This piece - The Role of the Corporate Philosopher - is an extended version of an interview I conducted with Business Connect magazine in Australia prior to the Australian Chambers Business Congress in September where I gave a keynote address on Future Paradigms for Business.
What is a corporate philosopher?
A corporate philosopher is a thorn in the flesh of the status quo. A disruptive influence. Someone who poses fundamental challenges to standard thinking and practices. In a business context, philosophy is incredibly useful and entirely pragmatic. By posing unusual questions, and inviting uncommon insights, I help reconceive how any social, political or business ecosystem - an enterprise perhaps, or an industry, an economy or even a government - can become more effective in the world as a force for good. That is best done by dismantling conventions that exist concerning what is done and how we do it – and by challenging the, occasionally fiercely guarded, rationales and logic regarding why we do it.
At a practical level I try to shed light on what is really
going on by accessing a profound knowledge of the ecosystem within which I am working -
its social relationships and dynamics particularly. In collaboration with others I seek
to understand how patterns of events might be driven by mechanisms we do not
intend or by assumptions that are no longer relevant. Through that process of
inquiry we can better anticipate what might happen tomorrow and how we could or
should deal with the unintended consequences of our activities.
How important are the lessons from the past?
The past is of vital importance to the conscious evolution of humanity - and on many levels. Ultimately human progress demands that we understand our past. Without a genuine appreciation of where we have come from, where we are, and our desired destination, we cannot possibly know in which direction we should head. These three points on the compass are critical - except in situations where any path will do. However hard one might try, it is actually impossible to divorce the past from the present because our shared "community of mind" is incapable of deleting the memory of things past.
So instead of ignoring what happened yesterday, or pretending that it is not important, I actually encourage those with whom we work to embrace the past. We can do that by making it even more explicit – mainly through dialogue and various forms of narrative. By using methods that compress past and possible into the present moment - an “expanded” now - we can make intriguing links between what is, what was, and what could be.
Early on in my career I worked with my business colleague Marvin Oka to create a methodology we called Strategic Navigation. The practice crux of Strategic Navigation exists in a deliberately "atemporal" space. In other words it enables perspectives, concepts and schemas from the past, present and possible to collapse into real-time strategic design, where new intentions become clear and responses to current conditions are evident. At one level it’s a profoundly simple way of ensuring there’s no trade-off with what is happening today and what you might want to be doing in the future. This kind of real-time, strategy-as-process method of planning is still not practised widely. But it should be. It helps us to learn from the past and avoid sacrificing future benefits in favour of today's expediencies.
Businesses rely on data to form strategies and make decisions. But are there different approaches?
Executives might believe they rely on data to make important decisions, but this is mostly an illusion. Computers rely on data but human beings are not automatons! People rely on imagination, feelings, memories and gut intuition, much more than we want to admit. Even the widely accepted notion of left brain - right brain preferences (i.e. the logical analysis-creative synthesis split) is only a half truth, as recent research into brain plasticity has proved.
The truth is we tend to be guided by our
memories (emotional reactions to what or what did not work for us previously), by intuition about what "feels" right, and by trust (or a lack of trust) in others' opinions. Even when we think we’re being totally objective, we are not. Furhermore it
is quite common for us to fabricate “intelligence” using highly selective data on the basis that it
reinforces what we already know, believe to be true - or want to be true.
Most strategic conversations in business
and politics today are very shallow indeed, especially those that rely on data as evidence for strategy finding – simply because they lack variety and
tend to focus purely on the exterior world that we can touch, measure and manipulate. My work is integral, in the sense that by
introducing uncertainty, diversity and ambiguity into a deeper dialogue about the future, and by
engaging our innermost concerns about what matters, we immediately engage a
disruptive technique for shifting people into alternative dimensions of
thinking, being and doing.
As you know, one of my most fundamental
premises is that attempting to undertake ‘business as usual’ in
the next decade will become more and more impossible. People who stick to current
formulas will come unstuck. We’re facing so many wicked problems as a species, as well as unprecedented opportunities for doing things differently, that
business has an important role to play in creating wealth based upon new models and new propositions.
So while there are many different approaches to thinking strategically (and timely, accurate data is still useful in terms of validation) all of them demand that we are more resilient, open to constantly-morphing alternatives, and able to adapt rapidly to unforeseen changes in the conditions surrounding us.
How does one disrupt in ways that do not destroy?
A lovely question. Are you assuming that destruction is always a bad thing? If so I would challenge your proposition. As we have seen occur throughout history, sometimes it is necessary to "destroy" the old in order for the new to rise like a phoenix from the ashes.That can also be done creatively in order to avoid what is now often referred to in the military as "collateral damage"....
