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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Resilience in a world without rules

Fluidity is defined as the state of being unsettled or unstable. In other words, to have a sense of changeability.  Bruce Lee epitomised fluidity and practiced this ability to be in a constant state of flow which is a state of intense focus. Being focused is also knowing how to adapt and respond as necessary. Lee famously quoted:

Be Water, My Friend.
Empty your mind.
Be formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.
You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.
You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Now water can flow or it can crash.
Be water, my friend.”

Chinese martial arts, particularly Wing Chun, the discipline of kung fu (or “Gung fu”, as pronounced in native Cantonese) was a very traditional practice. While Wing Chun was widely practised in China, there was a reluctance to train people that were not of Chinese origin. There was also a unwillingness to change the method of teaching, as these ancient martial arts techniques were the same techniques that were taught and handed down over the ages.

In her new book, “Be Water, My Friend” (I thoroughly enjoyed it, and is a highly recommended read), Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, explores the true teachings of Bruce Lee. In the book, she explains that when Lee opened his Wing Chun martial art school, the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, Lee made slight changes to some traditional moves and techniques. He was teaching a somewhat modified form of Wing Chun, with altered movements and shifts in techniques that enable a quicker response, even though, in general, he was still teaching Wing Chun.

Not only was he adapting techniques, but Bruce Lee was teaching people of all different races and backgrounds. He was also teaching martial arts to women, which traditionally was not permitted.

The old-guard, particularly the more traditional instructors in the Chinatown district of San Francisco, did not like this and challenged Lee to a fight with one of their champion fighters. The terms of the contest were that if Lee lost, he would have to stop teaching, and if he won, he would be able to continue teaching his modified methods.

Lee agreed to the fight, but since this was a real fight, with real stakes and a possibility that the result could threaten his livelihood, Lee insisted that there would be “no rules”. After conferring, they agreed. When the fight began, Lee came out in full force. The match lasted about three minutes and was a very unorthodox fight. Lee won the fight.

After the fight, Lee was sitting on the pavement, looking forlorn and contemplative. Lee’s wife, Linda Lee, who was at the match to support her husband, approached him, and asked him, “Aren’t you happy? You won!”. Lee responded that he won, but he did not perform the way he wanted to perform and realised that he was not prepared for a situation without rules.

At that point, he realised that his traditional training, with all the rigid techniques, went out the door because it was not a conventional fight. At that moment, Lee was able to reflect, which enabled him to create his own form of martial arts, known as “Jeet Kune Do”.

More often than not, businesses continue to operate with some form of rigidity. Workflows, processes, approvals, and hierarchy are put in place to manage the flow of command. This bureaucracy often stifles and slows down innovation. Decision-making may be delayed since we have to wait for the next executive committee meeting or quarterly Board meeting before proceeding with initiatives.

At the same time, we know that the world continues to change at an unprecedented pace. In this new world, exponential continues to dominate. Whether it’s exponential growth in digital technologies, the cost of renewables energy continues to decrease exponentially, or even the exponential propagation of the Coronavirus.  We simply cannot keep up. Regulation, policies, rules, and businesses struggle to keep pace with ever-increasing change.

It can be difficult to unlearn or to selectively forget the past and give up your traditional ways. Generally, leaders have spent years achieving their success through their particular style of management. They’ve often used conventional methods of governance, traditional ways of managing projects, known funding mechanisms and have been managing people in much the same way, through performance appraisals, bonus schemes, KPIs etc. Leaders have run and grown organisations in a similar way that has been done for decades. While this style may have worked in the past, it does not necessarily mean that it will work in the future. As Bruce Lee’s reflection highlighted, traditional training may not work in a new world where the rules are unclear and uncertain.

With the information revolution upon us, increasing climate change, a deepening humanitarian crisis that could stem from the pandemic, as well as a myriad of other global challenges and opportunities,  leadership and ways of work will need to adapt. An agile mindset, creativity and innovation are not only increasingly relevant but increasingly necessary. We need to embrace smaller, diverse teams, drive more autonomy, increase simplicity and focus. We need to be adaptable in the way we develop and design solutions. Additioanlly, we must create products and solutions that are human-centric and sustainable.

