Thinkers50 in partnership with Deloitte presents:

The Provocateurs:

podcast series

INTRO EPISODE

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

The Provocateurs, a collaboration between Thinkers50 and Deloitte, is a new podcast series profiling the world’s boldest leaders and the moves they make. These are people who have accomplished incredible things by ‘provoking’ the future they desire – in business and for society overall. Often overcoming human biases and acting with imperfect data along the way, each episode will profile a single provocateur and their story.  

In this inaugural episode, we will introduce our five hosts and what you can expect from the series. Our second episode will feature the provocateur Valerie Rainford, the founder of Elloree Talent Strategies and former senior executive of JPMC and the Federal Reserve.  Join us for the beginning of this journey to inspire leaders everywhere to build conviction to act and #DoSomething!

#TheProvocateurs 

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Hosts:

Stuart Crainer
Co-founder, Thinkers50

Q

About Stuart Crainer

Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer are the founders and directors of Thinkers50. For two decades, they have been the recognized masters of finding and promoting the most accomplished and promising business and management thinkers worldwide. Internationally recognized experts on business ideas, they are the authors of more than 15 books available in 20 languages, editors of The Financial Times Handbook of Management, and are both former columnists to The Times. They advise thinkers and organizations worldwide.

Des Dearlove
Co-founder, Thinkers50

Q

About Des Dearlove

Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer are the founders and directors of Thinkers50. For two decades, they have been the recognized masters of finding and promoting the most accomplished and promising business and management thinkers worldwide. Internationally recognized experts on business ideas, they are the authors of more than 15 books available in 20 languages, editors of The Financial Times Handbook of Management, and are both former columnists to The Times. They advise thinkers and organizations worldwide.

Stacy Janiak
Chief Growth Officer, Deloitte

Q

About Stacy Janiak

As Chief Growth Officer of Deloitte US, Stacy leads the Client and Market Growth organization and is responsible for bringing the breadth of Deloitte’s service capabilities and assets to the market to accelerate growth for the organization and create a differentiated experience for clients.

In her capacity as a Managing Partner for Deloitte, Stacy drives a go-to-market strategy to optimize the organization’s capabilities across service offerings, industries, and geographies, with an emphasis on bold, integrated, digitally-enabled business solutions, services and insights. For nearly 30 years, Stacy has worked side-by-side with clients to help them solve their most complex business challenges, always seeking innovative paths while harnessing the power of teaming and diversity of thought. She believes a focus on leadership, business growth, and inclusive prosperity will help build the framework that will support resilient, inclusive, and sustainable economies and societies. 

Currently a member of the US Executive Committee, Global Clients & Industries Member Firm Executive Committee, and Global Board of Directors, Stacy has held significant leadership roles throughout her Deloitte career. She has previously served as the Chief Client Officer, Assurance and Accounting Advisory Services National Managing Partner, Managing Partner for the Chicago office, and US Retail sector leader. She also served on the US Board of Directors.

In 2018, Stacy was recognized as a Woman with Impact by the Women’s Business Development Council. She is passionate about mentoring and developing the next generation of leaders at Deloitte and is committed to advancing inclusive leadership in the workplace. Stacy is a frequent speaker at influential industry events such as Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, CES, The Female Quotient and The Executives’ Club of Chicago.

Stacy is a proud graduate and trustee of DePaul University and a board member of Boys & Girls Club of Chicago, The Executives’ Club of Chicago, New Profit, and the US Chamber of Commerce. She lives in Chicago with her husband, Jeff, and two children, Tyler and Sydney. Outside of work, Stacy enjoys spending time with her family and friends on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Steve Goldbach
Chief Strategy Officer, Deloitte

Q

About Steven Goldbach

Steven Goldbach is a globally recognized strategist, author and thought leader. 

Steve serves the Deloitte US Partnership as its Chief Strategy Officer. Prior to joining Deloitte, Steve was a Partner at Monitor Group and head of its New York Office and head of strategy at Forbes.  

Steve helps executives and their teams transform their organizations by making challenging and pragmatic strategy choices in the face of uncertainty. He focuses his work on clients and industries undergoing large scale transformation. Steve helps companies combine rigor and creativity to create their own future.  

Steve has co-authored two bestselling books – Detonate: Why – and how – corporations must blow up best practices (and bring a beginner’s mind) to survive (Wiley, 2018), and Provoke: How leaders shape the future by overcoming fatal human flaws (Wiley, 2021). Thinkers50 has nominated Steve as a finalist for the 2019 Distinguished Achievement Award in Strategy and in 2021 for the Distinguished Leadership Award.

