Do you need to overcome fear?
Based in Silicon Valley for over 40 years, John Hagel has been a strategist and futurist working with corporate and other leaders around the world to help them understand how the world is changing and the implications for how to harness the opportunities ahead. He has just published his eighth book, The Journey Beyond Fear, which urges all of us to pay more attention to the emotions that are shaping our choices and actions. Over the years, John has come to believe that psychology is even more important than strategy – our emotions will determine what we see when we look out at the world and how we act in that world.
“Find your passion…It is within you, waiting to be discovered, even though most of us have yet to find it.” -John Hagel
After a global pandemic, and in the midst of disruption and massive uncertainty, fear seems to be gripping more and more people into its spiral. Share some of your observations of where we are in this regard.
The pandemic certainly intensified the fear of many, but my book suggests that fear was increasingly spreading around the world well before the pandemic emerged – at the highest levels of organizations, on the front lines and out in the community.
We are in the early stages of a Big Shift where long-term forces are re-shaping our global economy and society. These forces are creating mounting performance pressure for all of us. Competition is intensifying on a global scale – for companies and for individuals. Individuals are increasingly worried about their jobs being taken away by robots or by employees in lower-wage countries. The pace of change is accelerating – things we thought we could count on are no longer there. And, as if that weren’t enough, the global connectivity we have created enables small events in some far away place in the world to quickly cascade into extreme, disruptive events that leave us scrambling to figure out what to do – dare I mention pandemic?
That’s a lot of pressure and, given the forces at work, the pressure will continue to intensify over time.
So, there are reasons to be afraid. The spread of that emotion is understandable. But that emotion can be very limiting. It tends to shrink our time horizons, makes us much more risk averse and much less trusting of others. We all have a need and an opportunity to move beyond fear and cultivate emotions that will help us to move forward and achieve much greater impact that is meaningful to us and to others.
“We all have a need and an opportunity to move beyond fear and cultivate emotions that will help us to move forward and achieve much greater impact that is meaningful to us and to others.” -John Hagel
Let’s get into your three pillars to help us move beyond fear, pillars of positive emotion:
Would you share the difference between narratives and stories and how can we use them positively?
I make an important distinction between stories and narratives. Stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories are also about the story teller or about some other people, real or imagined – they’re not about you.
In contrast, for me, narratives are open-ended – there is no resolution yet. There’s some kind of big threat or opportunity out in the future, and it’s not clear whether it will be addressed or not. The resolution of the narrative hinges on you – it is a call to action to people in the audience, making it clear that their choices and actions will help to determine how the narrative resolves.
I also make a distinction between threat-based narratives where the focus is on a significant threat out in the future and opportunity-based narratives which focus on a significant, inspiring opportunity out in the future. Threat-based narratives feed the emotion of fear while opportunity-based narratives can be catalysts for emotions like hope and excitement that motivate us to move forward in spite of the fear.
My book discusses many different levels of narratives. We all have personal narratives that shape our individual emotions. Companies and other organizations can craft institutional narratives. Cities, regions and even countries can craft geographical narratives. And then there are movement narratives that seek to motivate and mobilize participants to take action.
There are untapped opportunities at all levels of narratives, but let me focus on institutional narratives. Very few companies have institutional narratives in the way I define them. These narratives should not be about the company but instead should focus on framing an inspiring opportunity for their customers and have an explicit call to action for the customers.
One company that developed this kind of narrative was Apple Computer back in the 1990’s. The narrative was condensed into a slogan of “Think different,” but if we unpack the slogan, the narrative was that, for decades, we had digital technology that took away our names and gave us numbers and made us cogs in a machine. Now, for the first time, there was a new generation of technology that could help us to express our unique potential and individuality. But it wouldn’t happen automatically. To address this opportunity, we had to think different. Would we think different?
This narrative was not about Apple, it was about the customers. It spoke to such a deep aspiration that many of us had that, for many, Apple became the equivalent of a religion. In a world increasingly dominated by fear, this kind of corporate narrative can build deep loyalty.
“We have the opportunity to turn our stress and fear into excitement and to use that excitement as a catalyst to grow and achieve higher and higher levels of impact.” -John Hagel
You discuss the passion of the explorer derived from your research. How do we cultivate this passion in ourselves and in our teams?
My research led me to focus on a very specific form of passion – the passion of the explorer. This passion has three components. It starts with a long-term commitment to achieving increasing impact in a specific domain. People with the passion also have a questing disposition – they are excited when confronted with unexpected challenges, and they are constantly seeking new challenges as an opportunity to have more impact in their domain. And then this passion also includes a connecting disposition – people with this passion are actively seeking to connect with others as they address the challenges ahead because they believe they can have much greater impact if they can motivate and mobilize others to help address the challenges.
Unfortunately, our companies and other institutions are deeply suspect of this passion, so they actually discourage it. That’s why my survey of the US workforce indicated that at best only 14% of the US workforce has this form of passion about their work.