But to answer your question.... Creative disruption depends upon the power of the question. I often pose questions that stop you in your tracks. By using different types of questions
you can reach into new
understandings of what is possible. This then allows you to step into different epistemologies, or ways of knowing.
Let me give you a counterintuitive example of the kind of disruption I am talking about. Over the past few years we've developed and beta-tested a method of collaborative inquiry we call
Strategic Acupuncture. That title is indicative of an alternative approach to the health and energy within any system. Strategic Acupuncture is a process for resolving
highly complex issues that are costing a business dearly, but seem impossible
to eliminate. A large consulting firm would often view such issues as an
aspect of cultural change requiring several years of "cultural change" and a small fortune to remedy . Consultants are generally
very disruptive to one's business, and costly in terms of their fees!
Strategic Acupuncture turns such conventional wisdom on its
head. We can tackle any complex problem and devise an enduring solution within a few
hours of forensic interrogation
– in a way that a consulting firm is simply not geared up to do. Strategic Acupuncture is low cost, forensically precise, unobtrusive, benign and rediculously
fast. So this is a disruptive technique. But in this case the disruption is targeted at the orthodox consulting models so casually imposed - rather than one's
Strategic Acupuncture sounds like it requires an intensive few hours!
Yes, it’s exhausting for all concerned. But the intensity means that solutions can be detected within hours and days rather than months or years. And it has saved some clients literally millions of dollars when viewed within the context of managing costs, the best use of available resources, talent retention, brand reputation and, of course, customer satisfaction. So the intensity, while exhausting, is certainly worth it.
What barriers do you come across using this and similar processes?
Because of the scientific phenomenon of entanglement, solving complex problems in any organisation becomes a matter of systemic design. In this case entanglement is the inextricable connectivity existing within any community of people, in addition to the processes they have invented to get things done, and the mechanisms they have installed to know that things are being done in a certain way.
Unfortunately most business or organisational problems are viewed as discrete, bounded issues. This can be hugely problematic, especially when possible solutions are put forward by a particular constituency (say a group of engineers or the HR department, for example) because they invariably perceive the problem through their "window on the world" - or their own disciplinary lens. Making matters worse still, a CEO or senior manager will often have their own pre-conceived solution to a problem. Human nature being what it is they then have a tendency to throw money at this pet solution, even if it’s clearly wrong to do so, in an effort not to lose face or raise doubts regarding their own judgement.
In truth all systems are perfectly designed to deliver what they deliver. The only way to change that is to change the intention or the constraints limiting other outcomes. So we deal with the kinds of situations I have mentioned
by stripping away invalid assumptions, abstractions and theories until
a new clarity is perceived. To be frank, we are not even particularly concerned to dwell on the so-called "problem" because the real solution will be in finding the tiniest way to flip the energy within the system so as to achieve what is actually intended. If a problem remains a problem it is simply because the problem solver does not understand how the system is actually working. If you understand something it is simple. If it is not simple then you do not understand it.
We encounter other barriers of course. Many of these are psychological in nature. Scepticism is a common problem, especially initially. After all we have been told so often and repeatedly that complex matters, like culture change, take time and effort to fix. This belief is a hard habit to kick. People like me, a published author, mentor and successful strategist - but without the legitimacy or resources of a major consulting firm behind me - are seen to be flying in the face of convention. It is far easier for an Executive Committee to believe their own orthodoxies and half-truths. Engaging a large consulting firm has its benefits. For one thing the bank will not flinch, even when a proposal costs of millions of dollars - in fact even less so when it costs millions of dollars! Meanwhile Committee members are relieved of the responsbility to think deeply about their own beliefs and what really needs to change.
Let's face it, we know from published statistics, that most takeovers, restructures, re-engineering projects and change programs are a futile waste of time, money and effort. They shift people around like pawns in a game of chess but ultimately make little difference to performance and adding no additional value to the business. What is really needed, before moving into action of any kind, is a profound knowledge of the broader business ecosystem together with the imagination and courage to change only what needs changing. Everything else is a distraction.
Then there is the issue of capability. Because most managers typically make decisions without the profound knowledge of the system I am talking about, deep forensic inquiry into a system's architecture and performance is not a capability many executives or government bureaucrats possess - or believe they need. Many Boards and senior executives would rather turn a blind eye to the fact that most so-called "intractable" problems are actually easily resolvable. Consequently they are much more open to initiating BIG change programs with BIG budgets. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is human nature... I mean the belief that we must pay big bucks for quality. But it also helps sustain the arcane and elitist nature of much orthodox management theory.
