Rob Wolcott is the Co-Founder & Executive Director of the Kellogg Innovation Network (KIN) and a Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the Kellogg School of Management. Mark discusses innovation and how he plans to bring the Kellogg Innovation Network to Europe. He also offers thoughtful advice for intrapreneurs building their careers in organisations that are becoming less hierarchical.
Never Leave Serendipity to Chance in Creating an Innovation Network with Rob Wolcott
Today’s guest is Rob Wolcott, who is a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Kellogg School of Management in Chicago. He’s also the co‐founder and executive director of the Kellogg Innovation Network with the mission to take senior business leaders beyond their normal boundaries and to provide them with insights and relationships to enhance business and personal success. You’re also a co‐founder of Clareo, a growth strategy consultancy serving senior executives at Fortune 500 companies. Finally, Rob is an author of the book “Grow from Within: Mastering Corporate Entrepreneurship and Innovation” as well as a regular contributor to Forbes and Fortune magazines. Welcome to the show, Rob.
Thanks Mark. It’s great to be here.
With such a wide range of interests, I’m curious, what does a typical week look like for you?
We’ve talked about this a bit. There isn’t anything typical. Sometimes I wish I had a routine where I could get up at six and do a workout and then wander down to my faculty office and have a long cup of coffee and a chat and then a phone call. It’s just not like that. As many of your listeners are seeing in the world, the world is becoming not only faster but also more diverse. More people in the economy will be what you might call a free agent. While I’m not exactly a free agent, I have a faculty appointment at Kellogg and then of course my role with Clareo partners. That means that I have a lot of different opportunities and different challenges coming from many directions.
I think of my career more as a portfolio of activities, some where I’m intensely involved at any given moment and others where I’m just a contributor. That means that each day is somewhat different. There are some bedrock components to my life course. When you have family you always have to ensure that you’ve got the time for them, meaningful time. It means one day you’re flying somewhere overseas, another day you’re teaching here in Evanston at Kellogg. You have to be ready for variety with an innovation network like that.
Within that variety are there any common issues that your clients or people you’re interfacing with constantly crop up? You mentioned the pace of change. What’s common about what’s going on in the marketplace as you interact with this change and creating an innovation network?
Great. The challenge that everyone is facing, and this isn’t just large corporations although they tend to be my clients … The issue that everyone is facing is, how can I be exceptional at what I do now, as well as prepared for the future? How can we continue to perform and exceed the expectations of customers, stay competitive against very vital competitors, create this innovation network and at the same time spend time and energy resource looking to the future, trying to understand what might be coming and creating a portfolio of options on that future? Mark, one way to look at this challenge, I always define my class for my students, which is Innovation Strategy and Management. The essence of innovation strategy is creating a portfolio of options on the future. On the future is redundant. I say it for emphasis. There is no way for us to predict the future. We do have to think where the future might go, what plausible futures might look like, but there’s no way for us to predict it, so we must have a portfolio of options on the future.
The essence of innovation management is resolving uncertainty through a rational process. Thinking about what our hypotheses are, about what customers might want, about where the future might go, and then figuring out intelligent ways to resolve that uncertainty on an ongoing basis. That’s really it. If you can do both you’re going to do well. Obviously it’s easier said than done. I’d say an innovation network and innovative management are the transcendent challenge that everyone across sectors is facing. It obviously looks different in different environments. If you’re in a healthcare company as opposed to a mining as opposed to being at a university, the challenge looks different, but the underlying challenge is the same.
Let’s take an example without getting specific but just to give a bit of color around it. An executive team who brings you in because they feel their mature industry they’re in is under threat from disruption from a new entrant. Talk us through what kind of process do you lead them through to not only develop these portfolio options for the future but at the same time manage the innovation netowork associated with that.
Obviously that’s a huge question. It depends on what the objectives of the specific client are. It depends on the context they find themselves in. Generically the first thing we do is discuss with them what they’re trying to accomplish. Innovation and an innovation network means a lot of things to a lot of people. So many different things that, to some extent, it’s lost its meaning. We have to make sure we understand what is the client saying when they say, “We need to innovate more. We need to innovate more effectively. We need an innovation network.” Are they talking about building brand new business for the company? Are they talking about developing new service models, new business models, new products for existing business units at their enterprise? Maybe they’re talking about changing the culture of the organization, trying to influence the culture to be more open, more innovative to trying new things.