Steve holds degrees from Queen’s University at Kingston, where he serves on the Global Advisory Board of its Smith School of Business, and Columbia Business School. He and his wife live in Manhattan with their young daughter.

Geoff Tuff
Principal, Deloitte

Q

About Geoff Tuff

Geoff has almost 30 years of experience consulting to some of the world’s top companies on the subjects of strategy, growth, innovation, and adapting business models to deal with change.  Currently, he is a Principal at Deloitte and holds various leadership positions across its Sustainability, Innovation and Strategy practices. Prior to this, he led the innovation firm Doblin and was a senior partner at Monitor Group, serving as a member of its global Board of Directors.  He is currently based in Deloitte’s Boston office.

Geoff’s work centers around helping clients transform their businesses to grow and compete in nontraditional ways. Over the course of his career, Geoff has worked in virtually every industry and he uses that breadth of experience to bring novel, cross-sector insights about how things might operate to clients stuck in industry conventional wisdom. Geoff has a particular strength in using facilitation and personal intervention to help clients make hard choices and take action. 

For his entire career, Geoff has focused exclusively on helping companies grow. He has been instrumental in developing many of Monitor’s – and now Deloitte’s – core methodologies related to driving profitable topline growth for clients.  His expertise spans the domains of design-driven innovation, new business model development, product launch and growth strategy, and business transformation. 

Geoff is valued for his integrative approach to solving problems. He combines deep analytic and strategic expertise with a natural orientation towards approaches embodied in design thinking.  His belief that human behavior is still – even in the digital age – the fundamental driver of economic value for companies allows him to bring a unique perspective to his clients struggling to shift their business models.  

He is a widely sought-after speaker and writer on the topic of growth through innovation.  His writing has appeared in journals such as Marketing Management and Harvard Business Review and as a regular contribution to HuffPost. He is also co-author of the National Bestseller Detonate: Why – and How – Corporations Need to Blow up Best Practices (and Bring a Beginner’s Mind) to Survive, released in May, 2018. His new book, Provoke: How Leaders Shape the Future by Overcoming Fatal Human Flaws launched in September, 2021 and quickly became a Wall Street Journal Bestseller. In 2019, Thinkers50 named Geoff as a finalist for the Distinguished Achievement Award in Strategy; in 2021, they did the same for the Leadership Award.

Geoff grew up in Canada and the UK, and came to the United States for university.  He received his B.A., with honors, in English literature and creative writing, from Dartmouth College.  He also holds a MBA from Harvard Business School, where he was an honors student.  He currently lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts with his wife, Martha, and four sons.  

Inspired by the book Provoke: How Leaders Shape the Future by Overcoming Fatal Human Flaws; Wiley, 2021.

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INTRO EPISODE

Podcast Transcript

Stuart:

Hello, I’m Stuart Crainer. I’m the co-founder of Thinkers50 and I would like to welcome you to a new podcast series, Provocateurs, in which we will explore the experiences, insights, and perspectives of inspiring leaders. This is a collaboration between Thinkers50 and Deloitte. Each of our 45 minute broadcasts will be hosted by people drawn from the Thinkers50 and Deloitte networks.

Our Provocateurs hosts join me now to tell us more about what the series will offer to all interested in the practice and theory of leadership. I’m joined by my fellow Thinkers50 co-founder, Des Dearlove. Good afternoon. Good evening. Good morning, Des.

Des:

Hello. It’s great to be here.

Stuart:

From Deloitte we are joined by Stacy Janiak. Stacy is Deloitte’s Chief Growth Officer, so she brings deep insights directly from the marketplace and Deloitte’s global clients. Welcome Stacy.

Stacy:

Thank you. Wonderful to be here.

Stuart:

And we are joined by Steve Goldbach and Geoff Tuff. Steve is the Chief Strategy Officer at Deloitte and Geoff is a Principal with the firm and a leader in its sustainability strategy and innovation practices. Steve and Geoff are the authors of two best selling books. Their first was, Detonate: Why – And How – Corporations Must Blow Up Best Practices (and Bring a Beginner’s Mind) To Survive, which came out in 2018. Most recently, Steve and Geoff are the authors of the book which sparked the idea for this series. That book is Provoke, which is subtitled, How Leaders Shape the Future by Overcoming Fatal Human Flaws.

Provoke demonstrates why and how leaders must be purposeful in shaping the future, intentionally engaging with emerging trends, not only to benefit their own organization, but also to make the world a better place. Provoke is built around great ideas, but also really human and powerful stories of leaders. Those featured as Provocateurs in the book include Valerie Rainford, who has become the most senior Black woman at the Federal Reserve, and who championed diverse talent at JPMorgan Chase, and who has now launched her own company, Elloree Talent Strategies. Debbie Bial, the Founder and President of the Posse Foundation and the visionary behind the Atlanta Beltline, Ryan Gravel.

