material gains. If we’re focused narrowly on material goods in the very short-term, the quantity of goods is fixed – the only question is who will acquire them – you or me? Once again, while some will benefit from economic growth, it will be at the expense of others.

What’s the alternative?

As growth has acquired a bad reputation, many people have rallied around a number of other words – sustainability, regeneration, circular economy, and resilience are perhaps some of the most prominent ones.

What strikes me about all of these alternatives is their focus on holding on to what we have, or what we had. Take sustainability – we want to sustain what we have. Or regeneration – we want to generate what we once had. Or the circular economy – it’s all about re-using what we have. Resilience has many different meanings, but the one I hear most frequently is the desire to be able to “bounce back” to where we once were before some disruption happened.

While they tend to focus on somewhat different elements, they all share a static view of the world in the sense that the resources we have are a given and the question is how to re-use them so that we preserve what we have, or regenerate what we had, and reduce damage to others.

While the aspiration to avoid environmental damage and waste is certainly something we should all embrace, these alternatives strike me as inherently limiting. Is that all there is? Don’t we have the potential to create much greater meaningful and positive impact with far fewer resources over time?

Maybe there’s another perspective

What if we move from a zero-sum view of the world to a positive-sum view of the world? What if we believed that opportunity has the potential to expand for everyone, not just for a privileged few? And what if we believed that expanding opportunity generates even greater opportunity for everyone? What would that require?

First, it would require us to take a longer-term view of the world. Rather than just focusing on the short-term, we would need to look ahead and imagine how our ability to achieve greater positive impact can increase over time.

Second, we would also need to take a broader view of the world. Rather than just focusing narrowly on how to increase our own well-being, we would need to recognize that by increasing the well-being of others we can set into motion an increasing returns dynamic where everyone would achieve more and more of their potential and the well-being of all of us would expand significantly.

Third, we would need to deepen our view of impact. Rather than focusing just on material goods as a metric for growth, we would need to see that our greatest impact can come from motivating others to achieve more of their potential. The growth of others will help all of us to accelerate our own growth. This unleashes a powerful network effects dynamic where the more people who are motivated to achieve more of their potential, the more everyone will be motivated to achieve more of their potential.

Finally, we would need to focus on emotions as a key driver of motivation. If we’re driven by fear, we tend to narrow our focus to ourselves in the short-term. If we can cultivate hope and excitement, we can begin to see more opportunity for all, not just for ourselves. This, of course, is the theme of my new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, that will be published next month by McGraw Hill. I’ve come to believe that our emotions are shaping how our world is evolving and that there is a need to cultivate emotions that will help us to move forward in spite of the fear that is consuming more and more of us.

Back to growth

If we adopt a positive sum view of the world, now growth begins to become more attractive. The more any of us grow, the more all of us will be able to grow. And the potential for more growth becomes unlimited for two reasons.

First, as I’ve already indicated, we all have unlimited potential, so none of us will ever achieve our full potential in terms of delivering meaningful impact to those around us. Second, we live in a world of exponential improvement in technology performance that can help us to amplify our impact in ways that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago.

Growth focuses on the actions we’ll need to take and the impact we’ll need to achieve to help us to evolve flourishing societies and ecosystems. A key element of these flourishing societies and ecosystems is that they will continue to provide opportunity for all of us to increase our impact over time, while at the same time minimizing, and ultimately eliminating, any damage and waste that might occur as a by-product of growth.

This is why I’m reluctant to abandon growth as the way of framing the opportunity for all of us. What am I missing? Is there a better word to describe the opportunity ahead? I’m open to any and all suggestions.

And, just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that this opportunity will be an easy one to address. There will be many obstacles and challenges along the way. At a personal level, we need to find ways to move beyond the fear that consumes more and more of us and limits our potential for impact. We’ll need to cultivate emotions that will motivate us to take bold action and significantly increase our potential for impact. At a broader, social level, we need to focus on transforming our institutions and our societies so that they create environments that will help us to move beyond fear and provide us with the tools we’ll need to significantly increase our impact in ways that support a thriving global ecosystem and society. It will be a challenging journey, but a journey very much worth pursuing.

Bottom line

I’m seeking help in choosing the right word to frame the opportunity ahead. I’m attracted to “growth” because it highlights a dynamic and expanding opportunity that, if pursued in the right way, will lead to expanding opportunity for all. But, I also understand, that it can lead to some very negative reactions. I’m just not sure I can find a better word. Any and all suggestions are welcome. It will become the “north star” that will frame my efforts on the journey ahead.


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The Untapped Potential of Personal Narrative

Category:Collaboration,Emotions,Exploration,Learning,Narratives,Opportunity,Potential

We all have a personal narrative. For some of us, it is liberating and energizing, but for most of us, it is limiting and draining. The good news is that we all have ability to evolve our personal narrative to make it more fulfilling, if we choose to make the effort.

I’ve written about personal narrative before, including here and here, and it is a key theme in my new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, that will be coming out in a couple of months. For those who have not been following me, I should clarify that I have a very different view of personal narrative than most psychologists.

For psychologists, personal narrative involves looking back over our lives and crafting a story of the choices we made that brought us to where we are today. For me, personal narratives have two key components: our view of the future and our call to action to others.