If you think about these objectives, they’re all completely different. People often will make the mistake, and it’s a big mistake, to say, “Okay, now we’re going to do innovation” and they throw all these things into the same bucket. Helping existing business units to transform the way they compete, designing and building brand new businesses, and the affecting the culture of the overall organization. Those are all different. First thing we do is try and figure out what they’re trying to accomplish.
The second thing we share with clients is often a surprise or a revelation, but after they hear it it makes a lot of sense. That is that innovating for efficiency is very different than innovating for growth. Obviously the two are related, Mark, because if I do something that radically improves my efficiency within the business unit now I’m more competitively powerful. I obviously can do things with pricing and other things like this to drive growth in that business unit. Aside from that observation, innovating to drive significant efficiency gains is very different than innovating to drive growth for a business, say a new business or a new concept. Once we have a sense for what their objectives are, then we can talk about how best to approach the problem.
Okay. I guess within that innovation network is an opportunity to objectively help a company baseline where they are on the journey and what are the most important levers that they can pull to have the biggest impact in the shortest period of time.
Yes, that’s true. That, Mark, as you know, is as much a political question as it is an intellectual question. A lot of times people will spend a lot of time and effort on analyses and hopefully talking to people from across a lot of different fields and even outside their industry. That’s very important. We can talk more about that in a minute. That’s all good. It’s great to be intellectually rigorous, but innovation happens as a result of people and innovation doesn’t happen as a result of people. The political … I hate to say it, but it really is a political discussion. Political dynamics of your organization are often as important or even more important than the intellectual facts of the case.
Political words or the word politics isn’t necessarily what we’d expect in this area, we’ve got to be practical here, for an intrapreneur, so someone perhaps further down, outside the C‐suite, but feeling like they have something more to give the organization than they’re currently able to do in their role and they’re looking to accelerate the organization’s agenda and have a bigger impact. What advice would you give for the intrapreneur around how to navigate the realities of the political environment at the top of the organization? Maybe as you talk to some of your students, how do you advise them to get stuff done from within the middle of the organization?
Great, okay. There are intrapreneurs or corporate entrepreneurs or people who aspire to be corporate entrepreneurs. They can be people who are quite senior in the organization or they can be people who are at middle levels of the organization. I think, Mark, you’ve asked about people who maybe haven’t attained a role in the C‐suite yet who are doing great work mid‐level in the organization and want to have an impact or become involved in this. I give them a few pieces of advice on creating an innovation network. One, build bridges before you need them. This is probably the most important political advice for someone who is attempting to do new things. It’s relevant for anyone but it’s particularly relevant for someone who’s trying to get their organization to do things they’re not used to doing. This is where you must have senior level sponsorship for whatever it is you’re hoping or aspiring to do.
It’s one thing to have a mandate and a responsibility, “Here, go out and build this new business,” for instance, but it’s another thing to have members of senior staff, and whatever senior means in your context, high enough to get things done. It’s another thing to have members of senior staff who are willing to stand up for you and/or your project when you’re not even there. That’s a very different situation. Sometimes people believe that the boss said, “Hey, this is part of your responsibility. Go out and make it happen. Keep up the good work,” but then when push comes to shove, the budget conversations, priorities are changing, will anyone at the senior table stand up and say, “I know why you want to cut this, because it’s not accretive to our bottom or top lines right now, but we must protect it for the future of the company?” This is an objective that every corporate entrepreneur needs to have. They need to find people who have some vision, who have some guts and some authority within the organization and build those relationships before you need them.
The last thing you want to do is go to someone, and this is true for anyone … That last thing you want to do is go to someone only when you need them. They’re not bought in, they don’t know who you are necessarily, they haven’t in any way touched or contributed to this project. Always be thinking about who within the organization you need to build a relationship with. If you’re talking, Mark, about perhaps people who are new to an organization or maybe they’re, like some of my students at Kellogg, right out of business school, they’ve joined a great company and they’re eager to become involved in corporate innovation or corporate entrepreneurship.
