unlearn

How to Stop Worrying About Becoming Obsolete at Work

In case you missed it, FOMO is now an official word in the English language. The “Fear of Missing Out” is now in the Oxford Dictionary, which has described it as the “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”

Perhaps FOMO has become a contemporary problem because things are moving so much faster. But I believe there is a deeper fear — a fear of becoming obsolete. We’re afraid of being left out because we’re afraid of being left behind.

As individuals, we’re afraid of being left behind in our careers. A recent survey by Oxford Economics found employees’ top concern is that their position might change or become obsolete. Half believe their current skills won’t be needed in three years. And the fear has spread to the C-suite: a study by Adobe found that 40% of marketing executives feel the need to reinvent themselves but only 14% feel they know how.

As organizations, we’re afraid that our industries will be disrupted or that our companies are no longer competitive. Business leaders surveyed by IMD believe 40% of the incumbents in each industry will be displaced by digital disruption in the next five years.

Perhaps we should use a variation on FOMO when it comes to our companies and careers: FOBO, the Fear of Becoming Obsolete. The dictionary definition might be “anxiety that the world is changing so rapidly that your career and company will be left behind.”

There are good reasons to be concerned. The lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 has decreased from 61 years in 1958 to 18 years today. Gartner predicts that one-third of jobs will be replaced by software, robots, and smart machines by 2025. Productivity is rising but jobs and income haven’t kept up.

We’ve been through transformative change before, but the rate of change was much more gradual. A century ago, it took generations for the economy to transform from agriculture to industry. These days, a career or business strategy can become obsolete in a matter of years.

So what should you do to prevent obsolescence? It’s a trick question. You don’t fix FOBO by updating what you do. You first have to update how you think. If you change what you do without changing how you think, you will get more of the same. But change how you think, and you will naturally change what you do. So the real question is how should you think to prevent obsolescence?

In times of transformative change, it is not just our skills, tools, and practices that become obsolete. More fundamentally, our mental models become outdated, rendering them ineffective, misleading, or outright dangerous.

Mental models are the (largely unconscious) ways we make sense of the world around us. They determine what we see or don’t see and connect cause with effect. For example, the typical mental model for how to solve a problem has us looking for what to do instead of how to think.

Our mental models are like maps in a GPS that tell us how to reach our desired destination. When things are stable, we just punch in new coordinates to get where we need to go. But when the landscape changes, our mental maps become outdated. We find ourselves making wrong turns and getting lost or confused.

Unfortunately, we can’t update the maps in our heads as easily as the maps on our phones. These models are like mental habits. And habits don’t change overnight. Change requires both learning and unlearning. The process is less like a teenager learning to drive, and more like a tourist in London trying to drive on the opposite side of the road.

Research on habit design tells us that the key to learning any new behavior is setting the right triggers and taking small steps. The same principles apply to mental habits. Here are a few to get you started.

  1. When someone raises a problem, notice the tendency to immediately ask “What should we do?” Instead of that question, try asking “How should we think?” Are you trying to solve the problem with the same thinking that created it? Is someone describing a car and you’re thinking, “Oh, sounds like a horseless carriage”?
  2. When you’re organizing an activity, check that everyone is aligned in their thinking before getting everyone aligned in their action. Just because they are using the same words doesn’t mean they are using the same mental models. When someone says “brand,” do they mean your logo, reputation, or experience?
  3. When you read about a successful company, catch yourself merely seeking to imitate what they’re doing. Instead, look deeper into how they are thinking. The key to becoming the “Uber” of something is not creating another app-enabled delivery service but instead applying platform thinking.
  4. When you’re making decisions, beware relying on “best practices.” By definition, a best practice is a tool or approach derived from an old mental model. Instead, look for “next practices.” Deconstruct the thinking behind their success and apply the principles to your situation.