These inspiring and challenging stories were the ignition point for this series. Our aim is to talk to people who challenge ourselves and all who listen. We call these people Provocateurs because they provoke a reaction. They make us think and act differently. Think how powerful that can be. Think of the power of changing how people think and act, and that’s the power of great leadership, and that’s our subject.

Each month, we will explore how a Provocateur enabled change in their organization or in the world. This will be a great way to bring some of the concepts explored in the book to life and to share inspiring stories from around the world. So, let’s get started by digging a bit deeper into the ideas behind the series. Geoff and Steve, perhaps we can start by talking a little about patterns, which is something you talk about pattern and recognition in the book, and you believe that seeing patterns across industries is increasingly more helpful and deep expertise. Can you start by explaining a little bit about this and what it means for leaders?

Geoff:

Sure, happy to, Stuart. I’ll kick things off here and I’ll say on both mine and Steve’s behalf, we really look forward to this and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. So thank you for being part of it with us. 

The reality is, especially over the course of the last decade or so, we have seen a rapid shift from a world of linear change to one that is increasingly exponential. Meaning we are being impacted by technologies and trends every single day, which are no longer showing signs of following the laws of linear change, but following the laws of exponential change. And with exponential change comes real uncertainty as we look towards the future.

And managing in the face of uncertainty, leading in the face of uncertainty is a fundamentally different proposition and different challenge than leading in the face of risk. And so in Provoke, as we’ll dig into both in this discussion with our Provocateurs, we think we’ve identified some of the aspects of what it takes to be a great leader in the face of that increasing uncertainty.

Stuart:

In the book you talk about, ‘if to when’ as an idea. Can you explain that, Steve?

Steve:

Yeah, Stuart. So the concept of, ‘if to when’ is all about how uncertainties, as Geoff just described, resolve themselves. So uncertainties are – and certain trends are – uncertain for a period of time, but eventually they resolve; either they become prevalent in the world or they just tend to fade away and become less relevant.

I want to start with a story about a particular uncertainty that we profile a bit in the book. And it was back, we had done some customer research in the cable industry, commonly known in the US, but in other geographies, it’s internet and video programming businesses. And we had done customer research and we saw a small segment of customers behaving in a novel way at the time. They wanted the best and most robust internet they could get, but they didn’t want all the video programming that the internet tended to be bundled with. They would say, “No, thank you. We’d rather not have that.” And so the orthodoxy in the industry at the time was that if someone didn’t want something it was probably because they couldn’t afford it. So they asked us to look at the data and say, are these individuals lower income? And it turned out, no, they weren’t lower income, they were actually around average income. They just, again, didn’t want all that video bundled in with their high quality internet.

And this was a really small segment, but we couldn’t fit them in with the previously defined segment. So our client at the time said, “Can you take the data to some of our competitive companies and ask them what they make of it?” – because they were so curious about it. And we went to one executive who, and we, and I remember this very clearly because he had this air about him that was incredibly overconfident. He literally stuck his hand down his pants like Al Bundy, put his feet up on his desk and said, “1.75%? Why would I even care?” And it was, as you can probably see, the uncertainty started to resolve. This was the first instance that we had evidence of cord cutting behavior, which became an important trend in that industry and beyond, where other business models were created off the backs of that customer behavior.

And if only the executive was a little more curious at the time and pulled on the thread, they might have discovered that actually it’s incredibly feasible technically to deliver great offers on video programming that allow you to watch what you want when you want to watch, which is what these customers wanted. It’s desirable, it’s technically feasible, and it turns out you can make a lot of money in this business – just ask a company like Netflix.

And so, we were reflecting on that. We know that the concept of, “if to when” is really important, because at certain points the uncertainty is a question of if it will come to fruition, but eventually as things become feasible, desirable and viable, they become only a matter of when. And identifying the phase change when that happens is incredibly important.

Stuart:

You talk about the leaders who are best able to impact the future are those who can position themselves to see the phase change earlier than the others. And then who act with purpose and the imperfect data as the phase change unfolds. It strikes me, that goes against human nature and leadership best practice historically. Geoff?

Geoff:

That is exactly right, Stuart. Because leadership best practice historically has trained us that we need to gather data, we need to do analysis of that data in order to move forward with confidence. And most of the time when we haven’t done enough analysis, when we haven’t gathered enough data, we’re told that we simply haven’t studied the issue enough and therefore we made a mistake.

Increasingly we’re finding, though, that because, by definition, data is retrospective, lessons from the past are not necessarily going to be the right guide for the future. 