“Who wants to be consumed by fear when we can accomplish so much more? We all have a hunger for hope.” -John Hagel
To cultivate this form of passion, we will need to fundamentally transform the way we work. Today, most work in large institutions consists of tightly specified, highly standardized tasks. To cultivate the passion of the explorer, we need to redefine work as addressing unseen problems and opportunities to create more value and impact, wherever we are in the organization. Not just in research labs or innovation centers, but everywhere – from janitors in our facilities to maintenance workers out in the field.
And then we need to redesign our work environments to support this new form of work. We also need to encourage workers to come together into small groups of 3-15 people (I call them “impact groups”) so that they can support and challenge each other in pursuing this new form of work. A very different set of practices will need to be cultivated in these impact groups to help them to accelerate their performance improvement and impact.
“If you are not passionately engaged in a particular domain, you are unlikely to invest the effort and energy required to achieve mastery and distinctiveness.” -John Hagel
Learning platforms help us create new knowledge and harness network effects. Would you share a little about this pillar of success?
Again, everyone talks about platforms these days, but I am focused on a very specific form of platform that has not yet been fully developed. Most platforms today are either aggregation platforms that support short-term transactions or relationship platforms that help participants to maintain relationships with friends and acquaintances.
Learning platforms are very different. Their primary design goal is to help participants to learn faster. Here, I need to clarify that I am not talking about learning in the form of sharing existing knowledge like lectures or classes. I’m talking about learning in the form of creating new knowledge. That kind of learning occurs best through action and acting together with others.
That’s why the core unit of these learning platforms is an impact group of 3-15 participants. These learning platforms create shared workspaces that help these groups to stay connected and pursue action together. Then they help to connect impact groups into broader networks so that they can scale their learning and impact.
In a world of accelerating change, these learning platforms will increasingly become the key to success. No matter how smart and talented we may be as individuals, we’ll learn a lot faster when we come together. And this also applies to companies – the companies that will create the most value are those that provide learning platforms to help a growing ecosystem of participants to learn faster together.
“The first step is to recognize that fear is holding people back – including perhaps even themselves – and that there is a need to acknowledge that fear, but also to move beyond it.” -John Hagel
What are some specific steps leaders can take to help their teams maximize the opportunities ahead?
The first step is to recognize that fear is holding people back – including perhaps even themselves – and that there is a need to acknowledge that fear, but also to move beyond it.
Another step that leaders can take is to frame some inspiring questions related to significant opportunities out in the future. The leaders should acknowledge that they don’t have answers to these questions and ask for help from others in seeking the answers.
This is powerful on a number of levels. It communicates to others in the organization that questions are not only allowed but encouraged because they are key to learning and increasing impact. It also signals that it is OK to admit you don’t have the answers and to ask for help – rather than being a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that we are committed to achieving greater impact.
“Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.” -Kahlil Gibran
John, you’re an entrepreneur; you’ve advised numerous CEO’s; you have conducted extensive research for decades. If you are giving advice to a newly-minted CEO about how to lead in this time, where do you start?
This strategy focuses on two time horizons. The first time horizon – the zoom out horizon – is 10-20 years. On that horizon, the key questions are: what will our relevant market or industry look like 10-20 years from now and what is a really big opportunity that we could pursue in that market or industry?
The other time horizon – the zoom in horizon – is 6-12 months. On that horizon, the key questions are: what are 2 or 3 initiatives (no more) that we could pursue in the next 6-12 months that would have the greatest ability to accelerate our progress in addressing the longer-term opportunity we have identified, and do we have a critical mass of resources committed to those initiatives over the next 6-12 months?
This approach to strategy is very powerful on a number of levels, but here let me focus on its role in shaping our emotions. By focusing a on a very big and inspiring opportunity out in the future, it helps to build hope and excitement, rather than focusing on short-term pressure.
Of course, many people driven by fear will be likely to dismiss this long-term opportunity as a fantasy that will never be realized. That’s where the zoom-in initiatives become relevant. If we can show significant, short-term progress in moving towards that long-term opportunity, that will help to overcome the skepticism and strengthen the hope and excitement. More and more people will be motivated to move beyond fear and come together to address the opportunity.
Bottom line, why should leaders focus on helping people (including themselves) to make the journey beyond fear?
As I mentioned at the outset, we are in the early stages of a Big Shift that is transforming our global economy and society. There is a profound paradox in that Big Shift. On one side, it is creating mounting performance pressure but, at the same time, it is also creating exponentially expanding opportunity. We can create far more value with far less resource and far more quickly than would have been imaginable a decade ago.
If we’re driven by fear, we are often blind to that opportunity – all we can see is the pressure in the short-term. By cultivating emotions of hope and excitement, we can not only begin to see those opportunities but also find the motivation to aggressively pursue them. Those who do this will be the real winners in the decades ahead.
For more information see The Journey Beyond Fear
Image Credit: Dalton Touchberry