Agility is all about how to be more like water. Can we switch? Can we pivot? Can we move away from only profit-driven businesses, but instead businesses that are purpose-driven with profit? We have to continuously question whether we are doing the right thing, and deciding whether we should be trying something new. Can we design new projects, businesses and operating models that are more flexible and agile?

Flexibility and agility bring resilience. Imagine a wooden skewer. If you put enough pressure on a skewer and try to bend it, it will snap in two. Now, imagine a freshly picked, soft green twig from a tree, about the same length and width of the skewer.  If you put pressure on either end of the twig, it will be pliable and bend instead of snap.  The twig, being more flexible is more resilient than the skewer. It can withstand more change.

In a world where rules matter less and can be so ambiguous, where the playing fields are so different, flexibility and agility are essential. The more rigidity you have, the easier you can break. The greater your flexibility and agility, the more likely you are to remain successful and sustainable.

Resilience is about having challenges and difficulties come at you and finding creative ways around it. 

Lee said, “Instead of opposing force by force, one should complete an opposing movement by accepting the flow of energy from it and defeat it by borrowing from it. This is the law of adaption.”

To innovate and reinvent requires us to look at new ways of doing things. To consider what was there before, but to know we can do it differently and better. This requires human creativity. Machines are very good at logic, but humans thrive when they are in a more creative mindset. Human beings love coming up with good ideas and evolving those ideas into reality. Whether it’s writing a book, building an AI algorithm, cooking, drawing, or designing a reusable rocket that will take us to mars, creativity allows humans to flourish.

We shape the future, and agility is a future-based mindset. 

Strategy is all about looking forward, considering instances of perceivable change that are sometimes beyond our core knowledge base and then imagining and creatively designing and innovating a shared future through experimentation and iteration. Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Imagine the future you want to create and start building it.

It seems apt to end with a final word from Bruce Lee:

Many people are bound by tradition. When the elder generations say “no” to something, then these people will strongly disapprove of it as well. If the elders say that something is wrong, then they will also believe it’s wrong. They seldom use their mind to find out the truth and seldom express sincerely their real feelings. The simple truth is that these opinions on such things as racism and traditions, which are nothing more than a “formula” laid down by these elder people’s experience. As we progress and time changes, it is necessary to reform this formula.”

Be water, my friends!

Pivotal

As fireworks lit up the night sky on the 31 December 2019, as we hugged loved ones, families and friends, as the sound of joy and happiness rang through the streets, we ushered in 2020. There was so much hope and optimism for what the new year was to bring. My personal new year’s social media message was the hope that 2020 lives up to its name and provides clarity in vision and purpose.

Reflecting on the year gone by and considering my new year’s wish, I believe that some sense of clarity of vision is precisely what 2020 brought. It made clear to the world that the way we’ve been treating the earth, not only mother nature itself but also the people living on this big rock, is not sustainable. It exposed the discrepancies in inequality. It showed us, not only the promise of technology, with progressive companies that embraced digital technologies, not having skipped a beat in transitioning to “Work from home”, but it also highlighted that we have so much to do to bring technology to the poor and marginalised. The future is here; it’s just unevenly distributed.

I remember, at the onset of the pandemic, and when lockdown had just kicked in, you may recall, the rule at the time was not to wear a mask, not because the masks did not work, but because, as a nation, we didn’t have enough to go around. The World Health Organization wanted to prioritise the production of masks for use by our frontline workers. 

I went to the supermarket and had a brief chat with a lady packing the shelves. She was fearful that she did not have a mask, especially since she had a co-morbidity, that being diabetes. At the time, the supermarket expected her to come to work; however, they were not willing to provide her with a mask. Her anguish was exacerbated by the fact that the tellers all had masks and face shields that were provided by the company, however, because she was just a packer, she was treated differently.

