“Today, we are up against businesses that work out of a garage, take risks, operate in a nimble way, and have a different kind of energy and drive. Large incumbent companies that can’t create a similar kind of culture just won’t be able to compete. One of our rallying cries has been how do you create a 20,000-person start-up?“
Transformational change is hard. It’s easy to add something new to what already exists, but changing what’s already there is more difficult. And what do you do in a market, business, societal and environmental context that’s constantly changing? You could change everything and it might all be redundant in five years. It’s hard enough to navigate yourself in the midst of such deep, wide-reaching and unpredictable turmoil. Bringing hundreds or thousands of other people with you is much harder.
My perspective of transformational change starts with characteristics of change itself, structured into three separate layers.
(1) First level change is the day-to-day background change we’re used to – changing weather, people, projects, priorities. Adding something new, cancelling something else, picking and choosing from the menu of options in front of us. Time moves on, things change and we do stuff. As both organisations and individuals, we do this all the time.
(2) Second level change is transformational change. Unlike first level change, this is not just adding to or subtracting from what already exists, but fundamentally changing it to it’s core. This is deep change, fundamental change, structural change, transformative change. You’re changing what the thing really is, and this is no small thing to do – especially if you’re a large organisation. The hardest part of transformative change usually lies not the adoption of the new (which can be exciting and liberating), but in letting go of the old and familiar. Just like breaking up is much harder than falling in love.
(3) Third level change is continual or dynamic transformative change. Change, even transformational change, is not enough in a world in which everything’s changing. If the world is changing you have to change, and you have to keep changing as long as the world is changing. This is the question of what you want to change into. If you change into something static you might gain a few years, but sooner or later the world will pass you by again and so you’ll have to change again. So the goal is to change into something dynamic, with the fluidity and flexibility to meet, adapt to and exploit whatever comes at you.
The more you have to lose the more vulnerable you are. In a world of dynamic change you have to change dynamically too – it’s not enough to change once. Essentially you have to teach yourself, your team or your organisation how to change so that individually and together they can change again and again and again as the world changes around them.
The River Model of Dynamic Change
One dynamic model for thinking about organisational adaptation to continual change is that of a young, fresh and fast-flowing river system.
This model begins with the force that animates us – purpose. If you’re going to get people to organise in large numbers while remaining flexible enough to meet and exploit change, you’re going to have to have a good story – a clear, concise narrative of who you are, what you’re about and why you’re doing what you’re doing. And it better be a real story, underwritten by real shared values and demonstrated by real actions. There are no secrets safe from social media, so you’d better drink your own cool aid and eat your own dog food, or eventually you’re going to get found out.
Purpose is the reason we get out of bed and do what we do, giving us meaning and direction. At a collective or organisational level purpose helps form our identity and connects us to others who share a similar purpose. Purpose is the why that gives us a reason to be interested in the what and the how. The bigger, deeper and more ambitious the purpose, the more potential customers, readers, viewers, constituents, employees, partners, talent and other allies you can attract. Shared purpose based on core values and expressed in a simple and coherent narrative is what brings people together and focuses them. Good leaders tell good and inspirational stories.
Purpose, if you haven’t already guessed, is the gravity of our river system model of dynamic change. It’s not only the gap to be crossed and the distance between here and there – it is the very animating force that causes movement between here and there. But that journey is rarely a straight line, and must adapt to the reality of the second part of our model – the landscape.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”, says the Serenity Prayer most associated with 12-step programs. That wisdom essentially involves recognising the things that you can’t change, and thus have no choice but to adapt to and accept. If these unchangeable things stand between you and your purpose then you’ll have to go around them because you’re not going to go through them. This is your topography – the hard reality of the landscape through which you must move.
A good tool to help survey your landscape is PESTLE analysis (a systemic look at the Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental landscape facing you or your organisation). SWOT analysis is also useful, and a SWOT analysis of your PESTLE landscape is even better. But it would be a mistake to sit in an office reading reports, because that’s not where reality happens. The full picture is the human picture and that happens inside the heads of individuals. If you really want to know your landscape you have to actually get out there and talk to the people in it.
When doing all this research, reading, talking, listening, thinking and other analysis it’s very easy to focus on the negative (after all, you’re looking for the things you can’t change). But it’s not just the obstacles you’re looking for – you want to spot the opportunities too. A great way to do this is to adopt a Blue Ocean perspective, which trains you to identify and evaluate pools of untapped demand. After all, the flip side of unprecedented threat is also unprecedented opportunity and if you’re going to do a comprehensive survey of your landscape anyways, you may as well look for both.
