The game-changing epiphany of 2020 that hit me in mid-September has changed my outlook about opportunities for the coming decade. Because insights often appear inside the weave of a story, the experience I’m about to relate could provide the insights and provocation to help you unleash a whole new future for you. I hope that hearing my discovery journey encourages you to a daring recognition of how you can change your game and shape your new opportunities.
I was leading a strategy event with a senior executive team in Minneapolis during the last week of February 2020. Upon returning home to Seattle, I reported to my wife, Sara, that we had received outstanding *wow* feedback. At the conclusion of the three-day workshop, the client reflected on the team’s experience, saying, “Not only were we able to create a shared vision of the future as a team, we also experienced living into this vision and working in the way of our aspirational future. We’ve discovered concrete behaviors and modalities that will enable us to accelerate this future. And as a bonus, by applying these modalities to current work issues, we’ve been able to complete work that was not even planned for this week.”
He then added, “I’ve never seen any consultant create this kind of impact. There is truly something novel about this approach.”
His feedback was gratifying, and I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride. I have been refining my process and the Create New Futures methodology for 20 years as it has evolved as both an art and a science. Unlocking the creative brilliance of a group of very smart leaders to help them play an even bigger game is a challenge that requires true mastery. At that moment, I felt that I was at the top of my game. Little did I know that a surprise the following week was going to upend my plans completely.
In late February, scientists and the public understood truly little about the impacts of Covid19. Within 24 hours of my return, the new reality landed. I was scheduled to conduct a global leadership summit in California for a client whose 80 leaders were coming from Asia, Europe, and across North America. On February 27th, some 72 hours before kickoff, the event was cancelled.
By early April, after three more events had been cancelled, my sober assessment was that I was unlikely to deliver another project during 2020. For the last 13 years, however, I had been preparing for some disruptive cataclysmic event, so mentally I was ready to relax into a reclusive retreat. During April and May, I created and delivered several short virtual interventions designed to enable executive teams to boost their resilience and adaptive behaviors by helping them apply debrief and learning practices. Still, the outlook going forward was unclear.
Over the years, my clients consistently have conveyed feedback with a similar message: our work together was the most impactful strategy and leadership effort they had experienced and/or been involved in. As a result, I associated catalyzing dramatic impacts with my physical presence with the team at an offsite location. My success had become my blind spot.
A decade ago, I realized that my belief in the correlation between successful project outcomes and my physical presence represented a major obstacle to any significant scaling of my business. As a result, I decided to test the validity of my clients’ feedback by raising my fees. This approach enabled us to scale the business significantly over the last decade and to refine the Create New Futures experience choreography we bring to executive teams. This simple discovery was groundbreaking for me. When clients realize returns of 10x, 20x, or 50x their investments, they clearly see the wisdom of investing meaningfully in our collaborations.
By June 2020, I realized we must shift our focus to helping teams pivot first from crisis management to managing the crisis, and then to evolving the organization through these testing times. Because I continued to operate from the assumption-based paradigm that my ability to create dramatic value required my physical presence with the team, I did not know what the feasibility was of delivering virtually the transformative value we are paid to enable.
The implication I drew from the COVID19 environment was that with the restrictions on in-person events and on travel, I must reduce my consulting substantially. In retrospect, I was slow to realize the life-changing gift the pandemic shutdown was offering me.
Three months and several new projects later, the message about this gift has become loud and clear. After multiple full-day virtual events, members of five different teams have described their experiences as true game-changers, as the virtual environment offered powerful ways to create breakthrough results. Still, here is the shocker: several participants explicitly stated that my adaptation of the Create New Futures methodology to the Zoom environment is so effective that these virtual events exceeded anything they had experienced in traditional offsite settings. Why? Because our online techniques enabled them to increase their focus, foster greater creative intensity and lead to a higher level of collaborative efficacy. I was stunned. They obviously saw something that my blind spot had hidden from me.
My surprise was threefold. First, the adaptation to a virtual environment enabled an incredibly powerful strategy and innovation development experience. Recognizing my own false assumption of conflating physical presence with value creation was the second shock. Third, I realized I can continue offering this highly demanding and rewarding work for much longer than I initially had anticipated. I therefore feel obliged to offer my story of how COVID19 dramatically transformed my outlook about my opportunities over the coming decade. It has been a game-changer for me as well as for my clients.
In addition, for those who would like to learn more about the adaptation of the Create New Futures methodology, let me open the hood and offer you the design principles of this approach. A few friends have asked me why I decided to share my success “secrets.” For me, the answer is simple: this is a “cup runneth over” situation, and I choose to help as many people as I can so that they may be able to help their organizations or their clients achieve their aspirational outcomes.
Nine design principles for creating breakthrough events virtually
There is a book to be written about this process, so what follows is a relatively concise summary.
Design principle 1: Create a shape-shifting format
When I conduct an in-person leadership team event, I continually shape-shift the format to accelerate discovery by creating new combinations and connections that heighten engagement. We have doubled down on this approach in the virtual environment.
A critical question is how to keep people engaged virtually for 8 hours. The answer: we create a versatile and rich experience through a cadence of shape-shifting formats. In a typical 8-hour virtual workshop day, we transition through four or five breakout rooms, enabling team members to experience seven or eight highly engaging, inspiring, and energizing fit-for-purpose modalities and interaction scenarios.
Design principle 2: Activate a foreground-background alternating current
To unlock transformative insights that bring forward the team’s individual and collective strengths, I provoke new connections and relationships by designing a series of alternating inquiries in which the WHAT explorations about strategic opportunities (foreground work) are interspersed among the HOW and WHO discoveries about people and culture (background work). Engaging in these alternating inquiries liberates intuitive and creative dimensions typically blocked in business settings by connecting a whole range of mental zones and circuitries that allow for semi- and sub-conscious processing in the background.
