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.
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.
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.
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.