New problems require new thinking

To get different results you need to behave differently. To achieve that you need to plan differently. And to plan differently from your competitors you need to think differently from them.

The focus of this blog is mostly around examples of thinking differently about various situations.

For example, in 1854, a major new outbreak of cholera struck Soho in London. With cesspools overflowing the decision had been taken to dump raw sewage straight into the Thames, but at the time nobody saw this as a problem because nobody thought that cholera had anything to do with polluted drinking water. They knew (or thought they knew) that just as with malaria, cholera was caused by bad air.

But one person, John Snow, mapped the cholera cases and removed the handle from one particular water pump, proving that polluted water was the problem. This not only solved the short term problem, but also enabled cities to grow much larger over time, through the use of piped water and sanitation.

Einstein told us that it is impossible to solve problems with the same level of thinking that created them. Gregory Bateson said that most of the problems we face are the result of a difference between the way we think the world works and the way it actually works.

In these blog posts you will find examples of thinking differently about a variety of situations. These may not immediately address the situations you are facing today, but they give examples of how different thinking leads to different, often simpler, understanding, and hence simpler clearer plans for action and results.

Finn Jackson thinks differently and brings a new perspective to the situation, which can help you get the results you want.

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Building antifragile competitive advantage

The lessons of Inner Leadership are an essential step to delivering sustainable leadership. They bring stability, focus, alignment, and competitive advantage.

This is the second in a series of eight articles explaining why and how.

We start our search for sustainable leadership with a quote from Buckminster Fuller. He said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

This rule has applied to all successful innovations, from the bronze age that replaced the stone age, to the industrial revolution, electricity, and smartphones. The reasons all these innovations succeeded is because they made what existed before obsolete.

This means the first goal of sustainable leadership must be to “make existing models of leadership obsolete.” The way we do that is by introducing a style of leadership that creates significant competitive advantage.

This article describes the central core of sustainable leadership: a way to bring your organisation a form of competitive advantage that grows stronger with every challenge you face.


From ‘Coping with Change’ to ‘Thriving Because of Change’

We are living through a time of radical change. The management jargon calls it a VUCA world: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. I call it simply The Churning.

No matter what you call it, the fact is that in this churning world any organisation that cannot cope with change will fail. And organisations that cope better with change will have competitive advantage: over time they will become more successful, and more sustainable.

This means the first task of sustainable leadership is to teach us not only how to survive change but to use change to become stronger.

To see how we can accomplish this, let’s look at the way change happens in organisations. Then let’s look at how to make it happen better.


How Change Happens in Organisations

Change in most organisations follows a sequence three steps. These begin when someone notices a potential issue (or opportunity) and raises this to the organisation.

If the organisation agrees the issue is important it then makes plans to address the matter. This is Step 2.

Step 3 is execution: the organisation implements its change plan.

These three steps define most organisational change programs:

But there is also a fourth step. What happens next is that each person affected by the change goes through a psychological and emotional transition. Some of these will be large, others small but, for better or worse, these experiences then reshape the world views of each affected person. Either they confirm more deeply what the person already knew or they teach that person something different. This is Step 4.

And the next time these people find themselves in a situation where change might be needed (back to Step 1 again) they will use these new world views, and their learning from what happened last time, to decide how they will respond: whether or not they will speak up and how they will do so (Arrow 5).

Charting this process, from planning to execution, from individual to organisation, and back again, gives us a picture I call the ‘Cycle of Leadership’. This is how change happens in organisations:


Making Change Happen Better

If we want to improve our organisation’s ability to handle change there are just two ways to do so: either we can improve the way we carry out each step or (better) we can close the loop.

To understand this, imagine an organisation that says one thing but does another. Perhaps it says it encourages risk-taking but actually only rewards people who meet their financial targets. Such an organisation might move successfully through the first three stages of change but it will fail at the fourth and fifth to close the loop. Instead, people will learn from experience not to believe what they are told. This will make them less willing and able to address new issues (Steps 1 and 2) and more resistant to future changes (Steps 3 and 4). Over time the organisation’s ability to respond to change will degrade.

