Innovation is in the eye of the beholder – What does this mean for Cybersecurity

The nature of cyber security is undergoing rapid evolution. Cyber-attacks are becoming more frequent, violent, and sophisticated. The threats continue to come in fast and furious.

We’ve seen severe business outages in every sector. Whether you’re in finance, infrastructure, or healthcare does not matter. If you’re making money, you can expect an attack. Cyber security teams continue scrambling to respond to these attacks as cybercriminals continually evolve their tools and techniques.

The massive growth in technology adoption, with many businesses embracing digital transformation, has necessitated a vastly different approach to cybersecurity. The need to be more innovative in cybersecurity is becoming increasingly necessary.

With this context in mind, an illustrious group of industry leaders gathered to dialogue and share perspectives about cybersecurity. They respectively shared how they have been looking at the future of security.

We highlight some of these perspectives:

On the shifting landscape of cybersecurity:

Threats continue to evolve. As businesses continue to adopt and move toward digital transformation, it requires a commensurate investment in cybersecurity. Cybercriminals continue to evolve their tools, leveraging new technologies faster than traditional businesses that need to justify their investment and spending.

For example, attackers are using AI to create “deep fake” videos of company leaders sharing a story and sending it to businesses to trick employees into clicking on a malicious link.  

The channels of security threats also continue to evolve. Previously, threats were easier to manage, as they came through email and on a PC or laptop. With the introduction of mobile technologies, remote working, and different communication and social platforms, such as WhatsApp, Slack, and Discord, adopted for work, particularly by the younger generation, it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage and manage and protect these channels. Hackers can now use emojis to deliver and exploit people.

Given the shifting nature of security, it is increasingly important to create a culture of risk and security and utilise new technologies to augment security capabilities.

On Cybersecurity skills

Skills remain a massive challenge, particularly good cybersecurity skills are difficult to come by. Diversity, including gender diversity in cybersecurity, also remains a challenge.

Companies are struggling to hire these skills and capabilities. Hiring practices are not adaptable enough. Businesses have stringent policies requiring X years of experience with Masters degrees and information security certifications. Without these, one is not even invited to the interview. Yet, Uber was recently hacked, and the attacker was a 17/18-year-old affiliated with a hacking group called Lapsus$, whose members are mostly teenagers and which has recently targeted several technology companies.

 Another challenge is that Red team hackers often play in the “grey zone”. Red teams are simulated adversaries, attempting to identify and exploit potential weaknesses within the organisation’s cyber defences and identifying the attack path that breaches the organisation’s security defence through real-world attack techniques. For these attacks to be simulated as close to the real world as possible, they have to use sophisticated tools that real attackers would ordinarily use. This means that these individuals, while not malicious by nature, may be flagged by organisations’ integrity checks and completely overlooked by the hiring organisation.

A rethink of how we hire, particularly in cybersecurity, will help improve innovation within the field. As an industry, we need to consider more innovative approaches to hiring. Adopting an approach of “Trespassers will be recruited”, may be a more effective way of hiring individuals to improve the overall security posture.

On Localisation:

Localisation remains important. As South Africans, we must embrace our differences and not rely on purely international companies to develop solutions for us. We have different languages and cultures to which we must tailor our security efforts. Making content locally relevant will improve overall adoption.

This is also true of the rest of Africa. In these regions, digital and technology adoption is very different. There is a lower spend on security, the government more highly regulates cloud adoption, and regulation is not friendly towards technology. In these instances, we must constrain our thinking to innovate and effectively improve security in these environments.

On Third-Party Risks:

Third parties are challenging to manage, and yet, to improve innovation, we have to rely on a broader eco-system strategy. Using Third parties is necessary; however, as a business, the ultimate accountability for any data breaches lies with the business as the custodian of the data. A breach brings disrepute to your company and not that of the 3rd party.

In some instances, third parties are not only technology third parties but general service providers, such as in the supply chain space. If third parties are not managed more effectively, it may be the weak link that breaks the chain.

Ideally, third parties should be treated like internal employees; however, taking responsibility for third-party security could mean increased licensing costs, cyber assessment costs, and training costs.

On Audit:

Moving away from an audit approach to a combined assurance approach has proved to be valuable where this has been successful.

Audit cannot be a tick-in-the-box function that uses its findings as a stick against security. There needs to be mutual respect with audit must be seen as a partner, helping achieve the same goals.

We must be careful that auditors do not set the security agenda. Money often chases the audit findings, yet auditors don’t take accountability when something goes wrong. It is crucial that we bring auditors along with us on the cyber journey and ensure that findings are relevant and add value.

On the changing role of the CISO:

The role of the CISO has fundamentally changed. A CISO of businesses today has to wear many hats. CISOs not only manage risk, protect data, and oversee the protection of critical infrastructure, but they need business and strategy skills to articulate the value and importance of information security. They need to lead large groups of very technical people, be people-oriented to create an inclusive culture of security, and be ethical beyond measure, as they hold the keys to the company data. They also need to be innovators, always looking for new ways to improve the security posture while balancing risk.