The Fear of Becoming Obsolete is both real and warranted. Fortunately, we are not destined to be digital dodos. It is not we who have become obsolete; it is our mental models. The dodo couldn’t learn to fly, but we can learn to shift our thinking and create new mental habits. With an update in our mental models, we can be more resilient, more relaxed, and more relevant. All of which gives more time for checking social media and ensuring we’re not missing out on anything.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

Don’t Sell a Product, Sell a Whole New Way of Thinking

We all know the story.  A team creates a groundbreaking new innovation only to see it mired in internal debates. When it is eventually launched in the market, there is an initial flurry of sales to early adopters, but then sales cycles become sluggish. Pilot customers are enthusiastic, but broader adoption is slow even with customer support and training. All the pieces are in place to create “disruptive innovation” and to “cross the chasm,” but the results are disappointing. What’s missing?

The problem is that data, information, and value propositions are not enough to sell innovative products. We all know the saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But when it comes to innovation, the truth is often “I’ll see it when I believe it.” To sell your idea to executives, buyers, and users, you have to change not only what they think, but how they think. Without the right mental model, they won’t see the problem, understand the benefits, or make the change.

Mental models are how the brain makes sense of the vast amount of information to be processed every moment of every day. They are the lens through which we see the world. The filter that separates the signal from noise. The framework for attributing cause and effect. The “sorting hat” to decide what makes it into our conscious awareness.

To understand the power of mental models, consider Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a physician working in Vienna in the 1840s. He observed that the death rate for puerperal fever fell tenfold when doctors washed their hands before treating patients. He shared his findings with his colleagues to introduce handwashing as a standard practice. Despite the data, his fellow doctors dismissed his findings. In fact, his colleagues and even his own wife thought he was losing his mind. They had him committed to a mental institution where he died shortly thereafter.

Why couldn’t Semmelweis persuade people of his innovation? In the 1840s, the mental model of disease was an imbalance of four “humours” in the body such as phlegm, bile, and blood. Every disease was entirely internal and unique. With this mental model, Semmelweis’ colleagues couldn’t see how handwashing could affect a person’s health. It didn’t matter what the data said.

A few decades later, Louis Pasteur proved that germs, not humours, were the primary cause of disease. With this new mental model, doctors could understand how handwashing would affect health. Personal hygiene became a new standard of care. Unfortunately, this was too late for Dr. Semmelweis. He had failed to shift his colleagues’ thinking, and thus failed to shift their behavior.

Innovators change the lens through which we see the world. Companies that successfully market and sell innovation are able to shift how people think not only about their product, but about themselves, the market, and the world. Steve Jobs was one of the great mindshifters of our time. He championed the mantra “think different” and shifted the way people think about technology to be more personal and human.

Shifts in mental models go deeper than traditional thought leadership. Most thought leadership tries to establish a company as an expert within the existing mental model. Shifts in thinking challenge the prevailing model.

Over the last ten years, Salesforce.com has grown from an upstart to a market leader in enterprise software. From the beginning, Salesforce.com has focused on shifting the paradigm of computing as much as shifting customers over to its product.

For years, the company’s marketing strategy has focused on the idea of “No Software,” reflecting the shift from packaged, installed software to cloud computing and software-as-a-service. Salesforce.com recognized that only after buyers understood the mental model of cloud computing could they understand the benefits of Salesforce.com as a product.

To put the power of mental models to work in your business, start with three steps:

A. Identify the shift

The first step is identifying the underlying shift in thinking. This is different than your value proposition. It’s an assumption (usually unconscious) about how the world works.

To find the shift, ask yourself a few questions. What was the original insight that led to the innovation? Where do you feel people “don’t get it” about your solution? What is the “aha” moment when someone turns from disinterested to enthusiastic?

Try to frame it as a From and a To. This is not about bad to good, just better for the current context. As an example, consider companies selling software and services related to “big data.” The shift is not about “simple to intelligent” or “smaller to bigger.” In the area of data, the “aha” might relate to a shift in thinking about decision-making (from intuition to analytics), in data models (from spreadsheets to algorithms), or how the data is used (from target to empower)

B. Find the sticking point

Next, determine how mental models are getting in the way of your success. The sticking points are usually in one of three areas. You can tell which one by the associated symptom.

