Dealing with uncertainty is one of the most important skills for a manager. How can we teach this? By working on problems where we don't know the answer in advance. Related Stories - Before Tom Peters, before Peter Drucker, we had Mary Parker Follett - ...


Innovation Leadership Network

How Do We Build 21st Century Business Skills?

21st Century Skills

“How do you teach people to be more comfortable with ambiguity?”

That was the question from the person in charge of Talent for a big bank at a workshop we ran with them recently at UQ.

My response was: “The first thing we need to do is give them projects to do where we can’t know what the right answer is in advance.”

Of course, we often avoid doing this in universities, mainly because……..we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity ourselves. It’s a lot easier to teach a framework, then assess recall. But that doesn’t really work today (did it ever?) – and if we teach that way, we’re doing people a disservice.

What are the capabilities that managers need to be effective today? Here’s what the World Economic Forum says, based on a large survey of organisations:

21st Century Skills

Dealing with uncertainty isn’t on the list, but it’s a central part of cognitive flexibility, complex problem solving, and creativity. How do we build these skills? Now that I’m an MBA Director, that’s a pretty important question to me!

It’s not really an information issue. We’ve known what to do as managers for a long time. And when Mary Parker Follett, Frank Knight, Elton Mayo and others started writing about management in the 1920s, this information started to be systematised. And there was another wave of high-quality thinking about management in the 1950s from Edith Penrose, Alfred Chandler, Peter Drucker and just to start with. The knowledge of how to deal with uncertainty, and how to manage, have been readily available to everyone for 100 years now – and yet we still struggle with how to do it. Why?

It’s not an information problem – it’s an action problem.

Which brings us back to my answer in the workshop: “The first thing we need to do is give them projects to do where we can’t know what the right answer is in advance.”

I’ve experimented with a few different ways to do this. We collaborated with the Wharton Business School for eight years on their now sadly-ended Global Consulting Practicum program. These projects were great. They were collaborative projects of five UQ MBA students and five from Wharton. We did them for actual clients that were trying to enter or expand their business in the North American market. The projects ran for six months, and they were packed with uncertainty. IN some cases, the teams didn’t nail down the answers until five months and twenty-nine days into the project!

These projects worked best when they were discovery projects – most commonly it was looking for the business model that the client needed to successfully grow their business in the US.

The projects were life-changing for many of us involved with them. I think a big part of why is that the level of uncertainty was so high – it forced us to try new things, to learn (a lot!), and to grapple with ambiguity head-on. Both the learning outcomes for students and the commercial outcomes for clients have been fantastic.

I’ve had similar experiences working with the CSIRO in developing the ON Prime program designed to help researchers achieve impact with their science. The issue here is that great new ideas need new business models – it’s another discovery problem.

We’ve experimented with shorter programs, that mostly focus on giving people the knowledge they need to go do the work. I’m not sure that these are as successful as longer programs that force people to do the work. We often need that extra push to do things that make us feel uncomfortable – especially the things that make us realise that there are things we don’t know.

This is also why it’s valuable for people to do entrepreneurship and innovation projects as part of their study. It’s not necessarily because we want to launch a bunch of new businesses – but trying to build something is a great example of working on a problem where we don’t know the answer in advance. This is why I’ve worked hard to contribute to initiatives like iLab, Idea Hub and our new UQBS Startup Academy on campus.

Since the GCP program ended last year, I’ve been working on building a similar experience that more of our MBA students can do. So this year we launched a new MBA Industry Project program at UQ.

The way we pitch it to businesses is: do you have a problem that you know is strategically important, but you don’t currently have the bandwidth within your organisation to find the best solution? If so, we will put a team of MBA on that problem for one semester to help you find the best way forward.

(And if so, and if you’re in Australia, and you’re interested, please get in touch!)

The way we pitch it to students is: if you look at that list of 21st Century capabilities, and agree that they are important, this is the best way to build them.

Will it work? I don’t know – we’re learning ourselves as we build this. But to me, if we don’t offer opportunities like this, we’re not doing our job.

It’s forcing me to be more comfortable with ambiguity too. Which is exciting, and scary. Just like everything else that’s worth doing.


How Do You Invest Your Most Valuable Asset – Your Attention?


I’m probably paying a bit too much attention to hockey right now.

When people here in Australia ask me about sports, I often say “I’m the only person in the world whose two favourite sports are cricket and ice hockey.” I have to call hockey ice hockey because around here hockey means field hockey.