On enabling innovation in business:

Innovation and security are often seen as water and oil. They don’t mix well. Getting it right is a tricky balancing act. In one instance, the security team looked at the code for the winning innovation apps in a major bank. While these apps were innovative, they lacked the basic security measures that needed to be implemented, especially when dealing with sensitive information.

When innovating, it was suggested that this is the first date, and not a marriage. However, the challenge is that if a relationship is not built on solid foundations, the marriage may crumble. Finding the balance to bake in security from the onset is necessary to innovate and avoid any security technical debt.

Dev teams must embrace a security mindset and security must play a bigger role in ensuring security is baked into the solution as it scales.

There is no doubt that this is a tricky balancing act. Businesses must innovate to keep up to pace with disruptive entrants, and security cannot hold back this innovation. At the same time, we need to create a culture of DevSecOps, where security is considered early in the innovation process. This is especially difficult in businesses that have capacity and skill constraints.

Building solutions that have strong security can be a competitive advantage and is more likely to be adopted than those technologies that aren’t secure.

Capacitating your teams, embedding security in the business and changing the culture are all needed to improve overall innovation capabilities.

On “Attack surface reduction”:

An attack surface is essentially the entire external-facing area of the business. As we digitise, cloud-up and connect, our attack surface is broadening, and so are our attack vectors and vulnerabilities. As security professionals, we need to understand our network, reduce these attack surfaces, and strive for a smaller blast radius. We should leverage new technologies such as Machine Learning models and tools to help augment our security capabilities and improve our mean time to detect and respond so that the blast radius is minimised.

In closing:

Cyber Security is complex. There are a lot of moving parts. Changing our mindsets is incredibly important. The quality of the answer is dependent on the quality of the question. We need to start asking different and better questions, which often lead to better answers and ultimately improve security and innovation.  

To use the analogy of a car, the better the brakes, the faster we can drive, but let’s not make security the handbrake of innovation.

By Nilesh Makan

Nilesh Makan is a technologist with a keen passion for cybersecurity, strategy, innovation and business agility.

Application modernisation – The building blocks of customer-centric innovation

It was a beautiful setting at the 12 Apostles hotel in the Western Cape. Leaders across the industry came together, nestled between the foot Table mountain and the turquoise Atlantic ocean, to share their thoughts and experiences about how to Modernise and Accelerate your Data and AI Strategy.

While there was some talk about technology, the conversation centred around the importance of leveraging technology to design for the customer.

Most of the representatives present noted that businesses continue to modernise their applications and are evolving their architectures to a more Microservices architecture.

At its simplest level, a Microservice is a small app that does one thing. These microservices are housed in a container and are effectively a single responsibility function that communicates using APIs with other services.

Businesses are finding that there are several benefits of these newer technology architectures. Some of these include adaptability and the possibility to adapt fast and improve agility. Agility is enhanced as there is less reliance on other teams when making changes to systems. Microservices have allowed companies to derisk their technology environment by minimising the blast radius.

Security is also improved, with the ability to deploy updates much quicker. Having much smaller pieces of code help programmers scan and pick up possible vulnerabilities that may be built into the system. Smaller, also allows new developers to be onboarded more quickly. It also allows more language-agnostic development. This provides developers the opportunity and freedom to build using more appropriate languages for the problem that needs to be solved.

The elasticity of services is also greatly improved. With Black Friday on the way, online shopping platforms can quickly scale their services without the services falling over, as they have in the past.

There are also several unintended benefits, which include faster innovation cycles with higher levels of customer-focused innovation.

While the benefits are many, increased modernisation efforts and the move towards a more microservices-based architecture, at times, can be over-sold. It’s prudent that leaders spend their time thinking about and deciding how atomic the structure of the microservices should be, finding the right balance and continuously leveraging the right one at the right time.

The 2022 State of DevOps report found that increased modernisation and cloud usage is predictive of organisational performance. Companies with software initially built on and for the cloud tend to have higher organisational performance.

Whether your business is running an extensive monolithic system or whether your business is one like Netflix or Amazon and natively uses these newer architectures, it’s clear that the best way to start is by starting.

While starting with the technology is good, it’s also necessary to not only look broader at the people, processes and culture of the organisation. It is evident that where businesses see themselves as digital businesses first, irrespective of the industry, it tends to perform better. This requires businesses that are organised around value. It requires structures where there is no discrepancy between business and technology, only teams that work cohesively to build innovative solutions for the customer. Organisations that see themselves as digital-first tend to have happier, more productive employees, which in turn, creates higher levels of customer satisfaction, which translates into higher sales and, ultimately, increased growth.

However, this shift requires a culture that favours experimentation, a culture of psychological safety and a culture where people are not fearful of making small mistakes. Creating space to innovate will improve innovation.

