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The next in our series of interviews asking a number of noted thought leaders for their views on a few basic but essential questions on Organizational Change.
I was delighted to get some time to talk with Noah Rosenberg for this article on organizational change and design.
Noah had a long career as a Digital Creative Director running a number of agency offices before making the leap to serial entrepreneur, starting and selling multiple high-impact startups.
As a lifelong learner, he’s always seeking chances to increase impact, maximize performance, and reach a higher peak. New skills and new environments drove him to create an entirely new kind of agency, to develop companies in the same way a team would a product, and ultimately to create an entirely new product category in Pikazo, an AI-powered art application.
He's been lucky to lead some incredible teams that have gotten to really incredible places — Top 20 on the App Store, keynoting Intel's AI conference, creating artwork live at the Museum of Modern Art, and most recently changing the way advertising and content interact. Noah loves helping everyone on the team reach their own peak experiences.
Noah is currently immersed in the intersection of Artificial Intelligence and Human-Computer Interaction, defining new ways that algorithms can make digital experiences more valuable and humane
Mike: Do you want to say something about that latest creative departure?
Noah: I can explain it a little bit. It's still pre-launch, so there's nothing to go look up and read about online, but here's a super easy explanation of it: We're creating a tracking system for free weight exercises. So, you have these basic five exercises that people think are the best for you, squats, dead lifts, bench press, shoulder press. In the past they have not been tracked, whereas if you go for a bike ride or a walk, there's all this great tracking that you can use. But this kind of weight training hasn't really been tracked.
So, we stumbled on a couple pieces of technology. One is something called pose detection where you can kind of see the skeleton of a person from a video of them. The technology can guess where your bones are and in that way, monitor your form.
Then, the second thing is from the older area of psychology called operant conditioning, the BF Skinner stuff. What we love about that is that it really speaks to the intuition (experienced as conditioned response) and goes through a higher bandwidth channel. So, when I'm at the gym and my coach is saying, "Oh, good form, Noah," I'm in verbal mode and I'm thinking, "Oh, he likes me," and, "Oh, am I doing it right?" and, "Does everybody else in the gym see me doing it right, and what does that look like?" It has nothing to do with completing the actual exercise. So, what we're trying to do is introduce other feedback methods that are a lot more useful and speak to the intuition or muscle memory.
Mike: Sounds interesting.
Noah: Here’s a really concrete example: if you are an iPhone or Apple watch user they have this new mechanism in there that gives a little thump. It's different than the buzzer in every other phone. In the camera app, there's a click to tell you when you have the camera held vertically. What starts to happen is it speaks , through your hand down your arm and into your intuitive, liminal muscle memory. So, even with the screen backwards facing out, you can still make the phone level.
In fact, when I show it to people, they don't find that very interesting. They're like, "Of course. Yeah, it clicks when it's level. That makes perfect sense. What are you showing me?" But I never say anything. I just hand them the app, turn it around, and say, "Make the camera level," and they can do it. There's no dialogue. There's no explanation. There's no confirmation from me. They intuitively know where that is, and then I turn off the click and it turns out, yes, you can get it back to level again because that communication went through your muscle system.
So, you can take that idea of the nonverbal feedback and look at what other ways you can apply it. We're just starting out with strength training because fitness is such a rich category already.
Mike: So, are you interested in neurofeedback in general?
Noah: We haven't built this yet, but I had this notion that it'd be really nice to make an app that lets you draw a perfect circle because there's no verbal way to describe that. Somebody says, "To the left more, up more." It's completely unintuitive, but if we could train you so you could feel where those boundaries are and draw this perfect circle, I think it would be a great example of neural feedback, and then there are many other applications throughout interpersonal connections, and business.
A sandwich shop wants to have their employees put the right amount of beef on a sandwich. A coffee shops wants to know how much stirring you do in the water, these sort of things.
Mike: So, you've got something which can apply that to the basic weight exercises?
Noah: Yeah, it's all workout stuff, so we can track weights, crossfit training, these things that are really hard to track using accelerometers but easy to track with cameras.
Mike: Oh, yeah, that sounds great.
So, as you're thinking about setting up your new company, I know that you've got a lot of experience in start-ups and being the CEO of a start-up. So, I just wanted to ask you as you approach creating another organization, are the subjects of culture, the future of organizations, and how they're designed very much on your mind?
Noah: Yeah, that's absolutely the high order bit. Honestly, that's been the challenge of everything I've worked on in the past and this day job I've got right now, it's blocked by the culture. It's blocked by the scenario and the setup and all of the mental models that go into what we think of as a workplace requirement.
The simplest one, a boss, right? If a boss has an idea or let's say a comfort zone, the whole company has to align around that comfort zone because ultimately, if the boss in that role is outside of their comfort zone, they can't make strong decisions and then they're no longer the boss, but the org chart then is lacking leadership.
So, there's a functional reason why that happens, and I'll give a real specific example. If your boss has a background outside of your specialty—say you’re a writer, and your boss has an MBA. You might get feedback to your written work that you should turn your carefully crafted prose into bullet points or cells in a spreadsheet.
The guy at the top of this pyramid,his strongest muscle memory, his most intuitive reasoning, his most intellectual agility is in business process. So, finally, he says, "Look, I know some of the technology, but I'm not that strong on and know very little about writing. I've done technology enough that I can trust those guys to create outputs that I can use in business process, but I have never done writing. I can't trust those outputs. How can we make writing look like business process?" Does that make sense?
Mike: I understand what you're saying. It obviously doesn't make sense to do it, right?
Noah: So, in relation to the culture of a new company that behaviour is really interesting and a problem that I wouldn't have intuited without experiencing it first-hand. That's the first order observation, but the second order observation I got from working in that environment has really given me a lot of better understanding of what it is that I do.
Mike: I was going to ask you, against the background of what you just said, do you think that for organizations to be able to succeed in functioning, whether they're existing organizations or new ones, that major change is necessary and inevitable in the way that we look at organizations and what we do with them?
Noah: Well, that's a bit of a loaded question, but the answer of course is yes. I think that change is going to happen, but what's interesting is on some level, this engagement was still functional for the manager at least, right? So, he can still point arrows, but I think to your point, there is always this generational shift where that top layer of managers will peel off. They will retire.
Then, you have the next tier coming in who hopefully have a little bit more of a developed sense, so the next tier are going to be all those Gen X people who are kind of deeply nihilistic. We're a short window. There's only 10 years of us, right, and then it shifts over to the millennials, but this little nihilistic part of us that says, "Yeah, I don't care about the organization at all. I grew up punk rock and I hate all structure, so I don't value the org chart." There's nothing to preserve.
Preservation of old structures is the opposite of the Gen X ethos, but the correlation of that is we also don't create new structures. We don't thrive on structure. We don't want structure. We want things to be in the present.
So, I'm thinking about creating my own company and this is probably going to sound counter intuitive but instead of designing the organization, what I I've learned from the last few years at work is that what I really need to design is the choice of my frustrations.
Vankatesh Rao writes a lot about organizational stuff and a lot about different mental models. He has this notion about your intellectual diet that I really like. It says a writer is going to write about whatever information they're consuming. There's always your own flavor to it, but a lot of your thought processes are based on what you're inputting. I really resonate with that. I think that's probably pretty true.
So, I think of it as my diet and I think heading into being a startup creator where you get the chance to have an empty canvas on how you want to build your company, the first approach is the unconscious incompetence approach, you don't know what you don't know, you go, "Well, I'm just going to make this be flowers and cotton candy. I'm just going to pick my absolute favorite things. Why would I put anything else in there? If I get to make it, it's just going to be what I want."
It's sort of a childhood fantasy land. You'll start to see offices with playground equipment inside. They look more like daycare centers than offices. Right away, you can see that's what was on their mind. Why would I put anything that I don't immediately like? That's sort of a diet of junk food. If I let my 10-year-old eat whatever she wanted, it would be Cheetos and Kool-Aid, but as you mature you start to realize you need other things in your diet, and particularly fiber. Fiber is by definition things you can't digest.
I started to realize how much I'm motivated, and how much I'm informed, by intellectual situations that I can't digest.
I can't digest this guy wanting to make a customer experience engagement fit a business process. Customer experience is about understanding the environments a customer might encounter, what they may see, hear, feel, and do. What makes the, feel a service is trustworthy, valuable, repeatable, and enjoyable. Business process is a simple flow chart. So it’s kind of like saying “Chess is hard. Let’s use the chess pieces, but let’s play checkers, kids understand that game better”.
So that idea kind of gets into my head and I examine it and think about how to make it work. And I get a non-answer on that. It's kind of like it does not compute. I just kind of don’t see a way to make it make sense. If it's what this guy's comfortable with and he's just going to force it, that’s what we’re going to have to do and that's how organizations have to work, okay, fine. but that's a dead end.
You're not really doing customer experience. You’re not playing checkers if you use chess pieces. You're just agreeing to not play chess, you’re doing something else. You’re playing horsey hop hop, it’s neither chess or checkers.
Mentally that becomes this intellectual dietary fibre. You can’t incorporate the idea, you can’t do much with it besides let it pass.
It's these ideas that you don't digest, that you don't incorporate, but maybe build other ideas around it, or maybe it helps you flesh out your own ideas. So there is value in ideas you can’t digest. The ideas themselves may not be valuable but mentally chewing on them can be.
What that's informing for me as I'm heading into creating another start-up, is that I don't so much want it to be, a platform for ego magnification, like probably my first one was. I thought, "If I'm leading an ad agency, I want to make a famous ad agency. I want to prove to them that mine is more famous." I want to do that job of ad agency better and I want to become some sort of important person from it.
