Are you a ‘Lone Genius’?: You need a Thought Partner!

You create, build, manage, make, run and organize things – adding value to a multitude of stakeholders in a complex and volatile world. You are accomplished at what you do, recognized by your peers as a leader. But there is a lot on your plate – or more accurately plates – with the prospect of only more being heaped on. It’s a constant juggling act, and as good as you are, you admit to yourself that you don’t have all the answers – in fact more than you’d like to admit or show, you’re frequently stuck.

Sound like you? If you are like most senior executives that I’ve met through my my business career and coaching/advisory practice (including most especially -me), the answer is yes. In discussions with literally hundreds of accomplished individuals over the past year, from CEO’s (start-up to Fortune 500) to senior civil servants to NPO leaders to performers and artists, most report experiencing the pervasive sense of loneliness and uncertainty that comes from being an accomplished builder/creator/operator.

It’s tempting to look to the 180,000+ books on leadership on (just for example) for inspiration for the most current 5 or 10 step solution to your problem, but logic suggests that they ALL can’t be correct. In fact it all becomes ‘noise’ – the bleating of thousands of advice-givers more interested in advancing their agenda than in supporting yours. And in a world of exponential advances in technology, and of industries/societies impacted for better and for worse, the noise gets ever louder – even desperate.

Of course, the ‘answer’ does not lie without – with ‘them’ – it rests within you. It’s why so many of us engage in constructive self-talk – we are constantly discussing with ourselves our situational awareness, our ability to both understand our environment and to positively shape/impact it. It’s this self-talk that speaks to the need for a true partner that can offer a second-set-of-eyes perspective to your ever-changing relationship with the world around you.

Which leads us to the concept of Thought Partner. In a 2012 guest post in Forbes Magazine, Rania Anderson well defined the concept;

A Thought Partner is one who;

  • Challenges your thinking
  • Causes you to modify your paradigms, assumptions or actions
  • Has information or a way of thinking that provokes you to innovate or otherwise leads to value creation in your business, career or life.

Thought Partners are usually people who possess information, knowledge, or a way of thinking that challenges and provokes divergent thinking for you.

I would add that a Thought Partner is a sometime coach, sometime mentor, sometime advisor, sometime connector of dots and resources, and sometime friend, who is above all else – often even more so than your business or life partner – your confidante alone committed to think with you, rather than for you. Safely, securely, in the greatest confidence.

Critically, the need for a Thought Partner is not a one-off, sequential exercise. We have all witnessed the demise of the five year business plan – now reduced far more appropriately to one year and ever more iterative planning cycles, due to the complexity and volatility of the exponential change noted above. Instead, just as planning is now an all the time, real time activity, so too is the need for your Thought Partner. As an oft-repeated quote paraphrasing Albert Einstein puts it “enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius“.

As you contemplate this New Year, the question is – is 2016 the year you cease being a lone genius, and instead seek out your Thought Partner, or are you going to continue to talk to yourself to cross-pollinate, conceptualize and execute the initiatives and actions that determine your future?


Collision Matters

Collision MattersThis morning I watched Tony Hsieh and Paddy Cosgrove launch the Collision Conference in Las Vegas. What they had to say about creating innovative new businesses resonated deeply with me. They talked (I’m paraphrasing) about creating an environment where diverse people with different perspectives, expertise or ideas can ‘collide’, […]


The Butterfly Effect: Harnessing the Power of Information for Sustainable Luxury

The Butterfly Effect: Harnessing the Power of Information for Sustainable Luxury

Diana Verde Nieto, CEO of Positive Luxury, is on a mission to encourage an open dialogue between brands and consumers about sustainability. Katie Wadsworth (MBA2016) finds out why organisations like Burberry and Louis Vuitton have already joined the mission.

To many consumers, the words “sustainable” and “luxury” mentioned in the same breath seem incongruous, almost an oxymoron. After all, how can a high-end brand selling beautifully crafted products to the wealthy possibly make a positive social and environmental impact in the world?  […]


Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain


Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your BrainThe business world is abuzz with mindfulness. But perhaps you haven’t heard that the hype is backed by hard science. Recent research provides strong evidence that practicing non-judgmental, present-moment awareness (a.k.a. mindfulness) changes the brain, and it does so in ways that anyone working in today’s complex business environment, and certainly every leader, should know about. […]


The End of Sustainability

The End of Sustainability

In general, “sustainability” refers to the long-term ability to continue to engage in a particular activity. “Sustainable development” reflects a broader goal about how development should proceed — namely, with sufficient consideration of the environment to ensure the continued availability of natural capital. The international community embraced sustainable development at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, incorporating it into both the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21.  […]


Business, society, and the future of capitalism


Capitalism has served us enormously well. Yet while it has helped to reduce global poverty and expand access to health care and education, it has come at an enormous cost: unsustainable levels of public and private debt, excessive consumerism, and, frankly, too many people who are left behind. Any […]


Leadership = SenseMaking = SenseGiving

“It might be a bit of a mind-bender to some, but what we believe is changing most is how humans navigate and make sense of complexity in the context of continuous change.  For some of us, sensemaking is the revolution within the changemaking revolution” G.K. VanPatter, co-founder Humantific.