These are also strategic decisions, given that we are not just building for now; we are building for flexibility in the future.

As leaders, we must remember that customers don’t care about Microservices architectures or how the organisation is structured, whether you’re moving to the cloud or what great new technologies the company is employing. A customer wants easy to use, seamless and enjoyable experience when buying something.

Businesses must continue making it all about the customer. Using these MicroServices as building blocks will unlock innovation by allowing people to focus on the customer, improve operational performance, and create more engaging experiences.

Reflections for the week – 15 Jul 2022

The first reflection is the concept that we do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience. Hence I am writing this. There were some really interesting moments. The one interesting moment was sitting in a session talking ESG and sustainability. I threw up the concept of Reduce, reuse and recycle. This is the idea of waste hierarchy. A comment was made, isn’t this what they taught us on Barney, the old show with the purple dinosaur. (I love you, you love me, we’re one happy family, with a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, won’t you say you love me too). That song is ingrained in my head because I grew up with my cousin, who was obsessed with that purple dinosaur.

The reflection is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The lessons we learned from all those shows as kids need to be leveraged in our lives.

These were foundational elements that helped shape who we are today. We must heed the call, even if it’s years later, to build caring and kind businesses, treat each other with respect and love, and we must work together to innovate for a better world.

Another reflection was on the idea of strategy and vision. In two instances, when businesses looked at strategy and their vision, it was focused on being the biggest or on how we make more money. These are important and will come as a by-product of strategy; however, it can’t be the strategy. All companies want to grow, and all companies must make money; these are tenants of doing business. Strategy is about what differentiates you. It’s about prioritising what is important to enable growth, and it’s about what makes you get out of bed in the morning. One of the areas we looked at was strategic intent. What is the intent. Is the intent just to make money? It really can’t be, since money, while a motivation, as suggested in Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, is only a motivator until a certain point. Once money can buy you all the hygiene factors in life, it no longer motivates one. So, the reflection is truly about your intent and what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning.

There was also an interesting conversation about values and how they are no longer as relevant. Instead, we should start considering beliefs. Beliefs are assumptions we make about the world, and our value systems stem from our beliefs. In many instances, values in a company are just words on a wall or on a screen. These are like, Honesty, integrity, Innovation, agility… the list goes on. In many instances, there is incongruence with these values across all levels of a company. If your value is innovation, what does that mean? How does a company enable this? If someone is not living up to the values, is that a dismissible offence? What is the point of it all?

Beliefs, on the other hand, can guide us better. They can influence our judgements and mental models. These beliefs can also cause biases, and the last thing I want to reflect on is some of the things I learned while studying systems thinking. A system is where the whole of the system is equal to more than the sum of its individual parts. We often look at a system that we are in through our eyes, and this is a subjective way of looking at the system. If we want to change a system, we have to look at it more objectively. We can never be completely objective because, as we note in particle physics, and we have seen with the Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment, as well as subsequent experiments to prove this, as soon as we observe the system, we change it. The idea is rather to get a wide variety of perspectives, to understand the system as a whole, and not just from a singular perspective. We need diversity of thought to better understand systems. 

So, these are a few things I have reflected on this week.

A change of plan

In an unpredictable and uncertain world, plans often need to change.

As of writing this:

Two years ago, we were all locked down in our homes, adjusting to working remotely and not being able to see our family and friends.

Two months ago, Russia had not yet invaded Ukraine.

Two weeks ago, Will Smith was revered and had not yet smacked Chris Rock unnecessarily, causing worldwide outrage.

So much has changed in such a short space of time.

In terms of large scale change, globally, we have had more one-in-hundred year events on a more frequent basis. Whether it may be climate events, wars, or pandemics, they continue to happen at an increasing rate.

Given this increasing uncertainty, what is our plan in such a volatile world?

Dwight D. Eisenhower was quoted as saying, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”.

Why is this such a profound concept? When you have a plan, ideally, you try to stick to the plan. It becomes the thing to follow, to be reported on and becomes a check in the box exercise that is task-driven. A plan does not take change into consideration, albeit through a little bit of slack often built-in. A plan remains largely static and assumes everything is known up-front.

When projects don’t go to plan or companies suffer significant project failures, the first step is often to tighten up formal project management practices. Gantt charts are updated, Project Managers are often more committed to following up on assigned tasks, and checks are often done irrespective of whether it adds value or not.

The value of the plan does not reside on paper or within the technology where the plan is captured. The value lies in the ongoing dialogue and actions that comprise the planning process itself. Continuous planning is necessary to reflect on the current state, understand the changes in the environment, consider what the future holds, and adapt based on those changes.

Planning does however, require some level of direction. Direction is often manifested through the vision. This vision is the Crux – The set of stars in the Southern Hemisphere that direct you towards the True South. It aligns individuals and teams on where to focus effort, allowing the teams to figure out the “How” of getting there. The teams then consider those stepping-stones that are needed to progress towards the vision.