Leadership is a big focal point of your recent work. What is the impulse here?
All around the world there is a dearth of authentic and appropriate leadership - in government and in the private sector alike. The leadership literacies that were appropriate a century ago are no longer relevant because the environment has shifted so dramatically, not to mention the exponential speed of technological change. But that has not fully registered as yet. Nation state governments were invented to compete with each other, so it is hardly surprising that the capability and urge to cooperate (on an issue like climate change, for example) is not forthcoming in those circles. Besides the global geo-political context has become so complex that most politicians and their advisers are simply out of their depth these days. Even then they still cling to conventional means rather than invest in new approaches. For example, if it were not so serious it would be hilarious that we send literally thousands of officials from all around the world to the Rio+20 climate summit hoping that a consensus of some kind would emerge. How could that possibly be? I don't know about you but I have difficulty negotiating a consensus of any kind from the members of my family! But at Rio there were over 20,000 people trying to negotiate an outcome! How deluded is that?
In the corporate space, many CEOs and boards are thrashing around, trying to make sense of what’s happening and not being particularly successful at thinking through the consequences. Generally speaking they are hoping and trusting that we will return to a time of relative calm and stability. Again this is an illusion. But that view is unlikely to shift until we experience more pain, which is guaranteed. So far there are no compelling narratives able to replace the myth of industrial economism which has brought affluence to a fortunate few but despair to many others.
Are there cultural factors to effective leadership?
Yes indeed, especially in such an interconnected world as ours is these days. I suppose there are two slightly different inflections to consider here. Both are important factors.
Within the ethos of "disaster" capitalism, fixated as it is on growth and utterly dependent upon continued consumer
, the factors that dominate
our lives appear to be all economic - as if financial matters and the accumulation of wealth have become the sole reason for our
existence. It is important to see what is going on here. In effect we have upended the relationship between logos (human vision and purpose) and nomos (the economic management of that purpose) such that the latter is now thought to be the main game. Sadly, tenets preserving and reinforcing this perspective are enshrined in law are now often even misconstrued as
tenets of democracy.
Many of the assumptions concerning what matters will become invalid in the future as we shift towards a different kind of relationship with each other and with the planet. Our elected leaders, however, are singularly ill-equipped to collaborate in the creation of a new kind of society, whatever that could be. That is just one of the reasons we are witnessing an awakening in protests and civil disobedience in many parts of the world. Citizens have decided not to wait for their elected representatives to act on important issues concerning us all and are taking matters into their own hands. While this is laudable at one level it also means the conscious collective evolution of the human family remains unremittingly on the back burner. Leadership is abdicated due to a lack of vision of what might be possible, or even desirable, and our attention becomes obsessively enamoured with the economics of growth and little else.
Another problem is the assumption, held by many in the West, who should know better, that the pinnacle of leadership has already been achieved - primarily within developed nations and their institutions. This linear notion of exclusive progress is especially enshrined in the arrogant mentality of "empire" that is still rife in the US and parts of Europe and is being projected onto China - though not by the Chinese themselves. Yet some of the most civilised and empathic contemporary leadership arises not from the US or Europe but from within indigenous communities and small countries like Bhutan, Bolivia, Thailand and Turkey, for example.
Although humanity has arguably shared a single, dogged worldview for at least 2,500 years, the many cultural mindsets used to interpret that worldview leave me with the distinct impression that a new society with a different worldview cannot possibly emerge from the US or similarly bankrupt and exhausted nations. Which is just another reason to have hope in the cultures comprising the Global South and Asia.
‘The future of everything’ is a tagline of The
Hames Report, which you author
one man intelligently discuss the number of things that shape the future?
Ha! I’ve never been asked that question before! The research on which I base my writing is synthesised in collaboration with many others. This includes an extensive global network of thought leaders from many cultures and all walks of life currently numbering well over 2,000. So the conclusions I reach are not just personal opinions but the summation of many voices, most far wiser than my own.
Much of the
research we have been conducting over the past decade has been aimed at
distinguishing between the world
view we all share and the vast variety of cultural mindsets each one of us accesses to translate that single worldview into local meanings and idiosyncratic practices that make our world so rich.
What I fundamentally
believe, is that for human beings to remain on this planet, and transcend to
another level of consciousness and being – the worldview itself has to change.
Behind the strapline ‘the future of everything’, are fundamental design ideas. Ultimately it comes down to what we believe we’re here to do, what is important, and how we want to relate to each
to the planet.