Having gone through that and rung some of those bells, hit those achievements and realized there is no achievement there, you move onto the next of all these other kinds of self-deceptions you could create. My current self-deception is that I can create something not cool, but that is functional and sort of mature, I hope. I think that final output is just a creative thing that has room for me to keep creating.
Mike: Right. So, do you think then that as we move towards this new period of organizational design where a lot of structure's being thrown away because people don't want it anymore and react against it, do you think that means increasingly that the organization will tend to reflect the mindset and the thinking of the leaders who form the organization?
Noah: I think that's a very interesting question. Yes, that could happen, but I think that's actually a regression, that's not progress, because what that does is say we just require a chieftain who is a really great chieftain, but it's still a chieftain model.
Mike: What do you think progress would be?
Noah: I think we've seen what's happening to organizations happen in art and in some other places. So, you have an interesting analog in art. In the Victorian era, art was this game of being exactly digestible to the upper class. That was defined in a certain way. It was very naturalistic. The more realism you could get, the better. The crisper you could get, the better. The more pedigree you had, the better. This was what was going on in the salons in Paris, in the environment into which Gauguin and Picasso entered. So, it was really understood what counted as a good painting. It was very defined in everybody's mind and they knew it exactly when they saw it and you could write theses on it. It was very specific.
I think organizations have gotten to kind of point; there's the big four consultants that define what a good organization looks like and it's really specific and it's really measured.
Mike: It's all still rooted in the 150 year old tradition of Taylorist scientific management?
Noah: Yeah, or the Prussian army, early military structures. What is a vice president but a lieutenant?
Mike: What do you think the new thing looks like or could look like?
Noah: So, let's look at what happened there with Picasso where he had all that training, but then he came in and he started changing in a really specific way some of the requirements of a canvas in terms of meaning. You could look at Picasso and say he cleared the way just for Picasso, but also that it left room for Kandinsky. It left room for other cubists. Their work is very distinct from Picasso's, but it plays in that same space.
So, I guess what I'm getting at is once that tradition is shown to be fractured, it opens up room for other rules to be violated, but it also opens up room for other things to count as being a manager and for other structures to count as being companies. So, Picasso eventually did lead to something like Rothko, no structure at all. It led to Pollock, no subject matter at all. It really doesn't make sense to talk about a Pollock painting in terms of the subject matter. So, I think we're going to start seeing organizations that are so loosely organized but so open to possibility that it won't make sense to use the word manager any more. They'll still function and still include groups and still have an ethos.
Mike: Right, but don't you think there will still be a leadership owner in a sense in organizations? Would it be more of a function that anyone can do?
Noah: What a great question. This is a perfect thing for us to be thinking about. So, the higher order bit in my mind right now from this most recent experience is rather than choosing what you want to work on or even necessarily choosing how you want to fit into the organization, I think the structures will start to appear where you're choosing your frustrations. You're picking the grain of sand under your tongue, the thing that you're going to work on and work on and work on and turn into that pearl. So, for instance, I'm spending a lot of time with Martha Valenta lately. Are you familiar with her?
Mike: Coincidentally I just interviewed Martha a few days ago.
Noah: Oh, that's terrific. I just had lunch with her yesterday. The sort of grain of sand under her tongue is meetings and how meetings are done. That's not really on the surface a company level problem, but she could create a company around that where she could go into organizations and solve for that very narrow problem. So, as a leader, you would describe her as the person who most has that frustration. Since she's most driven by that frustration, she's going to be the one who puts the most energy towards solving it. In that sense, I think that might be how we define leader. In the sort of military sense, which has become corporate sense, the leader is the person who structurally you have to listen to.
Mike: Okay. I wasn't confining the use of the term to that.
Noah: Yeah. I think in that sense, there will always be people who are further out than others who have been working on the problem longer and have more view into the problem's space. So, in that sense, that's probably a fixed constraint.
Mike: Let me ask you about these two terms, values and higher purpose. If those things have a place in an organization, what do you think they are and how well do you think they can work rather than how well do they work, because my experience would be it's very easy to say that you have a particular value and then never apply it.
Noah: I've been working on a way of describing this because I have this intuitive mental model about it. That's really been chewing away at me on this engagement with this day job. There's that analogy of you can't see the forest for the trees. It sort of describes not being able to see the big picture, meaning you're so focused on an individual aspect of something that you're not really thinking about how it operates as a whole.
So, let's work with that for a minute and talk about it. A forest, the way you would describe a forest is something like acreage, maybe location on the planet or within a larger area within a nation or a state or a county. None of those have anything to do with trees yet.
Mike: Providing you with breathable oxygen?
Noah: Yeah. Yeah, that would be a nice way to think about it, but then you're like, "Well, what counts as part of the forest and not," right? Is the tree outside or is the grass part of the forest? You're thinking of this large global area, and I think that's where vision comes from. So, if we can make that analogy that the vision doesn't necessarily have to describe anything about the company in particular, but it describes at the meta level what it's trying to do.
That's the forest, and then the trees are the individual aspects of the company, right? So, those could be the things that go on your business model canvas. It could be your distribution. It could be your suppliers. It could be what your product is. It could be who your customers are, but they're still pretty high level objects.
Then, unfortunately in business, we jump down to leaves. So, we go from forest, which is really global and non-descriptive of anything internally, then we go to the individual elements, but then we go to the leaves. I happen to have a nice view of trees out the window. I can't even tell what leaves come from one tree or the other, much less which branch they're on, what direction they're pointed. Even a camera can't represent those leaves because even if you got every single leaf and every single orientation and direction, there's some behind it. There's no possible way to characterize all the leaves of a tree. If you did, they have moved by the time you've finished. It's just a pointless endeavor, right?
So, what that describes is the idea of getting into too much detail in your thinking. That's what's happening in this organization I'm in where they're sort of working from the bullet point out, from the middle out, from the most narrow degree out.
There's a lot of reasons I think psychologically we do this. Part of it is maybe where our own mental safety zone is, where we know we can think strongly, but also know that we can befuddle and confuse somebody else and nobody else can really do it so there's some safety there. Nobody could really tell you you're wrong because they would have to zoom into that detail, too.
So, you have forests, you have trees, you have leaves, but then you can go back again and you can go leaves, branches, trunk. So, a trunk almost any of us can draw really simply, right? It just looks like a box or a cylinder. The trunk is sort of the guiding principles of your company. It's the first principles, the base area of what you're trying to do.
The new company I'm trying to start is based on the principle that we make dumb things smart. That's our fundamental guiding principle. There's no big picture stuff there at all. That's just what are we looking to do, and anything that's dumb, physically dumb and has no software in it yet, we're going to add software to it and make it intuitive. That's a really base principle. It can go a lot of directions, but that's our first principle.
Then, our branches are, well, we're going to do with cameras and we're going to start in the fitness space, and so that's kind of how that main idea is starting to define itself, but it still isn't too specific. Then, when you get into the leaves, we start talking about what software libraries we're going to use, what hardware, who are we going to sell it to, how are we going to install it, is it 5 or 10 feet away from the workout equipment. These things matter, but they don't matter. I can't go to somebody and say, "Oh, I'm really specialized in the 5 to 10 foot space away from a bench press machine." That's meaningless, right?
What you end up seeing is this diamond progression where you go from forest, really broad, very broad generalizations of your mission (and our mission is to make the world more intuitive) to the trees area which we will do through partnerships with fitness companies, and then the leaves are this product and what it actually manifests, and then we can go back down to the branches and say it's part of machine learning and it's part of this new emerging liminal space.
Mike: There are values embedded, implicit in that?
I mean if the organization grows and it engages more people or engages people as customers, then those values will be important or relevant in that relationship. Have I got that wrong?
Noah: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's the fundamental thing. What I hope I was describing in this mishmash of language is that the reason that organizations have trouble getting their values out is they try to do it at that middle leaf level. They're lacking either the forest perspective of guiding principles of, what are you really trying to do? Why are you really starting this organization? Is it to get rich, or is it to make a particular change? If it is to make a particular change, why?
So, we could start to talk about this. Why is it so important to speak more to the intuitive part of the psyche? Well, we really feel like if people can wake that up more, they'll treat each other better. There is nothing after that. That's the last why. I don't need to tell you why it's better to treat each other better.
I think if we can look at those stages of development and say that intuitive awakening leads to a lot of other really good outcomes. So, with that as a guiding principle, it helps inform a lot of the other decisions we're going to make in terms of what type of product we develop next.
Mike: Actually being able to identify the fundamental big picture values your organization is being based on, becomes the means through which the whole thing obtains integrity of function?
Noah: I would say that question actually goes down to the first principles. That's a trunk level question, and that's what I'm trying to get at with this diamond image is you have to have both. You wouldn't have a forest without tree trunks. The first guiding principles are: what are the things that we all agree are true? If we don't agree that they're true, we can't work together. So, some of those are we respect our user. We treat them as an adult. That to me is a guiding principle
Mike: I think that kind of thing is probably what most people think of when they talk about company values, isn't it?
Noah: Yep. What's interesting is people will combine those two with just a comma between them. What are your values and purpose? I guess what I'm trying to say is I see those as absolutely opposite ends of the spectrum.
Mike: I think it's very interesting perception, that definition. Thank you.
Noah: By the way, a lot of people will combine them as a way of brushing them aside, by saying, "That's all well and good, but I have shit to do."
"I'm counting these leaves. If I'm counting all these leaves, I don't have to bother with purpose and values"
Mike: As soon as they say, "I'm not interested in that because I've got shit to do," they've actually made a very big value statement right there.
Noah: Right. Yep. They're saying, "I don't care about values." That's a core value to many.