I think at the beginning of building this innovation network, you think about two things. One, the building relationships and networks of trusted relationships ‐‐ trust is key ‐‐ as I’ve discussed or started to discuss, and then second is do great and what you’re doing right now. I know sometimes that might not be exactly what you want to be doing in the longer run, but by executing exceptionally well and distinguishing yourself in the things you’re doing right now is what’s going to get people to take notice and to say, “Hey, every time I give Julie something it comes out great. She always comes back for more.” Building trust is about executing well and achieving objectives that are meaningful to the people that you’d like to build those relationships with. That’s going to make the company more successful too in the long run. I think it’s certainly about thinking about the future and where and how you want to contribute, but we always have to keep our mind on the fact that it’s about executing exceptionally well and what we’re doing today.
Absolutely. Got it. Okay, I’m just curious, we touched a little bit on the politics of innovation. I wonder to what extent has the model of leadership changed while you’ve been doing this work. By this I mean the … I think we know that the kind of characteristics of a leader that can actually create the conditions for innovation in a large organization isn’t necessarily the same as the more traditional Jack Welch‐like style of leadership that characterizes the ’80s, ’90s and the early 2000s. Do you have a view on what … Is there an emerging model of leadership that is more predisposed to creating the environment and the conditions for sustainable innovation?
That’s a big question, Mark, of course. A few observations. First, many years ago … And this transition’s been going on for a while. People were more sensitive to things like titles and hierarchy. We still are today of course, but also as we’ve seen in a lot of industries, title inflation … For instance, we have chief XYZ officers all over the company. Twenty years ago, if you had a C in your title, you really were at the senior table. Today there are CIOs and chief strategy officers and chief lunchroom officers all over the company. I’m not saying something disparaging. I’m making an observation that I believe is somewhat reflective of a decrease in the respect for hierarchy and for titles.
I think that’s actually a healthy thing. Also, when used well, it indicates that people at various levels of the company are making significant, meaningful contributions. It also means ‐‐ and this is a good thing ‐‐ that people can’t hide behind their title the way they used to be able to. Things move too fast. The world is becoming too transparent for people to rise to their level of incompetence, as we used to say, and then hide behind their title. It really was more possible twenty or thirty years ago to do so because we had less pressure on our businesses at that point.
There is a lot of data that support this, so I’m not just speaking anecdotally. There is a lot of data that supports that competition is faster, that it’s more diverse and that it’s more volatile. Those are three different concepts. It’s not just that competition is faster, change is faster. That could suggest that it’s going in one direction faster. It’s also more diverse in a sense that it comes from anywhere in the world. Think about this: thirty years ago, in any industry we had serious competitors, say, in the US, Europe, and maybe one or two in Japan. That was about it for the most part. Today a serious competitor can come from anywhere in the world. From India, from China, from Latin America. There are serious competitors rising all over the world.
Furthermore, it’s easier and easier for small companies, what used to be considered underfunded, to be able to get new concepts to market because it’s much cheaper to become an entrepreneur and there is a lot more capital available to become an entrepreneur and to move into … Even B‐to‐B, even business‐to‐business environments that perhaps didn’t feel that they were exposed to the Apples and Googles of the world are finding entrance in their spaces. We can’t hide behind our titles so much anymore and things are moving a lot faster. Leaders of today and of the future have to realize that often they’re more like coaches where their job is to help their people, their colleagues, the people who report to them, et cetera, to be the best they can be, to identify the opportunities for their people to excel and thrive.
I remember a friend of mine, and actually a member of the KIN for many years, the Kellogg Innovation Network, he was a senior executive at a large food products company. He hired a young man in his mid‐twenties who had just finished his PhD in nutrition. This fellow was the chief nutrition officer of this large company. The young man he hired, named Mark, was dynamic, was making things happen. Within a few years of arriving at this company his hands were all over a new product launch that passed a hundred million dollars in the first year and people knew it. He was going places. At about that point, I believe he was a senior manager was his title.