When we look out into the future, are we focusing more on threat or opportunity? That view of the future will play a key role in shaping our emotions and actions today. Also, as we seek to address the threat or opportunity out in the future, are we asking for help from others or are we trying to go it alone?

We all have a personal narrative that’s driving us forward, but few of us have made the effort to make that personal narrative explicit, much less reflect on how well it might be serving our needs and potential for impact. That effort can be very rewarding, especially if we use it as a catalyst to evolve our narrative so that we are motivated to have much greater impact that is meaningful to us and can motivate others to join us in that effort.

Opportunities for evolution

Our personal narratives can evolve on multiple dimensions. Let’s start with our view of the future. In a world of mounting performance pressure, more and more of us have adopted a dystopian view of the future where threats are everywhere. The world is coming to an end, our societies our crumbling and our personal lives are more and more vulnerable to disruption.

While certainly understandable, that view of the future feeds our fear and makes us more risk averse and we become even more vulnerable to mounting performance pressure.

But there is an alternative view of the future. The same forces that are creating mounting performance pressure are also creating exponentially expanding opportunity – we can have far more impact, with far less resources and far more quickly than ever before. We need to make the effort to see those opportunities and to search for the opportunity that excites us the most.

If our view of the future is shaped by a really inspiring opportunity, we will begin to draw out emotions of hope and excitement that will motivate us to move boldly forward. We’ll find ourselves having much more meaningful impact and we’ll be driven to learn how to have even more impact in addressing this opportunity over time.

But there’s more. If we can focus on an opportunity in the future that really excites us, it increases our desire and ability to motivate others to join us in the quest to address this opportunity. Truth be told, most of us are pursuing personal narratives today that don’t provide a call to action for others to join us. Personal narratives that focus on a threat in the future tend to isolate us. As fear takes hold, we find it harder to trust others and we are more inclined to try to move forward on our own. That sense of isolation further intensifies the fear.

On the other hand, if we’ve found a really exciting opportunity out in the future, we can become very motivated to ask for help from others and, if the opportunity is appropriately framed, it can motivate many to invest time and effort in addressing the opportunity. This helps us to get significant leverage and have far more impact than if we try to do it all by ourselves. If it’s a big opportunity that will take years to achieve, it can also help us to build long-term, trust-based relationships that will play a significant role in overcoming our fear.

Challenges of evolution

When I talk about evolution of personal narrative, many people interpret this as writing up a new, and more fulfilling, narrative based on reflection of their existing narrative. I wish it were that easy. In my experience, personal narratives can’t evolve just by thinking and writing. They need to evolve through action – and it’s not just a one-time evolution, but a continual process of evolution shaped by actions taken and reflection on the impact achieved through action.

As we begin to focus on an opportunity in the future, we need to test and refine that opportunity through action now. We need to identify and pursue actions in the short-term (ideally weeks or a few months) that have potential to address that opportunity. As we pursue these actions, we need to reflect on whether those actions are generating the level of excitement we anticipated and whether they are helping us to make progress towards achieving the opportunity. If not, we need to either evolve our view of the opportunity that would be most exciting to us or our view of the actions that would have the greatest impact in making progress.

We also need to start reaching out to those we think could be most helpful with a call for them to join us in our quest to address the opportunity we’ve identified. Are they really investing the time and effort required to address the opportunity? Are they achieving real impact from their efforts?

If not, we need to further evolve our personal narrative. Is the opportunity we’ve identified big enough to motivate others to participate? Have we identified the right people to address the opportunity ahead? Can we frame the call to action in a way that would help them (and us) to achieve greater impact?

Our personal narratives are capable of, and require, continual evolution if we are going to achieve the impact that is most meaningful to us. There is always the potential to achieve more. In fact, if we’re truly excited about the opportunity we are identifying, we will be constantly seeking ways to have greater impact.

Effective personal narratives will trigger a learning mindset. We’ll be excited by the opportunity to have more and more impact over time. And we’ll realize that the most effective way to learn is through action, not just sitting in a chair and thinking about it.

And, it’s not just learning through action – it’s learning through action together with others. No matter how smart we are as individuals, we’ll learn a lot faster if we can come together with others who share our excitement about the opportunity we’ve identified. That’s why it’s so important to have a call to action to others that excites and motivates others to come together and constantly seek to increase impact.

Bottom line

Our personal narratives have untapped potential, no matter how well framed they are today. If we’re going to unleash more and more of that potential, we need to commit to continually evolve our personal narratives by acting together with others in ways that help us to learn faster.


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Support AND Challenge

Category:Collaboration,Connections,Emotions,Learning,Narratives,Opportunity,Passion,Trust

 

In our world of growing pressure, the question increasingly becomes: are you going to support me or are you going to challenge me? Which is it? Well, my answer is that it’s both – it has to be both.

In our Big Shift world, we need to come together in order to move from mounting performance pressure to exponentially expanding opportunity. But, let me hasten to add, that coming together doesn’t just mean to support each other. We’ll also need to find ways to challenge each other – deeply and continuously.