Planning is also about managing risk for uncertainty. We need to consider the assumptions and then run experiments to either confirm or reject those assumptions, continually reducing the uncertainty as solutions progress.

In summary, continuous planning considers the need to listen to different perspectives, anticipate what the future holds, check current realities, innovate new products and practices that will allow you to complete in this emerging future, and through constant feedback, iterate through continuous planning, towards a shared vision. The better we do this, the more resilient we become when plans change.

Are you contagious?

Are you contagious?

I’m sure you’ve already guessed; I’m not talking about you bearing contagion by transmitting infections. Instead, I use the word in the sense of whether you excite a feeling, emotion or attitude in others.

When I’m around contagious people, I want to hear what they say. Contagious people lift me up, energise me, inspire me, and ignite something deep inside to make me want to be a better person.

The most contagious people I have had the honour of interacting with have a few similarities which were shared in their own unique way. While I’m sure there are many more, these are the key attributes that stood out for me.

Firstly, they do not speak of themselves but instead speak of larger, systemic change. They always have a smile on their face. They speak deeply about the importance of equality and acknowledged their privileges while using those privileges to effect positive change. They speak about heart space, love and care easily and are not afraid to use the words in the context of systemic or organisational change. They have a sense of presence and mindfulness. They ask deep questions that elicit thoughtful dialogue. They seek different perspectives. They are positive about the future. They are kind people.

If, like me, you want to be more contagious, seek out some of these attributes and practice them in your daily interactions and conversations. Personify positivity, seek to focus your contagiousness on spreading positive emotions. Remain true to your core values and give people reason to feel good emulating you.

Go out there, channel the kindness within, and spread behaviors worth catching.

Alright Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Vanilla ice was ahead of the curve when coming up with the lyrics of Ice Ice Baby. The lyrics in the following line of the song are: “Ice is back with my brand new invention”. While there are differences between them, invention, innovation and creativity are part of the same WhatsApp group, and all of them are becoming increasingly necessary in a disruptive world.

As I continue to learn more about innovation, why innovation matters, what it means to innovate and how to innovate, the more I think that Vanilla Ice got it right.  Innovation is about stopping, collaborating and listening. Let’s delve a little deeper into each of these aspects.

Alright Stop.

What does that mean? Stopping is essentially creating space in your innovation process to pause, think and reflect. It is about slowing down to understand the problem, including the skills, competencies and direction, and then speeding up to an idea. Sometimes, you have to go slow to go fast, pause and think about the vision, consider the future, and understand the risks — knowing where you want to go and why is essential before stepping on the accelerator, otherwise, you may go fast in the wrong direction.

Another aspect of stopping is to still the mind. Mindfulness allows us to connect with the present, to improve creativity and problem-solving. The world moves so quickly, and there is an expectation that we must do everything fast. Doing things fast is not only demanding and taxing, but it leaves little time to think and to reflect. It may also lead to increased stress, anxiety and even burnout. It can be difficult to be creative in a headspace where there is pressure to create with little time to think.

We can cultivate this sense of presence through simple mindfulness exercises. These breathing exercises are not complicated, and everyone can do them. The first exercise is so simple. All you have to do is be aware of your in-breath and your out-breath, identify the in-breath as in-breath, and the out-breath as out-breath. While so simple, the effects can be remarkable.

If you’re up to it, let’s run an experiment around pausing. When you see *** Alright stop *** below, stop reading the article for about a minute or two. It may be more, or it may be less, but take some time to stop and focus on your breath. As you breathe in, pay attention to your in-breath only. Make the in-breath the only focus of your mind. When you are focused on your in-breath, you release everything else. You release your fears and worries about an uncertain future; you release the regrets and sorrows about the past; you release your hopes and anger because the mind is only focused on one thing, the breath.

If you struggle, that is okay. If your mind wanders and thinks about other things, your mind is doing what it was designed to do: think. All you need to do is focus back on the breath.

 You may continue reading the article when you feel you are done.

*** Alright Stop ***

Take a few seconds to reflect on how you feel now.

Being mindful helps us improve our divergent thinking. It opens our minds to new ideas. It allows us explore the problem space with more clarity and openness.

Slowing down and taking a step back is a good starting point, particularly if you take time to step back, look at the overall system, and assess where to prioritise effort.

Collaborate

Collaboration is defined as the act of working together towards a shared vision. Without this shared vision, collaboration becomes disparate, and focus may be lost. With a shared vision, it is possible to give teams more autonomy to work together, maximising learning and competence at a team level as well as improving personal mastery.  

Getting collaboration right takes concerted effort. Collaboration requires improvements in information flow, transparency between business units or value streams, and making work visible.

Another facet of collaboration is diversity.  Collaborating within small, diverse teams can unlock innovation and improve agility. Collaboration allows sharing of new ideas, breaking assumptions and co-creating for an emerging future. Effective collaboration involves the inclusion of customers, business people and users.