The third and final part of the river system model of dynamic change is, of course, the water itself. A water molecule consists of an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. The two hydrogen atoms stick tight to the oxygen atom, but interact more weakly with other hydrogen atoms, constantly connecting and letting go. It is this rapid and incessant series of connecting and letting go that gives water it’s fluidity and it’s ability to flow. Connect, let go; connect, let go; connect, let go – again and again and again, instantly adapting to whatever it meets.
Your customers, shareholders, employees, audience, constituents or other stakeholders together create your organisational identity – each has a part in your story. But each is also a real, actual and unique human being with their own internal life, free will and choice. Remember, you’re not just trying to change what these people think or do – you’re trying to make them much more responsive, flexible and adaptive, able to continually connect and let go and thus flow like water.
This is the world of Lean and Agile thinking and practice – the ideas and community of SCRUM masters, project owners, change agents and mindset coaches. Lean-Agile grew from the cutting edge software industry operating in the hyper-competitive realm of the internet – the red hot core of technological change. Grounded in KPIs and other performance metrics and loyally wedded to the interests of the end customer, Lean-Agile advocates small flat teams of equals, open to test, risk, failure, ideas and people and working incrementally and holistically in time-bound bursts, with each iteration being better than the last. It’s like AI for human beings – evolving performance rather than constructing it. And it comes from the flexibility of Lean-Agile teams.
An Adaptive Organisation
As change, in all its myriad forms, continues and accelerates we don’t just have to adapt, we have to adapt to adaptation. We don’t just have to learn, we have to learn to learn. We can’t just take snapshots of our environment, we have to actively and continuously scan and probe it. Whether we’re a lone individual or a vast organisation, we don’t just have to change – we have to change into something that continuously changes.
Water molecules, connecting and letting go, splash onto the rocks of the high mountains. Inexorably drawn by gravity they find each other, become drops, and then trickles. The trickles become small streams, which combine to form bigger streams, then small rivers and bigger rivers, getting bigger and stronger as they go. Flexible particles animated by gravity across a defined but irregular landscape. A river system.
People, connecting and letting go, land into a team. Inexorably drawn by purpose they effortlessly co-operate with each other and with others, organising and reorganising themselves and their teams and communicating and collaborating widely as they openly work towards clear and specified goals – all clearly directed towards an important, higher and deeply meaningful purpose. Who wouldn’t want to belong to, buy from or otherwise associate with that kind of team – or an organisation made up of such teams? In an unpredictable world of seismic change, this is the environment we want to create – an environment in which people can align their purpose with organisational goals and work freely and flexibly enough to do magic.
Whoever or whatever you are, you will change and change and change again in the coming years and decades – reality and survival will require it. And these won’t be small changes – your entire market, business model, customer base, audience or electorate could change almost overnight. And not just once, but again and again. There will be vast threats and also vast opportunities ahead, the stakes growing ever higher. But if you and your people have a clear and focused purpose to energise you, bring you together and direct you, and if you know your landscape and are flexible enough to flow towards that purpose, then you can handle any change. Like water, you will always find a way.
An adaptive organisation is focused, framed and flexible. It’s people feel their purpose, know their landscape and work freely on focused goals. It’s performance is grounded in both quantifiable metrics and active listening to end customers. Its boundaries are vague as it engages with and includes customers, audience, constituents, partners, supporters and others. It’s as comfortable letting go of the old as it is adopting the new. Such an organisation flows easily through the ever-changing landscape of it’s wider reality, always knowing which way to go.
Like a river.
I am actively seeking consulting, freelance, contract, employment or other work related to organisational change, particularly in the direction of sustainability or social responsibility.
If you, your group or your organisation are developing your purpose, surveying your landscape, creating agile teams or otherwise transforming I am available for consulting, freelancing and other hire. My full CV/resume is available here, my personal narrative (including an account of my explorations in economics) is available here, and I can be contacted here.
Change shortens your horizons. The faster things come at you, the more your attention is drawn to the immediate and the urgent and the further it moves from the long term and the important. But if you’re a corporation, government, fund, lender, organisation, institution or individual with assets, obligations or investments due ten, twenty, thirty or more years from now, you don’t have the luxury of focusing on the here and now. You’re paid to think about the big picture and the far future, and that’s getting a lot more complicated.