We all need support

In these difficult times, we hear a lot about the need to collaborate, whether it’s coming together in small teams or building broader networks of collaboration to access a diverse set of expertise and resources. While the calls for collaboration differ a lot in their focus, most of them seem to emphasizie the need to come together to support each other.

This is essential in our challenging world. If we continue to try to do it all by ourselves, we’ll find ourselves increasingly isolated and vulnerable to fear as we become overwhelmed by the challenges ahead. No matter how smart any of us are, we’ll learn a lot faster if we come together, especially if we come together with others who bring diverse expertise and backgrounds to the situation at hand.

We can all use the support of others. But it’s not just about ideas and expertise. It’s about emotions. These are scary times. We crave the emotional support of others, especially when we run into unexpected roadblocks or failures along the way. We need others to be there for us and reassure us that our efforts are not in vain and we should not give in to the fear that we’ll sink when we’re trying to swim in choppy waters.

Challenging to support

So, support becomes essential to avoid surrender and provide us with the motivation to continue swimming. But, support alone isn’t enough. If we’re going to move beyond mounting performance pressure and finally find ways to harness exponentially expanding opportunity, we also need to be challenged. We need others to constantly challenge us to aim higher and expand the impact that we are seeking.

But, wait a minute – isn’t challenging the opposite of support? If you’re challenging someone, aren’t you trying to put them down?

Well, here’s the paradox. Successful collaboration in the Big Shift world requires both support and challenge. In fact, the most powerful way to support someone in this rapidly changing world is to challenge them to achieve even greater impact. If we’re not constantly seeking to accelerate our performance improvement, we’ll quickly find ourselves marginalized and certainly not in a position to target exponentially expanding opportunity.

But challenging in the context of collaboration isn’t easy. It requires a shared commitment to achieve growing impact in an area of significant opportunity. If all the participants share that commitment, they won’t just welcome challenges, they’ll seek them out. They’ll recognize that challenges to existing approaches will help them to develop new approaches that can deliver even more impact. They’ll realize that they’re not being challenged to be put down, but instead because others are excited, as they are, about the potential for even more impact.

In my research, I’ve identified this kind of challenging to achieve better and better outcomes as productive friction. In the scalable efficiency institutions that dominate our world today, friction is viewed as bad. We need to eliminate it wherever it surfaces so that we can perform our activities faster and cheaper. In the Big Shift world, friction in the form of challenging each other is not only OK, it’s essential to accelerate performance improvement. But the friction has to be productive and that requires mutual respect, shaped by a shared commitment to achieve better and better outcomes.

The broader context

So, what’s required to build that kind of shared commitment? Well, those who have been following me know my answer – the passion of the explorer. It’s a very specific form of passion that I’ve identified in my research and written about extensively, including here and here.

People who have this kind of passion are committed to achieving increasing impact in a specific domain that is usually fairly broadly defined, like wellness, manufacturing or gardening. No matter how successful they have been in the past in their chosen domain, people with this passion are driven to find ways to achieve even greater impact. They are constantly asking for help from others as they try to take their impact to the next level and they are excited by challenges.

And, how does one cultivate this passion of the explorer? There are many paths to this form of passion but one powerful catalyst is a specific form of narrative – opportunity-based narratives. Once again, I’ve written about this extensively, including here and here. I draw an important distinction between stories and narratives. From my perspective, opportunity-based narratives are about a big and inspiring opportunity out in the future that will only be achieved if people come together and act together to address the opportunity – it’s a powerful call to action.

People who are inspired by the opportunity will often find the passion of the explorer surfacing within them. They will be inspired to come together and support and challenge each other to achieve greater impact in their efforts to address the opportunity.

Coming together to accelerate learning

People who develop this form of passion tend to come together in small groups – I call them impact groups. These groups usually have somewhere between 3-15 participants. They find that, if the groups grow any larger, the deep, trust-based relationships required to learn faster together begin to weaken. As the number of participants expands, they will spin out other impact groups.

These impact groups are focused on action and impact; they’re not just discussion groups talking about ideas. They’re relentlessly focused on taking action and then assessing the impact that has been achieved from that action. Their goal is learn together through action so that they can have more and more impact over time.

It’s within this context that participants both support and challenge each other. They recognize that they are venturing out into new frontiers that have not yet been explored and that there are lot of risks along the way. They’re there for each other when someone stumbles along the way. But they’re also constantly seeking a better approach to make even more progress towards the bigger opportunity ahead. They are challenging each other to find a better way.

Scaling impact

When I talk about impact groups, people often become concerned that the potential for impact becomes very limited because each group must remain relatively small in terms of the number of participants. While understandable, that concern is not warranted. Impact groups can connect with each other into broader networks that enable more and more participants to reach out and learn from each other. The platforms required to do this are still relatively early stage in their development, but there’s a significant untapped opportunity for learning platforms to scale the impact of these groups.

In fact, these learning platforms will harness two levels of network effects. There’s the basic network effect that emerges simply from the growing number of groups and participants in those groups as they find ways to connect on the same platform. But there’s an even more powerful form of network effect that comes from the opportunity to accelerate learning and performance improvement as more and more participants are motivated to learn together. It’s this second form of network effect that will ultimately enable participants to address exponentially expanding opportunities.