There was an argument about … His boss, the fellow who hired him, said, “I would like to offer Mark the opportunity to skip a couple levels. We need to retain him and so I think we should make him a director.” This was almost unheard of to go from a senior manager to a director in this very traditional, hierarchical, very good company. While he was going to bat for Mark, for his mentee, meanwhile Mark was contacted by a global agriculture company, a fifty billion dollar a year publicly traded company. The invited him to be their first chief nutrition officer and move to headquarters. What do you think he did? Do you think he waited around to see if they were going to make him a director or if he’d have to go through the eight year process to become a director, or do you think he took that global chief nutrition officer title at the fifty billion dollar company?
The latter, yeah, certainly.
Yeah, I think you got the rhetoric here, Mark. Leadership has changed. How can I take the best talent in the world, give them the opportunities that are going to make them excited and lift them up so they see that by staying here at this company they have the best opportunity in the world? Also understand that, you know what, sometimes people are going to leave and I think the smart companies have what some people call alumni networks. McKinsey and Company, for instance, loves its alumni for obvious reasons. If someone leaves McKinsey and they go join a corporation, they might hire McKinsey as a client in the future. There are other companies that also do this, they keep track of their alumni that have a positive perspective about them rather than ostracizing them.
Yeah. I’m thinking as you talk, you mentioned Kellogg Innovation Network. Let’s move to Kellogg Innovation Network because I think this is a slightly different structure or network of individuals. I was lucky enough to attend Kellogg Innovation Network last year. I think you started the event saying, “Don’t leave serendipity to chance.” Can you just say a little bit about what you mean by that and then tell the listeners about Kellogg Innovation Network and what the plans for Kellogg Innovation Network are? I think you’re bringing it to Europe. Just interested in the serendipity piece, but also what does Kellogg Innovation Network exist for, what are the plans here in Europe?
Great. Thanks for bringing it up, Mark. You know that Kellogg Innovation Network is close to my heart and many others. The Kellogg Innovation Network is a community of innovation and growth leaders from all around the world. As you know from attending, we have participants from all six continents and all sectors, business, government, nonprofit, the arts, academia, defense. At its core though, core membership is skewed toward business leaders. I founded this back in 2003 with the observation that innovation and growth leaders of businesses need a place to share their challenges and their solutions across industries with noncompeting companies. It started with just that. We would get fifty to sixty people together in an invitation only setting and talk about the challenges facing innovation leaders of big companies.
That went well and then we found that people were particularly energized and edified when we bring leaders from other industries in. We’ve had many, many senior military commanders in to talk about the challenges they face and how they deal with issues within that environment. For instance, Admiral James Stavridis has come a few times to be with us. He was the supreme commander of NATO for a number of years and is now running the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy. Someone with a varied background, a very different perspective from most of our senior business leaders. I think it’s reasonable to assume we’re going to learn something from Admiral Stavridis, and he, as he tells me, learns a lot from interacting with business leaders.
We’ve had artists and performers in with the Kellogg Innovation Network, we’ve had scientists. Later this year at our annual event called KIN Global, Kellogg Innovation Network Global Summit, which will be in Miami June 1‐3, we’ll have invitation only three hundred leaders from all six continents and all sectors. We’re going to explore the theme of new worlds. Each year we have a different theme. This year it’s about new worlds in creating an innovation network. What is it about technologies and how they’re influencing industries? Also, what is it about changing political economic systems in various parts of the world, for instance, the peace process in Colombia, the reemergence of Cuba? What is it about demographics and changing behaviors of consumers, et cetera? We’re going to explore all of these realms.
There will certainly be senior business leaders. For instance, Joe Harlan, the vice chairman and chief commercial officer of Dow Chemical will be with us. Mike Foley, the CEO of Zurich North America, the major global insurer will be with us and one of our sponsors. We’ll have senior business leaders, but we’ll also, as I said, have people from other realms. David Krakauer, who’s the CEO of the Santa Fe Institute. The Santa Fe Institute is the world’s leading research organization around chaos and complexity theory. He’s a major force in the field of genetics and other fields. He’s going to come and talk to us about how technology is changing through artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, how over the next twenty or thirty years we will be thinking differently about what it means to be a human being and how we address some of the new capabilities, as well as the ethical issues that we’ll be facing as citizens, as businesses, as voters.
