Category Archives: Strategy

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Shaping Markets and Shaping Psychology

Category:Collaboration,Emotions,Fear,Future,Leadership,Opportunity,Paradox,Passion,Strategy,Transformation,Trust

Dee Hock, the founder of Visa, recently passed away. It’s been a catalyst for me to reflect on the role he played in expanding my horizon beyond strategy to explore the role of psychology in shaping our impact. This post will take one of my approaches to strategy – shaping strategy – and focus on its ability to shape our psychology.

Shaping strategies

I’ve written extensively about the untapped potential of shaping strategies, including here and here. In a world of accelerating change, business leaders have been embracing approaches like agility that focus on rapidly and flexibly responding to the events of the moment. The goal is to react to whatever is happening at the moment.

As a contrarian, I have challenged that view. In times of accelerating change and increasing uncertainty, we have more degrees of freedom to shape the markets and environments around us to create more value for ourselves and for other participants. But we have to see that opportunity and pursue it. And, to do that, we need to escape the reactive mindset that shrinks our time horizons.

Three elements of shaping strategies

Shaping strategies focus on addressing this opportunity. They rely on three elements: a shaping view, a shaping platform, and shaping actions and assets. The shaping view is the foundation of these strategies – it looks ahead and describes how a future market or industry might be structured in a very different way to create and capture much more value for its participants. Shaping platforms then provide a way for more and more participants to join in the effort – they help to reduce the effort and cost of participation while bringing quicker and larger returns. Finally, shaping actions and assets are ways that the shaper can overcome skepticism of potential participants that the shaping opportunity is achievable.

Even though we are in a world where shaping strategies are becoming more and more viable, very few companies or other institutions have pursued these strategies. Some of the most successful shapers have been Dee Hock (Visa), Malcolm McLean (containerized shipping), Victor Fung (Li & Fung), Bill Gates (Microsoft), and Marc Benioff (Salesforce.com). I discuss their approaches and the lessons that can be learned in my book, The Power of Pull.

Shaping psychology

So, how does this shaping strategy approach connect with shaping psychology? All three elements of a shaping strategy can be very effective in shaping the emotions of the participants.

Let’s start with the shaping view. When I developed this approach to strategy, I focused on the role of shaping views in framing an opportunity that would increase our perception of rewards and reduce our perception of risk.  When I was talking with Dee Hock about this, he interrupted me and said “you’ve got it all wrong. It’s not about risk and reward, it’s about fear and hope. That’s ultimately what motivates people to act.”

That was a wake-up call to me. I had been thinking in narrow business terms, when the real need was to focus on the emotions that shape our actions. I began to realize that the most effective shaping views seek to overcome the fear holding back many participants and cultivate hope and excitement about an opportunity that could be achieved if they all came together. After all, it’s fear that is holding us back from seeing big opportunities in the future and focusing us on simply reacting to whatever is going on at the moment.

Shaping platforms also help to shape the emotions of participants. By reducing the effort required to participate and creating more rewards for participation, these platforms make it easier to participate, even if participants still have some fear. They also help participants to overcome fear and build hope when they see more rapid rewards and connect with others who are enjoying similar rewards. These platforms would be even more effective if they were explicitly designed to address these emotions and help participants to make the journey beyond fear.

Shaping actions and assets provide a way for the shapers to demonstrate their commitment to the shaping opportunity. This can be a powerful way to overcome the lack of trust that comes with fear. For example, the shaper could make a large investment that would be viewed as a “bet the company” investment to demonstrate its commitment. If it is a smaller, entrepreneurial company, the shaper could also develop some early partnerships with larger and more influential companies that would increase the perception that the shaping strategy will succeed. These actions and assets help to strengthen hope and excitement that the shaping opportunity is real and will be accomplished.

Bottom line

I have written before about the paradox that we confront in the Big Shift that is transforming our global economy and society. On the one side, the Big Shift is creating mounting performance pressure – global competition is intensifying, the pace of change is accelerating and extreme, disruptive events come in out of nowhere. At the same time, the Big Shift is creating exponentially expanding opportunity – we can create far more value, far more quickly with far less resource than would have been imaginable a couple of decades ago. Shaping strategies are a powerful approach to help many of us to move from giving in to the mounting performance pressure and instead seeing and addressing the exponentially expanding opportunities.


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From Adaptation to Anticipation

Category:Collaboration,Connections,Emotions,Exploration,Fear,Future,Learning,Strategy

Adapt or die. We’ve all heard this imperative. While there’s some wisdom buried in this imperative, it needs to be drawn out. Most people interpret this imperative in a way that can become deeply dysfunctional and ultimately leads to death. Adapt is not sufficient – we need to first anticipate, then adapt.

