Category Archives: Opportunity

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Diving Deeper Into Digital Transformation

Category:Collaboration,Community,Context,Edges,Emotions,Exploration,Fear,Future,Growth,Institutional Innovation,Leadership,Learning,Opportunity,Passion,Potential,Small moves,Strategy,Transformation

Digital transformation has become a business buzzword. Everyone is talking about it, but there is a significant missed opportunity. To understand the missed opportunity, we first need to understand the context of the world we live in.

The Big Shift

Long-term forces are re-shaping our global economy and society in profound ways. I have done a lot of research on the Big Shift. It has many dimensions – one of them is the creation of exponentially expanding opportunities. We can create far more value with far less resources and far more quickly than would have been imaginable a few decades. But to do this, we will need to embrace broad business transformation.

From digital transformation to business transformation

Here’s the first problem. Virtually every large, traditional organization has a digital transformation program, but when you probe into what the program is doing, it turns out that virtually all of these programs are focused on applying digital technology so that the organization can do what it has always done, but just faster and cheaper.

Increased business efficiency may be helpful, but it is not business transformation. Business transformation starts with asking the most basic question of all – what fundamentally different business should we be seeking to become?

To answer this question, I strongly recommend that leaders adopt a very different approach to strategy, something I call the Zoom Out/Zoom In approach to strategy. This approach has many benefits, but one of them is that it takes leadership out of their comfort zone, and forces them to look for small moves, smartly made that they can pursue in the short-term to begin their journey to much more profound business transformation.

If we’re serious about pursuing exponentially expanding opportunities, everything in the business will need to change. We’ll need to shift from an institutional model of scalable efficiency to scalable learning. We’ll need to redefine work for everyone in the organization so that people are no longer performing tightly specified, highly standardized tasks and instead are focused on addressing unseen opportunities and problems to create more value. We’ll need to redesign our work environments so that they can support this new form of work. We’ll need to adopt different approaches to growth – rather than focusing on make versus buy as the two key growth options, we’ll need to embrace leveraged growth where the focus is on connecting our customers with a broader range of third parties that can help to address their unmet needs.

That’s profound change in all aspects of our current businesses. What are the barriers and obstacles to overcome? Based on my experience in helping leaders to pursue business transformation, I have only one piece of advice – never, ever under-estimate the power of the immune system and antibodies that exist in every large, traditional organization and which will mobilize at the slightest indication of change to resist that change.

These people are not evil people. They are very well-intentioned, but they are driven by the emotion of fear. They have become very risk averse and believe that the best way to succeed is to continue doing what has always been done to create value.

From business transformation to emotional transformation

To address this barrier and obstacle to business transformation, we need to dive deeper into another level of transformation – emotional transformation. How do we move beyond the emotion of fear to cultivate other emotions that will help us to have more impact that is meaningful to us? That’s the focus of my latest book – The Journey Beyond Fear. I wrote the book because I saw fear becoming more and more prevalent as an emotion around the world.

A key reason for the spread of fear is mounting performance pressure that is also generated by the Big Shift – competition intensifying on a global scale, pace of change accelerating and extreme, disruptive events emerging more frequently. While understandable, this emotion is also very limiting – people who are driven by fear can’t even see the exponential opportunities emerging in the future, much less have the motivation to pursue them.

How do we overcome this fear? We need to find and draw out a very specific form of passion – the passion of the explorer – that resides within all of us and is waiting to be drawn out.

It turns out that the Zoom Out/Zoom In approach to strategy can be very powerful in moving us beyond fear. It focuses people on a really big and inspiring opportunity 10-20 years from now and quickly provides evidence of progress towards that opportunity in the next 6-12 months to help overcome skepticism.

To make the journey beyond fear we also need to cultivate new leadership models – shifting from an expert model where the leader has the answer to all the questions to the explorer model where the leader is focused on sharing inspiring questions and asking for help in coming up with answers.

We also need to adopt different approaches to transformation. Rather than pursuing top down, big bang approaches that draw out the immune system, we should focus on scaling an edge that can become the new core of the business and will embrace all the changes required to pursue exponential opportunities.