The vast, deep, systemic disruption we are witnessing spans economics, politics, media, business and society, including your industry, your market, and your customers, audience or constituency. Unfathomable technology has been unleashed in a world rapidly becoming one interconnected global network of human beings, with seismic results. Who knows where our assets, our interests or even our selves are going? Who knows what the world will look like five, ten, twenty or thirty years from now? When everything is moving fast and getting faster, how do you make a decision today that will have real consequences for decades to come?
In late 2009 IBM had lengthily, free ranging discussions with 1,541 leading global CEOs and senior government leaders. The recurring theme was accelerating complexity, and the inability of their organisations to deal with it. That was back in 2009 when Facebook had only 200 million users and before Instagram, Trump, Brexit, a lot of bad climate news and so much more. It’s much worse now.
Waves of Change
There are many models, conceptualisations, frameworks, ideas and other tools with which to think about change and what to do about it, each of them a way to reduce complexity by editing out everything except the most important things. Whatever it is that you consider important, it’s this simplification that allows understanding. The process involves not adding more information, but removing most information. It’s a process not of objective learning but of subjective judgement. From the chaos of data and complexity a new and higher pattern is born, and understanding occurs. These conceptual tools are maps, diagrams, narratives, summations and, ultimately, also cartoons, caricatures and other gross approximations of an impossibly complex real world. They are extremely simplistic, subjective and prone to error and bias. But they’re what we have to work with.
The model and conceptualisation of change presented here is based on McKinsey’s Three Horizons (3H) model, which views change as waves of decline and ascendance of prevalence or occurrence. The old, stagnant, increasingly useless and unsustainable patterns of the past are declining, weakening and ending (Horizon 1), while the new, vibrant, useful and sustainable patterns of the future are emerging, rising and strengthening (Horizon 3). In the middle, where these two waves meet, we have an interference pattern that looks a lot like the maelstrom of disruption we see around us (Horizon 2). This is the chaos that we must navigate, aligning ourselves with the new while letting go of the old. The Three Horizon view of change can be visualised like this:
By simply mapping imagined aggregate occurrence over time, the Three Horizons framework is as basic a model for visualising change as it is possible to get. While it does give us some sort of structure within which to think about change, it doesn’t tell us much. New stuff occurs more. Old stuff occurs less. Eventually disruption will settle down into some sort of consistency. That’s about it.
One way to develop this perspective is to look at H1 and H3 in more detail, especially at how they differ. One important difference is surely that we’re familiar with H1, since it’s been around for a long time. In contrast, H3 is new and therefore less familiar. Whatever H3 may be, it’s not nearly as clear to us as H1. The emerging H3 may be there all around us, but it has not yet ‘resolved’ into a coherent pattern or identity. We can see H1 in front of our faces, but we have to go looking for H3. In other words, while H1 is ‘normal’ to us, H3 is not.
A second important difference between H1 and H3 is what’s happening to the pattern, energy and ‘force’ behind it. In the declining patterns of H1 we might expect to see increasing divergence, decay, division and dissolution as energy, power and pattern weaken, decohere and dissipate. Meanwhile, in the rise of H3 we might expect to see the opposite: increasing convergence, growth, alignment and resolution, with energy, power and pattern strengthening, cohering and focusing. As our timeline moves through the intersection of a declining, fragmenting and weakening H1 on one hand, and a rising, cohering and strengthening H3 on the other, we see disruption increase as we would expect. As these forces cross, the resulting interference pattern appears extremely complex to us as we move through it and see H1 order dissolving into H2 chaos before resolving into H3 order. We could visualise this process like this:
Remember, this is just one step from the simplest of cartoon-models that we can use to think about change. The actually reality of vast, interconnected, foundational change is far, far too complicated to ever grasp. This is just one possible way to think about it all within some sort of structure. It’s a tool, nothing more. Its value is not in proving a truth, but in whether it is useful or not.
We are trying to explain and understand massive and accelerating change in search of useful insights, ideas and practices. With this aim in mind, and assuming that the aggregate change even might be occurring in patterns like these, the question then becomes; What’s causing these patterns? Why is H1 weakening, declining and dissipating while H3 is strengthening, rising and cohering? What are the organising forces behind these two patterns?
The following is one answer to this question that is both explanatory and (more importantly) useful. What makes it practical is that it is based on a concept that we are all familiar with, a concept central to the market, to legal, justice, academic, media and political systems, and to every other aspect of our modern lives – the concept of human choice.