Adapting in the Big Shift

What do I mean? Let me start by setting some context. As I’ve written about extensively, we’re in the early stages of a Big Shift that is transforming our global economy and society. The Big Shift has many dimensions to it, but one key dimension is the accelerating pace of change in all aspects of our lives.

When confronted with this accelerating change, we as humans have some natural reactions. The first reaction is to go into denial – we tend to diminish or even dismiss our perception of the changes that are going on around us. We want to believe the world is actually much more stable and that we’ll return to the world we knew and relied on.

As the change accelerates, we begin to flip the switch and go to the other end of the spectrum. Now, we’re consumed by the change we see around us and we begin to see that we need to change ourselves. How do we change? We embrace the need to adapt, but the adaptation we pursue is highly reactive. We react to whatever is happening in the moment and finding ways to change to meet the new needs surfacing around us.

Here’s the problem. As the pace of change accelerates and expands, falling into a purely reactive approach can become overwhelming. There’s so much that’s changing that we end up spreading ourselves way too thinly across so many different fronts that we fail to keep up with the changes consuming us.

The need to anticipate

So, what’s the alternative? Before we adapt, we need to invest the time and effort to anticipate. We need to look ahead and try to determine how the changes around us are likely to evolve. We need to anticipate which changes will lead to new opportunities that are the most meaningful to address.

This certainly won’t be easy, but that’s why it’s important to invest the time and effort to anticipate. I’ve written about the power of a zoom out/zoom in approach to strategy for institutions and I’ve explored the techniques that can help institutions to zoom out on a 10-20 year horizon and anticipate very big emerging opportunities. Over time, I’ve come to realize that this approach to strategy also has significant value for all of us as individuals.

We need to make the effort to look ahead 10-20 years and anticipate what the world might look like then and what really big opportunities are likely to emerge to address unmet needs of others. Consistent with a zoom out/zoom in approach, we need to then focus on the next 6-12 months to identify 2-3 initiatives that we could pursue in the short-term and that could have the greatest impact in accelerating our progress to addressing the really big opportunities that are emerging.

This is where adaptation can now play a much more useful role. Once we have some focus on the changes that really matter, we can avoid being distracted by changes that are temporary or marginal. As we pursue the short-term initiatives, we’ll quickly discover what new approaches can yield the greatest impact in helping us to evolve so that we can address the opportunities that really matter. We’ll adapt much more quickly because we’re committing more time and effort to the changes that really matter, rather than getting consumed by reacting to all the changes erupting around us.

There’s another important advantage to anticipation. In a world that’s rapidly changing and creating mounting performance pressure, we have a natural human tendency to be consumed by fear. While understandable, fear is also a very limiting emotion, as I’ve discussed in my new book, The Journey Beyond Fear. If we’re afraid, we tend to shrink our time horizons, we become much more risk averse, and our trust in others erodes. Fear diminishes our ability to adapt. We just focus on very short-term changes, we become less willing to go outside our comfort zone and we are more reluctant to seek help from others.

In contrast, if we make the effort to anticipate some really meaningful opportunities what will emerge from the changes around us, we’ll begin to draw out the passion of the explorer that will help us to adapt much more effectively and rapidly. Rather than being reluctant to adapt, we’ll be excited about adaptation because it will help us to achieve the impact that is meaningful to us. As a result, we’ll also be driven to ask for help from others so that we can accelerate our progress even more.

The untapped potential of leverage

That leads to another advantage of anticipation – it can help us to leverage our efforts and to learn much more rapidly. If we look ahead and identify a really big opportunity that’s meaningful to us, it’s much more likely to be meaningful to others as well. If we share our excitement about that really big opportunity and ask for help from others, we’re much more likely to draw others who also become excited about the opportunity. We’ll begin to achieve much greater impact as we unleash the network effects that come from joining together to achieve shared objectives.

But the benefit of this kind of leverage is even bigger. If others share our excitement about the really big opportunities ahead, they will also become motivated to adapt. They will be driven to come together with us so that they can learn faster together through action and reflection on the results achieved from their actions. They will be much more motivated to collaborate and take risks that are inevitably encountered when we seek to develop new approaches in a rapidly changing environment. And, no matter how smart and talented any of us are, we’ll learn a lot faster and adapt a lot faster if we come together in small groups with deep trust-based relationships where we are all motivated to learn faster together. I call these groups “impact groups” and I’ve come to believe that they will play a key role in accelerating our adaptation – I explore this in much greater detail in The Journey Beyond Fear.

Adaptation and evolution

But, wait a minute. I can hear some real push back around this notion of anticipation as a foundation for adaptation. Many people are likely to point to the evolution of species on Earth and say that they have evolved and survived based purely on adaptation, without anticipation.

Agreed. But the evolution of species has been driven by the law of large numbers. Each being may seek to adapt, but very few are successful. The good news is that there are generally a lot of beings in a species and most of them will die off to make room for the few lucky beings that pursue the right kind of adaptation. Those lucky beings will proliferate and eventually dominate the species until the next set of changes require further adaptation and then the cycle starts over again.