Bottom line

If we’re serious about moving beyond mounting performance pressure to address exponentially expanding opportunity, we’ll need to collaborate, but collaboration isn’t just about supporting each other. Collaboration in a rapidly changing world requires a willingness and eagerness to challenge each other. The paradox is that the most effective way to support each other in a rapidly changing world is to challenge each other. It’s not choosing to support or challenge – it’s recognizing that one cannot exist without the other.

The best way to do that is to cultivate the passion of the explorer among participants in small groups. And the best way to cultivate the passion of the explorer and draw people together is by framing an inspiring opportunity-based narrative.


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Emotion as the Foundation of Strategy

Category:Collaboration,Connections,Context,Emotions,Leadership,Learning,Narratives,Opportunity,Strategy,Trust

Credit to CuriousArtLab

As we head further into the new decade, we need to reflect on how the world is changing on so many levels. Given all these changes, it’s perhaps time to reassess our approach to strategy. At the risk of being viewed as a heretic, let me suggest that the successful strategies going forward will be strongly rooted in addressing the emotions of participants, rather than simply relying on facts and figures.

The Big Shift in the world

We are in the early stages of a Big Shift that is transforming our global economy, something that I have written about a lot, including here and here. This Big Shift is creating exponentially expanding opportunity – we can create far more value with far less resources far more quickly. The paradox is that, at the same time, the Big Shift is creating mounting performance pressure, making it more and more challenging to sustain the performance we’ve enjoyed in the past.

How do we resolve this paradox and make the journey from mounting performance pressure to exponentially expanding opportunity? We need to re-think strategy at a fundamental level and focus much more on the emotions of all participants so that we can truly unleash the power of pull.

The opportunity for strategy

The opportunity for strategy in the next decade and beyond is to unleash ways to deliver more and more value with fewer and fewer resources. If we’re going to succeed at that, we need to be able to anticipate the rapidly evolving unmet needs of the people we are trying to reach. We then need to be able to find ways to increase leverage, mobilizing the resources of others. We also need to find ways to accelerate learning – not learning in the form of training programs sharing existing knowledge, but learning in the form of action with others in ways that can rapidly increase impact over time by creating new knowledge in a rapidly changing world.

In the industrial age that brought us to where we are today, unmet needs were largely defined in material terms – what products and services could address our material needs, whether it involved our physical needs for food, or our broader needs to be comfortable in the physical world, like homes and cars. Meeting those material needs has been more and more successful, despite temporary setbacks like financial crises or pandemics.

Certainly, there are still large segments of the population with significant material needs, especially in trying times like this pandemic. But the mounting performance pressure of the Big Shift is also generating unmet needs at the emotional level. More and more of us are becoming consumed with the emotion of fear – and given the long-term forces shaping our world today, that fear is likely to intensify. While fear is certainly understandable, we as humans don’t want to live in fear – we have a deep hunger for hope and excitement. The institutions that understand and act to address that unmet emotional need will create enormous value for their stakeholders. Now, tell me, when was the last time you sat through a strategy discussion that began with an effort to understand the emotional needs of the participants being served by your institution?

Focusing on unmet emotional needs

The successful strategies of the next decade will begin with cultivating a deep understanding of these unmet emotional needs and then developing unique approaches that are effective in addressing these emotional needs. In this context, I have written extensively about institutional narratives, including here and here, which I believe can become a powerful instrument to build much deeper relationships with stakeholders by addressing their unmet emotional needs. I hasten to add that these new strategies will not be focused on manipulating the emotions of participants, but instead deeply understanding these emotional needs, why they exist, and how they can be addressed.

In this context, we need to be careful to “Zoom Out and Zoom In.” Don’t just look at the emotions around you today. Look ahead and anticipate how long-term forces will generate much deeper unmet emotional needs and then look for the highest impact steps you can take today to begin address those unmet needs.

Increasing leverage

But this is just the beginning. To harness the exponential opportunities that are being created by the Big Shift, all institutions will need to be much more aggressive in seeking leverage. The key to successful strategies will be to deliver significant value with as few of your own resources as possible. The global connectivity that is being fostered by the Big Shift makes it far easier to connect with a broader range of third-party resources.

But the ability to connect makes it even more important to understand what will be required to motivate third parties to invest the time and resources required to amplify the impact of your own products and services. Once again, this involves delving deeply into the emotions of the third parties that can be most helpful to you. Sure, you can and will have to offer them material rewards for collaborating with you, but you’re going to get much greater value from them if you can find ways to build trust and excite them about the longer-term opportunities for impact that can be created by coming together.

Accelerating learning

This is particularly powerful because of another strategic lever that is becoming more and more important in the Big Shift. In a rapidly changing world, the ability to learn faster becomes key to success. To be clear, I’m not talking about learning in the form of going to classes and getting credentials. I’m talking about the most powerful form of learning which is creating new knowledge through action. And, no matter how smart we are as individuals or individual institutions, we will learn a lot faster if we act together with others and challenge each other to find more creative ways to deliver more impact. In this Big Shift world, this form of learning becomes The Only Sustainable Edge.