She too was a frontline worker. Someone that, despite her worries and concerns about the virus, and her risk, still came to work, in part, because there was no other choice.

Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek economist who served as minister of finance in Greece, during the height of the Greek economic crisis, in his latest book, Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternate Present, writes, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

A key concept in Agile is the notion of “pivoting”. A few people I have spoken to over the years have alluded to the fact that they don’t like the word “pivot”. For me, pivoting is instrumental for agility and having the ability to adapt. To “pivot” is to look at the situation and based on the assessment to date, to decide to change course. It is to not only make the decision but also to make a concerted effort to take a different direction.

Pivoting is by no means an easy feat, especially if precious time, effort and resources are put in to build something with the belief that it will make a difference. There does, however, come a time, where pivoting is necessary. There is impermanence to everything. Impermanence does not only mean finality; it also implies progression. If things did not change, we would not have progression. Old things need to die to make space for the new.

That brings me to the title of this blog. We are at a pivotal time. Many of us have been caterpillars, consuming from this earth. A caterpillar’s only job is to eat, grow and to consume as much as possible. However, a caterpillar eventually goes into a cacoon where it goes through the process of metamorphosis, turning into a butterfly. The butterfly not only beautifies the planet but also visits a variety of flowers, and helps pollinate our world. 

Suppose we change the context of lockdown to reflect instead, the narrative that we were cocooned in our homes. We can look forward with a renewed sense of optimism and hope. We can strive to make a difference.

The pandemic is far from over, and we haven’t even yet started to consider the many other challenges facing us as a society, challenges such as climate change, inequality, poverty, health and justice for all. As a human race, we have a long way to go. However, if we consider this pivotal moment in history, we have a choice. We can choose which direction to take. We can choose a path where we work towards an imagined future, where, as a society, we strip away the veneer of greed and short-termism to reveal the prospect of a more sustainable and equitable future for all.

Adapting vs Defining

At the University of California at Irvine, instead of assuming the best direction students would take to get to their classes, they just planted grass… They then waited a year, looked at where people had made the paths in the grass and paved the walkways there.

This is a fantastic example of feedback loops that are customer centric.

How can you use innovative ways to find the right path for your customers?

Finding your True North

The journey to success, whatever success means for you, is long and it is likely going to take time to get there. On this journey, we may get lost along the way. It is for this reason that we should establish what our True North is. True North is a key concept in Lean process improvement, and idiom that emerged from Toyota two decades ago. True North is used to describe the ideal state that a business, product or individual would like to continually strive to achieve.

In order to be guided towards our True North, we should set a clear vision. This vision should be displayed for all to see. We often talk about vision or guiding principle this as our “North Star”. If you happen to live in the northern hemisphere, the official name of the “North Star” is Polaris. This star is one degree off the position of True North, however, when following this star, will guide us in the right direction.

If however, you live in the Southern Hemisphere as I do, this “North Star” does not exist in our skies. This does not mean that we cannot find our True North. Instead, we have to be a bit more creative.

In the Southern Hemisphere, we have a constellation of stars known as the Southern Cross. This is a constellation with 4 prominent stars that form a slightly off-centre cross, with a smaller star to the bottom right of the cross, much like a beauty spot for the cross in the night sky. This Southern Cross, or “Crux”, which is the technical name to describe this constellation of stars.

This Southern Cross travels across the South Celestial pole, which is the point in space, where the Southern Cross rotates in the sky. Due to its rotation, the Southern Cross will sometimes appear to be upside down and other times, on its side, however, it remains recognisable, despite its orientation. While fairly recognisable, given that there are many stars that could potentially be in a configuration of the cross, to aid us in finding the Crux, there are two bright “pointer stars” to the left of the cross (when the cross is upright). These pointer stars line up and point towards the Southern Cross. Given the rotation of the earth, the Southern Cross remains geographically constant, and in order to find the Celestial South Pole, we have to draw an imaginary line out from the top of the Southern Cross across the bottom star, and continue that line out. We then look for the pointer stars and draw out an imaginary line perpendicular from the centre of the two pointer stars. The point in the sky where these two imaginary lines meet is the South Celestial Pole.

