Rethink. Reimagine.

I gave the opening keynote yesterday at Michael Specht’s HR Futures conference. Michael asked me to speak on the recent trip I made to the US to attend TED and reflect of the experience, what I learned there and it’s applicability to business and HR. I was only too happy to help Michael out. He’s a friend, a great guy and I was interested in the subject matter.

While I’ve given a closing keynote before, I’ve never opened a conference. I felt more than a little challenged and worked really hard on the presentation. A Slideshare embed doesn’t do it justice.

Unlike previous talks I’ve done, I didn’t tightly script this one. Instead I used thematic notes. I had many themes I wanted to touch on, an activity I wanted to do with the audience, and the ability to riff off their reaction to what I was saying. I think this arguably worked better than previous talks I’ve done.

So, the “transcript” below doesn’t really reflect exactly what I said, more the themes I talked about.

In the world of business, we’re facing some major dilemmas. Openness, engagement, trust, motivation – these are big issues. Today is about these things. Today, during every talk, I want you to do something you don’t always do – in work or in life. I want you to be present. To the speakers. To the subject matter being discussed. To each other.

So, it’s time to…

Think and then rethink. Imagine and then reimagine.

From the TED web site:

“TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader.
The annual conference now brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).”

Let’s take a look at a video showing what TED is all about. You can’t have these 4 minutes back, but you won’t regret it either.

The apparently unreasonable expectation you build in your mind about the power and buzz at TED actually isn’t close. It’s incredibly empowering to spend four days immersed in people that believe all things are possible, that “no” is not an option, that all problems are fixable. And the attendees are diverse – scientists, politicians, artists, actors, marketers, environmentalists, philanthropists, techies and yes, HR practitioners.

These people are switched on to something important, and what it is is a belief in their own power and the power they have as a group to effect change.

They are also notable for one other thing – they are present. To each other, the topic and something else (but we’ll get to that shortly).

Now, let’s look at three of what I consider the most important talks at TED this year…

First, Juan Enriquez on The Ultimate Reboot. How is a life scientist relevant to business, you ask? It’s about this.

We live in a time of massive, rapid, nearly unmanageable change. Politics. War. Markets. Climate. How do we cope? We change too. We reboot. Everything – law, policy, business, family, government. Everything. But how do we cope?

Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, offers hope.

(At this point, I did the Happy Birthday to You exercise we did at TED. Lucky it was nearly Miriam‘s birthday. Smiles all around.)

What is this all about? What does it teach us? What it teaches us is about choice. In all situations in life, says Benjamin Zander, we essentially have three choices. The first is anger. It’s not constructive. It’s immensely destructive. As is the second option, resignation. There is in fact, only one positive choice we can make, and it’s this…

Possibility. In all things, to be successful, we must see the possibility. We must ask, “what can I do to make the situation better?” To improve the world. Help someone. Achieve a result.

Anger and resignation seem to rule much of the world of business. The carrot option is far too rare – reward, achievement, recognition, outcome. The default is stick – penalty, put-down, layoffs. Or possibly worse – the curse of business as usual, where we just step along, never seekeing to be better, or change what we do. They are the wrong choices in almost every case.

Barry Schwartz delivered one of the final talks of TED 2009. It was my favorite talk of the entire conference. He also proposed a reboot. A reboot of business.

We’ve all heard that common sense is not so common. And so it is with business. We operate in an environment where bureaucracy rules. Largely for the sake of bureaucracy and to perpetuate control in the hands of irrelevant feifdoms – of petty controlling fools who control for the sake of their own fragile egos.

Barry Schwartz says we need to reboot all our businesses to operate with a new morality. One where bureaucracy no longer reigns. Where a kinder, practical wisdom guides us to the right decision, not the decision the policies say we should make. Practical wisdom, as defined by Aristotle, is:

“The capability to consider the mode of action in order to deliver change, especially to enhance the quality of life.”

What is policy but a guiding framework? There are always exceptions to rules. With our newfound practical wisdom, we do the right thing before we do what the policy says.

We must change the rules of the way we do business. Pacific Brands showed this week they do not understand this. A $150M loss and 1850 jobs and lives flushed down the toilet. It’s not just the global financial crisis. Something has been rotten for a long time for those number to come into play. Where was the practical wisdom?

So what does this mean for you? For your business? You probably need a reboot as well.

Engagement is key. You. Your people. The work your company does. Engaged and making decisions tempered by practical wisdom. And here’s why.

So what attributes do we need in our businesses to make this a reality?

We need leadership. Impassioned, visionary leadership. Leadership that takes us on a journey with them to a place the entire organisation can share. It’s much more then the ducks in a row management (somethimes that’s badly done, too) that many mistake for leadership. I want a Gary Vaynerchuk or a Sir Richard Branson far more than I want a Jack Welch.

We must empower our people to make decisions, to take actions and to resolve issues without having to negotiate a maze of pointless rules. We must trust them to behave like adults and not treat them like children. Treating people like children – blocking actions, imposing needless rules – encourages them to behave like children.

We must make work deeply meaningful. Both in terms of it’s larger meaning in the world as well as on the micro scale of the job. Context in and context out. In isolation, nothing works properly. The pre-9/11 intelligence community and the discoveries since are a prime example of decontextualised busy work leading nowhere (or, indeed, to disaster).

We have undergone a fundamental economic shift from making to knowing. We need creative ideas to continue to improve. We need to look at ourselves and our employees in terms of the value they are yet to create, not the value they have already created (and has been paid for). We need to reach the edges and explore our organisations for undiscovered ideas and insight.

We must remove “dumbplexity” from business. Most meetings and even projects have no defined resolution or action – except to have another meeting. This is not wise. Nor purposeful or useful. Change it.

The greatest hurdle to progressive business today are siloed organisations and kingdom keepers. Get rid of them. And you will if you shift your business. Change your DNA. Make openness a feature. Allow connection to take place. Inside and outside.

We are trained to fear failure and don’t experiment at work. But what if the next idea was the best one ever. The aprocyphal story goes that the successful version of the incandescent light globe was Edison’s 1000th attempt. In business, we must be like Edison and fail gloriously many times.

Never, ever forget that people are your greatest asset. Pacific Brands did. As have every other organisation working only for the mighty dollar and laying off large numbers during current times. So what do we do?…

We must do everything in our power to empower and encourage the conversation. Without it, we lose our humanity. With conversation, we can come together in small numbers and collaborate. We work together for a better outcome today. A better project tomorrow. A better company next month. A better world.

Once we collaborate, we can learn to live in that world and have community. People working together. Playing together. Wanting to be together. Motivated, engaged, loyal. It’s always about people.

Without people, the community that is our workplaces fail and we have no companies. Without our people, we can’t serve our clients or stakeholders. Without our people. Our community. We fail. At everything.

I want you to take everything I’ve spoken about today and return to work with it in your minds. Nothing is unfixable. We don’t always need to retrench, we need to operate morally. Anything is possible if we care about it enough.

What I want you to do in every situation is imagine then reimagine. Think and then rethink.

Leave a Reply