Stuart:

Stacy, coming to you now. I mean, you’re the Chief Growth Officer at Deloitte, responsible for how the firm interacts with its clients and you have daily input really on these issues and insights into what executives are wrestling with in the real world. Does this ring true for you in executives increasingly kind of wrestling with making decisions based on imperfect data?

Stacy:

Absolutely, Stuart. I’m working with managers and leaders from all different types of organizations around the globe. And there’s a couple of things that are very much in common. There’s this notion of wanting to connect the dots, which is parallel to identifying patterns. The ability to identify the patterns that will identify and highlight opportunities that might be missed or to identify and highlight risks that might not be focused on right now.

And the second thing as a professional services firm, our clients are constantly asking for help in seeing around the corner, which is the extension of that peripheral vision. And that peripheral vision is necessary to be able to get greater intake, to be able to make those decisions that you were just talking about without all of the data that you would like to have, but that wider the peripheral vision, the better opportunity you’ll have for making, and more comfort you’ll have in making those decisions that you may not have all the data you would like before you have to do it. Very common, and very hard, and leaders are looking for all the help that they can get internally and externally in order to take that on.

Stuart:

Des, I mean we’ve been working with management ideas and business thinkers for way too long. How do you think this kind of resonates with our experiences?

Des:

Well, I think it really does resonate. I think the pattern recognition point, and picking up weak signals. That small percentage of people from the cable company’s experience. And I remember the first time I visited the office of Clay Christensen at Harvard Business School. Clay was the champion, as you probably know, of disruptive innovation. And he was a giant of a man and a giant intellect as well, very decent man, but actually quite intimidating. And on his door there was a sign saying, “Anomalies wanted.” And I thought, “This is really impressive. This man who’s famous and has developed a series of groundbreaking ideas, which explained innovation in a brand new way, was open to being challenged and actually welcoming new data and perspectives to try to make his theory better, to improve it.”

I think that goes to the heart of what makes for great thought leadership and great leadership. The willingness to challenge yourself and others lies at the heart of progress, really. You probably remember, Stuart, we had a Thinkers50 event recently, where we organized a debate featuring Amy Edmondson. Amy is the author of The Fearless Organization and a professor at Harvard Business School. She’s number one in the Thinkers50 Ranking of the world’s leading management thinkers at the moment. And in the debate was a young British woman called Sheree Atcheson. And what was really impressive was the vigor and the openness and the inclusiveness of the conversation. Amy really enjoyed the challenge, the exchange of insights and information from someone that she obviously wouldn’t necessarily talk to normally. And Sheree relished the opportunity to talk to someone of Amy’s stature and experience. And she put her arguments, absolutely brilliantly. We were really struck at the time, but this is how ideas advance, this is how progress is made.

And I think the same really applies to leadership in organizations. The willingness to provoke ideas and be provoked, and take action on the basis of that provocation really is at the heart of good leadership and improving performance in organizations. So, I’m really psyched for these podcasts, I think they’re going to be really, really insightful and instructive.

Stuart:

And Des is English like me. So for him to say that is a big deal, isn’t it?

Geoff:

I like to hear the word psyched from a Brit!

Stuart:

Yeah. So, what does this mean in practice then, Geoff? What are the strategies to deal with provocation? How do you get rid of the blinders in organization? How do you get rid of the blinders among the leaders?

Geoff:

The way we talk about it very simplistically is that, in a world of linear change historically, we have been able to use data from the past to look forward and essentially rely on a dominant version of the future. We look forward and we say, “We kind of know how it’s going to turn out. We don’t know everything about it. We’re going to project an upside and a down side, and we’re going to try to imagine what might happen within that band of outcomes.” But that’s really been the field of vision that we’ve needed to consider.

Increasingly though with the impact of exponentials, there could be competitors coming out of completely different industries that we’ve never anticipated before, or brand new opportunities to go and do something fundamentally differently that can shift our cost curve that simply hadn’t existed on the scene in the last, call it 12 months. And so, increasingly we’re finding that instead of having those, that linear path forward, we need to have an exponential view. We need to be able to see, essentially, a much, much wider playing field than we have historically.

The big challenge though, is that unfortunately, and at least the foreseeable future, most leaders are human. And with being human comes a set of challenges to how we actually have that peripheral vision. And so what Steve and I spent a lot of time in the first half of the book, Provoke, talking about is the fatal flaws that hold us back from seeing that much wider playing field. Some of them have to do with just the individual biases that come from being human. Some of them have to do with the crazy stuff that happens when you get a bunch of individuals together in an organization. So Steve, why don’t you tell us a little bit about some of the individual biases?