Human beings have always had choices, but for the most part our ancestor’s lives were incredibly restrictive compared to our own. For most of history most people lived more or less the same way their parents lived, worked at what their parents worked at, lived or moved with the same small group in the same general area, and believed what their parents believed. Today, in contrast, the lives lived by more and more of us are vastly different. Our choices of food, clothes, products, connections, work, partners, locations, information, ideas and much, much more is unimaginable to our younger selves, never mind even our most recent ancestors. The point here is that, in the context of geological, biological, civilisational and human time, this explosion of mass expressed human choice is radically new.
Ideas or beliefs concerning choice, such as the nature of consciousness, the source of free will, or the inevitability of determinism are best left to philosophers, the religious and others. Whatever human choice is, and wherever it comes from, is irrelevant for our purposes – it is the actuality we are concerned with. Specifically, it is a fact that the number of options available to people, and thus the number of actual choices made by people, has exploded in recent years, decades and centuries.
In H1 we may be seeing the decline of a natural, historical, evolutionary force expressing itself as ever greater and more diverse complexity (like the Tree of Life). In contrast, the force behind H3, which includes the additional element of our own modern and individual awareness, choice and purpose, expresses itself as ever greater and more unified coherence and convergence. The result is that the new H3 becomes more focused, relevant, useful, powerful and real, while the old H1 becomes the opposite. While evolution selected for survival and reproduction, aware choice selects for goals, values and purpose. And the dynamics of these selection gates produce different results in that evolution works towards diversity while choice works towards singularity.
In other words, one way to look at the 3H model is as a map of declining evolutionary and historical forces on one hand (H1) meeting the rapidly rising force of human choice on the other (H3). Simply put, as innovation, technology and efficient distribution vastly expand real human individual, organisational and collective choice, that choice becomes ever more important in shaping our world, our society and our market.
Thinking of disruption as the result of a vast and deep collision between evolution and choice also makes some intuitive sense. Our society, our economy, our technology, and our highly complex systems and our selves have spectacularly developed, dramatically increasing our awareness, power and capability far beyond anything before. With an infinity of choices in front of us, we need some way to choose between so many options. This is the orientation of reasons, values and purpose. It wasn’t as important before because we didn’t have so many choices before. But now we do, so now it is.
You could think of H1 as the dissipation of historic evolution into complexity, and of H3 as the coherence of modern choices from that very same complexity. Both happening together, at the same time, overlapping. And both happening inside every institution, organisation and individual. As individuals, groups and organisations face more options and thus become more powerful, goal, value or purposeful choice overrides, counteracts and otherwise interferes with evolutionary and historical patterns.
We all know and experience this as individual people. When you can eat anything you like whenever you like, sooner or later you’ll have to start making informed choices about what you eat in order to stay healthy. You’ll feel the interference of making those choices every time you turn down a treat or drag yourself out for a run. Evolution has not designed you for so many food options, or to sit in front of a computer all day. So you have to override evolution and make your own choices in the direction of some sort of organising reason, goal or purpose – such as your immediate appearance or your long term health. Evolution collides with choice within you and the resulting interference is experienced as internal struggle or disruption.
Organisations too experience this collision between historical evolution and choice within themselves. Established organisations are left with legacy assets, structures, roles, systems, cultures, people, perspectives and other factors with which they must work. With these resources they are faced with customers, audience or constituents who are experiencing an explosion of choice, especially on the internet. As markets, networking, recruitment, public relations, branding, customer service and much more all move online, old buildings, systems or perspectives may no longer make sense. In attempting to grapple with this changing landscape and adapt accordingly, problems inevitably occur. Transition causes friction. It disrupts.
Even fresh startups, free of legacy issues, must usually operate within a legal, financial, organisational and other structure that developed in a different time and that makes less and less sense in an age of interconnected hyper-choice. Even if the organisation has no legacy issues it still operates in a legacy environment that it must deal with. To the free and enthusiastic founders forced to deal with this legacy environment, the result is often frustratingly called “bureaucracy”. An evolved historical legacy meets an explosion of human choice.
Even at the biggest and highest level we witness this dynamic as the governments of the world attempt to meet the historical legacy of carbon with the choice expressed in the Paris Agreement. For corporations, institutions and individuals living under the rule of these governments, the implementation of the choices made in Paris will cause disruption as they interfere with traditional energy patterns and associated cost structures. The evolved historical legacy of carbon is meeting the single, global human choice of Paris. In other words, human choice is being imposed onto the historical legacy that we were given. Choice is being imposed on historical evolution, with resulting disruption.