In IBM’s 2010 survey of over 1,500 global CEO’s (Capitalizing on Complexity), the landmark study found that with 8 out of 10 CEO’s expecting greater uncertainty and complexity over the next five years, more than half “seriously doubt their ability to cope” with the anticipated changes. It gets one to thinking. Where to look for ‘the’ answer.

The answer, as it happens, is an ‘anti-answer’.

All (or let’s agree virtually most) execu-guru’s offer prescriptive solutions for our problems du jour.  They all have ‘the’ answers we are looking for.  Likewise, how many times have ‘big’ 3,4 or 5 consulting firms been engaged by CEO’s to devise the next ‘big’ strategy or to find the next ‘big’ market for us.  To do the cognitive heavy lifting, and more (much more importantly) absolve us of any accountability/responsibility when things go south.  When one outsources the development of one’s corporate soul, an important benefit is to be able to blame the vendor when SOUL Version 3.0 proves defective. Kinda troubling though when its estimated that as many as 80% of consulting engagements fail.

Instead, the answer per se is not an answer, but rather a new way to perceive, understand and make sense of one’s environment – because that’s really what all of the outsourced truth-seeking noted above is about.  No matter how brave the bravado, most of us Leaders want help knowing what to do.

Sensemaking is a discipline that prepares us to better understand ourselves and our interactions with others while illuminating pathways of the possible that allow us to navigate through profound disruption.  As I’ve noted in previous posts, sensemaking is the derivative of a school of thought that has evolved in North American and European universities over the last 50 years, and is currently practiced by such as New York’s ReD Associates, Humantific and IDEO.  Also as noted, it is impenetrably dense, so here’s my take.  Sensemaking is a seven step (or so) process – more or less defined by University of Michigan’s’ Karl E. Weick – that teaches us to ask naive, uncomfortably honest questions about;

  1. how we define who ‘I’ ‘we’ are, both from the context of ‘I’ as person, ‘I’ as Leader, ‘We’ as a corporate entity, and ‘We’ as a community/society/country/culture
  2. how I/we (see above) perceive, understand and define our past, and employ that as a tool for leverage in the future
  3. how we impact and shape our environment even as we try and respond to it.  Remember the ‘Observer effect’?
  4. how we create, define, pursue and organize our social interactions
  5. how we perceive cause and effect as a continuous, ongoing process – negating the view that life experience is a linear series of discrete events. There is no cause effect – they are the same thing.
  6. where we take our cues from – how where we look for answers so profoundly biases the evident ‘truths’ we find
  7. how the quest for truth is subject to our sense of reality – how we are driven by plausibility rather than accuracy

I believe this is a powerful toolset precisely because it is NOT prescriptive.  It is not a one-size-fits-all doctrine that always provides a ‘red’ or ‘blue’ answer for rainbow of scenarios, but rather a way for you/me/we to author and target a thoughtful outcome based on a deliberative, action-oriented thought process that is agnostic and secular.  I have no idea what your ‘answer’ might be when you employ sensemaking, but I will have a profoundly greater expectation that it will at least be extraordinarilly well thought through.  And it will be YOUR answer.

ReD Associate’s Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen greatly add to the conversation by observing that sensemaking is an existential exercise that is by definition creative.  That to access and engage the touchpoints encountered through a sensemaking process we need to learn to trust our senses, our experiences, our instincts – ourselves.  That there is no right or wrong answer, because the context for that answer is forever changing.   And that the exemplars for enlightened discovery and exploration are NOT to be found in income statements, sales projections, focus groups or case studies, but rather in cultivating an understanding of the ‘humanity’ of ‘our’ context – our customers, shareholders, selves, family, employees, bosses, communities and societies.  It is the human sciences that should inspire and direct the engines of economic growth.

CAVEAT.  Business discipline is a prerequisite for survival.  I get that.  To excel, a leader must be able to bring the technical expertise to bear to ensure continued existence and the potential for future leverage of resources and position for gain, but that is not success.  Rather, successful companies have a sense of purpose, of mission and destiny – of sensitivity to their environments – that I would argue are outcomes of sensemaking.

