Is Purpose Your Company’s Best Protection Against Disruption?

nik-shuliahin-JOzv_pAkcMk-unsplashHands down, there is no one that I enjoy talking to about disruption theory more than David Roberts. I’ve had the benefit of working with him for the last five years and, no matter how many presentations I hear him give, I always walk away feeling inspired and with at least one new insight about two of my areas of passion — purpose and strategy.

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting in on one of his sessions and, amidst the number of his examples of companies that were both disruptors as well as disrupted, one common theme emerged for me. The companies, and industries, that got disrupted were not thinking broadly enough about the service they were providing to their customers. Instead, they were too focused on optimizing for what industry they believed they were in, e.g., being in the insurance industry vs. providing peace of mind and security to their members.

If you believe you are in the auto insurance industry, you are going to look for opportunities to become a better auto insurance company. Even if that is an aspirational goal, it is still very limiting. However, if you believe that you are in the business of providing peace of mind and security for your customers, you are going to seek new ways to fulfill that purpose, which will uncover a myriad of new opportunities, only some of them limited to auto insurance. These new directions can unlock immeasurable value and carry you forward into an era in which the auto insurance industry, as we know it, may cease to exist due to the advent of technology-enabled cars and autonomous vehicles.

It seems like a subtle messaging difference, but it is one that I think is at the heart of why some companies are primed to weather disruptive forces, and some have big targets on their backs. So I decided to do some research into the link between purpose and disruption and came upon this excellent study from the EY Beacon Institute.

The study categorized companies into three groups as it relates to purpose:

  • Prioritizers (P), companies that already have a clearly articulated and understood purpose (39% of companies surveyed);
  • Developers (D), companies that do not yet have a clearly articulated purpose but are working to develop one (48%); and
  • Laggards (L), companies that have not yet begun to develop or even think about purpose (13%).

The results of the study show that there was significant alignment across all three groups on the importance of purpose. The results of these two questions demonstrate this:

  • “Clear purpose is important motivational/aligning element of successful strategic transformation.” (% that agree with this statement: P=94%, D=91%, L=93%)
  • “Clear purpose is a good guide/inspiration to future innovation of products and services.” (P=92%, D=87%, L=85%)

However, there is a significant gap that exists between the Prioritizers and the Laggards when it comes to executing on innovation and transformation, as demonstrated by the responses to these two questions:

  • “My business is focused on innovation and continuous transformation.” (P=62%, D=46%, L=26%)
  • “My business is successful with innovation and transformation efforts.” (P=53%, D=31%, L=19%)

While success with transformation and innovation efforts does not necessarily equate to becoming disruption-proof, I think it speaks to the skills, agility, and perspective that an organization needs to succeed in the future and to best shield itself against unforeseen disruption. As I read through this study, there are many questions that I had about the potential bias that respondents may have about their organizations, the relative quality of the purpose statements that different organizations may have, the steps they are taking to integrate them into the day-to-day ways of working, and just how broadly vs. narrowly focused they may be. However, the clear message seems to be that having something is better than nothing, which comes across in the fact that the Developers appear to be accruing benefits just by the fact that they are working on codifying a purpose.

One final takeaway for me was the response to this question about the single biggest barrier to activating purpose in their organization:

  • Poor communication from leadership (P=8%, D=10%, L=24%)

This response does not surprise me whatsoever. After all, an organization’s purpose is fundamentally an inspirational communication from leadership about what is essential to focus on and prioritize. Leadership teams that have poor communication skills would seem to naturally miss the importance of purpose in motivating their teams and preparing them for the future.

For many years, my advice to senior executives has been to focus on clarity of purpose before beginning any digital transformation or other significant strategy and innovation work. The research in this EY study just further bolsters that perspective and adds some further ammunition and nuance to the discussion. I’d love to see a follow-up study that focuses on measurable business performance across these same companies — self-reported employee perspectives may not always factor in actual results. However, if your organization is a Laggard, I would not wait for the results of another study before I started taking steps toward establishing a purpose for your organization. While having a clear purpose is likely not sufficient for avoiding disruption, I wholeheartedly believe that it is a necessary condition for long-term success.