It’s a very diverse program, but ultimately what we’re doing, Mark, as you mentioned is we say never leave serendipity to chance. If you always look in the same places, you’re liable to find the same answers. If you think about your own career ‐‐ and I’m guilty of this, everyone’s guilty of this ‐‐ we become knowledgeable, we become powerful within own own specific sphere of the world. We get to know everything about our industry, everything about our competitors, everything about our suppliers, everything about everyone inside the company, but very little outside of that. Understand if you’re going to the same conferences as your competitors, if you’re talking to the same people as your competitors and using the same suppliers and hiring the same people as your competitors, then you’re probably finding some of the same answers as your competitors. How do we look outside at places? Doing so in an intelligent way.
We have a hypothesis as to why the healthcare industry might want to talk to the technology industry or why mining might think that it might learn something from oil and gas, et cetera. There’s some intelligence to it, but by looking in more diverse places and building an innovation network and relationships outside of our normal day to day, we become more powerful because then we can transfer and translate what has worked or is working in other industries into our own before our competitors do. That’s what we mean by never leaving serendipity to chance. There are things you can do to increase the likelihood of positive serendipity.
I think that’s one of the … Partly that’s the thinking behind this podcast series is actually to bring fresh, diverse perspectives to an audience who are all wrestling with similar issues, which as we said earlier on, how do you deal with disruption? How do you build an innovation network and an organization that is sustainable but has a sustainable innovation and is able to withstand some of the technological or competitive shifts? I think it’s very much in line with what we’re trying to do here. What about Europe? I think for the first time the plan is to bring some of this approach to Europe. Can you say a little about that?
Great. We’ve been to Europe a number of times. The Kellogg Innovation Network has been very active in the Nordic region, particularly Norway, Finland, and Denmark, but we’ve never had a Kellogg Innovation Network event in Europe other than some of our ongoing initiatives like a big change process in the industry that some of our KINians have been leading so we’ve had events in Europe for that. This will be first general KIN event July 7 and 8 in Treiso, Italy right outside Venice at a place called H Farm Ventures. Mauricio Rossi, one of the founders of H Farm, is a KINian. He’s come a couple times. We’re working together increasingly.
H Farm Ventures is a beautiful environment. It’s actually a farm that he and his partners purchased a decade ago to build an accelerator for new technology companies. It really is out in the middle of a farming community in the outskirts of Treiso. It was a big vision at the time. Fortunately, they got some traction, they did well, renovated the old farm buildings and they’ve expanded. They now have a campus. They have nearly six hundred people working in startups, working in the core organization, even working in a very successful company that H Farm founded and incubated that was purchased by WPP. WPP decided to leave the hundred and sixty or so people there on site because the environment is so enriching, inspiring, and exciting. Recently, just the end of the last year, H Farm went public in Italy. Their vision is to turn this campus into a town. It’s a town focused on innovation, digital innovation. Not limited to marketing and advertising technology, but their leveraging the brand power that Italy has around design and luxury goods, luxury experiences. Many of the companies they have there are also in these spaces of luxury and creating experiences, et cetera.
We thought that H Farm would be an ideal environment within which to gather KINians, some from the US and Asia, Latin American, Africa, but really to focus a session for Europe. This session will be more focused. It’s going to be about the challenges facing corporate executives, corporate leaders attempting to innovating profitably on an ongoing basis. This is going to be one of our programs we call a dialogue. It’ll be over a day and a half. It won’t be as broad our inclusive as Kellogg Innovation Network Global is every year. This will be much more focused. If you’re an executive at a corporation trying to understand how to make innovation happen more effectively and create an innovation network, if you’re a corporate entrepreneur trying to build a new business within that environment, this will be the event for you.
I just wanted to begin to step back from the specifics of an innovation network and more generally. What you’ve done, as I said in the beginning in your introduction, is you’ve got a number of elements or bricks to your portfolio. I’m really interested, how do you personally build and curate your own innovation network in service of all the activities that I outlined you’re involved in in the introduction?
