For senior leaders of global businesses, nation states and intergovernmental bodies, the 21st century is a harrowing obstacle course with some potentially deadly lessons. To lead their organizations successfully through the complex landscape, they need to take up a part-time role as the CEO of Planet Inc.
On the MIX, the moonshot “Redefining the Work of Leadership” is framed in terms of the need for leaders to become savvy social architects, “capable of building commitment and alignment without resorting to the traditional tools of bureaucratic control.” There is no doubt that this is an aspiration worth the prime grade attention from the MIX community (and, indeed, we ourselves have spent the lion share of our professional careers trying to help our clients land on that moon.)
Yet, when we step back and look at the notion of redefining the work of leadership in the broader context of the 21st century, when we look at what it now takes to lead a successful global business or nation, the challenge of becoming a savvy social architect starts to look like the easy part.
In 2010 IBM released a study, “Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the Global Chief Executive Officer Study.” This study was based on face-to-face conversations with 1,541 CEOs, general managers and senior public sector leaders who represent organizations in 60 countries and 33 different industries. In it, senior leaders describe the realities they face on the ground. We are now leading, they say, in a “drastically different world:”
“In a very short time, we’ve become aware of global climate change; of the geopolitical issues surrounding energy and water supplies; of the vulnerabilities of the supply chains for food, medicine and even talent, and of sobering threats to global security. The common denominator? The realities—and challenges—of global integration. We occupy a world that is connected on multiple dimensions, and at a deep level—a global system of systems…. Increasingly interconnected economies, enterprises, societies, and governments have given rise to vast new opportunities. Increased connectivity has also created strong—and too often unknown interdependencies. For this reason, the ultimate consequence of any decision has often been poorly understood. “
What should be the work of a leader in such a world? We think the central pre-occupation of a leader’s work in the 21st century should be to continuously make sense of the world, to understand the context in which his business or nation operates. Einstein is quoted as having said that if he only had one hour to solve a problem, and his life depended on the answer, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem, and 5 minutes finding the solution. We think it’s a useful frame of mind to carry over into the leader’s work in the 21st century. It helps us quantify what we mean by “central pre-occupation” – spend 55 minutes of the leadership hour on making sense of the world.
The right frame of mind is a good start. Now what should the leader do with those 55 minutes? Where would he start in the ocean of data? How would he get started on grasping something as complex as our world in the 21st century?
The key to navigating in the ocean of data is choosing your perspective carefully and asking the right questions. Adopting the perspective that naturally arises from the leader’s role – be it the President of Brazil or the CEO of Cisco – is the wrong move. It will automatically bias how the leader discriminates between different data sets, what he picks out as relevant and what he dismisses as of little consequence for his organization. A much broader perspective is needed to make sense of the world in the 21st century.
We suggest trying out the role of the CEO of Planet Inc., an imaginary organization charged with securing survival and development of the human race. This is a much broader perspective that allows leaders to make sense of our world in terms of All of Us, not just a particular industry, a particular nation or a particular generation of humans (See both attached ppt materials for a longer set of instruction for making a shift to the perspective of Planet Inc CEO).
Now, what should be the questions the CEO of Planet Inc. should ask from that perspective? It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that once the leader has identified with this broad perspective, the questions he would ask are not altogether different from the questions a leader would ask when stepping into any new CEO role:
- What is the current state of affairs?
- What should be our vision for the future?
- What are the key challenges?
- What should be our strategy going forward?
- What do we need to execute on this strategy?
- What role should different people and organizations play in getting there?
The questions are familiar but the unit of organization the leader would be asking these questions about is radically new – it’s the world, it’s All of Us. Pursuing this line of inquiry should produce some idea of what our over-arching Human Project should be about, what the Evolutionary Strategy for the human race should be. With world data organized and interpreted in this way, the leader would have the proper context for leading his or her own organization. This line of inquiry also tends to bring about an important change in the leader’s mental frame – instead of thinking of one’s organization first and the world second, he/she starts thinking in terms of the Human Project first and the his/her organization’s contribution to the Human Project second.
