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Happy 14th Birthday Digital Tonto!

2023 August 13
by Greg Satell

When I first started this blog in my Kyiv flat in 2009 I couldn’t imagine that, in scarcely more than a decade, Ukraine would be at war with Russia, much less that it would be winning. If someone had told me back then that Ukraine’s president would be the world’s most admired leader I would’ve thought they were nuts!

Yet that is the nature of human agency. Despite all the calculations of the experts and practitioners, what made the most difference in Ukraine was not the number of tanks or planes, but how people saw themselves. It is why Putin invaded in the first place and why the Ukrainians fight so hard. Identity is a tremendously powerful force.

That’s one of the things that I’ve learned from this blog and, as we move into a new era of AI, it’s something to keep in mind. While there is value in tapping into the hive mind using services like ChatGPT, only we can decide what we think and determine our own intent. That’s a big part of what this blog has been. Here are my favorite posts from the past year.

Don’t Try To Shape Opinions, Shape Networks

The biggest misconception about change is that once people understand it, they will embrace it and so the best way to drive change forward is to explain the need for change in a convincing and persuasive way. Change, in this view, is essentially a communication exercise and the right combination of words and images is all that is required.

There is a massive industry dedicated to shaping opinions. Professionals research attitudes, identify “value propositions,” craft messages and leverage “influencers” in the hopes that they can get people to change their minds. Yet despite the billions of dollars invested each year, evidence of consistent success remains elusive.

The truth is that the best indicator of what people do and think is what the people around them do and think. Instead of trying to shape opinions, we need to shape networks. That’s why we need to focus our efforts on working to craft cultures rather than wordsmithing slogans. To do that, we need to understand the subtle ways we influence each other.

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Schwerpunkt: The Killer Strategic Concept You’ve Never Heard Of (But Really Need To Know!)

The biggest strategic mistake you can make is to try and triumph everywhere at once. To win, you need to prevail in the decisive battles, not the irrelevant skirmishes. That, in essence, is the principle of Schwerpunkt—to identify a focal point where you can direct your resources and efforts.

There is no ideal strategy, just ones that are ideally suited to a particular context, when relative strength can be brought to bear against relative weakness. Discovering the center of gravity at which you can break through is more of a journey than a destination, you can never be sure beforehand where exactly you will find it, but it will become clear once you’ve arrived.

Schwerpunkt is such a simple principle, but incredibly profound. Focus your energies and resources on where they will matter the most. It’s the thing that every leader needs to know, but few ever learn.

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Here’s What It Takes To Change Someone’s Mind

When we want to change somebody’s minds, our first instinct is to confront their beliefs. We want to be warriors and fight for our position. Yet because people’s opinions are often a result of their experiences and social networks, countering their beliefs won’t feel to them like merely offering a different perspective, but as an attack on their identity and dignity.

That’s why we’re much better off listening and building rapport. That’s not always easy to do, because staying silent while somebody is voicing an opinion we don’t agree with can feel like a surrender. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, if we can identify a shared value and a shared language in an opposing viewpoint, we have a powerful tool to argue our position.

At some point, we all need to decide if we want to make a point or make a difference. If we really care about change, we need to hold ourselves accountable to be effective messengers and express ourselves in terms that others are willing to accept. That doesn’t in any way mean we have to compromise. It simply means that we need to advocate effectively.

To do that, we need to care more about building shared purpose than we do about winning points.

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What Will Humans Do In An Artificially Intelligent World?

One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed about generative AI services like ChatGPT is how little interest I have in using it. For me, writing is a form of thinking and I have no interest in outsourcing that. Yes, ChatGPT can scrape the web and tell me what the hive mind thinks, but it can’t tell me what I think and figuring that out is important to me.

As I explain in the post, artificial intelligence can do a perfectly passable job of writing, say, a short biography of Greg Satell, but it won’t be the one that I would write, that would reflect my intentions. I could, of course, experiment with prompts until the AI would produce what I intended, but in the time it takes to do that I might as well do it myself.

Human motives are almost hopelessly complex. So much so, in fact, that even we ourselves often have difficulty understanding why we want one thing and not another. To derive meaning in an artificially intelligent world we need to look to each other and how we can better understand our intentions. The future of technology is always more human.

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3 Strategies To Overcome Resistance To Change

One of the biggest misconceptions about change is that it is an exercise in persuasion. Yet anyone who has ever been married or had kids knows how hard it can be to convince even a single person of something they don’t want to be convinced about. Seeking to persuade hundreds or thousands to change what they think or how they act is a tall order indeed.