Great. I make the decision … This is something that I learned from one of my mentors very early in my career. As long as something is related to innovation, which is what I’ve built my career around, what I’m most interested in beyond all other things, innovation broadly defined … As long as a project or an objective is related to innovation, the number one factor I consider as to whether I want to really engage in that is who are the people with whom I’m going to be working. That includes the people, the great people we have at Clareo, my consultancy. They’re great people. We have a rule there we stole from another consultancy. I don’t remember, it was one of the biggies. We have a rule there, and that is no assholes. I’m sure, Mark, you’ve seen in your experience that sometimes there are people who bring in a lot of business, but they’re horrible people. We don’t want them around. It affects the culture. Frankly, life is short. Why spend your time dealing with that when you could work with great people doing exceptional things?
My number one criterion for getting involved in anything is who am I going to be able to work with. When you contacted me, Mark, and said let’s do this podcast, I thought, “Great.” I have great respect for the work that you did at Syngenta over a number of years. I think your perspective is really exciting and I love the fact that you’re building new platforms to expand the message and reach more people. I think number one is, as you meet people, who do you think and even more so feel like could be interesting, could be a great person to work with on something? As well as just to hang out with and learn from and have them be part of this network. Really that’s what it is. I don’t go out with a hit list to try and figure out, “Well, I need to find more people in the healthcare industry,” or “I need to find more people from military.” Others do that and it probably makes sense for people in other situations to be very focused. For instance, if your full‐time job is to be business development for a startup, you better be really focused and figure out who the people are you need to connect with.
In my role, avowedly, I try to be the person who looks across sectors and geographies because there’s where I can add value for our clients and Clareo, for our KINians in the KIN, is by bringing interesting, meaningful people in front across sectors and then being able to help curate … If someone says, “Boy, we’re trying to figure out how to launch this thing in China. Do you have any ideas?” I can say, “Well, here are a couple people who’ve already done that,” or “Here’s a fellow who has a business and that’s all he does. I think you need to talk to them.” For me, it’s about finding people related somehow to innovation and second, people who are really interesting, exciting people doing meaningful things that see the value of building relationships, a variety of relationships across sectors and geographies.
Got it. Of course, making sure these are people who you want to do business with because life is too short, right?
Absolutely. Sometimes you learn later that your initial instinct was incorrect, but most of the time I think your initial instinct is reasonably accurate.
The final question before we start in wrapping up is you recently took a KIN trip to Bhutan. The question I had here is what can we in Europe or in North America … What can we learn from this concept of gross national happiness?
Great. You’ve asked a big question, Mark. The king of Bhutan back in the ’70s defined an objective for his government, his country, which is gross national happiness. The idea behind this is we have gross domestic product, that’s still important, will remain important. This is not in plan of gross domestic product, but gross domestic product by itself is not enough. We need a complementary measure that looks at what’s really meaningful to people ultimately, and that is their level of happiness or contentedness. He made that an objective to figure out what does it mean for a government to build a society focused on trying to achieve happiness? The last fifteen years or so, they’ve been very active trying to figure this out and more and more people around the world have joined this effort from a research, from a practical perspective, et cetera.
They’ve had an event occasionally about gross national happiness. I wanted to go for some time. Then I received the opportunity to speak. As a result of that, I sent an email out to the Kellogg Innovation Network and said, “Would anyone like to join me?” Understand, Mark, that this is not a normal, what we call, KIN expedition. We’ve had other Kellogg Innovation Network expeditions. We took the Kellogg Innovation Network to Israel to visit the startup nation. We took the Kellogg Innovation Network to Brazil to begin a process to help transform the global mining industry. We’ve taken the Kellogg Innovation Network to Panama City to see the expansion of the Panama Canal project and think about innovation in Latin America. The Bhutan trip was a little bit off spec for us, but it’s a critical topic because that’s really what we’re all striving for, however you define happiness, which is a very difficult question. Ten of my KINians said, “Yes, I’d love to come with you.”
I took a small group to Bhutan, to the Gross National Happiness conference. It was great. As I said to my travelers, “Look, we’re not planning this. We’re going to this event. If the event’s no good, not my fault. We’re in Bhutan. Just suck it up,” right? Fortunately, the event was very interesting, but of course the experience of being in this Himalayan kingdom that is thinking really hard about how to open itself up to the world in the most effective way, was fascinating. One thing that struck me, Mark, was of the seven hundred and fifty people at this conference … The conference was hosted by the prime minister and the king, the fifth king of Bhutan … Of the seven hundred and fifty people at the conference from all around the world, there were probably only I’d estimate about forty real business leaders. Eleven of them were from the Kellogg Innovation Network.