This takes leverage to another level. When they talk about leverage, most strategists focus on transactions to access existing expertise and resources from third parties. While that is certainly helpful, the most powerful form of leverage is learning leverage, where participants come together to learn faster together.

But what’s required to motivate participants to learn faster together? My experience suggests that participants learn much faster together if they are excited by an opportunity to create more impact that is meaningful to them. Once again, though, this requires a deep understanding of the emotions of the participants. We need to understand where there’s fear and how that fear can be overcome by cultivating excitement.

Learning in the form of creating new knowledge can generate a lot of fear. After all, it’s risky. It’s never been done before. It could fail. But those who are excited about an opportunity that’s never been achieved before are driven to learn faster. They actively seek out opportunities to learn and are challenging themselves and others to find ways to achieve even greater impact. They are restless when they are not learning.

Loyalty and the pull it generates

In the end, all of this comes together in a powerful way. If we are able to excite participants about a meaningful opportunity that can bring people together and help them to learn faster together, what happens? We develop deep loyalty. This is no longer about short-term transactions that can be measured in material terms. This is about building deep and lasting trust-based relationships where we can see impact that matters to all the participants.

In a more connected world, loyalty matters. With all the connectivity we’ve created, it has become far easier to leave someone who is not meeting our needs and connect with someone else. This is a growing challenge for all institutions, especially in a world of eroding trust. Loyalty will be a powerful source of strategic advantage because it unleashes a virtuous cycle of more rapid learning with greater and greater impact.

But, it’s not just about loyalty. It’s about the Power of Pull. If we’re addressing significant unmet emotional needs of participants, word of mouth will spread and more and more participants will seek us out and want to find ways to build deeper relationships with us. Network effects will take hold and we’ll begin to see exponentially expanding impact and this in turn will unleash another virtuous cycle that will  pull more and more participants together.

I should hasten to add that this exponential opportunity will not be available for all businesses. As I’ve written elsewhere, businesses will face a painful choice in the decades ahead in terms of defining more clearly what business they are in. While all businesses will benefit by shifting to strategies that are focused on the emotions of participants, the exponential opportunity will be largely reserved for businesses that choose to become “trusted advisors.” That’s a largely untapped business opportunity today, even though everyone claims to be a “trusted advisor” to their customers.

The Big Shift in strategy

Looking back over decades, the focus of strategy has shifted in a profound way. Certainly the early days of business strategy focused on analyzing the structure of markets and industries to identify positions that could create sustainable strategic advantage.

In the past couple of decades, we’ve seen a shift away from strategies of structure to strategies of movement. Given the accelerating pace of change, the emphasis in strategy has been on how to move faster – agility has become the buzzword.

I believe we’re now on the cusp of another shift in strategy from movement to emotion. The strategies that will succeed in the future are those that focus on the emotions of the participants and find ways to cultivate deep, long-term, and trust-based relationships among a growing array of participants by meeting their deepest emotional needs. To be clear, structure and movement are still relevant, but only in the context of a deep understanding of the emotional environment. That’s a dimension that’s been largely ignored by the previous schools of strategy.

The bottom line

Strategy is ultimately about how to deliver greater impact and value with less resources in a way that is sustainable and rewarding to the provider. It’s all about doing more with less over the long-term. The strategies that generated success in the past are proving less and less effective in a rapidly changing world. To succeed in the future, we will need to evolve strategies that are shaped by a deep understanding of the emotional context and focused on addressing the unmet emotional needs of the participants. Those who do this well will succeed in tapping into the exponentially expanding opportunities created by the Big Shift.

While this post has focused on strategies for institutions, I would suggest that this shift in strategy also applies to us as individuals. But that’s a topic for another blog post


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From Shareholder to Stakeholder Market Economies

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Context,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Opportunity,Passion,Potential,Trust

What better day than Labor Day in the U.S. to address the growing discussion about shareholders and stakeholders in market economies?

In recent years, there’s been more and more discussion about the need to expand corporate horizons beyond just serving shareholders to serving a broader range of “stakeholders.” While at one level this is long overdue, I fear the need is being expressed too narrowly.

It’s often framed as a choice – do we serve shareholders or serve other stakeholders, like employees, customers, business partners and community members? I’d like to suggest that it’s not an either/or choice but a both/and. Given the way the world is changing, the best way to generate expanding returns for shareholders is to find more creative ways of serving the evolving needs of all stakeholders. Those who continue to focus narrowly on shareholder interests will be increasingly marginalized and prove to be a deep disappointment to their shareholders.

Why is this true? Let’s look at how the world is changing, building on some of the perspectives that I outlined in my book The Power of Pull.

Diminishing returns from current approaches

For over a century, we’ve lived in a global industrial economy where the key to economic success was achieving economies of scale in asset intensive businesses. Those asset intensive businesses required massive investment and shareholders were increasingly demanding short-term returns on their investments.

This led to the emergence and growth of the scalable efficiency institutional model that has ruled the business world. The key to economic success was to become more and more efficient at scale, with a relentless focus on cost reduction and delivering short-term quarterly returns to shareholders.