What’s needed is not snappy slogans but sound strategies. The good news is that you can learn to leverage opposition to further your efforts. You can co-opt those who are rationally skeptical to find flaws in your idea that can be fixed. For those who are adamantly and irrationally opposed to an initiative, there are proven methods that help lead them to discredit themselves.

Change, properly understood, is a strategic conflict between the status quo and an alternative vision of the future. To win, you need to bring relative strength to bear against relative weakness. This post explains how to do that.

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5 Simple Rules That Will Make You A Powerful Communicator

When I was a student, a man came to my school to speak about Winston Churchill. Mostly, it was the usual mix of historical events and anecdotes, which in Churchill’s case was a potent mixture of the poignant, the irreverent and the hilarious. But what I remember most was how the talk ended.

The speaker concluded by saying that if we were to remember one thing about Churchill it should be that what made him so effective was his power to communicate. I didn’t understand that at the time. Growing up I had always heard about the importance of hard work, honesty and other things, but never communication.

But over time I came to see how important it is to be able to impart ideas clearly. Certainly, Volodymyr Zelinsky has shown the power of words in defending his country and, since I started teaching a course at Wharton last year I’ve come to realize how important it is for young leaders to hone their communication skills. This post will give you some simple rules to improve yours.

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Why Hierarchies Can Outperform Networks (And Vice Versa)

For decades we’ve been hearing that we need to eliminate bureaucracy and break down silos. Yet there is little evidence of any success. In fact, when management guru Gary Hamel, who has been leading the call to “bust bureaucracy,” surveyed readers at Harvard Business Review he found that levels of organization had increased, not decreased.

The inescapable conclusion is that we’ve failed to do away with hierarchies because they serve a useful purpose. We need them. In much the same way, the much maligned “silos” form around centers of capability as a result of close collaboration. These are good things. We don’t want to eliminate them, we want to support and empower them.

So instead of trying to break down silos, we need to connect them. Network science tells us that it takes just a small amount of boundary spanning “random connections,” in order to bring social distance crashing down. We can’t just look at organizational charts, but need to focus on how meaningful relationships form in the real world.

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3 Important Lessons That Monkeys Can Teach Us About Business And Life

G. H. Hardy, widely considered a genius, wrote that “For any serious purpose, intelligence is a very minor gift.” Parables about monkeys can be useful because nobody expects them to be geniuses, which demands that we ask ourselves hard questions.

The truth is that humans are prone to be foolish. We are unable, outside a few limited areas of expertise, to make basic distinctions in matters of importance. So we look for signals of prosperity, intelligence, shared purpose and other things we value to make judgments about what information we should trust. Imagining monkeys around us helps us to be more careful.

This was a fun post to write and, as I read through it now, still thought provoking. Check it out.

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Change Isn’t About Persuasion. It’s About Power

The greatest misconception about change is that it’s about persuasion. All too often, we think that once people understand our idea, they will embrace it. Nothing can be further from the truth. Anybody who’s ever been married or had kids knows how difficult it can be to convince even a single person of something.

The truth is that change isn’t about persuasion, but power. If you want change and can access the power to implement it, it will happen. If not, it won’t. That’s why effective change agents learn to leverage multiple sources of power. They mobilize people to influence institutions that can further their cause. That’s how you bring genuine transformation about.

To make a significant impact, you need to mobilize people to influence institutions and the best way to do that is through leveraging networks. In the final analysis, it is small groups, loosely connected, but united by a shared purpose that drives transformational change. As leaders, it’s our job to help those groups connect and to inspire them with purpose.

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3 Ancient Wisdoms We Needed To Leave Behind To Create The Modern World

If you were a person of sophistication and education in the 19th century, your world view was based on certain axiomatic truths, such as parallel lines never cross, logical propositions are either true or false and “bad airs” made people sick. For the most part, these ideas would have served you well for the challenges you faced in daily life.

Even more importantly, your understanding of these concepts would signal your inclusion and acceptance into a particular tribe, which would confer prestige and status. If you were an architect or engineer, you needed to understand Euclid’s geometric axions. Aristotle’s rules of logic were essential to every educated profession. Medical doctors were expected to master the nuances of the miasma theory.