What I’m seeking is a way for all of us to not just survive, but thrive. I believe that’s a realistic objective if we all move beyond adaptation and focus on anticipation. Of course, this will take some time and we’ll need to cultivate the capability of anticipation. It won’t be easy, but it can be done if we come together and make the effort.

Bottom line

Don’t get consumed by the imperative to adapt. Begin by seeking to anticipate how the world is likely to evolve and the really big opportunities that will emerge in that world, providing us with the ability to have impact that’s much more meaningful to us. Once we begin to see those opportunities, we’ll be able to focus on adaptation that really matters. We’ll also be able to come together with others who excited about these opportunities and find ways to adapt much more rapidly and effectively than if we attempt to adapt in isolation. If we get this right, we won’t just survive, we’ll thrive in ways that are difficult to imagine in a world that is rapidly changing.


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The Imperative for Two Dimensions of Transformation

Category:Collaboration,Edges,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Opportunity,Passion,Strategy,Transformation

Now, more than ever, we live in a world of massive change. Not surprisingly, “transformation” has become a buzzword throughout our economy and society.

Transformation has been a focus of my work for decades and I’ve learned many lessons along the way. In this post, I want to explore two distinct transformation imperatives as we scale the edge.

Scaling the edge

Those who have been following my work know that I’ve become a strong champion of scaling the edge as a way to drive transformation in large, traditional institutions. This approach is in stark contrast to the more conventional “top down, big bang” approaches that are used to drive change. By seeking to transform the entire core of the institution, these efforts require a lot of money and they will take a long time – you can’t turn around a battleship overnight. As a result, these approaches have a high failure rate because they under-estimate the significant power of the immune system and antibodies that exist in all large institutions. The immune system and antibodies will mobilize aggressively to crush efforts at massive change, especially those that will require a lot of money and take a lot of time.

Scaling the edge can reduce the risk of immune system attack because it doesn’t seek to transform the core of the institution. Instead, it focuses on finding an edge to the existing institution that, given the forces at work in the broader economy and society, has the potential to scale very rapidly to the point where it will become the new core of the institution. To be clear, this is not just an “experiment” or a diversification or growth initiative – the commitment is to make it the new core of the institution and, in the process, drive the transformation that will be required to thrive in a rapidly changing economy and society. I’ve written a lot more about the design principles for successful edge scaling initiatives here.

The two transformation imperatives

But what does transformation really mean? Virtually every large institution today has a “digital transformation” program, but the focus of these programs is to apply digital technology so that existing tasks can be done faster and cheaper. That’s not transformation from my perspective. I use the metaphor of the caterpillar to the butterfly to describe transformation – it has to produce something completely different from before. If we’re just helping the caterpillar to walk faster, that may be helpful to the caterpillar, but please let’s not describe that as transformation.

So, what is transformation in the context of our existing institutions? I believe it will have to occur on two dimensions given the Big Shift that is transforming our global economy and society.

The first dimension involves re-thinking at a fundamental level the value that will be delivered to customers and other stakeholders. The nature of the value being delivered will change at a very basic level.

The second dimension involves re-thinking at a fundamental level what is required to deliver that value to customers and other stakeholders. The approach to delivering value must be redesigned from the ground up.

Let’s explore both of these dimensions more deeply.

Transforming the value delivered

We live in a world of exponential change. In that kind of world, there is a natural tendency to shrink our time horizons and just focus on today’s needs.

That tendency needs to be resisted. Instead, we need to look ahead, far ahead, to anticipate emerging needs that are fundamentally different from the needs we are addressing today. That’s certainly challenging in a rapidly changing world.

That’s why I’ve become a strong champion of a very different approach to strategy that I call “zoom out/zoom in.” I’ve written about that approach extensively here. This approach calls on leadership of institutions to move beyond their comfort zone and to look ahead 10-20 years. The two key questions to address are: What will our relevant market or environment look like 10-20 years from now? What will be the biggest unmet needs of our customers and stakeholders that will provide an opportunity to build an institution that is far bigger and more successful than the one we have now?

If we truly understand the nature of exponential change, we need to be prepared to embrace the fact that the value we are delivering today will become obsolete and that we need to embrace very different forms of value that will address emerging needs and become a key to success in the future.

What would be an example? Take the example of a large fossil fuel company today. Given the changes that are occurring in the energy industry, there may be a need to leverage some of the expertise that this company has developed and focus it in a very different direction. For instance, one of these companies might decide to leverage its expertise in resource extraction to provide extraction services in a wide range of industries that rely on natural resources. Another possibility would be to focus on its expertise in building and managing large-scale distribution networks to provide these services to a wide range of industries. Whatever path these companies take, they are likely to be serving a very different set of customers and delivering a very different form of value.