But imagine instead an organisation that shows consistency in what it says and does: an organisation that defines a set of (say) purpose and values, then actively applies them in its day-to-day operations and decision-making. Such an organisation closes the loop. What happens next is a kind of magic.

An organisation that lives in line with its stated purpose and values teaches its people by example. When new issues arise, this deeper understanding helps people know more clearly which issues matter and which do not (Step 1). Their added clarity and confidence then helps people to create new plans (Step 2), implement them (Step 3), and handle their transitions (Step 4). In other words, by defining a set of purpose and values and putting them at the heart of its operations and decision-making, the organisation increases its ability to change. This brings competitive advantage.

And there is more. At the end of each cycle, the organisation gets to review and update its purpose and values so that when the next challenge arises the organisation becomes even more able to identify the issue and address it.

In this way, by switching from linear to circular management, both the organisation and its people become able not only to survive crises and change but to actually become stronger because of crises and change. They become what Nicholas Nassim Taleb calls ‘antifragile’.

Things that break under pressure we call ‘fragile’. Things that do not break under pressure we call ‘strong’, ‘robust’, or ‘resilient’. And things, people, and systems that actually become stronger when placed under pressure, Taleb calls ‘antifragile’.

This ability to use stress to become stronger is the foundation of ‘sustainability’ for any organisation. It is the first step towards creating Buckminster Fuller’s “new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

This is why purpose and values matter: not because of any moral high ground but because in times of change they bring stability and direction. By defining and then acting in line with their purpose and values, leaders and their organisations become more able to handle change. This brings competitive advantage that becomes stronger with each challenge they face. And it is the first building block of sustainable leadership.

We will return to purpose and values in the sixth article of this series. But for now our next step is to understand more clearly how to make Arrow 5 happen. For that we need to look more closely at Step 4, managing transitions. This is the focus of the next article.

Originally published by Sustainable Brands.

Photo By Internet Archive Book Images via

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In search of sustainable leadership – a series

The lessons of Inner Leadership are an essential step to delivering sustainable leadership. They bring stability, focus, alignment, and competitive advantage.

This series of eight articles explains why and how.

Building a sustainable brand or enterprise can involve many things, ranging from sustainable energy to sustainable supply chains, sustainable packaging, manufacturing, food, electronics, transport, marketing, buildings, textiles, and so on. None of these is important to everyone but all are important to someone. Building a sustainable brand is about identifying the strategic and tactical priorities facing your business today and addressing them using the more sustainable alternatives that are currently emerging into the marketplace.

But is there something missing? Is there something deeper we have forgotten or perhaps not yet seen? Is it enough simply to adopt new technologies and techniques but keep on leading in the same old ways? Or is there a new paradigm for leadership — ‘Sustainable Leadership’ if you will — that is also part of achieving a sustainable brand and can provide us with a shortcut?

This series of articles argues that there is such an emerging style of sustainable leadership and that it offers not only sustainability, but also personal growth, antifragile competitive advantage, and a hyper-sustainable, generative world.


Mapping Sustainability Leadership

Before we can define what sustainable leadership might look like, we need first to understand the ways in which sustainability is already impacting business performance. People use the word ‘sustainability’ to describe a wide range of activities. To understand sustainable leadership let’s first unravel these different elements, then look for the common thread that runs between them.