This article first appeared on Medium at


How to Prepare for Our Rapidly Approaching Science Fiction Future

This is a repost of an article I wrote back in 2012 after I was invited to spend a few days at the Singularity University Executive Program. What I did not know when I wrote this article was that a little more than two years later I would graduate from the program and, soon thereafter, take over the reins of not only the EP but all of our Open Enrollment programs. It is interesting to be able to look back in time and see that, while some of the specific technologies have moved forward, answers to many of the bigger questions like, “How will we govern ourselves?” have not. While many things in the world continue to get better everyday, there is undoubtedly a lot of work left to do. I’m thoroughly appreciative of the opportunity to work alongside an amazing team that brings these programs to life and provides a forum for leaders to engage in creating the future, together.

I had the privilege of spending the last two days as a guest at Singularity University’s Executive Program in Silicon Valley. And, after listening to a variety of experts in fields as diverse as computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology and neuroscience, I can safely say that the science fiction writers got it right. Really, really right. We already have Star Trek Communicators in the form of the iPhones and Android phones that we carry around in our pockets 24 hours a day, though there is an argument to be made that these devices are much more than that.

Given that most of us can’t be more than 10 feet away from our smart phones at anytime, are they really the beginning of the widespread integration of man and machine? The fact that we use our fingers and voices to control them rather than electrical impulses from the brain is an “arbitrary distinction”, as I heard multiple times this week. If the idea that you are already part cyborg has you feeling uneasy, its probably best for you to stop reading now.

The term “singularity” is a reference to the theory that humankind is rapidly approaching a point where technological intelligence will be greater than human intelligence. And after listening to the assembled speakers at the SU campus, it sounds like its coming quickly. The exponential growth and convergence of capabilities in genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence is pushing us towards a future which could be startling, and is unpredictable. What happens when robots become smarter than we are? What happens when robots can build themselves (read: reproduce)? What happens when advances in technology allow us to live forever? Will we want to? What will there be for us to do in a world where robots and machines are smarter and better at doing just about everything?

And that is where the excitement starts to build for me. If we take for granted that we are going to achieve this future of singularity in the coming generations, and after what I’ve seen the last few days it sure seems like we will, then we as humans are going to have a lot of work to do in building what will amount to an entirely new kind of social model. How will we govern ourselves? How will sentient robots integrate into society? How do we keep technology in the hands of those who wish to do good instead of evil? There will be a lot of complex issues for us to answer, and though it might fly in the face of everything else I’ve written here, I’m putting my money on humans playing the critical role in solving these kinds of issues instead of machines. To do so, however, we’ll need to find a spirit of cooperative problem-solving that is in desperately short supply in many of our institutions today. To be honest, that might be the biggest challenge we face. But the reward is massive.

I think it sounds a lot more fun to shape the future than to let the future shape us, so the best advice I can give anyone who is interested in learning more is to go to Singularity University’s homepage, check out their faculty, and then go to their YouTube channel to find videos of their speeches and presentations (like the inspiring one above). Then find a few hours and a quiet place to sit, allow your mind to be blown and allow your creativity to run wild.

There is a future to be created and fortunes to be made as industries will be fundamentally reshaped by countless technologies originally envisioned by those frighteningly accurate science fiction writers many years ago.

  • Are 3D printers from Cubify all that different from Star Trek’s transporters when you can print a physical object on the other side of the world with a touch of a button?
  • Has Gattaca come to life with personal genetics testing from 23andMe?
  • Are HAL 9000 and Alex Trebek’s friend IBM Watson just computer brothers from another mother? How about George Jetson’s car and Google’s driverless car? The Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin, and South African Sprinter Oscar Pistorious?

If they aren’t exact matches, they are certainly very close. So, what’s the science fiction that you want to create? There’s never been a time in human history when creating anything has been more possible.