Bottom line

Digital technology is a significant catalyst for the need for transformation, but we need to avoid becoming focused too narrowly on digital transformation. Instead, we need to dive deeper into business transformation and then recognize that will require an even deeper dive to a third level – emotional transformation.

This is a huge opportunity. It can help us to move from mounting performance pressure to exponentially expanding opportunity. It’s not just an opportunity – it’s an imperative given the rapidly changing world around us.

I am an optimist. I believe that we can and will move beyond the caterpillars that we are today, focused on just finding ways to move faster. Instead, we will all become butterflies in a thriving world.


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Where to Look

Category:Collaboration,Connections,Context,Emotions,Exploration,Fear,Future,Learning,Opportunity,Passion

Ambergris Cay Island, Turks and Caicos Islands

We live in a world of accelerating change. There’s so much going on around us that we are understandably becoming overwhelmed.

And the advice we get can be very confusing. Many are saying to stay focused on the present. Others tell us to look ahead and focus on the future. And then there are those who insist we should stay focused on the past because we can learn from the past.

So, what is it? My advice is that we need to do all three, but in a very specific sequence, otherwise it will certainly be overwhelming.

Start with the future

We need to start by looking ahead. We need to search for really big opportunities that can inspire us to come together and act with others. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the Big Shift that we are experiencing on a global scale is creating exponentially expanding opportunities – we can create far more value, far more quickly and with far less resources than would have ever been required in the past.

But those opportunities will not emerge on their own. We need to look for them and actively pursue them. And we need to keep searching until we find a really big opportunity that excites us – let’s not be distracted by an overwhelming range of possibilities in the future.

And, yes, the future is uncertain – to some degree. We need to focus on the long-term trends that are already playing out and that are reasonably predictable.

Starting with the search for big, future opportunities is also important because many of us have adopted a view of the future that focuses on imminent threats. As I’ve discussed in my book, The Journey Beyond Fear, that view of the future is feeding the emotion of fear that more and more of us are experiencing, and that is holding us back from even seeing, much less pursuing, the opportunities ahead.

Focusing on a really exciting opportunity in the future can help us to overcome the fear that we are experiencing today. It can become a catalyst for drawing out the passion of the explorer that will motivate us to act now and pursue the opportunity.

Equally importantly, finding a really exciting opportunity in the future will help us to maintain focus as we deal with the infinite demands on our attention in the present.

Then shift to the present

Once we have a really exciting opportunity in the future that can maintain our focus, we can then shift to exploring the present. That exploration will be driven by three questions:

  • What are resources and capabilities that can help me to address opportunity
  • Who else can I collaborate with to amplify these resources and capabilities?
  • What are major barriers that need to be overcome to achieve opportunity?

There’s a lot to be learned from the present, and that will put us in a better position to learn from the past.

Learn from the past

Once we have a clear focus on the exciting opportunity ahead and the resources and barriers of the present, we’re in a much better position to look into the past and learn from the past.

We’ll now be much more focused on what can be learned from previous initiatives that will help us to achieve even more impact today. Again, the need is to stay focused on what can be learned to achieve greater impact in pursuing the opportunity that excites us the most. There’s so much in the past that can distract us unless we have a clear view of what we are trying to learn.

These lessons from the past can then help us to evolve our initiatives in the present so that we can have even greater impact and accelerate our progress towards the exciting opportunity in the future.

Return to the present and the future

We’re now in a much better position to pursue high impact initiatives in the present. We’ll need to stay focused on the present and continually reflect on the impact that we’re achieving as we pursue our initiatives. What is achieving greater impact than we expected? What is falling short in terms of impact? How can we evolve our initiatives so that we can achieve even greater impact?

As we pursue these initiatives in the present, we will also achieve much greater insight into the opportunity that we are pursuing in the future. It will become much clearer and even more compelling as we learn more about the details of the opportunity and the value that it can create.

Bottom line

Sequence matters. The key is to focus and cultivate the motivation to act and learn.

In the past, the emphasis was focusing on the past because we lived in a more stable world where the past could provide us with valuable lessons about the opportunities in the future. Today, we need to emphasize looking ahead into the future as a launchpad for impact that matters because the world is changing at a rapid rate, and new opportunities are emerging that could never have been addressed in the past.