  • PRESENT: The model of how things work today. Do people fail to see a problem that seems obvious to you? If so, they are operating with a different model of the current state. This is often because they don’t see how things are related. As an example, the movie An Inconvenient Truth was successful in shifting many people’s mental model of the relationship between greenhouse gases and global warming. If you are trying to get people to see a problem or opportunity, focus on disrupting their existing mental model.
  • FUTURE: The model of how things could be in the future. Do people recognize the problem, but fail to see how your solution could solve their problem? This was the situation faced by Dr. Semmelweis in his Vienna hospital. People agreed that mortality was a problem, but they couldn’t see how handwashing could make a difference. If you are trying to get people to understand the benefits of your solution, focus on shifting their thinking in a way that reveals why your solution would be effective.
  • TRANSITION: The model for how to bring a new future into being. Do people recognize the problem, and the value of your solution, but fail to make the change? Sometimes people recognize the need to jump from the trapeze bar they are on, and can see the merits of the new bar you are offering them, but feel they can’t make the jump. In this case, focus on a mental model related to the transition. Define a roadmap that explains to them how to get from where they are to where they want to go.

C. Build the program

Shifts in thinking don’t happen overnight, any more than going to a weekend yoga workshop makes you flexible. Think of it like learning a second language or building a new habit – in this case a mental habit. People need to see how the new way of thinking plays out in different contexts and situations.

“The really good innovations – the ones that change the world – need to be explained before they’re accepted,” Beth Comstock, the Chief Marketing Officer of GE, recently wrote. One of GE’s mantras is therefore “mindshare before market share.” GE’s strategy focuses on being a “content factory” to disseminate powerful stories. Interestingly, GE is also the home of Crotonville, one of the world’s top corporate universities. Perhaps in the future we will see corporate universities expand beyond employees to serve customers and clients as well.

Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Companies that help customers shift their thinking will be more effective at solving problems and ultimately selling products.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

The Best Digital Strategists Don’t Think in Terms of Either/Or

It has become an axiom that “strategy is about making hard choices,” as we have been advised for over 20 years by leading thinkers including Michael Porter and Roger Martin. But our work with a community of senior executives in the Bay Area suggests that today’s market leaders are following the advice of Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Faced with hard choices, innovators find ways to transcend the tradeoffs. While their competitors make the hard choice between one or the other path, these businesses reap the benefit of both.

Transactions and relationships. When it comes to digital engagement, many companies feel they have to choose either transactions or relationships. Social media evangelists tell CEOs they need to stop focusing so much on driving sales and “connect instead of promote.” A focus on the transaction, they say, jeopardizes the relationship. Meanwhile, sales strategists suggest that social media is often more “hype” than “reality.” Focus on the relationship and forget the transaction, and you waste the company’s resources. The hard choice, it would seem, is between transactions or relationships.

Sephora has become a leader in the cosmetics market by transcending this tradeoff, finding ways to achieve transactions and relationships. It has a vibrant e-commerce business and a highly engaged customer community. What is particularly impressive is how Sephora is bringing transactions and relationships together in the same experience. On the Sephora Beauty Board, community members can upload photos of their favorite “looks” with the makeup products that made it possible. Click on a photo and you can see someone’s profile or posts. Click on a product and you can make a purchase.

High-tech and high-touch. There is concern these days about how technology is replacing our jobs and estranging our connections. As our communications become more digital, our customer relationships become less personal. The only hope seems to be make our technology appear more human.

In the apparel industry, companies choose one path or the other between high-tech and high touch. Shopping services like StyleSeek take the road marked “algorithm,” while Nordstrom’s Trunk Club takes the road marked “personal service.” Approaching the same fork in the road, Stitch Fix chose to go in both directions. New customers fill out a survey about their style and lifestyle. Ever-evolving algorithms then generate recommendations for Stitch Fix stylists, who select the final assortment for their customers based on personal knowledge and relationships. It’s no coincidence that the Chief Algorithms Officer at Stitch Fix was formerly head of data science for Netflix, and its Chief Operating Officer, Julie Bornstein, was formerly CMO at Sephora. Together, they are transcending the tradeoff between high-tech and high-touch.