Steve:

To explain why these cognitive biases that I’m about to share, create those organizational blinders. I’m going to give a little bit of a mashup in the world of cognitive psychology and the late great Chris Argyris. So Chris Argyris had a field of study around something he termed productive interactions. And he uses a concept in that to explain how people make decisions. So there’s, the world is awash in data and information and from that pool of data, as he referred to it, we all select some information – not all of it, because we can’t possibly process it all – and then we process that information to draw a conclusion. So that’s how individuals go from information to conclusion.

However, the selection and the processing of that information is all subject to some important cognitive biases. Biases like the status quo bias, which is a preference for outcomes that favor the status quo, because deviation from the status quo is seen as a loss of status. The affect heuristic bias, which is where we are only moved by information that creates high degrees of emotion, either positive or negative. Or the overconfidence bias, which is a tendency to overestimate how likely we are to be correct. Or the egocentric and availability bias, both of which operate in the sphere of selecting data that either pre-conforms to your previously held position, like the egocentric bias or a preference for information that is easily accessible, either because it’s physically available to us, or mentally understandable.

So all of these cognitive biases influence how we select and process information, which means we aren’t getting all of the contours of the uncertainty. So let’s go back to that cable executive for a second. And we can see these biases in practice. We can see the affect heuristic bias, for instance, “1.75%. Why would I care? Not enough to, certainly not enough to cause any immediate pain or a desire to deviate from the status quo and what I’m doing.” So we can see how those biases prevent that particular executive from being able to see in an exponential way like Geoff was describing. And when you couple these with organizational tendencies that Geoff is going to talk about now, that just creates incremental blinders in the organization. So Geoff, why don’t you share a handful of the organizational tendencies that compound the problem of these cognitive biases?

Geoff:

When you call someone out and you tell them that their data is wrong, sometimes things go really badly. So we generally try to avoid it. We try to be overly polite and you start to hear things in meetings like, “Why don’t we take it offline.” Or, “I’ll grab you in the hallway afterwards.” Or in these times, “I’ll grab 20 minutes on Zoom with you a little bit later in the day.” And of course, what ends up happening is everyone gets their calendars jam packed with these side conversations and you tend to see some, what Steve and I call in the book, some crumbling cognitive bandwidth of leadership. We don’t have time anymore to think as leaders because we are interacting with one another with all these biases in a way that actually prevent sharing of information and prevent us getting to the underlying “truth” of what data might be able to tell us.

Partly on account of that, we tend to escalate on the commitments we’ve already made. We don’t actually take the time to challenge the commitments we’ve made because we don’t have the time. All of these things mixed together lead to what we talk about as being the structural dismantling of curiosity. That is the state of play in most scaled successful organizations today. And it’s obviously not purposeful. No one would say, “Yes, I’m going to set off down this path as a leader and try to make sure that we’re not curious as an organization.” Everyone wants to be curious, but the reality is, it’s really, really hard to do.

So we spend quite some time in the book talking about the various different ways to remove these blinders. I know we will explore some of those ways with Provocateurs as we get into the podcast. But I will say the headline, just straightforward advice on how to get rid of those blinders, introduce cognitive diversity into your organizations, into your teams. Because if you get a lot of different people working together who come from different perspectives, and different backgrounds, and different world views, all still holding onto their biases, then you’re going to get some different types of outcomes.

One anecdote I’ll share, Steve and I have been doing a few talks related to the book and in one of them someone brought up the, and I don’t know if it was from Adam Grant or if he was quoting someone else, but they talked about what is the king daddy of all biases these days, the “I’m not biased bias.” And the reality is, it doesn’t matter how well aware you are of these biases, you’re still going to be biased. So we might as well acknowledge that and just get different people mixed together to have a conversation about different types of data and different things that we’re bringing to the table. And of course, cognitive diversity comes from real world diversity and an ability to be inclusive. This sounds, I’m sure, like a moral imperative and we happen to believe it is a moral imperative, but it’s actually a business imperative. This is how we get to better outcomes and a better ability to see the entire playing field that we talked about before.

Stacy:

Geoff, and I’m going to add something to that point about cognitive diversity and how you embrace it as a leader. Because you will be in rooms where you will hear ideas, that are not aligned with your perspective and not aligned with the view that you came in with. And I think you really have to challenge yourself and ask yourself the question, “What if they’re right?” Because that causes you to then ask questions and probe and explore those ideas that you’re initially in disagreement with. So really having that as a basis for driving that conversation, I think takes advantage of the cognitive diversity that you want in the room.