This post originally appeared on Medium on July 13, 2018.

Think About The “User Experience” When You Write Your Next Email

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

I thought this article was pretty brilliant. It brings “user experience” into the conversation, as in, “what is the user experience you want to create for the reader of your email?” I know that from personal experience, the concise emails that I receive are more quickly responded to, and that longer rambling emails that I receive typically sit in my inbox for months.

This post originally appeared on Medium on July 11, 2018.

How Does Your Organization Murder Innovation?

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

If there is one common thread that weaves together my experience in the field of innovation over the last decade, it is how frustrated people are about how their organizations kill innovation.

Innovation murder doesn’t happen on purpose. Typically the perpetrators believe they are helping innovation, not hindering it. They are innocent in spirit, if not in action.

The three most common methods I see are:

  1. Starvation, which happens when good ideas are put on hold until the organization is ready for them, (read: never);
  2. Strangulation, which occurs when good ideas are subjected to greater and greater levels of scrutiny that gradually squeezes all of the life out of them. Strangulation is often referred to by a more friendly name like “Stage Gate” or the “Innovation Funnel”; and
  3. Siblicide, which occurs when an older, more mature idea takes all of the attention away from a new idea which eventually dies of neglect. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that are sitting on billion dollar ideas that never make it to market because all of their time and energy is dedicated to serving another idea whose biggest virtue is that it is further down the path.

So ask yourself…have you helped to murder innovation? You have. We all have. It’s okay to admit it. You didn’t mean to. It was an accident. And I’m not going to stand on a soapbox and tell you have to stop doing it, but I am going to suggest that you acknowledge that you are doing it and not just pretend that it’s not happening because you’re just blindly following your organization’s adopted innovation or budgetary process.

No one has to be an innovation murderer, but it often requires an “innovation world” mindset of courage, belief and determination to break the “operational world” cycle that many of our innovation or budgetary processes introduce. These aren’t always the qualities that an organization rewards in the short term, but they are required for those who want to create real change in the world and shift toward a better future for their organizations and themselves.

This post originally appeared on Medium on July 10, 2018.

The Best Digital Transformation Advice I’ve Ever Heard

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Last week at our Singularity University Executive Program, I was moderating a discussion with our Co-Founder, Peter Diamandis when the topic turned to how large companies can achieve a true digital transformation. His advice was clear and straightforward — don’t start a full-scale digital transformation until you know what your organization’s long term (think 20 years) goal is. Otherwise you run the risk of investing large sums of money to digitize an organization that is optimized for the business of today rather than the business of tomorrow.

This immediately reminded me of the classic Harvard Business Review article, “Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate”, from all the way back in 1990. Back then, the business world was tackling automation and how it could speed processes, however the very real risk was that we would simply recreate outdated processes in software that would become too expensive to ever modify or update, forever shackling the organization to an inefficient or ineffective way of working. The advice was to find senior management with real vision to completely reimagine the way the organization works as the critical factor. Information technology could then be leveraged to bring their bold ambitions, such as reducing turnaround time by 90%, to life.

Today’s companies also require senior leaders with real vision, however the challenge is different. Given the speed of technology and changing market dynamics, the vision needed today is the ability to completely reimagine an organization’s purpose or reason to exist and why it should expect to be in business in 20 years before thinking about anything else. Without that vision, organizations may be digitally transforming businesses they don’t really want to be in, or that may not even exist in a few years. In most large organizations that I’ve worked with, this kind of long-term, strategic thinking is rare. It’s not because people can’t do it, but because the near-term performance pressures are too great for them to be able to think that far into the future.

It is hard to imagine an organization that is not going to commit to a digital transformation of their business if they have not already started down that path. I think what will separate the successful companies from those that fail in the process is whether they are using their investments in artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, etc. to truly create a vision of the future and a business that will thrive in it, or merely a futuristic version of their current business. Increasingly it feels like those leaders that are approaching digital transformation starting from a broad vision of the future will be best prepared to not only succeed in the short term, but also to ensure the longevity of their organization. And likely their own legacy.