Mike: Yeah. So, let me ask you this great question before we run out of time. Is there one piece of advice that you would give to organizations who want to move towards a more complete kind of organization? Maybe something like but not limited to or bound by the idea of Teal. What would it be, the key, the core piece of advice? It doesn't have to be the only one, but one that you think would be very central and important.
Noah: Stay out of the leaves as long as you possibly can. Stay out of that middle area as long as you possibly can.
Mike: Focus on the bigger picture. Don't get lost in the details.
Noah: Avoid focus as long as you can.
Okay. So, there's two definitions of focus, and let's make sure we're talking about the two. One version of focus is misrepresented as intensity. So, people will say, "I'm really focused on my company." What they mean there is that they are putting a lot of intention into it. That's okay. That's not what I'm talking about avoiding. I'm talking about stay away from the telescopes and the microscopes. Okay, so stay away from these things that shrink your field of vision.
So, what that gets down to in functional terms in a company is micro-detailed decisions or definitions. There's that programmer analogy that premature optimization is the root of all evil. So, you start getting micro-focused on anything that has no impact beyond the moment that you're thinking of it, and that turns out to be a lot, a lot of things. Imagine you're filling out a form on the details of how you set something up or the directions you point the desks, and as soon as you make that decision, it has no more bearing on anything.
Mike: It’s a potentially infinite energy sink.
Noah: Yep, absolutely. The consultants put it in one of their two by two grids of time management and they say it's neither important nor urgent. I think of it as data detail and in fact, I would almost think of it as anything that would go into speeds and feeds, bullet points, definitions, measurements, any particulate that goes into the company. The longer you can avoid doing that, the better.
Now, that doesn't mean that those things aren't important to do, but having come from fine art training, there was this really simple idea that when you're going to do let's say a portrait, you block in the key shapes first and then maybe you do some of the color areas. Then, maybe you capture the basic gestural portrait and then you start kind of getting in a little bit more detail. Then, the very last thing you do are work on the eyes and the eyelashes, right? That's pretty intuitive. That comes in the first few weeks of training, serious training in art, but boy, man, everybody in business loves focusing on the eyelashes and the little tiny details.
Mike: They're going to start with the pupil and work outwards?
Noah: They would, right? They would. Very few people, exceptionally talented people can do that as a stunt, but they're hiding the fact that they have thought of the entire thing and they're just holding it as a model in their head. They have sketched it all out. They have planned it all out. They aren't working from the middle out with no idea where it's headed. So, basically they're doing a magic trick. To me, magic is practicing when nobody else can see.
Mike: Very good point.
Noah: So, yeah, that’s the one piece of advice, and I think it's probably the hardest piece of advice, because some of those details are so tasty.
Mike: Right. Actually, it's very satisfying to pick a particular detail because it's something that you can complete and finish and say, "Okay, that's satisfying. I've done that," and it's got a definite limited scope. It's much more challenging to actually be zooming out and looking at the whole and then figuring out what the next phase is for all the different parts to work together.
Noah: I think so. Could you imagine doing a sudoku or a crossword puzzle and just saying, "I'm going to get this box first and I don't care why? This is the box." Again, it doesn't make any intuitive sense.
Mike: Right, so that's it. That's the piece of advice is don't pick one square and try and solve it in your sudoku puzzle.
Noah: Yep. Let it fall into place and really relish in it when it does at the end because they do all fall into place.
Mike: That’s great Noah, thanks so much for taking time to share your thoughts on these themes
The next in our series of interviews asking a number of noted thought leaders for their views on a few basic but essential questions on Organizational Change.
On this occasion I connected with Al Curnow.
Al is a Senior Consultant with High Performing Culture (HPC). HPC helps organizations create, drive and maintain high performing cultures, with a proven system that’s straightforward, practical, and easy to use. He works with organizational leaders of many diverse industries.
Al is a skilled Consultant, Writer and Presenter. He’s spoken to numerous industry groups including General Motors, PACE, Chambers of Commerce, VISTAGE International and Athletic Interscholastic and Coaches groups.
Prior to his consulting career, Al was a senior leader for more than 20 years in the employee benefits industry.
Al received his Bachelor of Arts from The University of Rhode Island and completed graduate work in Business Administration at The University of Missouri in Kansas City.
Al is married with two children and resides in East Greenwich, RI.
Mike: My first question is do you see major change as being inevitable in most organizations at current time?
Al: Absolutely, Mike. We do. I don't think it's just at this time. I think change is one of those things that's just inevitable. The pace might be a little escalated at this point in time, but I think change has always been an inevitable part of any organization.
Mike: Do you think it's essential as well?
Al: I do. I think our ability to change and/or adapt to, and/or take advantage of opportunities that present themselves are critically essential. We talk about this with our clients all the time. It's like death and taxes; change will happen. What's most critical is how do we respond to it. More importantly, how do we look for and leverage the opportunities that change brings?
Mike: So what kind of opportunities do you think we're seeing at the moment? It seems to me there's an increasing amount of pressure for companies to make fairly significant and radical changes in their cultures. Do you think so? Or is it just something which has always been there, do you think?
Al: I think it's always been there. Culture exists in any organization. Frankly, in any group of people, there's a culture. There are always social dynamics. I think the reason culture has become such a hot topic is because people are beginning to understand the importance of it. The impact of it. There are psychological studies, that go back to the 1930s and probably prior to that, which speak to this.
At that point in time they didn't call it ‘culture’, They called it Organizational Climate. Today, ‘culture’ has become a buzzword. There's been a recognition that yes, it's important. What's been lacking historically is what to do about it, How do we influence and/or change it? Culture has often been perceived as this fuzzy, ambiguous concept. Our philosophy, our whole approach is that it's not. You can actually shape and define the culture that you want. You just have to be intentional and systematic about it.
Mike: Do you think there's more pressure for change now than say, 10 – 15 years ago?
Al: I do. Things are changing at a rapid pace. We work with an incredibly diverse group of organizations from construction to law firms to high tech, and low tech, but the common denominator with all the organizations we work with is that the leadership within those organizations understands the importance of culture and they understand that their culture has to be alluring and structured in a way that puts them in the best position to take advantage of opportunities and to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.
We have close to 300 plus client organizations across the U.S. and some in your part of the world as well. And I would say every, single one of them recognizes the importance of being able to change and take advantage of the opportunities that change in the environment brings. It’s a common thread in all of them.
Mike: And do you think that leaders being open to changing their own mindset and changing themselves plays a part in that kind of change?
Al: Without question. In fact, the most important ingredient required when looking to change the culture of an organization is leaderships’ sponsorship and reinforcement of this change. Organizations that hire us are lead by leaders that understand this.
Mike: So they already have decided that if they're looking at improving their culture, then they are probably already considering their own awareness of it and so on.
Al: Absolutely. And ironically, Mike, a large percentage of the leaders that hire us already have cultures that are actually quite good. They know how important it is and want it to get even better. The recognize that they need to get better because of factors, like change, like saturated marketplaces, and budgetary pressures. They realize that there's real power that can be harnessed within a culture. They just never realized they could be systematic and intentional about it. They've grown good cultures almost by accident. Good leaders tend to hire good people. They tend to do things the right way. And yet they never really considered that there could be ways of systematically improving their culture to an even greater extent.
Mike: Right. In terms of culture, in terms of people wanting to develop really good cultures, what do the words, values, and higher purpose mean to you? How do they fit in there?
Al: Great question. Our take on values qnd mission might be a little bit different from most. We feel that if the values and mission truly reflect and align with what actually happens within that organization and they're paid attention to and all employees are mindful of it, great. However, with that said, what we tend to find is most organizations, although their intentions are quite good, have mission and values statements that are nothing more than a poster they hang on a wall.
Mike: So do you actually do an assessment of what the values in practice are?
Al: We skip the assessment and actually go right to the behaviors. We try to get at the most essential behaviours that are critical to the organizations’ success.
Mike: Right. So what you're saying is it's better to specify what kind of behaviors you expect to see rather than having a list of values everyone's supposed to live up to which may be quite abstract.
Al: Yes, again, unless you have a robust list of values that really is integrated into your organization.
Al: We focus on behaviors, actions you can see, coach and teach. If it's just this abstract poster on a wall, let's skip it. Let's go right to the things that will take your organization where you want it to go as a leader. We do have some clients who have invested the time and effort in developing a meaningful mission value statement.
It means a lot to them and they pay attention to it and they reinforce it. The distinction with those clients is that we say “OK, that's a great start. Now how do we take that, and as an extension of that begin to identify the specific behaviors that speak to it” ? We're not throwing away all the good work you've done. Rather, we're incorporating it. We're taking from it and then driving a bit deeper into things we can see, measure, coach, and teach on.
Mike: Thank you. As a senior consultant in a culture change and development company, you must be pretty busy, right? Could you give us an idea what a day might be like for you?
Al: Absolutely. And as you might imagine, no two are the same. I have a healthy mix. Being part of a small organization, we handle a wide variety of tasks. This includes everything from new business development to the actual consulting work with clients with some project management throw into the mix! So no two days are the same. Most days are split between two primary roles. One is working with leaders of organizations, CEOs, or Executive Directors (for non-profits) and their leadership teams. I help them first define what type of culture they want. That’s where it all has to begin. Organization must identify, with incredible clarity,the type of culture they want.
Another large percentage of my time is spent working with all team members and employees introducing them to our process to help them to stay focused on the most critical behaviors. . Both of those responsibilities involve a lot of travel. Our clients are all over the place. We do some work online and virtually but I'd still say the vast majority of our work is in-person with clients.
Mike: A lot of the clients I've been seeing in the past couple of years are looking at different models of organization design. They want to move to a new type of organization design. Something like the idea of Teal perhaps.