To do this, we can group together the initiatives most commonly described as ‘sustainability’ into eight themes or categories:

  1. Compliance:
    For some people, sustainability is about complying with legislation or reporting requirements. Usually these are defined by government but some lenders also offer lower interest rates in return for greater reporting transparency around certain issues. Complying with either set of requirements has been called ‘sustainability’.
  2. Efficiency/Cost Reduction:
    Other sustainability initiatives focus on reducing the use of resources such as energy and water, increasing efficiency and cutting costs.
  3. Risk Management:
    One reason resources become more expensive is that they are in short supply. Initiatives to reduce costs can therefore expand to include ensuring continuity of supply. Here, sustainability becomes about managing operational risk. It can also be about managing financial and reputational risk.
  4. People — “Our Greatest Resource”:
    One key resource for many organisations is their people. Sustainability initiatives often improve employee motivation and morale, leading to better hiring and retention rates (reducing HR costs and risk), higher productivity, and greater customer focus.
  5. Extended Supply Chains, Agility, and Learning:
    Not all employees and resources are controlled directly by the firm. When sustainability initiatives extend into management of suppliers and supply chains the outcomes can include reduced cost, risk, and the creation of more integrated approaches. At large scale, these initiatives can also be about increasing organisational agility and learning.
  6. Lifecycle Analysis, New Product Development:
    When sustainability initiatives look downstream, rather than up the value chain, the focus shifts to lifecycle analysis, new product development or innovation, biomimicry, and the ‘race for patents’. Now the focus is on adding value not cost, differentiating the business.
  7. Visionary Leadership:
    For some leaders, sustainability is about pursuing a vision that considers future generations and the environment. Such approaches might include new strategies, business models, or measurement and reward systems. Adding a sustainability perspective to the already-difficult operational and strategic challenges of running a business makes the task more demanding. But managers who are able to rise to these challenges increase the ‘bench strength’ of the organisation’s leadership team.
  8. Transformed Communications/Relationships:
    Sustainability can also be about improving communications, through initiatives such as transparency, governance, ethics, community involvement, and community economic development. In these cases, the focus is no longer on communications for compliance’s sake but to develop deeper relationships with certain stakeholder groups, and so build more robust business models.

These eight types of activity are all very different but all have been called ‘sustainability’. To see how they are connected, we need to map them together. The following diagram provides such a map. It is built around two criteria: focus and scope.

The left side of the picture defines the focus of each activity: on compliance, cost, value, or the identity of the business. The bottom edge shows how the scope of each activity ranges from a single department, to a business unit, supply chain, or the wider business ecosystem of which the business is part.



The resulting map is broad brush but it clearly shows us three things.

First, these apparently very different activities form part of a larger continuum. Sustainability is not defined by any single activity or type of activity. It is an attitude of mind: of how to go about doing the same tasks that any business needs to do. And like any attitude it develops over time. It is a process of becoming. Different activities become appropriate at different stages of development.

Second, we see that broader sustainability programs, such as ‘Circular Economy’, are about delivering a combination of the eight underlying types. The map can help bring clarity and focus to these initiatives.

And third, the overall trend of sustainable leadership runs from ‘doing what others tell us’, through optimizing the cost, risk, and value of our own organisation, towards understanding our role as a part of something bigger and working to optimize that whole. This is more difficult than simply ‘doing what we are told’. But leaders and organisations who achieve it are more capable than those who do not. This is the direction in which the emerging edge of sustainable leadership is pulling us.

This series of eight articles will explore in more detail what this emerging sustainable leadership looks like and where it might take us. It starts by showing how we can use it to bring our organisations antifragile competitive advantage. It then shows how to build such an organisation, first in broad brush and then specific detail. Finally, we will see how sustainable leadership starts within each of us and has the potential to create a hyper-sustainable, generative world.

Originally published by Sustainable Brands.

Photo By Chase Elliott Clark via

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On Trump


1) How we got here:
The polls always showed that Trump would beat Clinton and lose to Sanders. The DNC chose to win the wrong battle.

2) Where we go next:
Trump’s only consistency is to say whatever the voters want to hear next. He can say “A is best” on Monday and “A is worst” on Tuesday and his supporters will cheer him both times.
There is little point trying to predict what he will do once he is president. There will be no consistent plan, unless he becomes a mouthpiece/figurehead for others. Only time will tell.
His track record in business is to lose in negotiations.