A Design Thinking approach to innovation necessitates that we speak to our customers to understand their needs and then prototype ideas to determine whether the products are desirable. This in itself is a form of collaboration.

There are many ways of cultivating a more collaborative culture. At the heart of it, it’s about creating connections that work towards a shared vision.  Visualising work is also necessary to improve collaboration. This transparency allows everyone to understand what needs to be done and how work is progressing. If you are unable to be together in person, invest in technology that helps bring teams together.

Be inclusive, allow all voices to be heard with a level of trust and openness.  Silent brainstorming is a great arrow to have in your quiver of tools to facilitate more open, transparent communication.

Give feedback, lots of it and often. Feedback helps us understand what we are doing right and where we need to improve or adapt.  

While these are some of my perspectives, in the spirit of collaboration and getting different perspectives, besides “Stop, collaborate and listen”, what words do you think are essential for innovation and why. Please share your ideas in the comments.

Listen

Listening is hard and is probably the most underrated leadership skill. To quote the Dalai Lama, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you know; but when you listen, you may learn something new”. Good listening takes practice, review, feedback and more practice.

Otto Scharmer, a co-founder of the presencing Institute, and author of Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges, considers four levels of listening.

The first level of listening is called “Downloading” and is limited to reconfirming what we already know. Nothing new comes of this level of listening and only transfers information that is generally familiar.

The second level of listening is “factual listening”. At this level of listening, we listen when the information is different to what we know. We use this listening to broaden our knowledge and pay more attention to the conversation. We move from listening to our inner voice to the person in front of us.

The third level of listening is “empathetic listening”. At this level of listening, we start connecting with the other person, not just the facts they bring. We want to see things empathetically through the other person’s eyes and explore emotions and feelings related to them. This is done in part through our mindset, in part through observation, and by asking awesome questions— listening in this state shifts from you to the other person.

The fourth and final level of listening is “Generative Listening”. At this level, listening becomes a holding space for bringing something new into reality. You listen with openness to what is unknown and emerging. At this level of listening, the listener moves beyond connecting with the speaker and starts connecting with the conversation’s core ideas, listening to different perspectives and generating new ideas that help evolve a potential future.  

Reflect on a moment today where you listened. Consider how you listened and your mental state and emotions that were present while listening.

These skills are difficult to practice and even more difficult to master. A good first step is to be aware of the levels of listening and what they entail. Then practice a little every day, observing and improving your listening skills, adjusting the quality of listening to each situation.

In closing, Vanilla ice suggests, if there was a problem, yo I’ll solve it. With a little bit of stopping, collaborating and listening, the hope is to solve more problems and build innovative solutions that leverage the best of our collective knowledge as human beings for a better world.



Inspiration and ideas referenced from:

Ice Ice Baby Songwriters: Robert Van Winkle ; David Bowie; Brian May ; Freddie Mercury ; John Deacon ; Roger Taylor ; Mario Johnson ; Floyd Brown

Ticht Nacht Han https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_iDaIAPrGo

Theory U: Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges: Otto Scharmer

https://www.eaglesflight.com/blog/5-strategies-for-creating-a-culture-of-collaboration

https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinesscouncil/2020/07/29/slow-down-to-avoid-these-three-innovation-speed-traps/?sh=6135bad350c3

Collaboration is the Key to Unlocking Innovation in the Workplace

Strategic Agility – Strategy in the era of disruption

While the world has been changing at an exponential pace over the last decade, it doesn’t compare with the seismic shifts that have transformed our lives over the past year or so. With the advent of Covid, we have moved into a discontinuous and digital world, impacting society as a whole.

As parts of the world start to emerge from the pandemic, disproportionally so, we have an opportunity to learn from the past, and we have to make choices on how we move forward. Moving forward is strategy.

The word, strategy, is derived from the Greek word, stratēgia, and means “art of a troop leader. Strategy is effectively a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim (Oxford dictionary). It provides a general direction to achieve a desired “future-state”.

In his paper, “The meaning of it all”, Richard Feynman says that the only certainty is that the future is uncertain. We have to act with certainty that the future is uncertain.

The question is then, if we talk about continued disruption, the rapid pace of change, and the certainty that the future is uncertain, how do we plan for this future, and what decisions must we take to get there.

These are not easy questions and there is no right or wrong answer. There are a multitude of views, and in the paragraphs that follow, I hope to share some ideas with you.

I believe that there are four aspects to strategy. These are:

  • Envision
  • Strategic Signals
  • Innovation by Design
  • Iterate

The first aspect is to “Envision”. This envisioning process sets the vision as well as the mission and provides the aspirational description of what the company, product or project aims to achieve. It helps set direction and purpose (the Why). The envisioning phase is fundamental in aligning and guiding the business.