To sum up then, we began with the Three Horizons Model and imagined branching diagrams in order to think about the possible forces at work inside of H1 and H3. We hypothesised that the forces impelling these changing and colliding patterns were the vast explosion of expressed human choice on one hand, and the historically evolved legacy landscape on the other. The core contention is that, in the complex world of modern human affairs evolution divides, weakens and decoheres, while purpose attracts, strengthens and coheres.
By conceptualising the different forces at work inside of H1 and H3 like this we can give some structure not only to thinking about what is changing, but also about how things are changing and even about why things are changing, albeit at a deep, abstract and even philosophical level.
But what use is that?
Rivers of Change
Seeing disruption as a rising tide of cohering choices meeting a declining tide of diversifying evolution might be an interesting way of looking at things, but that’s not much use if you have real lives and money at stake, real problems to solve, and real decisions to make. For those more interested in managing and navigating disruption, a philosophy, conceptualisation or model of change isn’t much use without at least some indication of how it might be applied in practice.
In order to be practically useful, we must apply this highly abstract and even philosophical model of dynamic change to the real world of business, money, politics, economics, life and human affairs. But that’s a jump too far. What we need is a stepping stone – a way to see and imagine the dynamic flow of an infinitely complex sequence of choices and changes flowing through the patterns outlined above – that we can apply to human affairs. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to find such a stepping-stone analogy, since these patterns resemble nothing so much as a river system.
The declining, dispersing, decohering, dissipating and disappearing H1 brings to mind an old, mature river dispersing into a delta, its force spent. As it reaches sea level and its gradient and gravity disappear the river loses its central, coherent focus, structure, identity and form and branches out, again and again into disconnected complexity, eventually blending into the background noise of the sea. This is the old world, losing its power and coherence, and fading away.
The new world, on the other hand, while less familiar to us, is much more interesting. In our dynamic river model the future H3 is analogous to the early stages of a young, fresh and vibrant river as it comes down from the mountains. Drops become trickles, trickles become streams, streams become rivers, which in turn become bigger rivers until eventually there is one big and unified river. The water is drawn across the topography of the landscape and is animated, organised, formed and focused by gravity. This is where the energy and the future is, so it’s here we want to focus.
Imagine a drop of water, freshly fallen on a mountain slope and about to begin its long journey to the sea. As soon as it lands it feels gravity, pulling it incessantly down the slope. The topography of the landscape guides this movement, as the water unfailing obeys the compulsion of gravity by following the easiest route, without thought or hesitation. Water always knows where to go.
As the water drop tumbles down the mountain slope it meets other water drops. It joins with these drops to form a trickle, all moving together and in the same direction as gravity draws the water downwards within the constraints of the landscape in the most efficient way possible. Trickles become streams, streams become rivers and rivers become larger rivers. Many billions of water drops, each acting independently under the influence of gravity applied over an irregular landscape, come together and become stronger and more powerful. Water effortlessly co-operates.
The secret of water lies in its molecular structure. Two small hydrogen atoms bind tightly to one large oxygen atom, but also bind weakly and intermittently with hydrogen atoms in other water molecules around them. This means that individual water molecules bond and let go, bond and let go, billions of times a second even in a glass of water. Connect and let go, connect and let go, connect and let go – over and over and over again. This is how a water molecule navigates its world under the influence of its gravity, and it is this characteristic that gives water its shapeless and extreme efficiency and ability to flow. Water is infinitely flexible.
A river system is much easier to understand, visualise and think about than an abstract model or deep philosophy of change, and it has the advantage of being dynamic. We can intuitively see and understand how individual water molecules, incessantly connecting and detaching, flow through a landscape under the compelling force of gravity, becoming more united and thus more powerful as they go. Armed with this Perspective we can now starting mapping some of the elements of our deep model of H3 change to the complex reality of modern business, organisational, economic, social, environmental, and other human affairs that we see around us.
There are three variables in our analogy of a river system: the landscape, the gravity and the water itself, each representing an aspect of our more complex, abstract and philosophical model of change. We ourselves, as individual agents, are analogous to the water molecules, flowing through the landscape of modern physical, social and economic reality choice by choice. Purpose is the orientating, cohering and unifying force over both ourselves and our ever-changing landscape. It pulls us, draws us, compels us and attracts us in a particular direction, and draws others in the same direction across the landscape of vast global forces, deep social trends and cold, hard facts. In a world in which everything seems to be turning upside down, purpose is our gravity.