It follows then that leaders must become leaders of sensemaking – or sensegivers.  The leader who understands, embraces and is excited by the conduct of business through the complexity of the Pre-Singularity Age and who plans to excel at it is;

“one who alters or guides the manner in which his followers’ mind’ the world by giving it a compelling ‘face’.  A leader at work is one who gives others a different sense of meaning of that which they do by recreating it in a different form, a different ‘face’, in the same way that a pivotal painter or sculptor or poet gives those who follow him (or her) a different way of ‘seeing’ – and therefore saying and doing and knowing in the world.  A leaders does not tell it ‘as it is’; he tells it as it might be, giving what is thereby a different face.   …The leader is a sense-giver.  The leader always embodies the possibilities of escape from what otherwise appear to us to be a chaotic, indifferent, or incorrigible world…*”

Are you up for being a SenseGiver?

* Karl E. Weick quoting L. Thayer in Sensemaking in Organizations, pp 10.



My ‘Moment of Clarity’

You might recall that I am not a fan of, or believer in, business guru’s.   Sure, the Druckers, Gladwells, Sandbergs and Tapscott’s have added great value to ‘the’ great discussion, but for me none have provided any definitive insights that really Mattered. Until now.

Enter the second character (of two) who shaped my new mission, my raison d’etre – Christian Madsbjerg – co-founder of New York-based (by way of Copenhagen) ReD Associates.  Last year a friend of mine introduced me to Christian, with the understated observation that Christian had something important to say. To me and you it turns out.

By way of background, ReD is an “innovation and strategy” practice whose clients include Adidas, Intel and Samsung – to name but a few not-unimpressive clients.  They are credited with significantly recalibrating their clients with a process called sense making.  Having perused ReD’s website prior to sitting down to breakfast with Christian in New York I must say I was intrigued.

To say the least, Christian is an imposing intellect.  While I had considered myself capable of cognitively keeping up with most people, I soon realized that Christian was going to make me work for my breakfast.  Two things were instantly made clear.  Christian and ReD brought a remarkably fresh and powerful POV to the ‘innovation and strategy’ game, and they believed that the ‘human sciences’ were the much-maligned elements that could – or rather should – constitute the scaffolding ivejxwon which business problem solving should be based. Actually a third thing was made clear as well – don’t get him started on Heidegger.

At the end of the whirlwind 60 minutes, Christian invited me to read the manuscript for his upcoming book – The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Challenge, to be published by Harvard Business School Press.  So I dutifully undertook to read the manuscript with a view to offering some perspective or insight that at that moment had remained unmade.  It proved an unfair trade – for Christian received little in the way of piercing insight from me, but I had discovered sense making – or at least his (and his co-author and business partner Mikkel B. Rasmussen’s) version of it.

Having just concluded that this time of exponential disruption – the Pre-Singularity  – demanded (capital D) a new leadership approach, I found with growing excitement that Madsbjerg and Rasmussen might just possibly have revealed such an approach.

Now, to be clear, they weren’t out to save mankind – rather, they more modestly saw sensemaking as a superior approach for businesses to understand their customers, and to answer the existential questions – what business are we (or should we) be in, and how can we best satisfy our customers needs?  My spirit soared and my heart was lightened as they told me that the answer to such questions is a non-answer.  The imperfect yet very powerful ‘outcome’ that awaits lies within you/me/we, and is arrived at by opening ourselves up to a creative process that looks and feels, well, a lot like a creative process – where inspiration can be found in the genius of Shakespeare, Mozart and yes, even Heidegger.  For figuring out what ERP system to use, feel free to hire consultants, but don’t outsource the process that defines your business soul – that is something only you/me/we can do for ourselves.  That means being open to an utterly new way of being honest with ourselves in how we define ‘problems’ and explore ‘solutions’ – to better understand our environment, and how we engage with it. For a more substantive review of the Harvard Business School publication, click here.

And lest this all start to sound flaky, bear in mind that they cut their sense making teeth on clients like Adidas, Intel and Samsung to happy effect.

However, as I read The Moment of Clarity, I became convinced that their approach, and quite possibly the (or at least my) newly discovered field of sensemaking as a whole, was a POV/methodology that should be employed at all levels – corporate, personal, societal – as a leadership development toolset to prepare all of us and our stakeholders for exponential disruption.

In February the book launched, and is today consistently appearing on Amazon’s business best seller list.