Stuart:

Is there a sense that we’re asking too much of leaders? I mean, it always struck me when Jim Collins‘ work about level five leadership and humble leaders, and they’ve got to see round corners, they’ve got to be unbiased. It’s kind of defying humanity and they are still humans. Des and I did some work a number of years ago with a couple of London Business School professors, on a book called, Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? And I think that was a fantastic title, it came up-

Geoff:

Great title.

Stuart:

… Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. And they had a mantra for leaders, “Be yourself more with skill.” And I think that really, for me, to get to the heart of leadership, be yourself, be authentic, and more, you’ve got to do it on a stage. You’ve got to kind of dramatize it in a way and with skill, and you’ve got to apply your own authenticity at the right time, but it’s a big ask.

Des:

Yeah. I think it’s interesting too, what you were saying about biases and blinders to curiosity because we’ve come to realize, I think over the years, one of the characteristics of the best thinkers, but also the best practitioners that we’ve encountered, is this ceaseless and restless intellectual curiosity. And I don’t think that’s necessarily… I think when people get busy, it’s very easy to lose that. You almost need to remind yourself periodically. I mean, some people are more, perhaps more curious than others in the first place.

You mentioned Adam Grant, we had him on one of our webinars recently. And Adam was talking about this thing of learning to think again, being aware of what we don’t know is half the battle. It is just the bias factor, if you know that we are all automatically biased in some way and we can begin to allow for that. But what Adam was talking about was learning to sort of think and rethink, and one of his sort of notions is that we should all try to think more like scientists. Everything around us is sort of – it’s data but it’s an experiment. So, we shouldn’t prejudge things. We shouldn’t have the answers when we go into the laboratory of life, we should be open to our ideas.

Geoff:

I love the idea of acting or thinking more like scientists and I presume that along with that comes acting like scientists as well. Constantly launching new tests and exploring new domains that we haven’t necessarily tested before. And the cool thing about all of this, by the way, and I’m sure our listeners get this, is that actually the impact of doing this right is not putting all the responsibility on a single leader’s shoulder to see around corners and to lead the entire organization. It’s actually opening it up to a broader set of voices and giving others an opportunity to influence the direction that whatever organization you’re in is headed in.

Stuart:

So leadership is a team game?

Geoff:

Absolutely.

Des:

Well, I think one of the things that’s happened in recent times or is always beginning to happen, is this notion that leaders don’t have to have all the answers. Because I think that was a big obstacle, really, when the leader felt, “I had to have all the answers and to know what was going to happen next.” And I think we’re beginning to step away from that and I think it’s increasingly okay. The best leaders, of course, have always admitted that they don’t necessarily have all the answers, but I think that’s becoming more acceptable and more commonplace in organizational life.

Stuart:

So we’ve mentioned a couple of times, Seeing Around Corners, which is Rita McGrath‘s book. And I wonder how the pandemic has challenged these ideas and how do you see the leadership space and the practice of leaders, how has it been changed and altered by the pandemic?

Geoff:

I’ll offer something and I’m sure Steve and Stacy have things to add given their leadership roles in our organization. But the interesting thing there – the very few silver linings of the pandemic, for sure – that has happened over the course of the last, roughly, 20 months that we’ve been in this, is that all of a sudden people seem to understand viscerally what uncertainty feels like. It’s no longer this ethereal concept that there is something that is kind of not knowable. We lived with uncertainty on multiple different dimensions through the course of the pandemic. And the great thing about it is, when we let loose the rules and the playbooks of the past and just accept that we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, we have to go try to do different things and really, really amazing things happen. Whether we’re talking about past competitors coming together to collaborate in a different way, or retrofitting manufacturing lines to do something fundamentally different. When we just ignored what we thought we knew from the past and just started doing stuff, great things, great results ensued.

Stacy:

Well, I think we’ve seen, because of the pandemic, leadership take a completely different turn with respect to the importance of transparency and authenticity. And an acceptance of that, even by leaders where that wasn’t a natural tendency for them or characteristics that they would naturally embrace. And that I think is something that will be ongoing. We can’t pull back from that level of transparency and intimacy that’s been created between leaders and their organizations that we’ve seen over the last 20 months.

Steve:

And the thing that I’d add is, it’s a real plug for what we were talking about earlier in Adam Grant, to do the experiments. So, the place where I would point to is hybrid work. So hybrid work, working in multiple locations was not something new, we did it, we just did it badly before. We didn’t design for it, we didn’t do it purposefully. And then we were forced at massive scale to do a full blown experiment as to whether we could actually do hybrid work well. And it turns out, you know what, we can. And now we know that hybrid work has gone from a matter of ‘if to when’ and it’s not unclear that hybrid work is going to be the dominant model in the future. It’s a question of what form of hybrid work is going to be right for your particular organization. And for some, it will be a greater mix of in person because of the nature of that work. And for some, it might be more remote.