This post originally appeared on Medium on June 25, 2018.

What You Can Learn From Lowe’s Experiment to Employ Robots in Their Stores

The Lowebot is the latest incarnation of the relationship between Lowe’s Home Improvement and Fellow Robots, one of the many envelope-pushing startups we have at Singularity University. This collaboration, which also spawned the OSHbot which has now been in service in an Orchard Supply Hardware (a Lowe’s subsidiary) in the Bay Area for two years now, is an example that I always point out to the boards and executive teams that come through Singularity University. It represents two things that most Fortune 500 companies are not doing, namely:

  1. Being bold.
  2. Doing so publicly.
Fellow Robots
Image: Fellow Robots

While the Lowebot is certainly earning media mentions and could easily be mistaken for a media gimmick, the most valuable opportunity I see with the Lowebot is the opportunity to learn. Not just to see what robots can do in a retail store environment, but the opportunity to learn how humans use and interact with them and to leverage that information to evolve not only the next version of the Lowebot, but the entire field of robotic assistants. If robotic assistants are our future, then Lowe’s is quickly discovering more about that future, in a real-world environment, than anyone else and that has implications well beyond home improvement.

My advice to CEOs is to do something as bold as what Lowe’s is doing with the Lowebot. Do it to learn. Do it to stake a claim in a new or developing industry. And if you can’t figure out what to do, then look for progressive and forward-thinking talent and partners who can help you find something bold to do. Because in today’s business environment if you aren’t boldly leading into the future, you’re probably falling behind.

This post originally appeared on Medium on September 19, 2016.

Reading Minds: The Most Interesting Thing About Facebook’s Psychology Experiment

Much of the angst about the news of Facebook’s psychology experiment on 600,000 users has focused on the fact that people’s emotions were purposefully manipulated.  While this is, indeed, pretty shocking news (I wonder how many arguments between couples were caused by Facebook putting both parties in crappy moods), the more interesting thing to me is that Facebook can tell the emotional state of people who are posting on their site just by analyzing their posts.

Startup Citizenme provides a service that will take your social postings and provide a personality analysis on many factors, including openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. While I’m sure that any good therapist could review postings and have a point of view to share as well, the fact that his is happening in a very passive way is a little more uncomfortable. I don’t think too many people sign up to be psychoanalyzed or to have their feelings manipulated when they are using Facebook, or any other social media platform for that matter. But that is the brave new world in which we live.

There are plenty of ways to see the benefit of this kind of innovation. Maybe Citizenme will morph into a dating app that connects you to people with similar levels of neuroticism. Maybe there is a new service that will show you positive posts when your own become to negative like an online anti-depressant (did Facebook show posts with kittens to users in Miami after LeBron left?).

But no matter what Citizenme or Facebook intends to do with this knowledge, the fact that our mental states can be evaluated by our posts is something that we should all be aware of. It could become the most targeted of marketing strategies. It is not hard to imagine that Facebook would charge a higher advertising rate to only reach people who were happy. Or sad. Or whatever state of mind makes them most susceptible to buying a specific product. Or it could become a way to manipulate the emotions of an entire group of people, either for good or evil, with the press of a button (like Facebook already did).

Whatever happens, we probably won’t know about it until after it has happened. So for now, get out there and start posting. Its the only way to be part of the experiment, for now.

Ideas Need a Story to Survive

One of the biggest challenges that good ideas have is making the jump out of the original inventor’s head into the mind of the first person she shares it with. Explaining your idea in all of its richness and glory so that others will understand it is not an easy task, and a lot of good ideas will never successfully make the jump.

The next time you have a good idea that you want to share, try sharing it as a story. In the excellent book, The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, we learn that people are programmed to be suckers for stories. We get sucked into stories of all kinds every day: sitcoms, movies, novels, commercials, even lunchtime gossip about who said what to whom in a meeting that morning.