But here’s the problem. The world is changing. What was efficient and successful in the past is becoming less and less successful over time. Need some evidence for this assertion? Check out the work I have done on return on asset trends for all public companies in the US. It turns out that from 1965 until today, return on assets for all public companies has declined by 75%, it has been a long and sustained erosion. (I know the link I provided only showed results up to 2015 but we have recently updated this to 2019 – the trend continues, and I will be writing more about this soon.)

Now, I will point out that return on assets is not the same as return to shareholders. It turns out that over this time, return to shareholders has also declined, but the decline has been cushioned by a series of financial engineering measures designed to serve the needs of shareholders – adding debt to the balance sheet, and increasing dividends and stock buybacks. Companies are remaining focused on serving the shareholder, but this is not a sustainable approach in a world of decreasing return on assets. There’s only so much debt that can be added to the balance sheet and less cash available to increase dividends and stock buybacks.

The scalable efficiency model

This erosion in return on assets is particularly ironic because we increasingly live in a global economy where much more value can be created with far less resources and far more quickly than was ever imaginable a few decades ago. What’s preventing us from harnessing this opportunity? It’s the scalable efficiency model.

Scalable efficiency encourages us to squeeze all other stakeholders in our never-ending quest to become more efficient. Employees? Keep their salaries as low as possible while increasing their production quotas. Business partners? Seek to get as much from them while paying them as little as possible. Customers? Raise your prices wherever possible and find ways to lower the production costs, even if quality may suffer. Community members? They’re a distraction – stay focused on the means of production.

But here’s the problem. Scalable efficiency is a diminishing returns proposition. The more efficient we become, the longer and harder we have to work to get the next increment of efficiency. The paradox is that, the more we focus on delivering short-term returns to shareholders through scalable efficiency, the lower those returns will be over time.

This approach diverts our attention from the opportunity to create more value – all our attention is focused on cutting costs. In a world of exponentially expanding opportunity, that’s a big loss. Here’s another paradox: the more we focus on delivering exponentially expanding value to shareholders, the more we will need to commit to address the needs of all stakeholders. Why is that?

Addressing the context of all stakeholders

Value depends on a deep understanding of context – the context of all stakeholders. It’s a key reason that I’ve suggested we’re moving from the Industrial Age to the Contextual Age.

It starts with the customer. Customers are becoming more and more powerful and increasingly insisting on products and services that are tailored to their specific and rapidly evolving needs. Understanding and anticipating those needs requires a rich understanding of the context of our customers. The most successful companies will be those who don’t just wait for customers to tell them what they need, but who instead invest the time and effort to anticipate those needs – and who understand the needs that are most fundamental and rapidly expanding.

But, that’s just the beginning. The companies that will be most successful will harness the potential for expanding leverage – creating more much more value with far less resources of their own. They will deliver much greater returns to shareholders. But the focus on leverage requires a deep understanding of the context of an expanding array of potential business partners. Understanding the context of business partners helps to identify their needs and what would motivate them to devote more time and effort to delivering more value to you and your customers. You will be much more successful in harnessing the power of pull and expanding your ecosystem of business partners if you understand and serve their needs.

And, of course, there are your employees. In a rapidly changing world, it has become a truism that employees are going to have to commit to lifelong learning. The learning that is most valuable is learning in the form of creating new knowledge through action together with others. The institutions that succeed in the future will be those who make the journey from scalable efficiency to scalable learning.

But few people are asking what’s the motivation to learn. The unstated assumption is that it’s fear – if you don’t learn faster, you’ll lose your job. While fear can motivate some learning, it’s a very limited motivator, especially when the learning involves risk-taking and working closely with others. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the passion of the explorer is a much more powerful motivator for learning.

The challenge is that very few workers today have that kind of passion for their work, as some of my recent research demonstrated. If we are really committed to cultivating that passion in our workforce, we need to develop a much deeper understanding of the personal context of our employees and what kind of impact has the most value and meaning for them. If we’re not addressing this value and meaning for our employees, we will not be successful in motivating them to learn faster and find ways to deliver more and more value to their colleagues, business partners and customers. We will not pull out of them more and more of their potential.

And, if we’re serious about serving the needs and delivering more and more value to our customers, business partners and employees, that inevitably leads to addressing another set of stakeholders – members of the communities we live and operate in. Our communities are a key element of the context for all of our stakeholders. If our communities are not thriving, then our other stakeholders will find it much more challenging to achieve the potential and impact that is most meaningful to them. The companies that understand the needs of their communities and actively contribute to their flourishing will be much more successful in creating value for their other stakeholders.

Bottom line

To harness the exponentially expanding opportunities that are emerging in our Big Shift world, we need to become much more aggressive in creating and delivering value for all our stakeholders. Shareholders will receive far more value from companies that find ways to expand leverage and accelerate learning. Those are the companies that will create much more value with far less resources and far more quickly than other companies. But leverage and learning require a deep commitment to all stakeholders – understanding their context and the value that is most meaningful to them and committing to deliver value to them. By addressing the needs of all stakeholders, companies will unleash the network effects that can create exponentially expanding value for shareholders, and for all stakeholders.