But we know that it’s not going to be a one size fits all, but now we have the confidence because we did the test. So I think the learning that we can all take away from it is, whenever there’s an inkling of something, that there might be a possibility. It’s like, do what Stacy did, embrace that you might be wrong and ask, how could you test it to figure it out and run the test.

Stuart:

Geoff, you talk about five provocations. Can you tell us what they are? Because I think they found it, they’re a really great foundation for our future discussions.

Geoff:

Yeah. And I expect a lot of the stories we hear from, I hear from Provocateurs, are in some way linked to, some of what actually the whole book is about, which are these five provoked strategies. So, going back to where we started, the whole notion of uncertainties resolving from ‘if to when’ and going through this phase change. There are five, if you will, provoke strategies or provocative moves that any leader can make as you move through that cycle from ‘if to when’, through the phase change.

So the most foundational one and I think honestly, probably the most important one that we all need to get better at these days is something that we call envision. And what we mean by that is, as we look forward to the future, we have to have the humility to say, “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re not actually going to try to predict the future anymore. And instead we’re going to plan against and act against different, equally plausible versions of the future.” Many of our listeners probably know that as scenario planning and the basic headline on that is, we all have to get to be better scenario planners.

There was a great number of articles that came out, probably mid-year of this year, where the Wall Street Journal talked about the reality of the CEO of United Airlines here in the US, looking forward in the early stages of the pandemic and at some point just getting his leadership team together and saying, “We don’t know what’s going to happen, so let’s stop trying to pretend we can predict it. Let’s just put in place multiple different versions of what the future might turn out to be. So that’s the envision provocation and the foundational one that we should actually be constantly doing, and I think should be centered to any sort of strategic planning moving forward.

If we envision well, then we can move on to the second provocation, which is position. And what we mean by position is, putting ourselves and our organizations in a position where we can see the phase change from ‘if to when’ earlier than any of our competitors and with more insight. And when we talk about positioning, the critical thing is we actually do something about it. We actually shift our investments in a way where we are really placing bets on multiple different versions of the future, not necessarily equally, they should be proportional to how much we think that particular future is likely to come to fruition. But we actually have to act with investment if we’re really going to better put ourselves in a place where we can act faster than others. The challenge with scenario planning in a lot of organizations these days is it’s an intellectual exercise. We do the scenario plan as part of the strategic plan and we think that’s pretty interesting, there are different versions of the future and then we carry on down a dominant path. And that’s an instinct we need to let go of.

If you do those two things well, then as we enter the phase change, as you enter the phase change, there’s basically three ways you can move with purpose to land in a better place. You can either drive to the future that you want to. Meaning, you have a clear line of sight to where you want to get to and a fair degree of influence through the path to that future and you essentially just drive the outcomes that you need to, for your organization. And sometimes that comes because you have the might within the industry that you’re playing in to do that, sometimes it’s because you have some sort of differential advantage that allows you to create conditions that will continue that advantage into the future.

Increasingly though, we believe that the second of those three moves, activate, is going to become the norm. What we mean by activate is the ability to work with others through an ecosystem and catalyze a series of events that end up being advantageous to you. This is where you may have a clear line of sight to the future you want, but you actually don’t have all the influence you need to get there. And there’s some great stories we have in the book about some people who have become really fantastic at activating ecosystems and it’s increasingly a topic that is important in the world, as I know Stuart and Des, you know all too well given the book that Thinkers50 put out last year on ecosystems.

And then the final act of provocation and I would say probably the hardest emotionally for any executive to work with is: adapt. So sometimes, either because we’ve waited too long through the phase change to do something, or because conditions just aren’t going to turn out in our favor, we have to adapt our business model. We have to fundamentally shift the value that we’re creating for the world and recognize that the business model of the past is no longer a fit for the future. And sometimes that actually means winding things down, recognizing that actually we should not continue on the current path and maybe we should return our money to our shareholders. And unfortunately we see all too often in industries that are in a fair degree of turmoil caused by uncertainty, that executives hold on way too long to the notion that they can still be relevant with the asset base that they have. And increasingly we’re going to find that that instinct is a really dangerous one.

So, lots more in the book, lots more in the conversations to come on those five provoked strategies, but that’s really, those are the moves that we think people should be considering as they look forward in the face of uncertainty.

Stuart:

Stacy, what are your thoughts on this? I mean, I like the idea of organizations accepting their own mortality.

Stacy:

Well, I am most excited if I think about those moves, about the activate move and the engagement with ecosystems. Because, and we’ve talked about the need for ecosystems to help with, both people and capabilities. But as we’ve discussed industry-wise, there is a cornucopia of convergence happening out there and that is going to cause companies to question their existence, and what they look like, and what they can do to evolve to address those opportunities that convergence is bringing.