Although we have a workshop agenda, I let everyone know in advance that we will use it as a guide to facilitate our collective “jazz playing” rather than to follow a fixed musical score. My thorough advance preparation allows me to call upon my intuition to surf the wave of the conversation as I follow its energy patterns and emergent nature.
Curating this shift in context and allowing divergent and convergent cycles to inform our explorations and strategy formulation enable leaders to unshackle entrenched thinking, develop new ideas and perspectives, and discover previously unseen possibilities.
Design principle 3: Step outside the comfort zone of what we know into the liminal zone
Although business leaders are expected to make data-driven decisions, they also must be able to connect the dots in new ways and see possibilities even before the data are fashioned and/or are complete. Therefore, a critical element of our approach is presenting the team with inquiries for which they don’t have ready-made answers. I ask leaders to be imaginative, to explore openly outside the comfort of what they know, to produce rapid starter answers, and to stay with open inquiries. Stepping into the liminal zone engenders new possibilities that allow people to surprise themselves and each other.
Design principle 4: Catalyze rapid prototyping
Rapid prototyping is one way to cause a download of information from the unconscious to the conscious mind. In the workshop process, I introduce a challenge that initially appears impossible because in business settings, people generally withhold their creative nature. Then I “force” participants to rapidly produce their rough drafts and prototypes. Instead of talking about the work, they find themselves thrown into the deep end of the pool, where they must produce at a much faster rate than is required during a typical day at the office. Engaging in rapid prototyping enables executives who perhaps have forgotten how to create new deep work themselves, because they have gotten used to managing the work of others, to rekindle their passion for this creative work.
Design principle 5: Cultivate psychological safety
Curiosity and care, inquiry and compassion, humor and play, delight and joy, trust, and discovery enable the open explorations that are pre-requisites for transformational results. For these qualities and characteristics to emerge, however, people must experience psychological safety. Once they are able to relax into this shape-shifting environment, team members are ready to embrace active listening, and to swarm from one activity to the next with ease and flow.
When people feel free to speak up and concurrently are comfortable in moments of introspective silence, we are able to enter a zone where the collective throughput becomes a greater saliency and propulsion than does the need to protect one’s self- view.
Design principle 6: Visualize and mind-map the evolving conversation
There is a great deal of power in using a collaboration tool to visualize the work at hand while the ideation is underway. The fact that there are diverse learning and processing preferences around the virtual table — that is, conceptual thinkers, visualizers, storytellers, kinetic thinkers — means that we must accommodate them all. To pull together the full scope of talent and learning styles output, we use a large canvas (a digitized wall) to aggregate and display all the ideas, images, and slides. This methodology works well with the right app and a master collator scribe who brings the technical knowhow together with the capacity to capture ideas live and thematically organize the wall in the free-flowing part of the conversation. A second powerful application of the digital wall is allowing teams and individuals to propagate content concurrently, and then to step back and reflect on what they’ve each contributed through this swarming activity.
Design principle 7: Break out of linearity by creating concurrent learning loops
To enrich the range of permutations dramatically and to accelerate discovery, we activate concurrent explorations along the inquiry continuum by turning the traditional sequential development cycle on its head. In the initial framing, I typically probe a WHY (purpose) inquiry before delving into the WHAT (strategy) exploration and the HOW (capabilities) evaluation. To truncate three weeks or three months of the traditional approach to 45 minutes of prototyping, we get team members to actuate cross-pollinating learning loops in all directions simultaneously by working along the continuum concurrently.
Design principle 8: Implement the 72-hour rule
A key discipline we implement to ensure that we escape the collective stupidity syndrome and produce efficacy is activating the 72-hour rule. To innervate and inspire workshop participants, I sprinkle new learning, behavioral modalities and leadership insights along the journey. They act like energy capsules released into the arteries of the process. We then have team members activate the 72-hour rule within minutes of their learning each new model or modality. The velocity of learning application is the exponent factor. As people begin to get results, the positive learning loop validation unleashes momentous acceleration. Of all the techniques we apply, this may be the most critical game-changer. The immediacy of application and activation in the moment is so liberating and empowering that it delivers us into a possibility zone that is miraculous. Simply put, in the presence of the contagious excitation of possibility, nothing is impossible.
Design principle 9: Create deep work
The entire process described above leads to dramatic pivotal shifts from managing to creating, and from superficial work to deep work. What do we mean by “deep work?” It is purposeful and intentional work that unlocks possibilities by daringly stepping into the liminal zone. It is explorative and creative, transforming mundane exchanges into meaningful conversations. Deep work unleashes our most profound aspirations and latent genius. It embraces our vulnerabilities and fears as fountains of strength, opening us up to courageous possibilities. Deep work brings us together in whole new ways as it converts the seemingly impossible into incandescent grace in action.
What does deep work look like? Right now, as I write this Key to codify my process methodology, I am creating deep work. If you are attuned to my work, you can feel the intensity and the energy potential of this process. Its nascent emergence is penetratingly cathartic for me because I am in the deep work zone: the content is as new for me as I write it as it is for you who are reading it. The discovery of this process by trial and error and the effort to codify it require deep work.
Following the epiphany I described in the first part of this article, the above modality trace burst out like a little volcano. Now it is your time to turn the key. I invite you to choose one idea you can implement right here, right now. Do not wait 72 hours, or even one day: begin right now to build your discovery and transformation momentum. The thrill of leading and transforming is that you get to renew and make yourself anew in the process. Please share your insights and experience with me.
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