Today, it’s becoming increasingly clear we need to break with the past. In just over a decade, we’ve been through a crippling financial crisis, a global pandemic, deadly terrorist attacks, and the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II. We need to confront climate change and a growing mental health crisis. Yet it is also clear that we can’t just raze the global order to the ground and start all over again.

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Strategy Without Purpose Will Always Fail

We usually think of strategy as a rational, analytic activity, with teams of MBA’s poring over spreadsheets or generals standing before maps. Yet if we fail to take into account human agency and dignity, we’re missing the boat. Strategy without purpose is doomed to fail, however clever the calculations. Leaders need to take note of that basic reality.

In the real world, strategy is not a game of chess, in which we move inert pieces around a board. While we can make rational assessments about various courses of action, ultimately people have to care about the outcome. For a strategy to be meaningful, it needs to speak to people’s values, hopes, dreams and ambitions.

A leader’s role cannot be merely to plan and direct action, but must be to inspire and empower belief in a common endeavor. That’s what widens and deepens the meaningful connections that can enable genuine transformation.

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Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. Parent Peter Holleley permalink
    August 13, 2023

    Greg’s 14 Years of Keepers

    Congratulations, Greg, on your 14 years of weekly wisdom. Previously I subscribed to your occasional emails and I continue to appreciate your Sunday morning posts – “Hey, Greg’s post is here, it must be Sunday!” (a word about “habit” follows).

    Your selection of top posts from the past with their opening paragraphs hit so many “nails deep into the timber”, I’ll need a couple of months of undisturbed reading time to follow their links.

    In this era of diversity, inclusivity and equity, it’s good that you speak of “shared values”, “shared languages” and “shared purposes”. You use the word “purpose” eight times but “intention” only twice, once in your personal context and again, most appropriately, as “our intentions”.

    Happy to see your references to Churchill and Zelinsky and their communication skills. Clearly they expressed, Volodymyr continues to do so, “shared intentions, values and purposes” very eloquently – helped by the in-our-face emergencies of the moment. While the expression of good and shareable intentions is mission-critical, sorting through our daily distractions, our spam, is essential to avoid overwhelm and suffocation. The key is to quickly be able to ascertain the intention of the author and flick right if it seems negative or too convoluted.

    Your words on 19th Century sophisticates were rather broad-brush negative. The world, all eight billion of us, have gained immeasurable amounts of knowledge (and likely even more disinformation!) since then; parallel lines may never cross but they appear to do so on the horizon and we know the importance of appearance! … Sure, personal hygiene and an infinity of commercial products control our “bad airs”, but what about our community and planetary bad airs, bad water, bad garbage, bad temperatures? …

    To the community elder and attentive observer, the sciences of genetics and epigenetics of our ancestral history – our embedded DNA – can help us today to clarify our individual intentions, our personal integrity, our personal passions / purposes and help us to lead a happier more-fulfilling life.

    I don’t see the word “habit” in your post. This is the oh-so useful five-letter word that “makes the world go round” – it has for the last 14.6 or so billion years so likely will for the rest of our lifetimes. Our epigenetics, our personal habits, have driven us for five or six generations and can deeply affect our todays.

    Greg, you and likely most of your readers live in a commercial world, a universe where the workforce has employment and service contracts and gets paid to listen. Not so my world, my younger son is in high school and, here in Ontario, parents are mandated as partners in public education. Being public education and the public purse, parents cannot be paid but, when motivated, they are encouraged to donate their time, talents, treasures / cash and goodwill to youth related activities that enhance student achievement and well being.

    Sounds good, is good when it works! Unfortunately, my son’s school board – the third largest in the province with 123,000 students – has so many such dysfunctional parenting policies that it’s embarrassing. Fortunately, after 30 months of observation and focused activism, I am uncovering bunches of weaknesses, legal and moral errors and omissions, for which I aim to make the Board accountable. That’s my “changemaking” story; similar principles but with folk who are not paid to listen!

    Greg, your blog platform doesn’t seem to have evolved; I get your pristine posts but never see any reader comments like the one I’m writing now. On “social media” platforms, subscribers can get notifications of new comments, usually a plethora of spam with grains of usefulness. But of course, yours is “business media’ which requires mediation and the caveat; “Comments may be edited for brevity and clarity”. Sure, it’s extra work for you or your assistant but please consider how it can be done.

    Warmest best wishes for the next 14 years!
    Peter in Toronto

  2. August 13, 2023

    Thanks so much Peter! I used to get far more comments here but, to your point, much of the conversation has shifted to social media. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and join in!

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