The zoom out/zoom in approach to strategy has many benefits, but one key benefit is that it can help the leadership of an institution to select an edge to their existing institution that has the potential to scale rapidly to the point where it becomes the new core. And they won’t just select the edge, they will commit to scaling it because it represents a much bigger opportunity than anything they have addressed in the past.

Transforming the delivery of value

But transformation doesn’t stop there. There’s another dimension of transformation that needs to be understood and addressed. This is transformation in how the value is created and delivered to customers and other stakeholders.

What do I mean by this? Large institutions around the world have been pursuing a scalable efficiency model for the past century. For them, the key to success has been becoming more and more efficient at scale – finding ways to do their activities faster and cheaper. They have determined that the best way to do this is to tightly specify every activity that needs to be performed, highly standardize those activities so they are done the same efficient way throughout the organization and tightly integrate those activities, removing all inefficient buffers.

This approach has been highly successful around the world for the past century. The challenge is that the world is rapidly changing and this approach to efficiency is paradoxically becoming more and more inefficient. Workers are confronting more and more “exceptions” – unexpected situations that cannot be addressed by the process manual. They are scrambling inefficiently to find ways to address these unexpected situations.

In this rapidly changing world, we need another dimension of transformation – institutional transformation. We need to shift from a scalable efficiency institutional model to a scalable learning institutional model where the focus is on helping everyone in the organization to learn faster together. This is especially challenging because the learning that is increasingly required is not learning in the form of sharing existing knowledge in training programs but instead learning in the form of creating new knowledge. That doesn’t occur in a training room – it occurs in the workplace when people act together to address new situations and reflect on the impact that they are achieving so that they can evolve their actions to achieve even more impact. I have written about this institutional transformation extensively here.

If we take this seriously, it will require challenging and changing virtually every aspect of how institutions organize and operate today. We’ll need to move from hierarchical, command and control organizations to networked organizations that organize around small, front-line groups of 3-15 workers – I call them impact groups. We’ll need to move from a focus on business process re-engineering to business practice redesign, cultivating practices within the impact groups that help all participants to learn faster. We’ll also have to redesign our work environments to provide all the participants with the tools they need to learn faster. One key objective is to help draw out and cultivate the passion of the explorer in all workers so that they become excited, and truly motivated, by the opportunity to learn faster together.

This dimension of transformation will need to be pursued in parallel with the other dimension of transformation.

Bottom line

If we’re going to unleash the exponential opportunities that are being created by the Big Shift, we need to commit to drive transformation on two intersecting paths – transforming the value that we are delivering to our stakeholders and transforming how that value gets delivered to the stakeholders. This is certainly very challenging – it’s why I urge leaders to focus on scaling the edge as the most effective way to drive transformation. Significant opportunities await those who see the need for both dimensions of transformation and aggressively pursue them on the edge of existing institutions.


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Is Digital Transformation Missing the Real Opportunity?

Category:Emotions,Fear,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Opportunity,Passion,Strategy

Everyone is talking about digital transformation these days, but I have to confess that I am a bit of a contrarian on this topic. I’ve spoken a lot about this in recent years, but the catalyst for writing this post was a session on digital transformation at a conference that I just attended.

I work with a lot of large companies around the world and I can guarantee that virtually every large company now has a “digital transformation” program. When I press executives for details about the program, I invariably find out that the focus of the program is to apply digital technology to do what the company has always done faster and cheaper, but the business and the company remain largely the same.

Is that really “transformation”? Definitions differ, but I use the metaphor of the caterpillar and the butterfly in assessing whether transformation is really occurring. If we’re just applying digital technology to help the caterpillar to walk faster, that may be helpful to the caterpillar, but please don’t call it “transformation” unless the result is a butterfly that would be unrecognizable relative to the caterpillar. In my experience, digital transformation programs are just helping caterpillars to walk faster.

Why does this matter? It matters, because in a rapidly changing world going through a “Big Shift,” there are exponentially expanding opportunities that can only be effectively addressed if companies and other institutions are prepared to undertake true transformation, asking the most basic questions of all: What business should we really be in? How can we expand our ability to deliver more and more value to our stakeholders? How can we motivate ourselves to take more risk?

Let’s look at three levels of transformation:

  • Pursuing fundamentally different business opportunities
  • Crafting fundamentally different institutional models
  • Cultivating fundamentally different emotional drivers

Pursuing fundamentally different business opportunities

In a rapidly changing world, there’s a strong temptation to shrink time horizons and just focus on the business we have. The paradox is that this Big Shift world is creating exponentially expanding opportunities – we can create far more value with far less resources and far more quickly than ever before.

To see these opportunities, we need to be able to look ahead, far ahead, and anticipate significant  emerging unmet needs that we could address. This requires a very different approach to strategy – a zoom out/zoom in approach to strategy, something that I have written about extensively, including here and here.