Both the Evolutionary Strategy for the human race as well as the role of the leader’s organization need to be revised, rethought, re-imagined as the world moves on a daily basis – we would take the 55 minute suggestion seriously. The good news is, once version 1.0 is in place, the leader will have a straw-man, a structure to organize and make sense of the incoming data about the world, instead of being overwhelmed by complexity.
We like to think of it as an ongoing Planet Inc CEO “thought experiment,” or as leaders taking a part-time job as a Planet Inc. CEO.
The leader gets a grip on the complexity of the 21st century.
In the IBM Report, more than half of the 1,541 global CEOs, general managers, and senior public leaders stated that they “seriously doubt their ability to manage the complexity.” That is a self-admission on the part of our senior leaders that in many ways they are struggling to make sense of the world. It is not surprising because it is very hard to cut through complexity without re-organizing one’s thinking at a higher level. It is almost impossible when the leader’s habitual frame of analysis does not transcend the boundaries of an industry or nation, does not extend beyond 5 years into the future and is almost entirely dominated by an economic analysis. That frame is simply not big enough, long enough, nor multi-disciplinary enough to negotiate the 21st century landscape. Stepping into the shoes of the CEO of Planet Inc. is simply a license to think long-term and on a planetary scale. It forces the leader out of his/her comfort zone and confronts him with the challenge to understand, organize and prioritize the issues we face as a human race in the 21st century. It produces a narrative about the world that the leader can update as the world moves on.
The leader creates context for truly visionary change.
Crises – often brought about by accumulation of unforeseen or unintended consequences and contextual blindness – need not be the dominant mode for bringing about systemic changes. We believe that with 55 minutes spent wisely, anticipatory visionary change is a distinct possibility. The Planet Inc CEO thought experiment builds an ability to step outside the frenzy of making quarterly numbers and hitting poll numbers, so the leader can discern what is truly important—so he/she can track the predictable trends, assess the risks, stare the possibility of failure straight in the eye, and claim, “this is the future that I want for the world, and this is how we will make it happen.” Because let’s face it, 20 years from now it won’t matter whether you beat analysts’ expectations by 7%. What will matter is whether you came up with a zero-emissions car or a cure for cancer. What will matter is to what extent the leader’s organization advanced the Human Project.
The leader creates a proper relationship between his/her organization and the world.
Lenny Mendonca said it well, “Admittedly it's still more the norm that institutions and the people that animate them become caught up in internal matters and day-to-day concerns, losing sight of the wider world outside.” Having been on the inside of many global businesses and several governments, we have often taken note of the curious “the world revolves around our organization” mindset. We sometimes joke that it is the modern day organizational equivalent of the geocentric model of the universe, thinking that Earth (my organization) is at the center of the universe and other objects (world) orbit around it. The Planet Inc CEO thought experiment helps the leader re-situate/contextualize his or her organization in the world and relate it to the overarching Human Project.
It’s really simple. You can simply put a few hours to pursue answers to the questions we described in this hack from the perspective of Planet Inc CEO. If you want more detailed instructions, download the materials below.
If the thought experiment gets to you and you want to contribute to the overall thinking behind Planet Inc and to turning it into reality, contact us on Facebook!
There are many thinkers whose work has indirectly inspired us. Their thoughts and ideas ignited our own creative engines, even if we disagreed with some of their fundamental assumptions. However, the idea of the thought experiment (Planet Inc. CEO), its purpose and content is entirely the "brainchild" of the Source Integral team.
We received unexpected help from a few MIXERs: Eric Schillinger sent us the oft-quoted IBM report which helped us reframe our hack (that was a goldmine, Eric), and Lenny Mendonca's blog "The Most Important Question in Business Today" also inspired us to reframe our hack and think as big as the problems we are facing.
Other thinkers we have been following that have indirectly inspired us: Stewart Brand & Brian Eno (particularly their work at the Long Now Foundation), John Chambers, Bill Clinton, Peter Drucker, Albert Einstein, Thomas Friedman, Buckminster Fuller, Galileo Galelei, Bill Gates, Sumantra Ghoshal & Chris Bartlett, Al Gore, Gary Hamel, Robert Kegan, Ray Kurzweil, Socrates, Nicholas Stern, Adlai Stevenson, Marten Rees, Ken Wilber, Eliezer Yudkowsky.