In the end, we need to focus on action and learning from that action so that we can truly address exponentially expanding opportunities.


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The Paradox of Progress

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

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

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

Humans are unique and the same

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

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

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

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

We need to both compete and collaborate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom line

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

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

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


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Expanding Our Horizons

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

First, it was the oceans.

Then, it was the forests.

More recently, it became the cities.

Our evolutionary path

Has been long and winding.

Over millennia,

It has brought us closer together,

But we also remain deeply connected

With our homes of the past.

We will only thrive

When all our homes flourish.

Let’s expand our horizons

And imagine what is possible

When we connect

Across all our homes

In even richer ways

That nourish all the participants

And spawn even more participants.

Fertility and longevity

Will enrich all of us.


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From Expert to Explorer

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

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

Our heritage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom line

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


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Authors Shaping My Journey

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

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

Carlota Perez – A unique period of history

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

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

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

Jane Jacobs – Cities as a catalyst for economic growth

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

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

Annalee Saxenian – Cultures as a catalyst for growth within regions

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

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

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

Carol Dweck – Mindsets as a catalyst for growth

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

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

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

Weaving the tapestry

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

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

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

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

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

A coincidence?

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

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

Bottom line

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


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Cultivating and Connecting Capabilities

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

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

Skills versus capabilities

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

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

Connecting capabilities to support a new form of learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultivating capabilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unleashing passion and capabilities

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom line

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


  • 2

What Does Strategy Really Mean?

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

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

What does strategy mean today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will strategy need to become?

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

Successful strategies will

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

Anticipating growing unmet needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rapidly evolving approaches to delivering value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom line

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


  • 0

Escalating Return on Attention

Category:Connections,Emotions,Fear,Future,Learning,Opportunity,Paradox,Potential,Workgroups

Last week, I gave a talk at the South By Southwest conference in Austin where I focused on the increasing importance of return on attention. I believe this is becoming more and more central to success, but that business people are viewing this much too narrowly. There’s a significant untapped opportunity waiting to be addressed.

Paying attention to return on attention

Let me begin by saying that most business people are primarily focused on a very different metric to measure progress – return on sales. While I don’t want to dismiss this, I suggest that it’s too limiting for two reasons.

First, it’s inward looking – it focuses on the financial performance of the company. While that’s certainly important, the financial performance of the company is shaped by events and needs outside the company.

Second, by focusing on financial performance, it draws the attention of management to lagging indicators. It tells them how they have been doing. In a rapidly changing world, we need to be looking ahead, focusing on indicators that will help us to anticipate emerging opportunities.

We need to pay more attention to return on attention. In an increasingly competitive world, customers are gaining more power. Where customers choose to allocate their attention among a growing number of options competing for their attention, will determine who succeeds and who becomes increasingly marginalized.

We need to find ways to measure and monitor return on attention. But the challenge is that return on attention can be viewed at many different levels.

Level 1 of return on attention

When I talk with executives about return on attention, I find that they quickly narrow their focus to their own company. For them, return on attention is how much they have had to spend per unit of attention from their customers and promising prospects.

Once again, they understandably fall back to financial metrics and what they have had to “pay” for the attention of their customers. This is still very focused on the company and lagging indicators – how much have they had to pay in the past.

Level 2 of return on attention

We need to expand our horizons. Rather than focusing on the company, let’s shift our attention to the customers and their return on attention – what value are the customers receiving for the attention they are providing to the company? What’s their return on attention?

And, let’s stay focused on value received, rather than the amount of time and effort that customers have to invest in order to receive the value. The temptation here is to narrowly define value as delivering what the customers want and need today.

The challenge is that what customers want and need today may not be what is ultimately most valuable to them. As I’ve written about in The Journey Beyond Fear, people around the world are increasingly driven by the emotion of fear. In this kind of world, the most effective way to draw attention is to address the fears that are consuming customers – feeding the fear, providing them with defenses against perceived threats and helping them to escape from the fearful world around us (dare I mention metaverse?).

Addressing current needs can help to attract attention with less effort but, if the needs are not sustainable, is this the most promising way to increase return on attention for customers over time? Even more importantly, if the needs that customers perceive today are limiting their potential to create value that is more meaningful to them, are businesses serving the true needs of the customers?