Size and speed. There is an African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Most large companies excel at going far and going together. But these days every company has to go fast. Is it possible to be both bigger and faster? The recent experience of Visa provides some lessons in how to transcend the tradeoff between size and speed.

The market for cardless payments is growing rapidly, posing a threat to Visa’s core business. Four years ago, Visa launched V.me, but failed to gain ground against its nimble new entrants. For the recent launch of Visa Checkout, Visa took a different approach. One option was to focus purely on speed, and either acquire a smaller company or create a separate skunkworks. But this would have lost the advantage of size.

The solution was to go for size and speed. Lara Balazs, SVP of North America Marketing, leveraged Visa’s brand and market position to recruit a team of top talent, forge strategic alliances with market leaders, and create widespread awareness in the market. Although size was an advantage externally, it was a disadvantage internally. To leapfrog the competition, she had to move fast, but she also needed the involvement of twelve different departments. She had to go fast and go together. Her solution was to rip up the org chart, creating a “team of teams” with a new kind of culture for Visa that emphasized agility and experimentation over consistency and compliance.

Profit and purpose. Purpose has become popular for many reasons. It helps to re-energize leadersengage millennialsinvigorate brands, and demonstrate corporate social responsibility. But purpose still seems like a “nice to have” or something done on the side. Corporate boards still focus on quarterly earnings.

Faced with the choice between profit and purpose, some executives are making the move to social enterprises where profit and purpose are more intertwined. However, the evidence indicates that for-profit companies with a strong sense of purpose have better financial performance. So how can companies in traditional industries achieve both?

For most financial institutions, profit is the purpose. But Wells Fargo has a purpose behind profits.  According to CMO Jamie Moldafsky, “every employee at Wells Fargo is focused on helping our customers succeed financially.”  This approach is reflected in initiatives such as “Untold Stories” which fulfill this purpose in local communities. Echoing their logo, Wells Fargo promises to “never put the stagecoach ahead of the horses.” Proving that they have successfully transcended the tradeoff, Wells Fargo consistently outperforms it’s less purposeful peers.

Toymaker Goldieblox shows that purpose can fuel market disruption. Their mission to increase the number of women engineers led to an entirely new kind of product that combines storytelling and building. According to Lindsey Shepard, VP of Sales and Marketing, GoldieBlox is about encouraging girls to “think about themselves as innovators that can build their own future.” The result is a disruption in the proverbial “pink aisle.”

Airbnb is also fusing profit and purpose, disrupting (at least initially) the hospitality industry. Just a couple of years ago, people considered it strange to stay in a stranger’s home instead of a hotel. But according to their Chief Marketing Officer, Jonathan Mildenhall, Airbnb is on a mission to change both “behavior and perception” so that people can “belong anywhere.”

For each of these companies, purpose isn’t something on which they spend their profits, or a strategy they devise to make more money. Instead, profit and purpose are intertwined proving that money and meaning can indeed work together.

There is no doubt that these companies have all made hard choices in executing their strategies. But the nature of “the hard choice of strategy” has changed in today’s marketplace. It’s no longer about giving up something that is important to you or your customer. In many cases, it’s about finding a way to take both paths at once. For that is truly the road less traveled.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.

Cara France is CEO of The Sage Group, a firm providing marketing and consulting talent to San Francisco Bay area companies, and founder of Marketers that Matter. Follow her on Twitter @SageCEO.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

Design How Your Team Thinks

Every day, we sit in meetings in which someone presents a problem or opportunity. The response is always a version of “What are we going to do about it?” When’s the last time someone said, “How are we going to think about it?”

Design thinking is popular these days. We design products, experiences, and even business models. But something is missing. We’ve embraced design thinking, but we’ve failed to design our thinking.