If there was one piece of advice you had to give organizations who were wanting to move towards something they see as being more empowering for staff and a more complete kind of organization, what would that be, that one piece of advice?
Al: I would say being incredibly clear in terms of defining what are the specifics of what you want. It's one thing to say you want to build a certain type of organization.,Yet if you're actually going to be able to have real impact on creating it, you first have to begin at the beginning, which is defining what that organization will look like. What would be going on around there in terms of how we treated each other internally, how we treated our customers, etc. And again, what would that look like in terms of specific behaviors.
Mike: That sounds very much like one of the key questions I ask my coaching clients, which is, “if you woke up tomorrow morning and you were exactly where you really wanted to be, what would be happening”?
Al: Yeah. That's a great question. It very much gets at the heart of this because you have to start with that thinking in order to be intentional and have impact, you first have to be mindful and aware.
Then I would say there's a step two or a part B, which I feel is just as important. It's one thing to be able to define it, but it's a whole other thing ... to meaningfully impact it in a sustainable way. Once you define it, you then have to figure out how to put practices in place to help coach, teach, lead, and reinforce all those things we've identified as being critically important. To me, that's the secret sauce.
Mike: And that's what your company helps people to do?
Al: Yes. That’s what we do. We help our clients define the behaviors that are most Fundamental to their success. Then we help them design a framework that allows them to stay focused on (and get better at) these behaviors while making them stick. Again, Culture has often been thought of as something vague and ambiguous. It isn’t. It can be shaped and influenced.
Mike: That's very interesting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights around this.
Al: My pleasure, thanks for the opportunity to speak with you.
You can find out more about the work of Al and his colleagues at http://www.highperformingculture.com
For the latest in the Liminal Thought Leaders series I connected with Martha Valenta in St Louis.
Martha has been a Human Centered Design consultant for the past 14 years, with a focus on the financial industry.
She has collaborated on strategy, experience, and interaction design with business stakeholders, development teams, and users to create or improve processes and experiences.
Martha is presently a Human-Centered Design Lead with 1904labs. She is the President of the St. Louis Experience Design organization (STLX) and she teaches UX at LaunchCode CoderGirl. An artist advocate and prolific painter in her free time, she recently founded I Need That Art, where she connects artists with buyers.
I was lucky enough to grab some time from Martha’s busy schedule to get her views on organizational change.
Mike: Thanks, Martha, for making the time to do this. I'm guessing the subjects of culture and future organizations is something that is of interest to you in many respects?
Martha: Yes, it is. I've been in many major corporations (now I'm in a smaller company), and I've seen things be very difficult. I've seen big organizations have so much trouble getting anything done well, and then on a smaller level, things tend to get done well. I think, because we're truly agile. We're able to make changes as needed.
Mike: Right. From that point of view, do you think that major change is inevitable and necessary for most organizations at the moment, even the large ones, because of changes in the environment?
Martha: Well, innovation by definition is change. Correct? So, change is how we innovate and so yes, I do think there is a need for ongoing change, right?
Mike: Right. So it's absolutely not enough for an organization to say, "Oh, okay, we're going to unfreeze, we're going to do some change and then we're going to re-freeze and there we are. We've done it."
Martha: Yeah, I think that's the trap that a lot of organizations get into and I see it with software development all the time. This is why waterfall was the way that we developed software for so long was because it's going to be finished in two years and then it's done. But it's not done. It's never done. We are constantly innovating and we should be. So, that mindset needs to be fully adopted by all organizations. I see it very much from my software development viewpoint, but many larger companies still want to approach things in their ingrained legacy way and not fully embrace this idea of self organizing teams, continuous development, and continuous improvement. In some cases there are good reasons to be cautious. For example in financial institutions, where there's a lot of regulation and there's a lot of need to be regulated because these systems are dealing with people's life savings or their regular income. Likewise in health care there needs to be a lot of caution around change and development, but they still need to innovate. Because playing it too safe leaves companies in these industries at risk for disruption. Mike: What part do you think leaders play in changing their own mindset in order to improve the kind of situation you've just described? Do you think that's an important factor?
Martha: I think leadership is a huge factor in all companies and especially in larger companies. They're setting the tone, right? If they set the tone of “anything is possible and I expect you to work together” and then they show that things are possible and that they are working together with others then it's not just words, but also actions.
When they do that they show that it's safe to do these innovative things, to continuously change, to speak up when something is wrong, and to fail. Failure is still not fully accepted in the majority of large corporations. But when leaders show an example of that then people are inspired. I think you could do things like give an award to someone who fails. Make it a positive thing. You know? "Hey, you failed at this, and because of that we saved, 10 million dollars because we didn't keep going down that path." So you get this gold star and $100 bonus or whatever it is.
Mike: So if you adequately explored it and it didn't work out, then thanks for doing that because it saved us.
Martha: Exactly. And too often, the leaders get caught in their own ego. They built this thing and they don't want anybody to say the baby's ugly. Or, they don't want to go over the time allotted for developing something. Or they don't want to hear what the users have to say. And that seems all crazy to me because if these leaders would start really listening to all the users and how the thing fits together through the entire process, then we might be able to see that upfront we can do something to alleviate a problem that's happening downstream and save a lot of time.
Mike: This is the importance of being open to recognizing that change is actually the life blood of your organization in a way?
Martha: Exactly. And being open to that at a leadership level really opens it up for the employees. And while I've seen, and been, an employee who tries to help make those changes at a lower level, you can only go so far with that. Eventually you get stuck or stopped.
Mike: It requires things to happen both ways. From the bottom up and top down.
Martha: Yes. And you know, part of leadership is making decisions to hire people that will do what's best and not necessarily what's easiest, or at least try to nudge things along in that direction. And I say this with a grain of salt, there's always understanding how far you're going to get in this quarter or in this year or what have you. I've been that person that's so passionate. But we need to learn where the sweet spot is of just moving forward enough, because sometimes we want to move it all the way forward and a good leader will say, "Hey, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but we're only going to get this far right now, and let's document these other ideas you have." But it all takes leadership for this type of positive motion to happen. And it affects the entire organization.
Mike: Right. So, can I ask you what the terms values and higher purpose mean to you? Because I hear them being spoken about in the context of organizations, the things they want to change towards better values and higher purpose. Do you think that those are core to being a successful organization?
Martha: I'm so jaded right now. I've seen companies where they truly have these incredible core values and really altruistic desires. You know, they want not only what's best for them as a leader, but for the company and for all the people in the company and also for the effect that the company has on the world. I've seen it where it's true, it's just honest and you know that there's no way that they would be doing business the way they're doing business if they didn't fully believe in that. If they weren't fully bathed in it.
I just saw a speaker. Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate, discussing his whole business model and how it's just such a beautiful thing and he has such a positive effect on himself because he feels good about everything he's doing and on the people he's employing and the kids that he's bringing along with him on this journey. And then the farmers in all these countries that are raising chocolate and the effects on the communities there. It's just amazing.
Mike: Sounds great.
Martha: I strongly encourage you to look into what he's doing because I think that you'd be very interested in it. But then I see leaders of major corporations and sometimes I think they really believe that they're trying to do good things. But there are so many pieces at play, there's so many bits, and I wonder if they've thought it out and how they're really going to dig in to each little part of the company and make sure that the beliefs are being carried out in the way that they imagined.
Mike: Maybe we should avoid mentioning Nike right here.
Martha: I mean, it's such a neat idea, right? To have a Kaepernick and talk about these things. But then, yeah, you turn around and where are the shoes being made and how are the employees being treated? And it's just, it leaves me very jaded.
Mike: It’s a very big organization, isn't it? One of the things I really liked about Argyris’ work was his definition of the difference between espoused values and values in practice. And what he said was, you have the espoused values of an organization, but actually you then need to look at what people actually do to see the values in practice. And then you can look at the gap between the two and you can say, "Okay, well, do we want to try to bring these two closer together?"
Martha: Yeah, it would be neat in the case of Nike, and this is a great example because they've never been a client of mine!
What would be wonderful would be to see them come out with, "Hey, it's come to our attention that while we do want to be thought of that as leaders of social change, we are in fact guilty of this, and we are going to do our best to overcome this. And so we are actively seeking manufacturers who treat their employees well and if you have a shoe shop and you would like to work with Nike, please come forward. We're actively looking for you." I don't know, but there's something that could be done and it takes leadership to say we failed. We failed and now we want to fail forward. You know?
Mike: It would be a stunning response, wouldn't it?
Martha: It would be incredible. And who could deny that?
Mike: I wonder what that would do to sales?
Martha: Right? It'd be incredible. And what if they moved all, or half, or 75 percent of manufacturing to the United States? Or what if they moved a percentage and then said, "Hey, we're building more factories in the United States and we're going to pay this and our shoe prices are going to go up because of this, because this is what this is. Are you in?"
Mike: Yeah. It would be interesting, wouldn't it?
Martha: Who knows what would happen? But that's leadership, right? To me, that's leadership.
Mike: I think the story about the chocolate guy is very interesting. I'll definitely look into that. It underpins one of my main thoughts on the subject that there is a big difference, quite often between having something up on the wall and actually living the value. And in a sense, I actually have some sympathy for people who end up in a position where they've defined very high flown values, but in practice they ended up not being able to execute them. In my mind it's actually better for a company to look at its value statement and look at it in terms of what it knows it can actually live up to.
Martha: Yeah. I wonder if these companies would have leadership meetings annually and say, "Are we living up to these values that we've defined?"
Mike: Oh yeah. That would be interesting.
