Thinking the unthinkable

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Journalists and business outsiders Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon have started a crucial debate on the future of business through their excellent report, “Thinking the unthinkable, a New Imperative for the Digital Age”.

The aim of the report is to highlight the current ‘broken’ approach of businesses and to challenge businesses to view life differently. The summary – that business is ill-equipped to deal with the current challenges using its traditional approaches, that most business leaders are overwhelmed by the current situation, that no one is asking the difficult questions (we seem to be training senior business people to conform) and that few people are prepared to talk openly about these challenges.

Last week they followed this up with a closed-door session with 60 business and thought leaders to start to develop solutions. The good news is that no one in the audience disputed their findings. Yet when we started to discuss ways forward and solutions, successive speakers and members of the audience put forward perspectives that involved analysis, flow charts and process matrices – which seems to me to be using old paradigm tools to address todays challenges.

I put forward the view that a lot of the issues we face today in business (and in the world in general) are as a result of business leaders becoming disconnected from what is important to them and from their values, as ‘the system’ forces them to chase short-term profits. They and their board member colleagues are not what we in Heart in Business Limited call ‘in flow’ – people who are spending their time doing what they love doing and are good at.

And while everyone recognised that ‘culture’ and ‘trust’ were keys to moving forward, they then talked about processes and corporate governance, and not people.

After the formal sessions, one of the participants shared that she felt I was the only person putting forward a human perspective on what was needed. While I was pleased to have my message heard that way, I was rather depressed that I seemed to be a lone voice.

So why is this so difficult for business leaders? Well, here’s my view. The old way of doing business was all about control – control of staff, control of the message, control the environment and even control of customers – when was the last time you tried to speak to someone at a company you deal with, fighting your way through websites that don’t have a phone number on them and then call centres, before realising that they actually really do not want to speak to you as it doesn’t fit with their ‘efficiency business model’?

The ‘heart’ approach is all about getting people doing what they love, being open and honest with each other and being comfortable with facing difficult situations. Leadership teams like this can then start to have a debate about the higher purpose of their organisation – a purpose that goes beyond making as much cash as possible and helps give the organisation a long-term sustainable future. This way of being is not always predictable.  It can be messy and involve leaders being vulnerable and may not fit on a flow chart, yet is it far more profitable in the long-term and it’s fun – yes imagine work being fun?

Disruptive organisations like Uber and Airbnb sure have not made the impact they have by doing things the old way.

Sometimes I feel that thinking this is the answer is naive, yet I get enough people who relate to it to assure me I am not. And most importantly, the companies that we are working with get this and are starting to implement this approach to great effect – and satisfaction all around.

Moving forwards and with heart,


Andrew Isaac Thornton

2 thoughts on “Thinking the unthinkable

  1. Dear Andrew

    Thank you for the comments on our Thinking the Unthinkable report. You don’t need to depressed! You weren’t a “lonely voice” at the launch event. The host, Tony Manwaring of CIMA said:” We see the increasing importance of issues of culture, and of the behaviours from which culture comes.” and Nik added: “It’s about mind set as well – as opposed to lines on a systems map.” Alan Watkins’ book, 4D Leadership is worth checking-out on this. The hosts’ aim was put progressive thinkers and senior City people in the same room.

    We hear that a number of those present are asking: “What next?” We’re working out the best avenues. Changing minds takes time – and patience.

    Best wishes

    1. Thanks Chris, I get that. And huge appreciation to you and Nik for bringing this into the open. And of course some people will embrace this sooner and more open heartedly than others!

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