For moi, my next step was to make sense of this whole sense making thing…


I’ve landed (and the how & why of it)

There has been admittedly, a lull in my reporting.  But silence does not speak to inaction or indolence.  Indeed, my neurons have been firing at a particularly active rate of late.  And the point I find myself at in the moment is in fact a landing point.  I have arrived here and have concluded that here marks the beginning of a journey I believe will be profound, remarkable and important – certainly for me and I hope for you.

For those who have followed me and my musings over the last year or so, you will know that I have been exploring options for my next play – my raison d’être.  Something that caught my imagination, my propensity for big ideas – something that mattered.  It needed to be something that leveraged my 30+ years as an intrapreneur, consultant and entrepreneur AND my newfound understanding of the power of leadership coaching. But as I probed and scoped for things to do, I realized that context was for me, missing.  Here I was trying to find my fit in life for the next x-xx years, and I hadn’t nailed the context for life – for living (both capital ‘L’).  Sounds kind of existential.  It was.

So I started scanning and reading articles about innovation and technology.  Tens of articles became hundreds and hundreds thousands.  And not just about geekspeak developments in the pureplay tech space, but about how such advancements were floating all our boats – advances in material science, nanotechnology, healthcare, robotics/AI and so much more.

While I had always considered myself au courant, I found instead that the breadth, depth and pace of change was at a state far beyond what I understood to be.  It was immeasurably more than what that over-used term ‘disruptive’ allows for.  In fact, I realized that we are approaching a watershed moment in human development and history, a time that has the potential to see Man transcendent in all the ways that can be considered good, and yet with the very real possibility that we will either shrink from that future because of fear and ignorance, and/or we will corrupt the nature and quality of that transcendence to something mean and common – even evil.

So.  A pressing future was revealed to me that was at once awesome and terrifying.  Given the potentially terminal consequence of failure, humanity’s picking the wrong door was not an option.  Which begged the question – is our leadership prepared to lead us through, to and beyond this watershed? Do they have the intellect, values, courage and vision necessary to guide us and inspire us?

You will not be surprised that I concluded in the negative – no, nyet, negatory, definitely not. No.

So. Timing is everything.  Just as I was pondering the inevitable decline/demise of us and our collective – at minimum a descent into mediocrity – I discovered a discipline/POV that had been conceived of and incubated over the last half century in the best business schools in the west.  It is elegant, even beautiful, it is startling intuitive and simple, and it is dense. The academics who laboured away at it for those five decades clearly didn’t want anyone finding out about it. The problem is, I think it may represent a new way of defining leadership and empowering leaders that is unique and vital to the imperative of picking the right door(s) that I noted above.  Rather than provide a one-size-fits-all prescriptive answer (like the million biz-philosophies and guru’s du jour), it provides a new way of understanding oneself, ones family, ones business, ones community – ones environment. This way of thinking provides a new framework for asking questions, that in the answering is far more likely to lead to genuine and helpful enlightenment.

So.  (Likely) Problem identified.  (Likely) Solution identified.  We have something like 25-40 years to get our act together and start acting like a species that can make the earth what it can and should be and shoot for the stars at the same time.

Who then to take the lead? Government? I think not – for not only are they too slow, cumbersome and self-interested, their mandate is by definition driven by narrow local, regional and national perspectives – when the best solutions are more often than not, global.  The answer I’ve concluded, is business.  Not the Bernie Madoff, Wall Street-that-nearly-destroyed-us kind of capitalism, but one that reframes itself by asking the right questions and pursuing thoughtful answers (note I didn’t say the ‘right’ answer – more on that later) that engage and profit all stakeholders. No surprise then, if you’ve managed to follow my logic (gold star for you), I’ve netted out that we must distill and develop this new leadership mindset and insert it into an eco-system of millions of actors so that intellectual Darwinism does its job of testing and refining said mindset as an agnostic alternative to a world made small by orthodoxy.

Now THIS is something I can sink my existential teeth into!  Being party to the cracking of the problem/solution definitely captures my imagination, and it certainly qualifies as a big idea, but most importantly – it matters. For the future that is unfolding demands that we each take what we are and do more with it.  So, for my part, I will roll up my 30+ years of intrapreneurial, consulting, entrepreneurial and coaching experience to start the process of distilling, testing and refining this new POV with those of similar mindset – for business leaders who perceive their corporate success as an exemplar, a tool,  for something greater.

Let the journey begin.




Chris McKnett: The investment logic for sustainability

Chris McKnett:   The investment logic for sustainability

Sustainability is pretty clearly one of the world’s most important goals; but what groups can really make environmental progress in leaps and bounds? Chris McKnett makes the case that it’s large institutional investors. He shows how strong financial data isn’t enough, and […]

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