To sum up then, we started with the Three Horizon model of change and speculated on the differences between the internal dynamics of the declining and rising patterns of H1 and H3 respectively. We explained these differences as the emergence of mass, expressed human choice as a force in the world interfering with the legacies and artefacts of historical evolution in disruptive ways. We then added dynamism and simplification to this conceptual model by using the analogy of water, comparing the emerging and future patterns of H3 to a young, fresh and vibrant river system, cohering and increasing in power. Finally, we applied the river system analogy to human affairs, seeing ourselves as water molecules flowing across the landscape of reality under the gravitational influence of our purpose.
Now we’re ready to look for examples in the real world around us.
Creators of Change
One person who seems to know exactly where he’s going is Elon Musk, who’s going to Mars. While I was writing this his SpaceX company launched his car into an elliptical orbit around the Sun that goes out as far as the Asteroid Belt. What passes for the car’s radio is playing David Bowie’s Space Oddity, and there’s a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the glovebox, along with a towel and a sign saying ‘Don’t Panic’. Musk’s car will orbit the sun essentially for eternity – a monument to the very beginnings of humanity in space.
The car, of course, is a Tesla, from Musk’s revolutionary and intelligent car company. No doubt it’s powered by batteries from his Gigafactory or panels from his Solar City. And then there’s the Boring Company, who want to build a high-speed subway system for cars (solar-powered, electric cars, of course). Even Musk’s toys are cool and make money. You have to wonder: how does he do all this?
How does Elon Musk start and lead multiple organisations in multiple industries, each producing remarkable results? Why are he and his teams so creative, so focused, and so good at hard, technical, practical problem solving? How does Elon Musk lead others to turn dreams into reality, while satisfying the various markets in which he operates? How does he maintain his focus on the far future and the big picture, while meeting and exceeding expectations in the present? Why is he so good at spotting, capturing, navigating and creating change?
He’ll tell you himself. He looks from the perspective of the biggest of pictures in both space (Mars) and time (climate change), while remaining firmly grounded in science, empiricism, physical reality and the present. He is also firmly grounded in financial reality, but money is only a tool to him and those he leads, not a purpose. Even the development of self-driving cars and deliveries to the ISS are mere milestones towards much greater and grander ambitions: establishing humanity on Mars while preventing its destruction on Earth. Not to talk about it, discuss it, debate it or raise awareness about it. Not to lobby, campaign, urge, suggest or demand it. Not to write reports, papers and books about it, or have meetings, conferences and symposiums about it. But to actually do it, down to the last micron and nanosecond.
That kind of vast, significant and grounded purpose not only attracts the kind of talent that money just can’t buy, but tightly focuses them as well. I would guess that at the heart of research, design and development at SpaceX, Tesla, Boring and all the other Elon Musk enterprises you’ll find open, flexible and highly-focused teams of exceptional individuals. These are superteams of talent drawn together and focused by brave and vastly important common goals far beyond themselves, their company or the coming quarter. Boldly going where no one has gone before.
And it’s not just technical talent that deep, global, significant purpose attracts and focuses. Executives, managers, employees, partners, investors, lenders, shareholders, regulators, customers and potential customers can all feel part of Musk’s overarching mission in some way. That deep, global, important and significant feeling and goal aligns them, orientates them, focuses them, motivates them, connects them and otherwise positively influences them in an almost magnetic direction towards a grand goal that can be reached step by step by step, like an Antarctic explorer drawn to the pole. There’s a lot of interest in and goodwill towards Elon Musk and his various companies.
Musk is an excellent example of purpose-driven leadership and what it can achieve, but he is by no means alone. By thinking, feeling and acting towards a significant, specified purpose beyond your self, group or organisation, you open yourself up to alignment with others who share the same purpose. The bigger and further and more important your purpose is, the more people you can potentially align with. Important, far, big-picture purpose runs deep in people, and people are complex beings, so that alignment can have powerful results. Clear, simple, overarching yet realistic purpose attracts people, drives people, aligns people, focuses people and guides people, allowing them to operate quickly and flexibly in complex ways. Superteams of all sizes need big, deep, far and positive goals in order to flexibly cohere. Money, including share price, just isn’t enough. Neither are votes, for that matter.
Think like water
Our world is changing faster than it ever has before, and the pace of that change is accelerating. Economics, politics, media, work, relationships, business, markets, the environment, the climate and a lot more are changing in front of our eyes. We ourselves are changing. This is not historical change like the rise and fall of dynasties or the invention of the printing press. This is something radically different – something new that has never happened before. There is a quickening. It’s getting faster.