Martha: It'd be incredible. I will do a shout out for the company that I currently work for, 1904 Labs. I'm thrilled to work there because the managing director, Sean Walsh, is a man of real integrity. He read the Covey book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and he lives it, and he wants all of us to live it. It is the company handbook and he doesn't want a client that isn't a win/win. He wants to do the best for our clients and he only wants to take on clients that we can do the best for. It's beautiful to me this clear definition of what he's expecting and of what we're trying to do for our clients.
Mike: Yeah. That's great, isn't it?
Martha: Yeah. And it's leadership. That's leadership, right there. I'm telling you this is what I want and I'm going to go ahead and do it too. Even sometimes if it might not be what I thought it was going to be or whatever. He sticks with it. He follows through.
Mike: Sounds like a great place to work, do you think?
Martha: It is! He encourages us to do kind of our own thing for four hours per week. So two hours on Monday afternoons, two hours on Thursday afternoons, we have innovation time and he expects us to all be doing our own thing. It might be charity work or it might be our own start-up or it might be our own growth or learning. It's fantastic because we've got developers that want to learn more about a particular framework or particular language or something is exciting them about a start-up that they want to do and it only enriches the work we do the rest of the work week because we're so excited, we're able to do those things that we wanted to do.
For me on Thursdays, it's charity work that I want to do. We do a lot of work with this school called Lift for Life Academy, and we've been teaching the kids how to code and teaching them how to build rockets and also just being involved in fundraising efforts for that school. It's enriching and Sean's been a leader in that, right? But he also, every Monday and Thursday is actively asking us, what are you doing for your personal growth? What are you doing for 1904 with your free time? What are you doing? What start-ups do you do? Do you have? Or, what small business have you started on your own? And he challenges us every Monday and Thursday to have a win/win. To take this opportunity and make more for ourselves.
Mike: That sounds to me like a pretty lucky place to work and quite rare, I would say.
Martha: Very rare. I do feel very lucky every day. I really do.
Mike: Speaking of start-ups, you've got one going, I think now you're in the art business as well, is that not right?
Martha: Yes. My husband's an artist. I intended to be as well, now I'm finally doing it. He and I have been painting a lot and along the way, I got married last year. We dated for a couple of years. My relationship with him brought me deep into the art community here in St Louis, Missouri. I started to realize that a lot of the artists end up hanging out with a lot of other artists and they don't tend to want to network too much outside of the art community. Some may have social anxiety. And I thought, well, I network rather well. I don't have a problem talking with people. I also know a lot of people. Maybe I can help them network. I started with the work my husband and I have creates. I've been working on how we can market ourselves better. Then I started thinking, this might be good not just for my husband, but for other artists as well. Maybe I can connect with the people who would be really interested in purchasing art.
This idea just started to bloom and now I've got a couple other artists that I'm looking to bring on board soon. We're slowly building up something here. Very exciting.
Mike: Yeah. That sounds exciting. That's great.
Martha: This is something that I'm afforded the opportunity to work on by having some of those business hours during the week.
Mike: Yes. You can actually think about doing it, and start to actually get it going.
Martha: Yes. And if I have any technical issues with the website, I happen to work with a lot of brilliant, technical people.
Mike: Yeah 1904 is a software development company, right?
Martha: Yes. We create software using an HCDAgile methodology that we’ve developed. HCDAgile is the fusion of Human-Centered Design best practices and a structured Agile process. It ensures that we build the right thing, the right way.
Mike: So I've got one more main question here.
If you had to give one piece of advice to an organization that wanted to move towards a new, more complete kind of organization, that might be something like, but not limited to or bound by the idea of Teal, for example, what would that piece of advice be? What would be the one thing you would say to them? "Okay, you want to have a really great organization. This is the thing."
Martha: It would really just come to being authentic. I think, being authentically who you are and letting the company grow from that. Maybe that sounds simple? I don't know.
Mike: It's a simple enough sentence, but I think has got an awful lot of complexity under the hood, hasn't it?
Mike: Authenticity implies that you actually spent a lot of time thinking about what you're really good at and delivering it well and being honest with people. And that should be looking for win/wins because you think there's no other way to do business.
Martha: Yeah. And that honesty. Honesty about yourself, with yourself. Knowing where you might need help and being open to it.
Mike: I think that's a great answer. Thank you so much for a great interview. I'm so happy to hear about the art gallery and hope it goes from strength to strength.
Martha: Yes. I'm thrilled and I'm really excited about it. I think it'll be a fun venture and hopefully we'll move some art.
Mike: I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
The next in our series of interviews asking a number of noted thought leaders for their views on essential questions around Organizational Change. On this occasion I was fortunate to spend time discussing some aspects of this with Kenneth Mikkelsen.
Kenneth says of himself:
I am dedicated to improving the quality of leadership in the 21st century by influencing how people think, learn, behave and impact society.
As a thinker, speaker, writer, adviser and educator, I address the most important questions in life. What drives you? Why do you care? When do you show up? How do you learn? Where are you heading? Who are you? What do you want to be remembered for? By exploring these questions with leaders, I help them live informed, meaningful lives and make wise choices that strengthen our society and leave a positive legacy for future generations.
My work has featured in publications like Harvard Business Review, Financial Times, The Economist, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Forbes, Management Today, The Sunday Times, The Globe and Mail, Developing Leaders, Global Focus, China Economic Review, Personnel Today, Business Digest, Emerald Insight, Training and Development, Strategic Direction, The National, La Depeche, Management Issues, and all major Scandinavian media outlets.
I am co-author of The Neo-Generalist, which explores the value of multidisciplinarity, of living in more than one world.
Mike: Can you explain what you're doing, and how you feel it might relate to the proposition that all organizations in the current period are faced with the need to make deep and essential changes?
Ken: When Richard Martin and I wrote The Neo-Generalist, we decided to include our own personal stories in the book. We did it to illustrate that there isn’t a singular way of being a neo-generalist, you can arrive at it from multiple directions. When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I live in more than one world. It opens up for deeper and more interesting conversations. What I mean is that I work in multiple domains. I have pursued this path consciously because it enriches my life. Each area inspires, informs and cross-pollinates the others. I spend much time thinking and exploring ideas. My inspiration comes from various fields such as psychology, history, science, sociology, art and philosophy. Working with adult development I need combinatorial creativity - a mix of impulses and ideas - to reach people. It might be the lyrics of a David Bowie song, a poem by ASJ Tessimond, an exhibition at the Tate Modern or the graphical work of Saul Bass that helps me gets the message across. This broad-spectrum approach combined with a sense of wonder is what enables me to live in more than one world. I think, write, speak, advise leaders and design executive learning journeys. If you sum all of that up, then you could say that I help people live informed, meaningful lives and make wise choices that strengthen our society and leave a positive legacy for future generations.
Ken: Most recently, I have worked on designing and delivering a change agents program together with Emerging World for a national oil company in the Middle East. They wanted to explore the future and prepare the nation for what comes next. Underneath their concerns were a series of important questions.
What will a future less dependent on fossil fuels look like? How will emerging technologies impact the oil and gas industry? What does it take to change our mindsets? What skills will be needed in the years to come? It has been a challenging project that I’ve learned a lot from.
Our starting point was to focus on the underlying pedagogy. We came up with a unique learning philosophy that served as a foundation for the whole program. It was an untraditional approach from what the company was used to.
They had just terminated a contract with a major business school. The school’s fixed models and standard approach to executive development was simply considered inadequate to address the challenges they faced. The executives from the oil company were quite brave in engaging with us because we introduced a new language. One of the design principles we emphasized was that words matter. In an On Being podcast, the great poet David Whyte mentions that he was once approached by a gentleman at the end of a speech he had given. The man told him that: “The language we have in the corporate world is far too small for the territory of relationship and collaboration we’ve entered.”
I agree with his viewpoint. The lingua franca in business today is too unimaginative and restricted to deal with the modern complexity and the major shocks and shifts in society that we currently face. For that reason, we framed the change program in simple words by calling the three modules: See the Change, Be the Change and Make the Change. It created a common ground for people and enabled the leaders to relate to the elusive concept of change. It helped bridge different perceptions and shift the conversations. I find this kind of work both meaningful and enjoyable.
In my work as a leadership adviser, learning designer and facilitator I have a reflective practitioner approach. It means that I do the strategic thinking and then go out and apply it with people to see whether it works or not. If it doesn’t then we’ll adjust in the moment. To thrive in this kind of work, you need a certain mental flexibility and you can’t fall madly in love with your own ideas or ego. It’s the opposite of the conveyer belt modus operandi that characterizes many providers in the leadership development industry.
Mike: This is really interesting.
Ken: You know, Mike, it’s not rocket science. I consider it to be common sense, in many ways.
Mike: To me, it's always been a fascinating term, common sense, because it often seems to be remarkably rare and uncommon.
Ken: Yes, that’s true. The late Sumantra Goshal from London Business School once described Peter Drucker, one of the most influential management thinkers, as practicing the scholarship of common sense. My thinking is informed by him but also people like Charles Handy, Margaret Wheatley and John W. Gardner. When we talk about change, I think our starting point should also be common sense. I mean, why is change important right now? Most people can see or at least feel that the tectonic plates are shifting right under our feet at the moment. We sense that the fabric that holds our society together is under pressure. Yet, most leaders and organizations are still occupied with exploiting what they already have and know. They rely on old maps in a new landscape. This dependency on the past and best practices makes it difficult to improvise, change course and embark on a journey of exploration when conditions change. Right now there is a lot of talk about new technologies, and how they shape the future. I'm not a techno-optimists per se. I think it's lazy thinking to say that it's all about the technology. There are much bigger things at play.