Zooming out requires us to look ahead 10 – 20 years and focus on trends that are reasonably predictable and that will give rise to opportunities far larger than anything we have addressed in the past. If we look ahead 10 – 20 years and believe we are still going to be in the same business that we are today, we don’t understand exponential change. It forces us out of our comfort zone to imagine becoming a fundamentally different business from the one we are today. We begin to see the butterfly.

As just one example of how different our businesses will become, I urge you to consider Unbundling the Corporation, a perspective that I first wrote about a couple of decades ago. We need to challenge ourselves to see how fundamentally businesses are changing and the opportunities that these changes create.

As a side note (worthy of an additional blog post), the best way to pursue this form of business transformation is by scaling the edge.

Crafting fundamentally different institutional models

As we look ahead and begin to see the magnitude of the opportunities that are emerging, we will begin to realize that our current institutional models are ill-equipped to help us on the journey to addressing those opportunities – in fact, they are becoming significant barriers.

What do I mean? I’m going to generalize, but over the past century, all large institutions around the world have embraced an institutional model that I describe as “scalable efficiency.” In that institutional model, the key to success is to become more and more efficient at scale, and the way to become more efficient is to tightly specify and highly standardize all activities in the institution so that they are done in the same efficient way everywhere.

Large and very successful institutions have emerged around the world using this institutional model. The challenge is that in a rapidly changing world this approach to efficiency is becoming less and less efficient. It also misses the key requirement for success in the future: scaling and accelerating learning.

To address the opportunities in the future, we will need to embrace a very different institutional model: scalable learning. I have written about this need for institutional innovation here.

And, let me be clear – when I talk about scalable learning, I’m not talking about learning in the form of training programs that focus on sharing existing knowledge. In a rapidly changing world, the most powerful and necessary form of learning is learning in the form of creating new knowledge. That doesn’t occur in training rooms, but requires all workers to learn through action in the workplace. It also requires coming together into impact groups and orchestrating larger and larger ecosystems of participants from many different backgrounds to learn faster together.

Scalable learning can help expand our focus beyond efficiency – doing the same things faster and cheaper – to see the potential to learn how to deliver far more value as well. When we unleash scalable learning, we have the potential to deliver exponentially expanding value to our customers and other stakeholders. We are constantly finding new ways to deliver more value in a rapidly changing world. Scalable learning can also accelerate our progress towards addressing the fundamentally different business opportunity that we see in the future.

Pursuing this kind of scalable learning requires us to re-think and redesign all aspects of how we organize and operate in our institutions. It requires us to explore what is needed to become a butterfly.

Rather than trying to transform the core of our existing institution, we will be much more likely to succeed if we scale the edge, viewing the edge as the cocoon that will give birth to the butterfly.

Cultivating fundamentally different emotional drivers

Transforming into a butterfly can be very scary. As I discuss in my new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, more and more people around the world are consumed by fear, given the mounting performance pressure that is being generated by the Big Shift in our global economy. While understandable, the emotion of fear can also be very limiting.

In this context, fear can increase our resistance to change. We simply want to hold on to what we have and continue to do what has made us successful in the past.

If we’re going to make the transformation journey, we need to add another level of transformation – emotional transformation. We need to find ways to cultivate emotions that will help us to move beyond our fear and achieve impact that is far more meaningful to us.

In this context, I believe the emotion that can help all of us to pursue the transformation we need is the passion of the explorer. It’s a very specific form of passion that I discovered when researching environments where sustained extreme performance improvement had been achieved. I have written about it extensively, including here and here. The passion of the explorer is a fundamentally different emotion from fear.

I believe we all have the potential to draw out the passion of the explorer within us – it’s not just something that is limited to the gifted few. The challenge is that we live and work in environments that are deeply suspicious of this form of passion and actively seek to suppress it. The good news is that the two other levels of transformation – business opportunities and institutional models – will help to foster environments that will help to draw out the passion of the explorer.

But if we’re serious about pursuing transformation, we need to find ways to draw out this emotion, even in environments that are still seeking to suppress it. External transformation will not succeed without internal transformation. We need to move on both fronts.

Bottom line

Pursuing genuine transformation requires evolving from the caterpillar into the butterfly. It can be hugely rewarding because it positions us to address the exponentially expanding opportunities that are created by the Big Shift. Of course, digital technology can play a significant role in helping us to address those opportunities, but the key is to focus the application of digital technology on true transformation.

But genuine transformation isn’t just an opportunity – it’s an imperative. In the Big Shift world, those who hold on to what made them successful in the past – or who simply focus on doing the same things faster and cheaper – will be increasingly marginalized. Transformation is an imperative.