The proximate cause of this accelerating change is, of course, technology. Highly automated systems produce food, products and services unimaginable to our ancestors at prices that are often trivial or non-existant. Innovation expands possibilities with a regularity that is disorientating. Global development, integration and highly efficient distribution means not only new competition but new markets, new threats and opportunities, new weaknesses and strengths. Technology in many forms has changed and is changing our world in many ways. However one new technology stands out for the sheer depth and scale of change that it has unleashed – the internet.
Over half of the population of the world now use the internet and that number is, of course, rising rapidly. Facebook alone has over two billion monthly active users. About ten billion searches are made on Google every day, just one of seven separate properties it owns, each with over one billion active monthly users. As of 2017, global social media use was about two hours and fifteen minutes per day per internet user… and rising. Entire ecosystems of market, social and cultural minnows exist around and even inside the tech giants, all with their own customers, audience, supporters and constituents. The internet is much more than an economy influencing $2.1 trillion in sales. It’s where humans increasingly live. Human attention is quickly flowing online.
As disorientating as this dramatic shift can be, we can easily see where it’s heading. Since the planet and its population are finite, we’re clearly on the road to a situation in which for all practical purposes everyone is on the internet. And, since time moves on, eventually everyone will be a digital native, having known nothing else. Not all of life will be lived online, but much of it will. And it is there that we will do much of our business and, informed by the world, make many of our choices. The end point of internet development is surely one global, interconnected network of human minds, feelings and perspectives – an arena of almost infinitely available and rapidly expanding knowledge, connection and choice.
We are already living in such a world of global, interconnected hyper-choice, the potential of which is limited only by the human imagination. Although virtual, ethereal and somewhat unreal, what happens on the internet has very real effects and consequences, including for your industry, market, interest or niche. Adapting to this deep and fundamental change is not easy, even for those who have lived their entire lives in the midst of it. But it’s not as if we have a choice – we have to navigate through it. So here are some practical lessons we might draw from the river perspective of change:
1. Be flexible. All change, any change, essentially involves something new and something old. There are, of course, many old ideas, practices and perspectives that have come from the past, that are no longer fit for the present, and that we have to let go of. And there are many new, interesting and exciting ideas, practices and perspectives growing rapidly in many spheres. We must pick and choose as best we can.
But people are different. In a global interconnected network of human beings with few barriers, the rules of human interaction are different. No longer constrained by geography, spectrum, social class or other limiting factors, people have become free to follow, interact with, and associate with whomever they like. In such a world, mutual attraction is the connection that leads to action. Whether a giant corporation or a lone individual, if I don’t like you, or if I get the feeling that you don’t like me or care about me or value what I value… then we have a problem. And since we don’t like problems, we move on. But if I like you, and you like me, then we can do something together and make something happen, maybe business. For this to happen, we first have to attract each other. And that means being open.
We cannot attract unless we are seen. Transparency, authenticity, openness and honesty allow others to know us more deeply and thus connect at a deeper level. If you want to get the best talent, employees, partners, investors, and to come to you, then you have to show them who you are. This involves vulnerability and trust and these, of course, have limits. But the deeper you reveal yourself, the deeper the connections you will attract.
Connect and let go. Connect and let go. Connect and let go. Like an orangutan swinging through the forest from vine to vine, we navigate our social and business lives individual by individual, person by person. We repel some, attract others and have no influence on many. It’s the ones we attract that are important. And it’s the ones from that subset that we are also attracted to that are really important. These are the ones you will be working with, in whatever it is you are trying to do.
So be flexible, and let your people be flexible. Open yourself to others and encourage your people to do the same. Manage for this flexibility. Design for this flexibility. Promote this flexibility. Remove barriers to this flexibility. Attract, connect, interact and let go. Attach and detach. Flow like water.
2. Feel your purpose. You can’t feel your purpose if you don’t know your purpose. If, like Elon Musk, you already and clearly know your purpose, then that is good and good luck to you. But if you’re still looking, then here’s some advice:
Whatever your purpose is it must be vast, significant and at least partly achievable if it is to meaningfully connect you with others. The bigger your purpose is, the more people are drawn to it and the more potential connections and allies you have. The deeper and more significant that purpose is, the more powerful the impelling force behind it. The strongest purpose is one that is far and deep, big and important, serious and meaningful, challenging but possible.