As an associate of the Drucker Society, I’ve participated in the Drucker Forum for many years now. It is a yearly gathering of the leading management thinkers. We meet up in Vienna to discuss state of the world and how leaders and organizations can best respond to a changing environment. This year’s theme is about humanizing work, our society and our organizations. When we talk about humanizing work, I think there’s a major difference, not just rhetorically, between surviving and living. Living isn’t working at a job you hate for ridiculous hours, counting down the days to the weekend or to your next vacation. I consider that to be a survival mode were you’re running with your tongue out of your mouth trying to catch up. What we really need to focus on is what constitutes a good life and how we can live well in the emerging future. Obviously, technology drives social change, but I believe that it's more about embracing a paradigm shift. We live in the midst of a culture shift and a crisis of capitalism that will set the direction for many generations to come.
Mike: That's really interesting. One of the reasons I'm asking this question about the rate of change is because I actually think that the idea that change is happening more than it ever has is not wrong, but it's only applicable to the human structures. Change has always been happening just as rapidly. To my mind, what's happening at the moment is that the inability of the current intellectual organizational structures to cope with the nature of reality has become evident or is becoming evident.
Mike: It's almost as if many organizations are in the position of King Canute, standing there, telling the ocean to go back, as if somehow their conceptual structures are capable of actually forcing reality, the ever-fluid changing reality around them, to conform to their expectations.
Ken: The industrial era mindset runs deep but the anomalies are stacking up. The familiar strategies and theories we rely on are increasingly becoming obsolete or insufficient to deal with everyday challenges. I think there are a general lack of imagination and curiosity among leaders today, and a fear of acting. Without courage things will stay the same. We need courageous people to challenge the status quo. People who are not afraid of being vulnerable and occupying liminal spaces. I often remind leaders that we have all been in a liminal state in our lives. Our teenage years, for instance, is a liminal period were we’re doing our best to make sense of the world, moving from something familiar to something new. Dealing with the ambiguity and curveballs that life throws at us. For most people it was a confusing time, standing with a leg in a child's world, trying to make sense of the adult world. Learning how to decipher the norms and the cultural codes. How should I act? What is expected of me? It relates to the difference I mentioned between living and surviving. In the near future, I expect that more and more people will find themselves in such liminal states and transitions as society and the labor market changes. It is a key point that Richard and I also make in our book. Neo-generalists are well prepared for this new paradigm. They are adaptive and good at reinventing themselves. Their curiosity, eclectic nature, butterfly perspective, and ability to live with ambiguity make them great absorbers and stewards of the future.
Mike: Right. That's really interesting, because one of the things which is absolutely core to what we do with Liminal Coaching, is the understanding that when there's a lot of accumulated stress happening, the primitive brain is reactive. I think a lot of people are living with constantly elevated levels of cortisol. That means that the majority of people are living pretty much in fear a lot of the time.
Ken: I sometimes refer to it as a VUCA world. I genuinely dislike the term, but it has become a trendy managerial acronym to describe today’s business environment and people therefore seem to get it.
Mike: I haven’t heard that term. What does it mean?
Ken: VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Years ago, I started asking leaders if they could share concrete examples of situations with me where they had experienced VUCA moments and how it made them feel. There are many commonalities in their responses. Increased volatility leaves people overwhelmed, stressed and anxious. It accelerates the decision-making and challenges the traditional command and control structures. Uncertainties make it difficult to deal with what is actually happening. People experience that there is a lot of information noise, which makes it hard to find and act on the right signals. This feeling reinforces the tendency to rely on what worked in the past. Increased complexity drives people into a constant acting mode and leaves them with a sense of not having time for deeper reflections and critical thinking. Lastly, ambiguity is reinforced because leaders find themselves too far from the source and context of events, which leads to misinterpretations and inappropriate responses. All these feelings express an experienced loss of control that leads to fear. As fear sets in most leaders focus on things within their control and it negatively impacts their ability to see patterns and focus on the bigger picture.
Mike: Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that. It's what I refer to as living in a fear-based organization.
Ken: Many organizations nowadays talk about digital transformation. It has become another mantra. In my opinion, it's a very shallow response to the new reality we find ourselves in. Most large organizations will have to embrace a much more demanding reinvention to stay relevant and accommodate for the ongoing culture shift. When people express a deep desire to find purpose, meaning and a sense of belonging it reflects that most big organizations are unable to fulfill their part of the social contract.
I often have conversations with leaders who work for companies that are going through a transformation. Typically, they have hired a bunch of strategy consultants to work on the recruitment processes, reward systems, product lines, supply chains, lean processes and performance management systems. Those are things that you can put into a spreadsheet. It’s a linear and engineerical approach deeply rooted in scientific management principles. After a while the people working inside the companies realize, “Holy cow, it's not just about the systems." The rationale seems to be that they can control the systems. But if you are serious about changing and reinventing a company there are other and equally important things that you need to work on. As I see it, organizations must work on four interrelated shifts. A mind shift, a skill shift, a behavior shift and a system shift.
Mike: And all of those things actually systemically interrelate with one another.
Ken: Totally. When we talk about a mind shift, I would almost say a shift in consciousness, to be honest. It's a word that's really appropriate.
Mike: You're talking my language now. One of my main lines is, "Consciousness is the next competitive advantage."
Ken: You’re right. A legacy from the industrial age is our focus on the economic man as the herald and leader. The logic seems to be that homo economicus is rational, knows how to accumulate wealth and has his or her eyes set on growth. If you focus on efficiency, command and control and either/or thinking then things will be fine. I think we need to question this dogma in organizations today. We should focus more on trust, networks, stakeholder value, societal impact and what it takes to leave a positive, lasting legacy. For Peter Drucker, the secret to living a stimulating and rewarding life was to be more than a one-dimensional man - enjoying a diverse set of interests, activities, acquaintances and pursuits. I believe we need well-rounded leaders like that with a more developed sense of consciousness and moral responsibility to establish real, lasting societal change.
For me, writing The Neo-Generalist was a first step, but there is an even a bigger issue that needs to be addressed. Namely that of trying to cultivate the ground for more human organizations and constructing better narratives for the 21st century. Let me give you an example. Five hundred years ago, Europe underwent a Renaissance. It was a time of great cultural, political, social, scientific and intellectual change. The Renaissance was based on a new idea of the importance of the individual. Attention shifted from God to man. Man has since been at the center of the universe, limitless in our capacities for development and accomplishments. This narrative still drives much of the corporate growth agenda. We assume that earth’s resources are infinite and that nature is subject to human needs. The big question is whether we can afford this perception in the long run? The effects of global climate change will eventually force us to put nature in the center of things and focus on co-existence if we are to sustain life on earth. My friend, Fatiha Hajjat, calls this a radical renaissance. As I see it, we are at a moment in time where humanity is confused about its purpose, and how we can acquire a new sense of direction. It’s part of the systemic mind shift that leaders and organizations must address. If we talk about the skill shift, it relates to cultivating curiosity, critical thinking, sense making, pattern recognition and cross-pollination of ideas. That's where the thinking behind the neo-generalist comes in. We should encourage people to take responsibility for their own education and become self-directed, autonomous learners. I think we need to focus way more on life mastery. The concept of lifelong learning is important, but so is lifewide learning. It emphasizes that we learn from multiple contexts, from communities, from family and friends. Formal education is just one aspect of learning.
Mike: Yes, and a small one, actually. There's fascinating research, which shows that when you daydream, which we now know is pretty much the same as REM sleep, your brain drops into a mode of operation where consciously it feels like you're idling. It used to be called the idle state of the brain until about 2000, when a couple of neuroscientists in the University in St. Louis were measuring how much energy the brain was using in different states. They were getting people to do things like memorize a piece of text, do some mental arithmetic. In between tasks that they were giving to these people, they were still lying in the machine not thinking about anything in particular, just daydreaming. They just happened to notice that the amount of energy the brain was using was going up. In some cases 20 times as much as when they were doing the mental arithmetic.
Ken: Wow. Yeah.
Mike: That led to further investigation which showed that, in that daydream state, more parts of the brain are talking to one another more vociferously than in focused concentration. Since then, more research has been done that shows that actually what seems to be happening here is that in that mode, your brain is working out hugely complex stuff that you could never process through ordinary linear thinking. This way of using our consciousness maybe something, which we need to remember. When you say Renaissance, I think that’s exactly the right word, because we need to re-know our innate ability to actually deal with complexity, which has a lot to do with actually taking time out to daydream. I have so much trouble with a lot of my clients actually saying to them, "What you need to do is to take five minutes out every hour and learn to daydream." Their response is often, "But it won't look like I'm doing anything."
Ken: It's interesting. Science backs it up, but we’re still reluctant to embrace it. When we’re talking about a mind shift, we need to recognize that it is not some woo, hippie stuff. It's actually the important stuff. Sometimes when I talk to clients, I refer to a short story called On Exactitude in Science that was written by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. In the story the rulers of an empire send out a group of cartographers to map it. They draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the whole territory, eventually leading to the downfall of the empire. The moral in the story is that we as humans confuse maps with territories and perception with reality. We should be cautious about our over-reliance on a map, rather than the changing territory in front of us. If you relate it to organizations, we often focus so much on internal systems and processes that we forget to pay attention to societal changes and the evolving needs of customers. We forget to scan the horizon and adapt in time. It comes from an industrial mindset and an over-reliance on best practices. Copying others is easier that being truly original and inventive. What we really need to embrace are next practices. But it isn’t an either/or choice. I think the pendulum has swung too far in the exploitation direction. We have developed a bias towards success and rely too much on what worked well in the past. We conform and optimize. Procurement gets the upper hand. In the process we forget the importance of exploration, which is needed to balance things. Exploration is a different discipline. It draws on curiosity, sense making, experimentation and tolerance of failure.