In his book, Gotschall presents a simple formula for story: Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication. For those of us who watch Mad Men, we know this formula is how Don Draper is always making his pitch for a new ad campaign to a client. But this is not how most of us think about pitching the ideas we have every day to our colleagues at work.

Your story about a character + predicament might be about a customer facing a challenge in their day, a factory facing a bottleneck, a company facing a changing market. They all need an “attempted extrication”, and that is your idea.

A story is not a guarantee that your idea is the right idea, but it will increase the likelihood that others will understand it and accept it well enough get a conversation started. Once that jump has happened, there is no telling what you will make happen.

This post originally appeared on the Synecticsworld website.

How does your business kill innovation?

If there is one common thread that weaves together my experience in the field of innovation, it is hearing on a weekly basis, how frustrated people are about how their organizations kill innovation.

Innovation murder doesn’t happen on purpose. Typically the perpetrators believe they are helping innovation, not hindering it. They are innocent in spirit, if not in action.

The two most common methods I see are:
1) Starvation, which happens when good ideas are put on hold until the organization is ready for them, (read: never); and
2) Strangulation, which occurs when good ideas are subjected to greater and greater levels of scrutiny that gradually squeezes all of the life out. Strangulation is often referred to by a more friendly name like “Stage Gate” or the “Innovation Funnel”.

No one has to be an innovation murderer, but it often requires an “innovation world” mindset of courage, belief and determination to break the cycle. Those aren’t always the qualities that an organization rewards in the short term, but they are required for those who want to create change.

This post originally appeared on the Synecticsworld website.


Optimal Decision-Making and Doing More with Less Time

This week, I read an eye-opening article about the mathematical challenge known as “The Marriage Problem.” In this challenge, a person, let’s call it a man, is faced with a conundrum of deciding which person, let’s call it a woman, to marry. The man has a list of a finite number of women, and after he has met each one he must to decide whether to propose marriage to her or not. If he gets to the end of the list, he must marry the last woman no matter whether she was the best option or not.

If faced with this challenge, what do you do? According to mathematicians, the best way to decide is to count the number of women on the list and date the first 36.8% without proposing to any of them. From that point forward, as soon as the man meets a woman who is a better match than any in the first group of 36.8%, he should immediately propose (well, maybe after a sufficient number of dates to not appear too desperate). This formula comes from the mathematical constant “e”, which is the base of the natural logarithm and was discovered in the study of compound interest. When following this rule, it does not guarantee an optimal outcome, but research has shown that the optimal selection will be make 1/e, or 36.8%, of the time.

While we might not all be fond of choosing our mates this way, there is a real lesson for business in this story. It is fairly typical to find, at any hour of the day, a “brainstorming” meeting taking place in some corporate office. The team often spends the whole hour coming up with ideas, and at the end they are left with a long list of ideas, but no clear idea of where to go next. The team members resign themselves to scheduling another meeting and then they file out, grumbling about what a waste of time that was.

But, ideas are like a strong marriage; they are worked on and developed. Let me give you this alternative to try out the next time you are trying to come up with a new idea. Instead of spending the whole hour thinking up ideas, apply the lesson of “The Marriage Problem”, with a twist. Start the hour thinking about alternative ideas, but after a little more than 20 minutes, go back and pick the best idea you’ve seen so far. Then, spend the rest of the hour developing that idea into a solution, looking at the plusses, solving for concerns and completing it with next steps. I can all but guarantee that after 20 minutes there is at least one good idea that the team has identified, but typically they get overlooked because the team is waiting for the perfect idea to emerge. Don’t fall into the “perfect idea” trap.

By following the development method, you’ll not only walk out of the room with a good solution in hand, but also with a team that has a bounce in its step because it got something accomplished in the time they spent together. Trade in the griping about another wasted hour, for a meeting where they will marvel at their success.  This kind of feeling can be contagious!

This post originally appeared on the Synecticsworld website.