Another method is to estimate the distance of top star and bottom star of the Crux, multiply this distance four times out from the bottom star and that will give us an indication of where the South Celestial pole is. Face towards this point in the sky, and you’ll be facing South.

In order for us to find true north, find the celestial south pole, turn 180 degrees and this would be North.

Once we have our vision, or “True north” established, this will help us stay on course and not get pulled in other directions. Setting a clear vision helps guide us, but also shows us when we veering away from the direction we’re headed.

Real vision cannot be achieved in isolation from the idea of a purpose. Having a clear vision aligned to purpose is essential for ensuring alignment, focussing everyone on an end state goal.

The vision is in essence the aspirational description of what the company, product or project aims to achieve and sets long term direction for the team, using the power of imagination. This vision is fundamental to ensure alignment in the team.

Without a clear vision, there is a higher likelihood of increased ambiguity in the organisation. Priorities are not explicit, and focus is not directed.

The Six Million Dollar Man | Die Man van Staal

In a fast pace and ever-changing world, digital transformation is a reality that individuals and companies must embrace. More and more, people and businesses need leverage these digital technologies to become bionic. This notion of being bionic is key to embracing uncertainty. What does it mean to be bionic? In the 80s, there was a science fiction television series The Six Million Dollar Man.  The opening scene starts with an old green screen computer terminal, with the word

CY’ BORG_                                _

being typed out letter for letter. The text then proceeds to display on the screen:

“A HUMAN BEING WHOSE ORIGINAL           _

HUMAN PARTS HAVE HAD TO BE               _

REPLACED TO ONE EXTENT OR                 _

ANOTHER BY MACHINES THAT                  _

PERFORM THE SAME FUNCTION S.”           _

The series is about Steve Auston, a former astronaut and United States Air Force Colonel, who was severely injured in an aircraft test. He is then taken to a lab and undergoes surgery to “rebuild” parts of his body, including his right arm, left eye, and both his legs using technology. These “Bionic implants”, enhance his strength, speed and vision beyond human norms.  His eyes allow for a 20:1 zoom vision, and his limbs allow for super strength and speed.

These technologies do not replace his human capabilities, but instead, augmented his capabilities, to allow him to perform with more speed, strength and accuracy.

Similarly, businesses today need to become more bionic, leveraging new technologies to augment humans in achieving better results. Companies need to leverage data and technology to improve insights, move at speed and scale, and drive improved customer centricity.

While Steve Austin’s bionic implants cost six million dollars in 1973, this equates to approximately, 36 million dollars in 2019, the cost of technology, through Moores law has become exponentially cheaper. The law developed by Gordon E. Moore, in 1965 is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years. The observation also considered that, as you increase the number of transistors on a circuit, the costs start to decrease at the same time, which means that you have the doubling of price/computing performance.

Which is more Bionic?

The illustration below considers how business should be considering leveraging technology. If I was to pose the question to you, “Which is more bionic?” the robot, which is a mechanical and command driven device or the human leveraging technology to make her stronger, faster and who can leverage data and technology for better insights. I would like to think that being bionic is being human, augmented by technology.

While we consider technology from a digital perspective, this is not always the case. We need to think about how we apply this to all technologies and innovations. Wilbur Wright, the bike mechanic and his brother Orville Wright were aviation pioneers and innovators of heavier-than-air-flight at the turn of the century. When history was made at Kitty Hawk, Wilbur Wright mustered all his strength and mental capacity to thrust the gliding machine to flight, it was man with machine, and not man against machine. In Satya Nadella’s book, “hit refresh”, he suggests that we don’t think of aviation as “artificial flight”, it is simply flight. In the same way, we shouldn’t think of technological intelligence as artificial, but rather as intelligence that serves to augment human capabilities and capacities.