Ken: I'm less interested in organizational structures. My main focus is on human beings. I would get bored if I only had to advice companies on how to build the right structures. I know enough about it and I consider it to be important, but we need a better balance between the structural process approach and the human side of things.
Mike: The question I had about organizational structure was really prompted by a number of people that I know who are experimenting with things like flat organizations and Teal, which I think, is a very worthy ambition. But I do think the core of how any organization structure works is all about people. I’ve asked the question because everyone is so interested in organizational structure right now, so it's a jumping off point to be able to say, "Actually, your organizational structure is probably best designed from the human perspective."
Ken: Yes, but there’s not a fixed model that works for everyone. In relation to transformation, for instance, we should focus on what it takes to stay relevant in the eyes of stakeholders and society at large. If you don't change, you won’t stay relevant. If you are not interested in adjusting your thinking, learning strategies, behavior and identity as an organization and an individual, then it's a sure way to become irrelevant. I don’t see change as something that’s just done once and completed like a task. Organizations go trough different life cycles and what keeps them alive over time is their ability to learn, adapt and reinvent themselves continuously.
Mike: Yes, well, change models that I was introduced to when I did my MBA, for example, are basically unfreeze, change, and freeze. The whole image of change is, "We've got to go through this dreadful, destructive disruption which is going to upset nearly everybody in the organization. It's going to cost us a small fortune, and at the end of it, we'll probably end up with something which actually looks rather similar to what we have before in reality." I think that's most people's experience of change programs, that they'll be things, which describe themselves as culture change programs, which usually do anything but change the culture.
Ken: Yes, I agree Mike. Organizations don't change, people do.
Mike: Yeah, right.
Ken: You cannot force change on other people. People change themselves only if it makes sense. Great change agents know this. They focus on shifting the conversations in organizations. It is ultimately conversations that provide a context for action and set the stage for what gets done. As human beings we live in a perpetual state of being, a constant becoming. If you think change is a one-time affair you’re in trouble. Learning is the best strategy in times of change. It is through constant learning that we stay current. Relevance is determined by our ability to connect outer events with our inner world and visa versa. On a personal level, a clear understanding of your values, purpose and vision enables you to cope to with the changing nature of the world, live with polarities and reconcile dilemmas without losing our grounding or the support of others.
Mike: To be comfortable with the fact that everything is always unfolding.
Ken: Yes. A vision of leadership in the 21st century is to grow an adaptive life perception. To engage fully in a mind shift, a skill shift, a behavior shift, and a system shift, an adaptive life perception is needed. Basically, it's the ability to anticipate, sense and analyze changing situations, and then respond with a timely and accurate action. Not just once, but continuously throughout your life. One thing is to talk about it and another thing is to do it. People often ask me, “How do I do that? Tell me, how can I grow an adaptive life perception?" The best answer I’ve arrived at so far is that there are four essential things you need to work on: clarity, mastery, relevance and agility.
Clarity is an investigation of self. Awareness is the greatest agent for change and it relates to asking yourself some difficult questions, "Where am I? Who am I? What is important to me?” It is a structured values clarification process. As part of the process, for example, it is very useful for people to draw a lifeline, highlighting significant events in their lives that shaped their worldview and belief system. We all have these experiences. They played an important part in our formation and development as human beings. I work closely with business psychologist Anners Abild on this matter. He has developed a brilliant methodology that helps people clarify their values in three different spheres of life. In their private life, their personal life, and in their professional life. It is an eye-opener for people who go through the process. The purpose is to provide leaders with a solid grounding that enables them to live with complexity and tolerate a high level of ambiguity. By developing this deeper self-awareness it becomes easier to reconcile the dilemmas we face in our lives.
To gain clarity you also need to understand where you are in life. Going through different life stages, there are different things that are important to us. When we are growing up, when we are studying, when we have children, when we loose family members, when we go through breakups, change jobs or relocate to a new country we face different challenges. When we approach old age, there might be other things like giving back to society or being a mentor that is important to us. Life is contextual and when you understand that it becomes easier to navigate in a meaningful way. Dealing with these existential questions is important. It's a process that takes time. Coming back to your point about resistant clients, I sometimes meet leaders that say, "Oh, I've done this before. I know myself. I’ve tried these sort of things before.” In reality, most people haven’t done the hard work needed to develop a compass that can guide them.
Mastery relates to our learning strategies and how we can we can become autonomous, self-directed learners. Do you, for instance, know how to tap into digital networks and knowledge flows? Do you have a systematic approach to listening in on different frequencies, having conversations with clever people, reading books and taking time out to reflect? I strongly believe in the value of personal knowledge mastery. I wrote an article about it in Harvard Business Review with Harold Jarche that explains the concept. There are three simple elements in the framework: Seek, sense and share. If you’re able to seek information, make sense of it, and share it with other people then you have a navigation system for lifelong and lifewide learning. It means that you take control of your own learning and know how to constantly reiterate and adjust your learning strategy according to your needs and interests. It is like learning how to ride a bicycle. Once you know how to do it, you have a friend for life.
The Relevance part relates to how we form meaningful, productive and deep relationships with others. In order to understand how you are relevant to others both on an individual and organizational level, you must explore a series of important questions. What is your purpose in life? What do you stand for? What do you want to be remembered for? What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? How can you be of service to others? Being relevant is also about influencing. Not manipulating, but influencing in a positive way with good intent and being open to letting others influence you. It’s not a one-way street. In order to influence, you have to have a very firm understanding of what is important to you in life. You need to have a deep understanding of your values and purpose. But also of your belief system and biases and how your network and information sources shape you perspective and ideas. A ground rule for humans and organizations alike is to be interested if you want to be interesting. You need to listen, be constructive and generous in your actions. These are fundamental building blocks for generating trust and acting in an integritous way.
In this process, people clarify the stories they tell in the three spheres of their lives. Privately, we all have an inner monologue. These are the stories that we tell ourselves and that guide our self-perception. On a personal level, we tell other stories when we’re with family members, friends or attend social events. Lastly, there are the professional stories that we use in a work related context. These are the stories we use when we talk to colleagues or clients and how we introduce ourselves when we attend a conference. We all have a repository of stories that we use in those three spheres but we often use they unconsciously and without attaching a deeper meaning to them. They shape our beliefs, personalities and influence our well being and opportunities. By surfacing these stories you can work with them and start using them more constructively to reflect your values and what you stand for. When people go through transitions in their lives this becomes even more important. Some stories have an expiry date. At turning points in our lives, we need new stories to set a fresh course and influence where we want to go next. For instance, when I say, “I live in more than one world,” then it is a simple framing that serves as a gateway to explore mutual interests and challenge the way we instinctually label each other through our profession. As jobs become more hybrid, I think it becomes even more important to have a clear understanding of your narratives and how to use them in a constructive way. If you’re are a person with many interests, people generally struggle with labeling you. If you don’t have a clear understanding of yourself and know how to use stories it is difficult for others to relate to you, get the right message across or even sell your work. Consider, for instance, how you put your LinkedIn profile together. Be clear about the stories and labels you use, because it’s one of the first things people check nowadays. I think there’s an art to getting this right and our stories constantly evolve so this is also about embracing a state of perpetual beta.
The fourth and last part, is agility. Now we are entering your domain and the work you do around liminal coaching. It relates to being able to deconstruct and reconstruct our perception of reality and seeing a much bigger picture. In 1936, Esquire Magazine published an article called The Crack Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In it he writes that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” This is important for leaders to achieve a new apprehension and effective use of contradictions in practice and thoughts.
When I talk about agility, I'm not talking about organizational agility. I'm talking about mental flexibility. One of our mutual friends, Dave Gray has done some great work in this field, building on Chris Argyris’ thoughts about the ladder of inference.
In short, it states that the experiences we have in life that we pay attention to shape our assumptions. From that we draw conclusions and construct our belief systems. Working with leaders to bring awareness to their belief systems and biases isn’t easy. The hard part is to grow an affordance so you can do it on a continuous basis. If we acknowledge that we are in a paradigm shift where the landscape is changing right now, then you have to be good at deconstructing and reconstructing your worldview and challenge old dogmas. It is essential for staying relevant.
I think the only way you can do this is through action learning and practical application. You cannot teach it to people. We need to experience it first hand and be guided in the sense making process. To give you an example, we took the leaders from the Middle Eastern oil company out to play football with children from the slum in Mumbai. Prior to this, they had been introduced to the Oscar Foundation that teaches children basic life skills and how they can mobilize their communities for positive social change though sports. Oscar is a purpose-driven organization founded by Ashok Rathod. When he started out in 2006 he couldn’t even afford to buy a football. Twelve years later, the organization has supported nearly 4.000 kids and their families across India. Ashok brought along two young leaders that he had trained to tell their stories and how Oscar had impacted their lives. Then we met the children and played with them. It was a way for the executives to internalize the learning and experience a mind shift. We wanted to challenge their perceptions of things and their sense of entitlement coming from a culture where Indians mainly work as servants and blue-collar workers. We wanted them to feel and understand what it truly means to be the change that Gandhi talked about and that change starts with ourselves. Ashok and the Oscar Foundation live this every day and for most of the executives it was a profound learning experience. What I mean is that you can’t internalize and change behaviors through theory or by intellectualizing its importance.
In essence, the four elements - clarity, mastery, relevance and agility - are equally important for us to grow an adaptive life perception. They are deeply interrelated and as you can tell it takes a very holistic approach to get it right.
Mike: That sounds like a great self-contained, complete vision. Maybe there’s another great book there?