Anyway, hockey was the first sport I learned how to play when I was growing up in Alaska, and it’s still my favourite.

But at the moment, I might be paying it too much attention. It’s an escape I fall back on when I feel a bit too much stress.

But it’s important to remember that attention is an asset – it’s something we invest. Elizabeth Gilbert nails it in Eat, Pray, Love:

There is so much about my fate that I cannot control, but other things do fall under my jurisdiction. There are certain lottery tickets I can buy, thereby increasing my odds of finding contentment. I can decide how I spend my time, whom I interact with, whom I share my body and life and money and energy with. I can select what I eat and read and study. I can choose how I’m going to regard unfortunate circumstances in my life—whether I will see them as curses or opportunities (and on the occasions when I can’t rise to the most optimistic viewpoint, because I’m feeling too damn sorry for myself, I can choose to keep trying to change my outlook). I can choose my words and the tone of voice in which I speak to others. And most of all, I can choose my thoughts.

Our thoughts, our attention.

I love the word attend. Its the base of attention, and it derives from the latin ‘attendere,’ which meant ‘to stretch’ and it eventually turned into the middle English ‘attend,’ which meant ‘apply one’s mind or energies to.’

Here’s a question then: are the things we attend to worthy of the application of our minds and energies? Do they stretch us?

This blog started when I actually took those questions seriously. At the time, I was really good at fantasy hockey. And I also had semi-regularly written a movie review blog, and a few other online things. I asked myself – what would happen if I took the time I’m investing in knowing that it would be smart to trade Chris Drury for Jarome Iginla, and instead investigated communicating online what I know and am learning about innovation?

As Gilbert says, we have choice. Do our choices reflect our values and passions? (Monica Byrne found a surprising answer to that when she looked at who wrote the books she reads)

Here’s a picture of the laptop I’m using to write this:


It’s an obscure art joke. But it’s also a signal – one that asks “who is in my tribe?”

It just shows how our investments of attention add up to who we are, and what we can do. They drive the ideas we can have. Nilofer Merchant says:

No original ‘big idea’ ever starts out that way. It’s starts out with one person seeing something only they see.

We make choices about how we invest attention constantly, and, mostly, unconsciously. There’s value in thinking about this more consciously. And I’m not talking about efficiency. This isn’t about making more efficient use of time. It’s about making our investments more purpose-driven.

What would happen if we were a bit more deliberate with our investment of attention?


It Doesn’t Have to Be the Way It Is

Innovation is subversive

Read this book!

Are you happy with the way things are right now?

Probably not, if you’re reading blog posts about innovation. There’s likely something bothering you. It might be something small, or large. If we’re not happy with the status quo, there’s only one thing that will change it – doing something differently. This always starts with an idea.

And not just having an idea – but executing it so that it creates value. That’s innovation.

Read this book!

Where do these ideas come from? Usually, imagination. You have to start by saying “it doesn’t have to be the way it is.” I stole that phrase from the great author Ursula K. Le Guin in her latest book No Time to Spare:

It doesn’t have to be the way it is. That is what fantasy says. It doesn’t say “Anything goes” – that’s irresponsibility, when two and one make five, or forty-seven, or whuddevva, and the story doesn’t “add up,” as we say. Fantasy doesn’t say “Nothing is” – that nihilism. And it doesn’t say, “It ought to be this way” – that’s utopianism, a different enterprise.

It doesn’t have to be the way it is is a playful statement, made in the context of fiction, with no claim to “being real. Yet it is a subversive statement.

Subversion doesn’t suit people who, feeling their adjustment to life has been successful, want things to go on just as they are, or people who need support from authority assuring them that things are as they have to be. Fantasy not only asks “What if things didn’t go on just as they do?” but demonstrates what they might be like if they went otherwise – thus gnawing at the very foundation of the belief that things have to be the way they are.

Upholders and defenders of a status quo, political, social, economic, religious, or literary, may denigrate or diabolize or dismiss imaginative literature, because it is – more than any other kind of writing – subversive by nature.

Like fantasy, innovation is also subversive by nature. That’s partly why innovators often read fantasy and science-fiction (by the way, if you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu and The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin).

This subversion is important. And often overlooked.