The vision is, in essence, the reason for being. It helps define the existential nature of the business, product or service. All should agree on this vision. It should be developed broad-based and bottom-up as far as possible. The vision should be shared widely and should be unifying. The vision should aim big and should be inspirational. It should provide direction but leave lots of room for creativity. It should be short and sweet, easy to remember, clear, and visible to all. One of my favourite vision statements is that of the company Lego. Their vision is “Inventing the future of play”. Everyone who works at Lego comes to work, knowing that they must achieve this vision. If what they do does not align with “Inventing the future of Play”, they should not be doing it.

Next, we need to understand the context in which we are operating. These are considered “Strategic signals”. These signals are defined as emergent changes to technology, customer needs, behaviours, the macro-environment, the political environment, as well as what is happening in the business’s sector. In effect, this aspect allows us to make sense, make sense of the organisation, make sense as an institution and make sense as an individual. Being able to sense using strategic signals allows us the have a better shared mental model of the situation. We use this shared mental model to decide the inter-related choices we need to make to respond to the environment. If the environment changes, so too must the strategy. Strategic signals can be two to three years out, or they can be ten years out. The further out they are, the better chance there is to take action now and move towards this future.

Once we better understand the environment and have an idea of where to go, we need to “Think” a little. To do this, we must “Innovate by design”. We use principles of Design Thinking, Systems Thinking, Lateral Thinking, as well as other processes to understand the problem space, create options and make choices. This should start with empathy. Empathy is where we really try to understand the customer needs through questioning, observation and synthesis. We then ideate around possible solutions and understand how it connects with within the systems we operate.

This may result in many ideas, but we know that there are rarely unlimited resources, people or time. At this stage, it is prudent to prioritise. In his book, “The Three Box Solution – A strategy for leading innovation, ” Vijay Govindarajan proposes that we put initiatives into three boxes.

Box 1 – “Manage the Present”

Box 2 – “Selectively Forget the Past” and

Box 3 – “Create the future”.

Box 1, “Managing the present”, is to effectively keep things running, improving the efficiencies of your current business models. Box 2 is where decisions are made to deprioritise efforts that are rooted in the past. This is necessary in order to focus on the future. Box 3 is creating the future, understanding how to transform the business.

By balancing the boxes, leaders can simultaneously resolve the inherent tension of innovating a new business while running a high-performing business.

It is essential to understand that innovation can happen across all three boxes. However, to remain relevant and ensure that the business continues to re-invent itself, emphasis must be given to Box 2 and Box 3. Strategy is all about Box 2 and Box 3.

Finally, when there is some awareness of where to place effort and when there is an idea of what products or solutions could be developed, the iterate aspect is triggered. Agility is at the heart of the Iterate aspect. Think big, start small, act fast, with customer focus, experimentation, getting constant feedback, and pivoting when necessary.

This requires a level of dynamic competencies, where the firm’s ability to leverage, build and change internal and external competencies to address rapidly changing environments can create a competitive advantage. It really becomes a process of speed over elegance.  In a period of uncertainty, speed matters. Leveraging trust giving autonomy, creating a culture of learning at both a people and organisation level becomes essential for making things happen; after all, as the management guru, Peter Drucker said, the best way to predict the future is to build it.

Trying to find a little optimism is a sea of despair


This week has been one of the darkest in South Africa’s young democracy. The scenes of looting, destruction and violence are heart-wrenching. The complete disregard for other people’s property, belongings and livelihoods is unbearable to watch.

High levels of youth unemployment, hunger, growing inequality and the lack of opportunities have been a ticking time-bomb. Exacerbated by Covid, the constant thought of illness and death, as well as several lockdowns, some of this was expected.

What wasn’t expected was the extent of it or its vehemence and its longevity. Several days later, the situation continues to escalate.

While it is difficult to watch, we must watch, because if we don’t, we can’t understand it, and if we don’t understand it, we can’t do anything about it. We cannot continue to ignore poverty, hunger and unemployment and expect things to continue unchanged. Things always change. We must face reality.

The reality is that while the full impact will be across the board, it will impact the poor the hardest. The reality is that people lost their businesses, particularly small business owners that are not adequately insured, and this will have a dire knock-on effect. These businesses will have to let their employees go, further impacting livelihoods and increasing unemployment. The reality is that rebuilding will take long and it will be difficult, but we must. We must support small businesses where possible. They are the backbone of our society.

My hope is that we look at what’s happening, not with a lens of fear and uncertainty but with a lens of clarity. My hope is that we come out of this a stronger and more resilient nation, one that takes care of all its people, one of inclusive growth and prosperity.

Please, stay safe.

Nkosi sikelel’ Afrika

Increasing our Depth of Field

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Depth-of-field-comparison-side-by-side-small.png

In photography, the Depth of Field is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects that are in sharp focus of an image. To clarify, this means that when you see a photograph where the subject is in focus with the rest of the image blurred out, there is a very narrow depth of field. Conversely, when you see a picture where the background is clearer and in sharper focus, there is a larger depth of field.