We represented about a quarter of all the real business leaders at this program. That’s not a criticism necessarily, but to some extent the team in Bhutan didn’t actively reach out to the business community. It wasn’t that they were being rejected, but I think maybe there was a lack of thinking that, “We should reach out to the global business community.” Frankly, also I wonder how many business leaders would allow some of their people to go and spend a week in Bhutan. I get it, I understand because business is tough. If we have our people on behalf of our company going to Bhutan for a week they’re not back at the office doing the work that makes us the money.
What did you learn, Rob? What were your takeaways from the experience?
Just to round out, the comment was one of my major takeaways. If business is not engaged and trying to understand how the world can become a more prosperous ‐‐ and I mean that more than just economically ‐‐ place, then we’re not going to solve the problem. Business ultimately provides the resources that allows us to do everything we want to do. If we don’t have a prosperous business sector we don’t have tax revenue for government. If we don’t have a prosperous business sector we don’t have surplus to support nonprofits, to allow people to do crazy things like write poetry and be artists. Ultimately the productivity that comes from the business sector is what supports all other activity in the world. If that part of our global economy is not directly involved in this dialogue about what helps people live better lives, then we’re not going to achieve it.
If you think about this from the business perspective, that’s really what all businesses should be about in some way, even if you’re up the value chain in heavy industry or even extractive industries like mining, oil and gas, et cetera. Sure, there are challenges and we seem sort of disconnected from the end consumers and citizens, but what we’re doing is part of a mission to provide the resources and the capabilities and the technologies, et cetera, to help people be healthier, to live better lives. That’s how we make our money ultimately. I think the big takeaway that I had was we can’t look at our business or ourselves in isolation. We multitask effectively. It’s not there yet. Let’s make sure we have our priorities right and that when we need to ecosystem of players that ultimately add value in the world in various ways. Those ecosystems are changing rapidly. Understanding what is going to add the most value to the world, what’s going to add the most value for ourselves, our families, our companies and our countries is intimately related to this question of happiness.
Okay. I must say, I was jealous when I heard about this trip just because I’ve always wanted to go to it. It’s a subject which is … It’s a very, very important topic that we need to get our minds around as quickly as possible. Okay, so let’s wrap up. Three questions I sent out to you before, Rob. Firstly, what are your morning, your daily rituals in the light of your broad range of activities and your domestic responsibilities as well? Do you have any specific rituals that you rely on?
Wow, that’s great. As I said, I don’t have much of a routine. I kind of wish I did, but I don’t. I’ll share one thing that I do that might surprise you and your listeners. I have a smartphone for sure, I’ve had one for a long time. I had one of the original Blackberries. I love technology, but for a variety of reasons I’ve never hooked up my email to my smartphone. I do not check email on my phone. Understand that if I’m ever in an emergency situation and I have to get to my email, I still can. I go to WebMail. It’s annoying but I can do it. I’ll tell you, in what would be over a decade of being in this odd situation, I’ve only needed to check the email on my phone probably four times.
The neat thing about it is everybody that works with me knows, “Rob doesn’t check email on his phone.” I check email all day long. Any time I get a chance, I have my laptop, I’m in an airport, I’m at a break in a session with a client, whatever. I check my email a lot. You know what? It’s never been a problem. It gives me more head space, more time to think, more time to concentrate, rather than being continually bombarded by the next email or online promotion that I didn’t request. I say that’s probably the most distinctive thing and odd things that I do.
It’s really interesting because a couple of people I’ve interviewed and a book I’m reading at the moment … Lisa Bodell, she talked about developing or using a not to‐do list versus a to‐do list. We are all bombarded by hundreds of different attempts to refocus our attention away from the job at hand. The book I’m reading at the moment, which is very interesting, called “Deep Work” is making the case very, very clear that most of knowledge workers today face this enormous problem of how to actually focus deeply on getting something done. What you’ve done or what you haven’t done, which is you haven’t connected yourself as completely as many others have, I would imagine has created, as you say, some space for you to reflect and be far more productive than those of us who are constantly checking our emails.