Three levels of transformation need to be pursued in parallel, but we need to understand that emotional transformation is ultimately the foundation that will enable us to successfully pursue the other two levels of transformation. If we can find ways to move beyond our fear, we will soon discover the butterfly that is waiting to emerge from the cocoon and venture out to amazing new areas that have never been explored. And we will see that digital transformation is designed to limit us to the lives of caterpillars.


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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


  • 1

Strategies for the Launch Decade

Category:Crisis,Launch Decade,Opportunity,Strategy

Several months ago, I wrote a blog post celebrating the beginning of a new decade – I called it the Launch Decade. This was just as the current COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to surface in Wuhan, China. As an optimist, I view global crises like this one as a launchpad to drive significant positive change.

But that certainly won’t happen on its own. We need to adopt approaches that will help us to navigate through these trying times and target the significant opportunities that lie ahead. For a long time, I’ve been a proponent of three approaches that become even more compelling in times of great change – zoom out/zoom in strategies, shaping strategies and leveraged growth.

Zoom out/zoom in strategies

This is an approach to strategy that has been pursued by some of the most successful tech companies in Silicon Valley, as I have written about here. This strategy focuses on two time horizons.

The Zoom Out time horizon is 10-20 years and the two questions on this horizon are: What will relevant markets or industries look like 10-20 years from now? What are the implications for the kind of business or company we will need to become in order to thrive in this market or industry?

The Zoom In time horizon is very different – it’s 6-12 months. On this time horizon the key questions are: What are the 2-3 initiatives (no more) that we could pursue in the next 6-12 months that would have the greatest ability to accelerate our movement towards the longer-term opportunity we have identified? Do we have a critical mass of resources committed in the next 6-12 months to these 2-3 initiatives? How would we measure success – what are the metrics that matter?

This approach to strategy becomes even more compelling in times of great pressure like today, where there is a strong urge to shrink our time horizons and just sense and respond as quickly as we can to whatever is going on. While understandable, a reactive approach risks spreading ourselves too thin as we try to sense and respond to everything.

The zoom out/zoom in approach to strategy helps us to focus on a very big, long-term opportunity so that we can prioritize our near-term actions for the greatest long-term impact and avoid the risk that we incrementalize our way into oblivion. At the same time, this approach to strategy also emphasizes the need for aggressive short-term action and the opportunity to learn from that action. At a time when all our institutions are going to be coping with the challenge of limited resources, this approach can help to focus those scarce resources to move quickly and target significant emerging opportunities.

Shaping strategies

Crises like the one we are in can be catalysts for significant restructuring of markets and industries. Those who move forward assuming their market or industry will continue in its current form are likely to be in for a big surprise.

In this environment, there’s a significant opportunity to pursue shaping strategies, which I’ve written about in more depth here. Rather than passively trying to anticipate what the future might look like, shaping strategies seek to restructure markets and industries in ways that put the shaper in a privileged position.

Without going into too much detail here, shaping strategies consist of three components. First, they begin with a long-term shaping vision of what the industry or market could look like 10-20 years from now (note the intersection with zoom out/zoom in strategies) and they frame this vision in a way that highlights significant opportunities for a large number of other participants, and not just for the shaper. The goal here is to motivate many third parties to come together and invest to support the shaping strategy.

Second, shaping strategies deploy a shaping platform with the explicit goal of improving the economics of participation for these third parties. These platforms are designed to reduce the investment required to participate and to accelerate the ability to earn returns on investments made.

Third, shaping strategies involve a set of initiatives designed to overcome the potential skepticism of third parties by demonstrating the commitment of the shaper to the strategy and the ability of the shaper to successfully pursue the strategy. This could involve making a bold move on its own or potentially announcing partnerships with large players that would give the shaper access to key resources.

Shaping strategies are especially powerful in times of crises. Crises tend to challenge our current approaches to markets or industries and make participants more open to new approaches than they might be when the market or industry is doing well. By emphasizing the need to mobilize investment from a large number of third parties, shaping strategies also help the shaper to significantly increase impact, even when faced with the challenge of limited resources in the short-term.

Not all companies will choose to be shapers, but the choice is to shape or be shaped. If we choose not to be shapers, then we need to recognize that, in times of rapid change, other companies will emerge as shapers of our relevant markets or industries. We need to anticipate who those companies might be and find ways to participate effectively in the markets or industries they will restructure.

Leveraged growth

When companies address the need for growth, they tend to focus on two options – make or buy. We can grow either through internal investment and organic growth or by going out and making a major acquisition. In either case, growth requires significant resources – something that can be especially challenging as we come out of an economic downturn.

But the good news is that there’s a third option that is rarely considered, much less actively pursued. It’s what I call leveraged growth, an approach that I’ve written about here. This approach involves connecting with and mobilizing a growing number of third parties who can deliver value to your customers and capturing some of that value for ourselves. This approach to growth has been pioneered by companies in Asia and there’s a lot that Western companies can learn from their experience.