Level 3 of return on attention

This takes us to an even more promising level of return on attention. Rather than just focusing on the current needs of the customers, maybe businesses should look ahead and anticipate emerging needs of customers that can create much more value.

Businesses need to expand their horizons even further. They need to not just focus on the return on attention to the customer today, but the return on attention to the customer over time. They need to ask what can help customers to achieve much more impact and value that is meaningful to them than what they are achieving today. What are the unmet needs of customers that customers themselves might not even be able to articulate today, but that could help them overcome their fear and motivate them to provide more and more attention?

While this requires businesses to look ahead, business executives should realize that the timing could not be better. One of the challenges for businesses today is the significant erosion of trust from their customers. While most customers could probably not articulate what is eroding their trust, a key driver is the growing recognition that companies are focused on serving their own short-term needs, rather than understanding and addressing the evolving needs of their customers to achieve more impact that is meaningful  in a more and more challenging world.

Businesses that understand what is driving the erosion of trust and actively seek to increase the return on attention of their customers will find that they will draw and retain the attention of those customers  much more effectively than they have in the past.

Level 4 of return on attention

But that’s not all. There’s an even bigger opportunity that remains to be addressed by both customers and the businesses serving them. In a rapidly changing world with mounting performance pressure, all customers have a need to find ways to continue to increase impact that is meaningful to them.

This creates a need for all customers to learn faster about how they can increase impact in areas that matter to them. In this rapidly changing world, this is not about learning in the form of training programs that share existing knowledge, but instead it’s about creating environments and conditions that can help customers to create entirely new knowledge at an accelerating rate – finding ways to create more and more value with less effort.

This kind of learning doesn’t occur in a training room. It occurs out in the real world as customers take action, assess the impact they are achieving, and reflect on what new actions they can take that will yield even more impact. As customers begin to see the need for this and the value it can provide, they will also begin to see that they can learn much faster and more effectively if they come together in small groups where they share a passion about increasing impact (I call them impact groups and have written about them here).

Customers will significantly increase their return on attention if they can participate in these learning environments because they will create much more value for themselves and for others. Businesses that see this emerging need and act aggressively to provide these learning environments will ultimately draw more and more of the attention of more and more customers and create much more value for themselves as well.

We need to see an intriguing paradox. The same long-term forces that are creating mounting performance pressure and a growing need for impact that is meaningful are also creating exponentially expanding opportunity – we can create far more value far more quickly and with far less resources than would have been imaginable a couple of decades ago. Those customers and businesses who see this exponentially expanding opportunity and actively seek to address it will dramatically increase their return on attention.

There’s an untapped business opportunity that I describe as “the trusted advisor” where businesses focus relentlessly on increasing the impact that their customers can achieve. This business opportunity has exponential potential.

Bottom line

In a more and more challenging world, where fear is becoming the dominant emotion, it is understandable why businesses are pursuing more and more short-term financial metrics for impact. But those metrics are increasingly limiting our ability to create value.

If we are going to unleash the exponentially expanding opportunity that is emerging around us, we need to find metrics that will excite and inspire us, and help us to overcome our fear. We need a deep and nuanced understanding of “return on attention” that is focused on the growing impact that our customers can achieve. This will help both our customers and our businesses to move beyond their fear and succeed in ways that will help all of us to flourish.


  • 0

Evolving Boards Into Springboards

Category:Collaboration,Connections,Emotions,Fear,Future,Leadership,Opportunity,Transformation

In a rapidly changing world, Boards of Directors (or Trustees) can play a significant role in becoming a catalyst for change within large, traditional companies and other institutions. Unfortunately, this role is still an untapped opportunity in most institutions.

What’s the need?

As I’ve written about extensively, we are in the early stages of a Big Shift that will transform our global economy and society. The paradox of the Big Shift is that it creates mounting performance pressure and exponentially expanding opportunities at the same time.

Mounting performance pressure takes many different forms – intensifying competition, accelerating pace of change and extreme, disruptive events. That pressure creates an imperative for change – if we continue to do what we’ve always done, we’ll become increasingly marginalized and ultimately be wiped out.