  • 5

Loss Can Be Growth

Category:Crisis,Emotions,Learning,Loss,Opportunity

Flowers blossoming in Death Valley

This is a period of loss

For many of us.

Loss is hard to take.

Something or someone

Meaningful to us

Is gone,

Perhaps forever.

It fills us

With sadness and regret.

There’s an emptiness

That seeks to be filled.

Let’s view loss as an opportunity.

Take the time to reflect –

What was it that was so meaningful,

That is no longer there?

What we lost was unique,

But the meaning

May be found elsewhere.

We just need to know

What to look for.

A deeper understanding of meaning

And why our loss was so meaningful

Could help us in our journey ahead.

We would be more aware

Of the meaning that matters

And be more focused

In seeking it out.

Growth is about

Finding more meaning.

Loss can give us much more insight

Into the meaning

That will help us to

Grow and flourish

Far beyond

Where we are today.

If we prepare fertile ground,

Flowers will blossom,

And our lives will be a lot richer

And, it’s even possible that

What we have lost

May return,

But with much more richness.


  • 23

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.


  • 1

Direction, Not Destination

Category:Learning,Opportunity,Poem,Potential

We’re all on a journey.

Or we should be.

Many of us have stopped,

And remain stuck,

Afraid of what

Might lie ahead.

Some of us are on a journey

Dictated by others,

In an effort to please.

As we embrace our own journey

Avoid the advice

To pick a destination.

Our journey is without end.

There is no destination.

But let’s not wander aimlessly.

We need to find a direction

So that we can make progress

And keep looking ahead.

That direction

Needs to be our own direction,

Not someone else’s.

It’s the direction

That fills us with excitement

And drives us

To keep moving forward.

When we find that direction,

We’ll be unstoppable

And make great progress.

Our journey will be without end

Because there’s so much to explore

And experience.

We’ll savor what we see,

But we’ll always be drawn

Beyond the horizon.


  • 2

Far Beyond Fear

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Emotions,Opportunity,Poem

Look far to overcome fear

And go far.

Fear shrinks our horizons,

Both in time and distance.

We become consumed

By the moment

And by what’s near us.

We lose perspective on

What’s ahead

And what’s in the world

Around us.

We need to

Expand our horizons.

If we look far enough ahead

We will see really big opportunities

If we look far enough around,

We will see many people who can help us

Achieve those opportunities

We’re not alone.

To look far

We need to look within.

Within, we will find

What we need.

We all have

A hunger for impact.

We all want to make a difference,

A big difference.

That will drive us to look far

And move far beyond our fear.


  • 10

From the Gig Economy to the Guild Economy

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Creation Spaces,Flow,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Opportunity,Trust,Workgroups

More and more people are talking about the future of work. In those conversations, something that’s getting quite a bit of attention is the “gig economy,” where more and more work is being done by independent contractors and not by full-time employees. While that’s certainly an interesting trend, I prefer to look ahead and anticipate what’s next. In that context, I’d suggest that we’re going to evolve from a “gig economy” to a “guild economy.”

Forces at work

The growth of the gig economy is a result of many forces coming together. A core driver of the gig economy is the evolution of the scalable efficiency model that drives most of our large institutions. As I’ve written about elsewhere, the scalable efficiency model has shaped our large institutions around the world for at least the past century.

This model is driven by the belief that the key to success is to do things faster and cheaper at scale. Enormous wealth and institutional success have been the result, which is why institutional leaders are so wedded to this model.

But there’s a problem – actually, many problems. Efficiency is a diminishing returns proposition. The more efficient we become, the longer and harder we need to work to get the next increment of efficiency. Diminishing returns is a problem on its own, but it’s compounded by the fact that we live in a Big Shift world of mounting performance pressure – competition is intensifying, change is accelerating, and extreme disruptive events occur with increasing frequency.

The early growth of the gig economy

Rather than questioning the continuing value of scalable efficiency models, institutional leaders have a natural tendency to want to squeeze harder. One approach to cost-cutting that has gained increasing traction in the past several decades is the shift from full-time employees to contract labor. If the work to be done is variable, rather than constant, why pay a full-time employee when we could turn a fixed labor cost into a variable labor cost and simply hire a contract worker when a task needs to be done?

Even better, there’s an opportunity to save on labor costs because the employer doesn’t have to pay all those expensive employee benefits like health care insurance. When the work can be done remotely, the company can save even more money by finding contract workers in parts of the world where lower wages are the norm.

These are some of the reasons why gig work has grown rapidly over the past several decades. There’s also another reason which should be a bit of a red flag. I haven’t seen any statistics on this, but anecdotally I am seeing a growing number of workers leaving large institutions and striking out on their own because they are frustrated with the worker experience in large institutions. They’re driven by a desire to learn faster. They report to me that they’re developing their capabilities much more rapidly as an independent contractor than they ever could when they were stuck within one institution.

But, while there are some exceptions, most of the “gig work” being done today is done by individuals working on a transactional, project basis. They’re on their own. That’s what’s going to change.

The Big Shift and the imperative to learn faster

As I’ve already mentioned, the Big Shift is creating mounting performance pressure on all individuals and institutions. But, at the same time, the paradox is that the Big Shift is also creating exponentially expanding opportunity – we can create far more value with far less resource and far more quickly than would have been possible a few decades ago.