Short-termism is when we tend to place more emphasis and focus on those events that are closer in nature. In the analogy described above, we can say that we have a narrower depth of field. We picture a world-view with mental models that are a few weeks or a few months out.  Daily thoughts and mental models that are further in the future – say a few years out – tend to be blurry.

When we place an over-emphasis on short-term thinking, it may result in sub-optimal decisions for the longer term. It can force us to focus on quarterly profits, prioritise short term investments, remove accountability for sustainable practices, and may result in businesses that are not future fit.

Richard Fischer, recently wrote an article in the MIT technology review that “Human thinking becomes more blinkered in times of turmoil and more expansive in periods of prosperity and calm”. With the pandemic upon us, this blinkered view of the world is particularly extreme at the moment.

For some, including myself, it can be challenging times. While we’re stuck at home, isolated, looking at little boxes on the screen the entire day, it can be hard to see beyond our current situation. In South Africa, at the time of writing this, we have begun our first days of another two-week government-directed lock-down because of the rising Covid cases, well into our third wave. This isolation may cause increased brain fog, and the blur starts to permeate, and the long term vision becomes less clear.

Short-termism can also induce anxiety, as volatility may seem more pronounced. Higher volatility may lead us to make bad decisions in the longer term. Let’s take the example of investing in a stock. If we focus on the short term and look at the share price daily, we may see massive fluctuations, up ~3% one day, down ~2% the next day, up another ~4% the day after, and down ~4% the day after that. When we look at a share on a more frequent basis, we may be tempted to trade on a whim. If, however, we stepped back and decided to take a longer-term view, we may notice that there has been a steady gain over a more extended period. The data line flattens out as we increase the time.

This short-termism is often associated with the availability heuristic in behavioural economics. A heuristic is a mental shortcut that humans have developed to solve problems and make decisions quickly. While this can be necessary at times, it can often be misleading. The availably heuristic suggests that the information we use to make decisions is usually based on more recent information that we have on hand. It may also be based on information that we see more frequently, say in the news or social media, or even more information that is more vivid. We tend to place our attention on that which is immediately apparent to us without giving sufficient thought to the bigger picture.

To have a future-based mindset, we need to look further out, consider scenarios in the future and look for possibilities and opportunities. We then start by taking action, even at the most basic level, to close the gap while keeping an eye on blind spots.

One way to increase our depth of field is to have a vision and a shared purpose. A clear vision can help to align the team with the longer-term ambitions. It shifts the conversation from the now to a conversation about the future.

A fascinating example of long-termism and increasing our depth of field comes from the Egyptians. When Alexander the Great died, his empire was divvied up. Egypt was given to Ptolemy, a General, astronomer and mathematician who lived in the city of Alexandria, named after the great king. Ptolemy, for some reason, enjoyed building light-houses and hired an architect, Sostratus, to help design the lighthouse in Alexandria. Sostratus did such phenomenal work in the design of the lighthouse; it was named one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

At the time, Sostratus knew that his design was a noteworthy achievement and wanted his design and work recognised by inscribing his name at the lighthouse base. Ptolemy thought differently and also wanted recognition. He insisted that his name is inscribed on the base to get the requisite credit.

Increasing his depth-of-field, Sostratus gracefully accepted the request and inscribed Ptolemy’s name in beautiful lettering with pure craftmanship onto plaster, which was then added on the base of the lighthouse. What Sostratus failed to mention was that, at the same time, he had his own name deeply etched into the granite, hidden underneath the plaster.

Sostratus understood that the continuous battering of the Agean Sea against the lighthouse would eventually, over a long time, erode the weaker plaster with Ptolemy’s name and uncover the name of Sostratus.

In volatile and challenging times, we must remind ourselves to look beyond the present, lessen our aperture, look to the distance, and decrease the circle of confusion for a clearer vision of where we want to go.

In time travel movies, the story’s premise is often about someone who goes back in time and alters the past, which creates a very different present reality. We have an opportunity now, in the present, to make decisions that create the future we want.

 Increasing our depth of field can help us create a brighter future for all.

The great digital divide

Casey Park – Johannesburg – Picture courtesy of BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-45257901

When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, there was this joke doing the rounds on social media. It went something like this:

Who is leading Digital Transformation in your business:

The Chief Executive Officer?

the Chief Digital Officer?

Covid19?

Covid19 amplified the speed at which companies adopted digital technologies with the promise of huge benefits through remote working and improving the ability to telework. At the time the pandemic hit, I was studying an online international Diploma in Innovation and Design Thinking through Emeritus/MIT. We had a phenomenal bunch of people on our small but global team. One of our team members was an executive working at major global software company in the USA. In conversation, he mentioned that the company had been struggling to close deals over the past two years, however, in the first two months of the pandemic, they closed more deals than in the past two years. This was apparent in the their share price, where sales rose 15% and topped all analysts’ expectations.