Think about the implications of this approach as we emerge from the current crisis. Companies that can show significant growth without a major commitment of resources are likely to be richly rewarded.

Beyond companies

So far, I’ve been framing these approaches in the context of companies. I hasten to suggest that these approaches are not just relevant for companies. They apply to all our institutions that are wrestling with the challenges of the current crisis – governments, schools, community organizations, NGO’s, etc.

But, there’s more. They also apply to us as individuals. Now, more than ever, we need to zoom out and zoom in to bring more focus into our lives so that we can achieve more impact that’s really meaningful to us. We need to find more creative ways to shape our context so that we can achieve even more impact. And our personal success will hinge on our ability to mobilize others who can provide value to those who matter to us, so that we’re not trying to do it all ourselves.

Bottom line

Crises can be launchpads for significant positive change. But that change will not happen on its own. It’s up to us to overcome our fear and to take action. And we’ll have a lot more impact if we come together with others, inspired by shared opportunities. If we do this right, we have an opportunity to unleash the exponential potential that resides within all of us and that is hungering to be drawn out.


  • 3

Viral Flows

Category:Crisis,Emotions,Flow,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Narratives,Strategy

For over a decade, I’ve been writing about the Big Shift. There are many dimensions to this shift, but our current crisis highlights the role of flows. In this post, I want to explore the paradox of flows – flows can be both a source of exponential growth and a source of severe regression. We need to understand both dimensions of flows if we want to flourish.

What are flows?

Flows take many different forms. My focus has been on the flows of knowledge that feed learning by helping to create new knowledge at an accelerating pace. At their foundation, these flows involve connections across people, including serendipitous connections that weren’t anticipated. Urbanization around the world has been accelerating for decades precisely because we have an intuitive sense that we will learn faster in densely populated areas than we ever could, even with all our digital infrastructures and connectivity, in small towns or rural areas.

The flows of people, and the knowledge we all possess, including tacit knowledge, are augmented by other kinds of flows – data, goods and money. These flows have expanded globally for decades and are supporting the flows of knowledge that help us to accelerate learning. They have been a key driver of increasing global prosperity and the rapid reduction in poverty in more and more countries.

There’s a growing realization that, the more of us who participate in these flows, the faster we will all learn. The more inclusive the flows become, the more we will all prosper, as the learning goes exponential.

Systems that thrive are ones that increase the flows over time – here I have been very much influenced by the work of Adrian Bejan and his Constructal Law:  there is a universal tendency toward design in nature, in the physics of everything, to evolve configurations so that they flow more easily, to create greater access to the currents they move.

The dark side of flows

But not all flows accelerate learning. Some flows become significant barriers to learning. What do I mean?

Let me start with something that has increasingly occupied my attention. Emotions tend to spread virally. If many people are feeling a certain way, other people around them become susceptible to the same feelings.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I am struck by the spread of fear as the dominant emotion globally – and that was before the current crisis! Fear can be contagious – if everyone around me is afraid, I am more likely to become afraid as well.

Emotions tend to cascade on their own, but they spread even more rapidly when amplified by news media that tend to focus on the latest disaster or crisis. When was the last time you heard a good news story (and I’m talking about even before the current crisis)? And, let’s not even mention the spread of fake news designed to amplify fear.

Emotions differ in terms of their impact on learning, but fear is one that has great potential to inhibit learning. If I’m afraid, I shorten my time horizons, I become much more risk averse and I become much less trusting of others. I’m much more likely to block the flows that will help me to learn faster because they increase uncertainty. Instead of flows, I seek stability.

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, fear in turn can become a catalyst for other emotions that become barriers to learning – hatred, anger, stress and loneliness. These can go viral as well. When we experience these emotions, we need to look within to determine whether and how fear might be shaping these emotions. Many of us are unwilling to express fear because it’s viewed as a sign of weakness, so we manifest fear through other emotions.

Of course, there are other flows that can become barriers to learning. Viruses of all types – human and digital – can spread rapidly and block our efforts to learn faster. The more connected we are, the more vulnerable we can become to these viruses. We need to find more effective ways to anticipate the emergence of these viruses, contain their spread and limit the damage they can cause. We need to understand how destructive these viruses can be, not just in the short-term, but also in the longer-term, if we allow them to diminish the flows that support learning.

Crises as a catalyst for change – and progress

Crises can, of course, strengthen the barriers to learning and change, but historical experience also suggests that they can become catalysts for change by providing us with an opportunity to reflect on our experience and explore new approaches that can help us to achieve more. They may provide us with a greater appreciation for the flows that accelerate learning and increase our desire to strengthen the flows that accelerate learning. My hope is that our current crisis will drive us to expand the flows that accelerate learning and find ways to reduce the impact of flows that are obstacles to learning.

Let me offer one example. Over the past several decades, Western companies have increasingly outsourced activities and off-shored them in the quest to reduce costs. We have seen the growth of global supply chains.