Ken: I’m not sure whether a book is the right format for this body of work. I don't want to simplify things too much, because the success of this approach relies on working with whatever emerges in the relationship and conversations. In order to truly move people, you need to be able to deal with a high level of complexity as a facilitator. I often experience that people working with leadership development inside large organizations intuitively get that it’s the right thing to do. Because it sounds simple they often think it is easy to do and run with the idea. Yes, it’s common sense, but the practical application is far from easy. You have to work on a deeper level and fully comprehend the interconnectedness and overlapping trajectories of the four elements. It's not a standard quick fix.
Mike: I don't think there is any quick fix, because I think that actually, if you don't deal with what's happening at the subconscious level, then it's very, very difficult for anyone to make a significant change. That's really what we focus on. As it is, actually once you've surfaced the things, which are happening with a leader who wants to make changes, but somehow can't, then they can move forward.
Ken: It relates to something Erika Ilves said when we interviewed her for The Neo-Generalist. She mentioned that you have to be an entrepreneur, a scientist and an artist to thrive in this world. They fight three different battles: the unknown, the impossible, and the unimaginable.
Mike: Yeah, I remember that.
Ken: It's different approaches, right? It's not an easy task. We normally get uncomfortable if we have to fight just one of these battles. Relating it to an adaptive life perception, I think we need to revitalize the concept of bildung in a contemporary version fit for the 21st century. As we write in our book, the German word bildung can’t be translated easily into English. It refers to the shaping of a human individual’s personality, behavior and moral attitude through their upbringing, environment and education. Neither education nor formation suffice to cover the full meaning of the word. Bildung is a much broader concept, encompassing knowledge, judgement, a broad cultural and political orientation, an understanding of science and technology, and a cultivation of the fine arts. Bildung relates to living a fulfilled life. In order to do that you must be clear about what constitutes a good life for you, and what constitutes a good life for you might be different from what it is to me. Having the willingness to explore that and deriving a sense of direction as you go along is key. Bildung is about widening your opportunities, expanding what you know, being curious and having the courage to live on the edge.
Mike: What you're talking about, though, and all the things that you mentioned, I would lay odds they are probably the first things, which get taken off somebody's schedule if they see themselves as getting busy.
Ken: That’s the curse of modern day life and business. We still assume that leaders are people who think, and then there are people in organizations who just have to do whatever they're told. In the times that we live in, that's a really dangerous strategy. It’s an outdated paternalistic view unfit for a world that favors people who can ask great questions. I can recommend reading The Stupidity Paradox by André Spicer and Mats Alvesson. In the book they highlight how organizations often hire smart people and then encourage them not to use their intelligence. Asking difficult questions or thinking in greater depth is seen as a dangerous waste. Those who learn how to switch off their brains are rewarded. It is quite depressing reading.
Mike: That seems to me to be a key problem, because it stops the whole organization from being reactive, responsive, agile, flexible, and it also stops the very feedback that those leaders need to have, information from the front line.
Ken: Yes. That's part of the problem. Many leaders live in a bubble. There’s too much conformity in their thinking and networks. In Denmark, for instance, a study of the power elite revealed that a small core of 423 people basically run the country. They are predominantly white males above 60 years of age. Many of them attended the same schools. They live in the same neighborhoods North of Copenhagen. They mingle in corporate boardrooms and socialize outside of work. Imagine if you placed them all next to each other. They would all be wearing gray/black suits, ties and white shirts. They would look like grey haired dinosaurs. Do you think they want to challenge the status quo? How can they produce original ideas in such a vacuum? In my opinion, they are just defending the territory. Most of them have no ambition to change what got them to where they are. That’s part of the problem in both politics and business today. There are too few leaders with a real sense of maturity, where it's not just about protecting what they have. Too many leaders are prisoners of rigidity and fear. We need more rebels and less bean counters to change that.
One of the most interesting leaders I’ve met is Anand Mahindra. He once said, “The reason why I am so focused on purpose, is because I grew up with sisters and I had a caring mom.” What he talked about was what we often relate to as female values, the opposite of aggression, of winning and of controlling. We rarely talk about the importance of giving, nurturing, caring and daring in the business world. Many people consider you to be a romantic hippie that knows nothing about economics, growth or efficiency if you bring it up. There’s still a widespread misconception that the softer aspects of human nature are unimportant when in fact it is exactly those things that secure relevance in the long term. Purpose-driven organizations that strive to make a positive societal impact make more money. They have higher growth and more engaged workers. The Mahindra Group in India is a good example of how you can rise by lifting others.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely.
Ken: Again, it's coming back to a misunderstood perception of what makes a successful organization, namely that you have to be aggressive. You have to win and beat your competitors. If you are really good at what you're doing, why pay attention to your competitors? Let them do whatever they want to do. In today’s environment it might not even be the usual suspects that put you out of business anyway. Be comfortable in your own skin. My advice is to focus more on next practices and be aware that context matters. Organizational cultures are different and there is not one, all encompassing management recipe for success. Don’t be overly focused on others, but be inspired. You should tap into what they’re doing, but trying to copy others is a sure way to fail in this world.
Mike: Eventually, I think it is, yeah. This is maybe a bit of a ridiculous question in some respects, but I'm going to ask it, anyway. What does an average day look like for you? Because it sounds like you have a zillion different things going on, so pretty busy, I guess.
Ken: I have been an independent for more than 15 years so I have some practice in what works best for me. I'm a big fan of Walter Russell, an American polymath who lived a productive and multidisciplinary life. He separated his days into blocks of time and shifted from one thing to the other when he got stuck. Like him, I have organized my life around different interests and projects that I work on. I do both short sprints and deep immersions, but I don't seek to work every day, all day. I separate my days into time slots. I mostly do the heavy lifting, the thinking in the morning when my mind is fresh. I recently started doing meditation and yoga in the morning and I walk half an hour after lunch. In the afternoon, I normally focus on administrative work, calls and emails. When I’m in delivery mode - working on a corporate program or giving a talk away from home - things naturally change.
The most challenging aspect of my professional life is the constant shifts of perspective. Writing is a solitary occupation. Coaching and mentoring is a one-to-one practice. Delivering leadership development programs involves broader collaboration and a deep understanding of group dynamics while speaking requires a one-to-many approach. Sometimes I might do all things in a day. It requires that I pay close attention to the context and how I disperse and preserve my energy.
I strive to live an integrated life. I consider the separation between life and work to be nonsensical. If you asked a farmer a hundred years ago whether he would leave the house and go to the stable to help a cow give birth in the middle of the night, then he wouldn’t hesitate a single second to get out of bed. I think that we have created an artificial division in our lives that is now getting harder to uphold in a digital world. My battle, the thing I'm struggling with, is how to live a healthy integrated life. To maintain a good balance between the mind, body and spirit. When I travel for work I often combine it with exploring the places I visit. I reach out to meet local people and read about the history and culture of those places. I structure my work so I have quiet periods where I can focus on my creative life and writing. These contemplative buffer zones are necessary in order for me to learn, reenergize and spend time with important people in my life.
Mike: There is no typical day, and it tends to be fairly much of a shifting mosaic?
Ken: Yes, the analogy of a shifting mosaic is quite fitting.
Mike: You might be encouraged to know that I think that's pretty much what just about everyone I've interviewed in this series has said.
Ken: It reminds me of an illustration in a book, Essentialism by Greg McKeown that hit me hard in the stomach. There was this drawing of a circle with multiple arrows from it, illustrating the energy that you disperse from the center. Next to it was another circle with just one arrow, and it was longer. It said, "The more you focus on one thing, the further you get." It's opposite of and contradicting to a lot of the things that I do. The idea of being able to focus on multiple things offers a richer life for me. As I see it, there is a huge value in cross-pollinating domains. It is, however, something that takes practice to get right.
Mike: I think that's a very, very, interesting subject. Of course what they don't tell you in that picture is the more you focus on one thing, the further you get, but they don't tell you where you get to.
Mike: That is the problem. I actually think that being able to take in multiple different inputs from different perspectives is an essential thing to be able to do going forward. It's what gives us a systemic view of anything that's happening.
Ken: Yes, it makes us more adaptive and less vulnerable to changing circumstances. On the back of writing our book, I’ve realized how far we still have to go before organizations acknowledge that. For instance, we still look at the CV as a linear process. It doesn't show you anything about how good you are at learning and applying yourself in different contexts. It often leaves out the less flashy aspects of our lives where we lead, learn and grow as human beings. You might be leading a group of scouts, volunteering for an NGO or singing in a local choir. Things that aren’t necessarily captured in a traditional CV. It rarely says anything about our principles or values either. I sense it's the same thing with you, but I'm idealistic in my work. I'm not naïve, but I am idealistic, so there are certain companies that I don't work with. You can’t tell that from my CV.
Mike: I actually believe that having ideals in your work is fundamental to making the work really good. I don't believe for a moment that it's naïve to do that. I think it's rather cowardly to perceive idealism as naïve.
Ken: Yes. To give you an example, I don't work with financial institutions. It was a decision I made in the wake of the financial crisis. I'm not interested in helping them make more money when the whole industry is systemically flawed. That's not to say that there aren’t good people working in the industry. I just don’t see the point of fighting windmills.
Mike: We are getting a little short of time so can I just ask you what may sound like another dumb question, but it's sometimes the dumb questions get great answers.
Mike: If you had to recommend one thing to focus on, to look at for an organization that wanted to move in the direction of being a more agile, more adaptive, more modern organization, what would it be? What would the first thing that you would say to them be?
Ken: I think it comes back to my point that in order to create organizations that are relevant in the future, you have to focus on four things. The right mindset, skills, behaviors and systems. There’s a tendency towards having a very narrow focus on the systems, the internal cogs in the wheel. I think it reflects an inability to deal with the larger issues in life. Conformity is widespread because so many senior executives who drive these initiatives are unwilling to change themselves.
Mike: Right. What a great, great summary. Thank you so much.
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