But the good news is that the same long-term forces are creating exponentially expanding opportunities – we can create far more value with far less resources and far more quickly than ever before. These are not just opportunities – they are imperatives. In the Big Shift world, only those who see and address these exponentially expanding opportunities will navigate successfully through the mounting performance pressure.

Re-imagining the role of boards

Boards today are generally viewed as fiduciaries for shareholders in the institution. Unfortunately, this role is generally defined too narrowly in today’s world. Board members are expected to represent the interests of shareholders as they currently express those interests. The problem is that shareholders are increasingly focused on maximizing short-term returns. “Short-termism” reigns supreme.

If the shareholders truly understood the exponentially expanding opportunities being created by the Big Shift, their interests would shift from maximizing short-term returns to unleashing the exponential returns that can be generated in the Big Shift. So, the challenge for Board members is whether they should continue to pursue the current short-term interests of shareholders or become catalysts to help shareholders (and management) see the much bigger opportunities that could generate far greater returns over time.

Catalysts for change

Boards are uniquely positioned to become catalysts for change in large, traditional institutions. While boards typically include some leaders from within the organization, they also bring together a group of individuals from outside the organization who represent diverse backgrounds. These individuals are uniquely positioned to provide an “outside-in” perspective for the management of the institutions who tend to become consumed by “inside-out” perspectives as they embrace scalable efficiency institutional models.

But to harness the potential of this “outside-in” perspective, board members must be willing and able to become provocateurs, challenging the implicit assumptions held by the internal management of the organization. They must invest time in exploring how the world outside the organization is changing and they are uniquely positioned to do this, given their backgrounds and experience outside the organization. They can not only rely on their own experience – they can also be proactive in inviting more outsiders to engage with them and the leadership of the organization regarding the trends that are re-shaping the environment of the organization.

These perspectives can help to build greater awareness of the large, emerging unmet needs of customers and other stakeholders of the organization (e.g., business partners and suppliers). They can also increase understanding of the potential to mobilize a broader set of resources to address those unmet needs and create much more value, with far less resources, and far more quickly than ever before.

These emerging perspectives can be catalysts for change at two levels. They can engage the internal management of the organization. At the same time, they can engage the external investors who are likely still pursuing narrow, short-term returns.

From provocation to excitement

Board members should never under-estimate the challenge of shifting the perspectives of the internal management or the external investors. To shift these perspectives, board members need to move beyond provocation. They need to frame exciting opportunities for creating much more value and focus on identifying the trends that are making these opportunities more and more feasible. Where possible, they should provide explicit examples of organizations that are already starting to address these opportunities and the impact that they have achieved. If those examples are not yet available, they should focus on identifying some short-term initiatives that the organization can pursue in addressing these opportunities and demonstrate tangible progress with relatively modest effort.

Those who have followed my writing will recognize that I am suggesting that board members should embrace a version of the “zoom out/zoom in” approach that can help to drive change by helping to overcome the fear and skepticism that often makes people resistant to change.

While the primary focus should always be on the exciting opportunities that can overcome fear and skepticism, board members can also be helpful in broadening the perception of risk among management and investors. Most risk management discussions focus on the risks associated with new initiatives. Very rarely is there any discussion of the risks associated with continuing on the current course. In the Big Shift world, continuing on the current course is often the highest risk option of all, yet few leaders or investors understand those risks.

The key is to understand that just focusing on the risk of the current path will only strengthen the fear that will increase resistance to change. If Board members want to become catalysts for change, they need to focus on framing exciting opportunities that can motivate management and investors to abandon their current beliefs and embrace new approaches that can deliver much greater rewards.

Bottom line

Board members are uniquely positioned to become catalysts for change, creating a springboard for the delivery of much greater impact and value in a rapidly changing world. To harness this potential, board members need to leverage their position as outsiders and help both management and investors to see exciting opportunities that are not yet on their radar screen. The key is to help both management and investors move beyond fear and cultivate intense excitement about exponentially expanding opportunities.

By playing this role, board members will become true fiduciaries for investors, helping them to significantly increase the return on their investment, while at the same time helping management to achieve much greater impact.


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

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

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The book explores a variety of approaches we can pursue to cultivate emotions of hope and excitement that will help us to move forward despite fear and achieve more of our potential. You can order the book at Amazon.

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