3) What to do about it:
Centre and ground. Know what is most important to you and how you are going to get it. Realise that if Clinton were president you would still have faced challenges. With Trump they will be different challenges. Given his inconsistency, volatility, there are also likely to be more challenges. But that doesn’t change what you want, it only changes how you get there.

Photo By Gage Skidmore via

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Costs of Brexit vs Costs of EU Membership

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 08.39.34

On Friday, the pound fell by 1.57% on fears of Brexit.

In dollar terms, our GDP is now 1.57% smaller than it otherwise would have been.

The total cost of being in the EU is less than 1% of GDP.

In other words, in dollar terms, just talking about leaving the EU has already cost us more in GDP, in a single day, than the entire year’s cost of membership of the EU.

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Importance of Purpose in business

I’ll be talking about my new book The Churning and the importance of Purpose in business on 13 April, as part of the Purposeful Enterprise Summit:


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Standup Comedy

I recently took a short course in standup comedy. What attracted me was the idea that it might be easier to communicate ideas if we sprinkle them amongst comedy.

Here is the result: my first ever standup gig, recorded at a comedy club in London’s West End on 15 November 2015.

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Why we need to update leadership, and how to do so

Screen-Shot-2015-09-29-at-22.30.23Yesterday Umair Haque used the examples of Volkswagen and the pope to discuss leadership.

Ranked one of the top 50 management thinkers in the world he bluntly titled his commentary, “Why Everything You Know About Leadership is Wrong“.

“The world,” he wrote, “is crying out for (real) leadership. Whether it’s Trump, Sanders, or Corbyn a curious phenomenon is sweeping the globe. People are rejecting the heads of traditional institutions.”

Why? Continue reading

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Finished: The Final Section of the Final Chapter of The Churning

Screen-Shot-2015-09-16-at-09.33.38Dear friends,

As you know, I have been writing this book on leadership in times of change for little over a year now. Yesterday I completed the final section of the final chapter of inner leadership, and thought I would share it with you.

The first six chapters of inner leadership take us from making sense of the situation we find ourselves in to creating an inspiring vision of whatever we want to create instead.

The seventh chapter prepares us for the implementation of that vision and the inner emotional transitions that inevitably come alongside any outer change. In brief, it describes how to manage those transitions, how understanding them can help us to engage people more fully to follow our vision, and how ultimately to create ‘antifragile’ leaders and organisations: people and organisations that actually become stronger because of change rather than being damaged by it. Continue reading

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Making sense of a shifting world

To me this gif is a metaphor for the way we make sense of the world.

When we are born and as we grow up we learn to make sense of the world around us. We think it has always been like that, unchanging. Then, as we grow older, the world shifts and changes and we sometimes long for ‘the way it used to be’.

The gif below shows a certain pattern when we first look at it. Then it shifts to something else. It seems complicated. What’s going on?

Then over time our brains provide a glimpse of the simple three-dimensional structure that lies behind the changing apparently complex two-dimensional patterns.

The pattern or structure we see at first may not be what we are actually looking at. And when what we see shifts over time we can begin to perceive the existence of a deeper structure and simplicity.



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4 July 1776 to 5 July 2015: Greece and the American Revolution

On 4th July 1776 a group of people living in America declared they no longer wished to pay taxes to another group of people, the British Government.

On 5th July 2015 a group of people living in Greece declared they no longer wished to pay interest to another group of people, the Troika or the bankers.

The words we use to describe these two situations are different (‘taxes’, ‘interest’, ‘government’, ‘bank’), but the underlying pattern is the same: refusal by one group of people to continue to pay to another group of people what the treaties, customs and practice of the day say they should do. And then indignation from the second group that the first should dare to refuse.

The consequences may be equally significant. Continue reading

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