But here’s the problem. These global supply chains are exactly what the name implies – rigid connections among a select few participants that are tightly managed to become as efficient as possible. Scalable efficiency at its best!

While very efficient in stable times, these supply chains become vulnerable to disruption when large-scale, unexpected events occur. In rapidly changing times, we need to move from supply chains to supply networks. Rather than a very limited number of suppliers in our supply chain, we need to expand our reach to encompass much larger and more diverse networks of participants so that we can become much more flexible in responding to unanticipated events.

But there’s more. Companies that move in this direction tend to take a very short-term, static view of their network. They need to access a given set of resources or services, so the focus is on how to do the best short-term transactions – buy low, sell high.

The supply networks that will thrive in the future are those that focus on how to cultivate scalable learning over time among all the participants – what kinds of long-term relationships can be built that will accelerate learning and performance improvement among all the participants? These are very different kinds of networks, but they can be very powerful in terms of harnessing network effects and increasing returns. Evolving networks in this direction can be very challenging because they will require fundamentally different business and technology architectures, but the rewards will be significant. And the current crisis could be a powerful catalyst in motivating us to move in this direction.

Broader institutional change

Moving from supply chains to supply networks is just one dimension of much larger institutional change that we will need to drive if we want to strengthen flows that accelerate learning. As I’ve written before, we are in the early stages of a Big Shift that will require profound institutional transformation. Our institutions today are driven by a model of scalable efficiency. In the quest for scalable efficiency, we have tightly specified all activities that need to be performed, highly standardized those activities and tightly integrated all those activities. In other words, we have created institutions that are highly resistant to flows.

In order to thrive in a rapidly changing world, we need to shift our institutional models from scalable efficiency to scalable learning. Scalable learning institutions focus on creating environments that will help all participants – not just those in research labs or innovation centers – to learn faster in the workplace by addressing unseen problems and opportunities to create more value. These institutions seek to expand their participation in a broader range of more diverse flows so that they can accelerate learning.

Dampening the negative effects of flows

To tap into the potential of crises to accelerate learning we’ll also need to find ways to dampen the negative effects of flows – here, I’m referring to the spread of fear as the dominant emotion. What can we do to reverse that?

Those of you who’ve been following me for a while can anticipate my answer – we need to frame inspiring, opportunity-based narratives that can help people to overcome their fear and move forward together. As some of you know, I make a significant distinction between stories and narratives which you can find here.

We very much need people who can frame these opportunity-based narratives and motivate people to take near-term action that can help them to learn faster in their quest to achieve the longer-term opportunities identified by the narratives.

Just as fear can become contagious, the emotions cultivated by opportunity-based narratives – excitement, hope and passion – can become contagious as well, helping others to overcome their fear and join forces in the quest for something inspiring. Rather than becoming barriers to learning, these emotions can become powerful accelerators of learning. People with passion flourish in flows while those without passion can be overwhelmed.

Flows and filters

Flows can become overwhelming if we don’t have a way to focus. This is another powerful role of opportunity-based narratives – they help to focus us together on inspiring opportunities. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by flows and being pulled in a thousand different directions at once, we can begin to apply filters to help us find the flows that will help us to learn faster to address the specific opportunities that have been defined.

In this context, I’ve become a strong proponent of zoom out/zoom in approaches to strategy. These approaches focus on two very different time horizons in parallel – 10-20 years and 6-12 months. On the zoom-out side, the challenge is to align around a view of the longer-term future and the opportunities that will emerge in that future. On the zoom-in side, the challenge is to align around 2-3 initiatives that can be taken in the next 6-12 months that will have the greatest impact in accelerating movement towards the longer-term opportunity.

This approach to strategy is certainly relevant to businesses that have become increasingly consumed by short-term quarterly results and responding to whatever is happening in the moment. But it can also be very valuable for all other institutions and communities and even for each of us as individuals.

This strategy is powerful on many dimensions, but on one key dimension, it helps people to overcome their fear by framing a powerful longer-term opportunity (see the connection with opportunity-based narratives?) and then focusing them on near-term action that can deliver quick impact and build confidence that the longer-term opportunity can be achieved.

Bottom line

Crises can be a catalyst for change. It is up to us whether we choose to harness this potential for change. We have an opportunity to drive change that will significantly expand and enrich the flows that can help all of us to learn faster and achieve far more of our potential. We all have an opportunity to flourish by learning faster together. Let’s find ways to make learning viral.

In this context, I cringe at the use of the word “resilience” in describing how we should respond to this crisis. As I’ve written before, most people use resilience with the intention of “bouncing back” – getting back to where we were is the goal. Why would we want to just get back to where we were? Why not view this as an opportunity to leap forward by learning from our experience and driving the change that will help all of us to get better faster?


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(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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