To design our thinking, we have to become adept at working with mental models and managing thinking styles. This requires both learning and unlearning.

We normally aren’t conscious of our mental models. They are the proverbial “water to the fish,” shaping how we see the world, make distinctions and connect cause and effect. It’s hard to see our own mental models. But we can see their reflections, like the shadows in Plato’s Cave, through our language.

For example, consider the way we think and talk about an organization. It is a body when we talk about the head of a department. (The word corporation comes from the Latin corporare, to combine in one body). It’s a machine when we talk about high-performance. It’s a species when we talk about ecosystems. It’s a brain when we talk about a learning organization. And it’s a computer when we talk about everyone being in sync.

Once we see the mental models that already exist, we can begin to design new ones. There is a saying that the map is not the territory. The design of mental models is the design of better maps to fit a changing landscape.

For example, social media has changed the nature of marketing. The old models — whether segments, funnels or campaigns — were linear, intermittent and asymmetrical. We need new models that are more continuous, multi-dimensional, and peer-to-peer.

The design of thinking is more how we think as individuals and what happens inside our heads. But we also have to design how we think as teams and what happens in our relationships.

Normally we think about building teams based on what people do. We select for skills and assign tasks and responsibilities. It’s a mental model that comes from teams. We put everyone in the right position. But we can also design teams based on how people think.

The first step is to understand what kind of thinker you are. I’ve outlined this simple process in an earlier article. Next, identify how everyone else on your team thinks. Now you’ve got the building blocks to begin designing the thinking of your team.

As an alternative mental model, think about your team as a portfolio of thinking styles. Just as you construct an investment portfolio differently for different investment objectives, you want construct your thinking portfolio.

Most teams need every kind of thinking style at one point or another. So just as geese tend to take turns leading the flock, different thinking styles should also take turns. In the beginning of the project, Explorers and Planners are helpful to set the strategy and structure the work effort. Then Connectors and Energizers take the lead to create the vision, access resources, and enroll the stakeholders.

As strategy and planning give way to execution and operations, those with a more micro orientation take the lead. Experts and Optimizers work together to work out the details and find the efficiencies. Meanwhile, Producers execute the plan and cross things off the list, while Coaches keep everyone engaged and performing at their best.

The shift from doing to thinking has consequences for the role of the team leader. First, the leader is responsible for maintaining the effectiveness and alignment of the team’s mental model. This is more than keeping the team informed. Information gets filtered in or out depending on the mental model. So team leaders are responsible for setting the context more than the content of people’s thinking.

Second, the leader is responsible for creating the right mix of thinking styles. Then, like an orchestra conductor, the leader chooses which thinking style comes to the fore at a particular point in time to carry the tune. Put too much focus on big picture thinking and the details won’t get done. Give too much emphasis on action and process thinking, and you will lose the vision or drop out trust and connection.

Thinking styles can also be helpful in making hiring and staffing decisions. Consider not just the experience and personality of the candidate, but also their thinking styles.

As an example, say you are hiring new sales team or adding to an existing team. What kind of thinking styles are most important? Do the salespeople need to come up with creative ideas? Look for an Explorer style. To structure effective solutions — Planner. To answer technical questions — Expert. To improve existing systems — Optimizer. To form coalitions — Connector. To build deep relationships — Coach. To push the pipeline — Producer. To close the deal— Energizer.

When hiring, also consider more than what they know and how fast they learn. You want people who are able to unlearn and shift their thinking. Do they have not only mental ability, but mental agility. In some roles, it’s also critical that they have an ability to the shift the thinking of others. Great leaders today are able to persuade by creating and shaping the mental models of their organizations and communities.

In this time of rapid change, it’s not enough to do new things. We have to think in new ways. This takes more than “getting out of the box.” We have to design a new box and, like a hermit crab, find a way to get from the old to the new. We can start by becoming conscious of our mental models, understanding our thinking styles, and conducting our teams as orchestras of diverse and complementary thinkers.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.