I’m not sure I’d go that far, Mark, but it definitely helps me clear my head at least. I think Lisa is on to something. I think she’s absolutely right. By the way, this whole motion of multitasking, science is becoming quite clear it is a fallacy. What you’re really doing is breaking up your attention and doing everything badly. In the next thirty or forty years we’ll have technology that will directly allow human beings to multitask effectively. It’s not there yet. Let’s make sure we have our priorities right and that when we need to focus we truly focus on what’s important.
Absolutely. We should see if we can get this guy. His name is Kyle Newport and the book is “Deep Work”. I’ll see if I can reach out to him because he’s very, very clear on, to your point, pulling together the science and making the case that we’re at risk of becoming remarkably inefficient by thinking we can multitask. Next question, what have you changed your mind about recently?
Wow. What have I changed my mind about recently? I change my mind all the time. I follow the markets, which is a mistake. I have retirement and all of that, but it’s sort of like my sports page. To be honest, Mark, I’m not really into competitive sports at all, but I love keeping track of what’s going on in the equities markets. I wouldn’t call it necessarily changing my mind, but believing that maybe equities markets are actually operating differently today as a result of globalization and also as a result of the large players and technology that allows them to move money at a pace that we’ve never seen before. I think I’m suspicious that maybe some of the fundamentals over the next twenty years, because of technology, might actually be shifting. It sounds contradictory because if it’s a fundamental it doesn’t change, but maybe some things we felt might have been fundamental about economics might not actually be fundamental about economics.
It’s a very interesting comment. The four most dangerous words in the financial markets are, “This time it’s different.”
Yeah. That’s right, but different about what I guess is what I’m getting at. We lulled ourselves to sleep for some time with the notion that markets are efficient and they accurately price at any given moment. A lot of policy was built around that. That was one of the factors, obviously not the only one, but one of the factors that helped lead to the global financial meltdown less than a decade ago. The question is not whether everything is different this time. The question is, what is different and what is not different?
Yeah, absolutely. Got it. The final question, I know you’ve got a younger family than me, but what advice would you give to your twenty‐five year‐old self?
Number one, I’m glad I stuck with my PhD. That was the right thing for me. It’s certainly not the right thing for a lot of people. Around that time I had a couple opportunities to quit and take a very attractive job. Soon after that the dot com boom was occurring, so I thought, “Oh my gosh, I made a mistake. What happened? I’m sure I’d be a billionaire by now if I had jumped ship.” Then of course the crash happened. In retrospect, I think staying focused on what feels intuitively right to you and what you’re truly passionate about is the right move, even if in the near term it doesn’t feel like that.
Happiness is not all about always feeling great. I think it has to do with finding meaning in life. I mean that very actively. You can feel inside yourself when you’re doing the right thing. You can also feel when you’re doing the wrong thing. Pay attention to that. I don’t mean that only when everything’s going great. I especially mean that when you’re an entrepreneur or a corporate entrepreneur or a researcher against all odds. It’s rough. It’s tough to get up everyday and face that, but somewhere inside you, if you’re on the right track, you feel that, “You know what, this is the right thing to do.” I think that people of all ages, in particular young people, need to start to pay attention to what’s inside them and be guided by that. If you pay attention to that you’ll find it and it’ll help you throughout your life.
Yeah it’ll show itself eventually, one way or another. Excellent. Rob, where can people or how can people get in touch with you?
Great. The dirty secret at Kellogg is if you go to the Kellogg website and look up any faculty member, our personal email address pops up.
You can certainly do that. I’m on Facebook. I’m very active on Facebook, love keeping in touch with people. Active on LinkedIn. I don’t connect with people unless I’ve met them in some way, but you’re free to email me or send me a LinkedIn message. I’ll respond. Then after we’ve had some interaction I’m happy to connect and stay connected.
Wonderful. Rob, it’s been a great pleasure talking to you today. I really enjoyed our talk as I’m sure our listeners will. Thanks very much for your time.
Thanks so much, Mark. I think what you’re doing is great. Need to see it as part of the larger value chain.
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