Big, important, audacious but possible purpose is powerfully attractive but it’s useless without specific goals, plans and action, and most people know that. Talk and words never changed anything by themselves without firm decisions, realistic plans and concrete actions to make something happen. While vague talk of values, intentions or imperatives might be temporarily attractive, purpose and the people who associate with that purpose focus around real, ambitious but achievable goals. Goals make purpose real.
Once you know your purpose and have a clear goal in front of you, it’s difficult to think of anything else. Such purpose gives the meaning to what you do, entices you to go further, and keeps you going when all hope seems gone. Clear, focused, important, deep purpose not only orientates you in a world of ever-expanding and mostly frivolous options, potentials, possibilities and choice, but it does so by pulling you, drawing you and compelling you. Focused purpose expressed in effective action motivates teams like nothing else. It is emotional, it is deep, it is spiritual, and it focuses and develops creativity itself. Our purpose is the gravity that causes us to flow and that orientates us. You know it when you feel it.
3. Know your landscape. This is your reality – the totality of everything you comprehend, especially things related to your business, interests or purpose. And it starts with your data. Whatever your market, industry, interest, agenda or niche, you won’t be short of data about it, especially if you collect and produce it yourself. But precision is not accuracy, interpretations are not reality, and the potential for bias is high. Not everything important is quantifiable and some of the most significant details lie hidden in the aggregates. Some of the most important aspects of your landscape are not contained in your data, however much of it you have. These are usually the parts that involve people.
All decisions, all choices, all preferences are ultimately made by human beings. Talent, employees, partners, investors, clients and customers are all people before they are anything else, and each has her or his own unique perspective, including about you, your company, your cause, your market and anything else you might be interested in. The only way to accurately discover this perspective is to actually talk to these people, in a relaxed setting and in an open, honest, equal and informal way. If you ask them they’ll tell you, but you have to ask in a way that suits and respects them. Humility helps. So does patience.
Finally, your knowledge of your landscape must include a planetary perspective. Whatever the immediate details of and issues in your own particular area, market or niche, and whatever your ultimate purpose is, you’re not going to win by going against global facts, universal trends and unstoppable forces. These are the unalterable mountains of our landscape that we must all accept. In particular there are two absolute boundaries through which we must navigate – the twin boundaries of environmental and social sustainability illustrated so well by Kate Raworth in her conceptualisation of the Doughnut. Whatever your long term purpose, if it’s outside of either of those two boundaries then, one way or another, it’s not going to happen.
It’s easy to look around the world today and lose hope. The lives of many of us are increasingly stressful and difficult, even some billionaires worry about ever-growing inequality, and the permanent catastrophe of runaway climate change hangs like a shadow over everything we do. Donald Trump is in the White House, Britain is leaving the EU, and the seas are choked with plastic. It’s easy to lose heart and to slip into the uselessness of despair, cynicism and apathy.
But there are real and solid reasons for hope. Don’t forget, H3 is much less familiar to us than HI. The dominant H1 is in front of our faces – on the TV, on major news sites in polite conversations, and everywhere else. In contrast, we have to look for H3. The good news is that when we do, we see signs of H3 coherence everywhere. The internet is bringing people together, and it’s not doing this randomly.
We need purpose. We crave purpose. We want to work together to do important things. We yearn to belong. We love to feel useful and valued, and part of something bigger, greater and more important than our selves. It fills an important part of us. People are connecting as never before, and these connections are not stochastic or random. They are chosen by human beings and thus they are biased towards purpose.
There are stormy waters ahead, and things are going to get stranger before they settle down. There is much historical baggage to let go of, and not all of it will go quietly. There is a lot of novelty that will not last. There is great danger in the not so far future, for us all. Whether you are a large legacy organisation or a nimble independent millennial, it will not be easy.
But if you know and understand the world you are in to the best of your ability; and if you feel your purpose and know why you do what you do; and if you are willing to open yourself to the new and to let go of the old, then you will be OK. Whatever happens, you’ll know exactly what to do.
Know your landscape. Feel your purpose. Connect and let go, again and again and again. Think like water.
If you, your group or your organisation are surveying your landscape, developing your purpose, or otherwise seeking to connect and cohere I am available for consulting, freelancing and other hire. My full CV/resume is available here, my personal narrative (including an account of my explorations in economics) is available here, and I can be contacted here.
I am also seeking funding, sponsorship and support to enable me to independently continue my work and expand my reach. If you see value in what I am doing and would like to contribute, you can do so by making a one-off donation via PayPal, or by establishing a recurring sponsorship via Patreon.