Stuart:

Cornucopia of convergence is a great phrase, Stacy. 

Geoff:

I think that’s Stacy’s new book title. Is that right? (laughs)

Stacy:

I like it!

Stuart:

You see around corners and all you see is alliteration. Des, any thoughts?

Des:

The ecosystems thing I think is huge. I mean, just the evolution of language as well. We are moving from very mechanistic language and leaders who think they can control the world or that they have all the answers to much more, a much more organic kind of vocabulary. Of course, ecosystems evolve. They are naturally organic entities which are able to sense what’s happening and to move accordingly. And I think how organizations learn to position themselves and realize that, in their surroundings. And I mean, not just in their industries, in society as well. There’s all sorts of social changes that we are now facing and challenges for leaders. So I think that organic metaphor and the notion of the ecosystem is very powerful and very, very relevant.

Stuart:

I think it’s easy to forget that ecosystems require leadership as well. So we’ve done a lot of work with the Chinese company, Haier, who are the biggest white goods manufacturer in the world. And their CEO, Zhang Ruimin, exercises a very different form of leadership. He uses a metaphor that historically CEOs were seen as the captains of the ship. He sees himself more as the Marine architect, the person who’s designing the ship, so that his job is reorganizing and refitting the organization. So it’s a very different form of leadership, but it still requires leadership.

Des:

Interestingly, I was talking to Reed Hastings from Netflix, and when I interviewed him, he talked about [his leadership position] being like a gardener. The guy that makes sure the soil’s got the right acidity, keeps everything in order, and leaves other people to do their thing. But you still have to nurture and cultivate it to some extent. So an interesting, slightly different take.

Steve:

I’m a big fan of the prospect for ecosystems as well. I would like to introduce a contrarian view into the conversation though, just to, well I guess, provoke some reaction and see what you guys think. I think one of the reasons we’ve tended towards ecosystems in the way that we have over the last 25 years is because the world has been amazingly stable. Even though we’ve been characterized by exponential technology, which has reduced the friction of collaboration with other entities. If we think about the global economic environment, it’s one that’s been relatively low inflation, a supply chain that has been incredibly easy to get things where they need to be when they need to be. And so therefore, organizations have trusted that they can get what they need from outside of the four walls of their entity.

If you think about the uncertainty that we’re facing right now in the middle, still at the tail end of this pandemic. We’re facing supply chain disruption, we’re facing potential inflationary pressures that might lead organizations to say, “I don’t want to have to rely on someone else to supply my goods.” Look at the chip manufacturing business, for example, and what that’s doing to downstream work. And I might want to have long-term contracts rather than buy on the spot market to prevent inflation. So, I think there’s been a lot of factors which have led to saying, “I can get better capabilities by working with ecosystems.” But I wonder, to what extent we might see some pressures going against that, given the specific uncertainties that we face today. What do you guys think about that?

Geoff:

I think that what we need to be ready for more these days is actual genuine collaboration. Recognition that these bilateral agreements that have historically been at the heart of so-called ecosystems are not actually real ecosystems, they’re simply financial and legal arrangements. Increasingly, we need to understand that we’re not going to have control over the system and we need to align ourselves with others who we can more naturally collaborate with and go back to the more scientific meaning of the word ecosystem. But it brings with it a loss of control and a willingness to do things without knowing exactly what the outcomes are going to be.

Stacy:

I’m with Geoff on this one, I’m thinking about ecosystems going forward as being much more about innovation and taking advantage of the ecosystem of human capital to be able to really produce some different opportunities between and amongst organizations.

Stuart:

So leaders need to give up control, but there’s no history of turkeys voting for Christmas, and there’s no real great history of leaders giving up control. So again, you are fighting against human nature.

Geoff:

Well the great thing is, we get to hear from a bunch of leaders over the course of this podcast series who have done exactly that and gotten to some pretty amazing outcomes. So, I’m looking forward to this.

Stuart:

What we’re looking for is great conversations, wonderful stories and insights to make us think and act differently. I think the series will deliver, because I think from our conversation today, there’s lots of areas of continuing debate. I mean, I think in the past leadership we’ve seen more as a fixed entity, whereas now it’s very debatable, very fluid, and it’s taking on many shapes and forms. 

So, I think we’ve set the scene, what we are looking for is a great debate combined with insights. We’ve got some great people lined up and we’re looking to be, we’re looking for our own ideas. We’re actually looking to be provoked ourselves and hoping that the provocations and the Provocateurs we feature in this series will inspire others to provoke their own organizations. So, we hope you can join us.