While remote working is an amazing feat of human ingenuity and design, where we have the ability to stay in the comfort and safety of our own home and continue to work, at the same time, there is another reality. This reality was evident driving around Johannesburg while doing grocery shopping during level 5 lockdown. It was heart-wrenching. While the streets were deserted and the cars parked in their garages, there was an air of despair with people loitering the streets, looking more desperate than ever. Car guards, who usually make a few bucks each day, had nothing and could do nothing about it. There were ladies with children wrapped in blankets across their back, down-trodden, with practically nothing, and no hope, standing around, waiting for a small miracle.

While these scenes are present in everyday society, it reminds me of a quote by Susan Sontag, “To photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude”. When you exclude the hustle and bustle of everyday life, when the streets lay bare and exposed, the focus is enhanced, and images that are usually blurry, start to become clearer. 

The growing disparity was also apparent in images that hit news sites, of people in the Townships queuing for kilometres to get a food parcel and some sustenance in their stomachs.

While the pandemic has created a growing social, economic and industrial divide, the speed at which this new industrial revolution is occurring, the faster and more extensive the inequality becomes.  

This stark divide was most noticeable in the schooling systems. My daughter and her class transitioned to online schooling; teachers created excellent content; they experimented with different tools and technologies. The children embraced these technologies, and while it was good, I don’t think it was great. The school understands that good face-to-face and in-person teaching trumps good online learning.  At the same time, I believe that good online learning will be better than bad face-face learning, particularly in countries where good teachers are in short supply.

At the end of the final term, in our parent teacher’s meeting, I implored my daughter’s teacher to make all the content developed, freely available to other teachers online. This simple act is one step with the potential to help bridge a digital divide.

I firmly believe that technology brings equality. Any person across the world, armed with a smartphone and data, has access to the same information, the same content, and the same talks and presentations as leading CEOs. She could, for instance, go to YouTube and subscribe to talks presented at the World Economic Forum. She could learn to code, from programming languages designed for kids, such as Scratch to hardcore Machine Learning using Python. If need be, she could even learn how to manicure nails and create a small business doing that.

Students and workers who don’t have online access or the means to use digital tools and knowledge to participate in this new gig economy are at risk of being excluded.

As leaders, more often than not, we assume that people have ubiquitous internet access. The reality is that data is expensive. According to Cable.co.uk, which assess worldwide data prices, South Africa ranked 148th in terms of cost of data globally. The cost to access the internet in South Africa is on average about $4.30 for one gigabyte. Comparatively, in India, the cost of one gigabyte is on average $0.09. Given this disparity, South Africans have limited data plans, and relative to their earning, it is just not affordable.

Many businesses today, in order to reduce bandwidth costs, use web-filtering tools to block access to certain sites, particularly streaming services such as YouTube. The belief is that that if opened, there will not only be abuse, but it may take essential network resources away from “business-critical systems”. While abuse is inevitable, it is often the exception and not the rule. Additionally, the more senior or important people tend to get higher levels of access, with the general worker often getting limited access. They do not have an opportunity to participate in using these new learning platforms. In these instances, again, it’s the have-nots that have the most to lose.

In the age of digital, we do need to prioritise our most critical business systems, and I am of the opinion that people are our most critical business systems. They may be a complex adaptive system, but a system, nevertheless.

 In his book, Ready Player One, Ernest Cline creates a future, set in 2045, with a virtual world, called the OASIS. Anyone can connect to the OASIS with a VR headset and a haptic feedback suit. Their avatar in the OASIS has access to all books ever written, all TV shows and movies ever made, access to all games that were developed, they have access to the best virtual teachers and learning content, and can interact with anyone, across the globe. An equal and diverse society where anyone can be anything they want. People can even create their own personal virtual Worlds, not unlike Minecraft and Fortnite Creative today.  The story revolves an orphaned boy, Wade Watts, who, through his OASIS avatar, Parzival, must to find clues and solve puzzles to win a competition, where the winner gets ownership to the whole of the OASIS. Wade, a kid that has nothing in the real world, except a little food from his aunt, and a basic VR kit, has an abundance of knowledge, information and social interaction in this virtual world. Wade and his misfit friends team up to win the challenges, intending to keep the OASIS free. The adventure goes head to head against a huge corporation, run by businessman Nolan Sorrento, who also wants to win the competition to own rights to the OASIS. Instead, Sorrento intends to monetise the platform, charging people for all content accessed.

This story is indicative of where we are as a society; it is at this precipice where we have to make a decision. Do we build technologies that further divide humanity into the haves and the have-nots, do we become the Nolan Sorrento’s of the world, and prioritise profit over purpose, creating a greater digital divide?

Or do we strive to develop and upskill our youth and prepare them for a drastically different labour market in the future? Do we build technologies and solutions that help create a more inclusive society, one that encourages all to participate and contribute, a society less focused on short-termism, but rather built on inclusivity and sustainability. Do we instead build towards a vision of a better future for all?


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