As we confront the paradox of the Big Shift, the imperative is to learn faster – that’s the most effective way to respond to mounting performance pressure, while at the same time addressing exponentially expanding opportunity. By learning faster, I mean creating new knowledge through action and reflection on impact achieved. Those who master the ability to learn faster will achieve much higher impact in a rapidly changing world.

But, here’s the challenge, the scalable efficiency model of our institutions is fundamentally hostile to this form of learning. It requires taking risk and improvising when the scalable efficiency model insists on tightly specifying and highly standardizing all tasks to be performed. It also insists that everyone deliver their results predictably and reliably without failure.

The impact on the gig economy

The gig economy, as it’s currently structured, also limits the potential to learn faster. Gig workers typically work as individuals and they are very transactionally driven. While gig workers can certainly learn by engaging as individuals in project work, that’s not the optimal way to learn. If we’re serious about accelerating learning and performance improvement, we need to come together in small groups (what I call “impact groups”) of 3-15 people who develop deep, trust-based relationships with each other based on a shared commitment to increasing impact.

We’re already starting to see some of that start to happen in the gig economy. Individual workers are discovering that there are others who share their passion and coming together so that they can work on projects as a group, rather than individuals.

I anticipate this is just the beginning. As gig workers begin to realize the need to accelerate their learning and performance improvement, they’re going to be driven to come together into small groups and offer their services as a group, rather than as individuals.

On the other side, institutions are going to begin to see that the real value of contract workers is the diversity of experience and expertise that they bring to the work. These contract workers can help the institution’s employees to learn faster by exposing them to different perspectives and approaches to addressing work. These institutions will begin to expand their focus beyond just cost savings and see gig workers as an opportunity to learn faster. While some of that may be accomplished in a “one-off” project with individual contractors, there will be even greater potential for learning if enduring, trust-based relationships are developed with specific gig groups over time.

The role of guilds

That sets the stage for a new way of organizing the gig economy. We’re going to begin to see impact groups forming and coming together into broader networks that will help them to learn even faster.

That’s where guilds come in. In Medieval times, guilds were a prominent way of organizing in urban areas to bring people together who were seeking to earn a living from a particular craft or trade. These guilds had many different roles, but a key one was to help their participants become better at their craft or trade. They were powerful learning organizations where participants learned through practice, rather than sitting in classrooms.

As independent workers become more aware of the imperative for accelerating learning, they will tend to affiliate into guilds that will help to connect them with others who might become part of their impact group and, more broadly, with other impact groups that share their passion for increasing impact in a particular set of activities. These guilds can help to knit together larger and larger networks of impact groups, generating something that I call “creation spaces,” to help scale and accelerate learning. For example, think of a guild that will help graphic designers to come together and learn from each other.

These guilds can play many different roles over time. One major role would be to provide the participants in their guilds with access to a variety of benefit programs like health care and life insurance that would be much more difficult to obtain as individuals. These guilds can also help to define and manage reputation systems that will help their participants to build a broader range of trust-based relationships. They can become rich environments for mutual aid among participants.

Beyond the gig economy, there’s another area that will see the re-emergence of guilds. That’s in product and service businesses that will increasingly fragment as customers demand more and more tailored products and services to serve their specific needs (see more about fragmentation trends in the economy here). The participants in these small, but very profitable, product and service businesses will see value in connecting with others in their particular domains so that they can all learn faster and create even more value with less resource. For example, think of a guild for craft chocolate companies that are serving very specific customer niches.

The potential limitations of guilds

In Medieval times, guilds had a mixed role. In part, they helped their members to learn faster together but, in another part, they often served as barriers to entry for others who wanted to practice the craft or trade. Often acting in collaboration with city governments, they would impose severe restrictions on those who could participate in a certain craft or trade. They often became very protectionist, limiting competition. (As you can see from the picture above, many of them excluded women)

The next generation of guilds needs to avoid the temptation to erect barriers. Rather than focusing on protecting existing stocks of knowledge, they need to be committed to enhancing and scaling flows of knowledge so that everyone can learn faster.

To address the opportunity to help participants to learn faster, these guilds need to find a way to move beyond fear of competition and foster the excitement that can come from addressing the exponentially expanding opportunities created by the Big Shift. Rather than embracing a scarcity mindset, these guilds need to cultivate an abundance mindset. They need to recognize that, the more people that come together, driven by a commitment to learn faster, the more opportunity there will be for value creation. It’s a very different heartset and mindset from the ones generated by the fear that is engulfing more and more of the world’s population.

The bottom line

The imperative to learn faster is going to motivate individuals to come together in very different ways. In at least one dimension, our future may represent a return to the past, when we see the re-emergence of guilds. Rather than isolated individuals driven by fear as they confront mounting performance pressures, we are likely to see people coming together, excited about the opportunity to learn faster and embrace exponentially expanding opportunity.


NEW BOOK

My new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, will be published by McGraw Hill on May 25. It starts with the observation that fear is becoming the dominant emotion for people around the world. While understandable, fear is also very limiting.

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 pre-order the book at Amazon.

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