This is why it’s hard for big companies to innovate, even though they have lots of advantages – they have to subvert themselves. If you’re a big company, you’re by definition a big part of the status quo. This makes ideas that subvert the status quo, well, unattractive.

That’s also why some startups work on the edge of what’s legal.

But mainly, it’s why innovators must focus on value creation. New isn’t by definition better. Innovation isn’t always good – we’re not working in deterministic systems. Our new ideas need new business models – ones that focus on value.

It’s also why we need to make sure we’re working on important problems. It might be small ideas and experiments that we try, but our goals should be ambitious. A lot of people talk about changing the world – and innovation does that. But it’s not enough to change the world – we need to make it better.


Before Tom Peters, before Peter Drucker, we had Mary Parker Follett

Mary Parker Follett

What year do you think this quote is from?

There are three ways of dealing with difference: domination, compromise, and integration. By domination only one side gets what it wants; by compromise neither side gets what it wants; by integration we find a way by which both sides may get what they wish.

How about this one?

It has often been thought in the past… that I need be concerned only with doing my part well. It has been taken as self-evident, as a mere matter of arithmetic like 2 and 2 making 4, that if everyone does his best, then all will go well. But one of the most interesting things in the world is that this is not true, although on the face of it it may seem indisputable. Collective responsibility is not something you get by adding up one by one all the different responsibilities. Collective responsibility is not a matter of adding but of interweaving, a matter of the reciprocal modification brought about by the interweaving. It is not a matter of aggregation but of integration.


But there is following. Leader and followers are both following the invisible leader – the common purpose. The best executives put this common purpose clearly before their group. While leadership depends on depth of conviction and the power coming therefrom, there must also be the ability to share that conviction with others, the ability to make purpose articulate. And then that common purpose becomes the leader. And I believe that we are coming more and more to act, whatever our theories, on our faith in the power of this invisible leader. Loyalty to the invisible leader gives us the strongest possible bond of union, establishes a sympathy which is not a sentimental but a dynamic sympathy.

Mary Parker Follett

It all sounds pretty contemporary, doesn’t it?

So does this:

You cannot coordinate purpose without developing purpose, it is part of the same process. Some people want to give workmen a share in carrying out the purpose of the plant and do not see that it involves a share in creating the purpose of the plant. A noted teacher of ethics tells us, “A citizen is one who helps to realize the purpose for which this nation exists.” The citizen must also help to make the purpose.

Well, they’re all quotes from Mary Parker Follett – and she said these things in the 1920s. (see Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management for more).

But she sounds a whole lot like Tom Peters:

Tom Peters bascs

And before him, Peter Drucker, Warren Bennis, Douglas McGregor and many others. As Warren Bennis said about Follett’s Essentials of Leadership:

Just about everything written today about leadership and organizations comes from Mary Parker Follett’s writing and lectures.

This raises two questions. First, if her thinking is so foundational, why isn’t Mary Parker Follett more widely known?

In a good review of a collection of Follett’s writing, Barbara Presley Noble evaluates several possible reasons, including sexism and lack of a formal position of power, then concludes:

And most persuasively, Mr. Drucker and Ms. Kanter both argue that an ideology emphasizing cooperation, negotiation, “constructive conflict” and consensus-making may simply have been out of sync with a world that was either prewar, at war or postwar during much of Miss Follett’s professional life. Politically, the 1930’s and 40’s “were dominated by men and creed that knew the proper use of conflict was to conquer,” Mr. Drucker writes.

Miss Follett never stooped to conquer, believing instead in her more optimistic view of human nature.

While her language is a bit dated (for obvious reasons!), her thinking is still essential. And well worth checking out.

The second question is even bigger: if we’ve been talking about purpose, and inclusivity, and culture, and people first for nearly one hundred years now, why aren’t these ideas more widely accepted in management? After all, as Peters says, it’s not rocket science.

Here’s the key: It’s simple, but not easy.

It’s not easy to practice inclusive management. For example, it’s hard to act this way when everyone else acts hierarchically. Just a few years after Follett was in her prime, John Maynard Keynes said:

Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.

There’s plenty of evidence that inclusive management outperforms conventional approaches, but for some reason, people first and all its implications are still unconventional.

We need to fight through this. Inclusive organisations are better on nearly every performance metric you care to measure –  it’s a demonstrably better way to manage. Let’s stop failing conventionally. Wouldn’t you rather start succeeding? We’ve known for one hundred years how to do this – let’s start listening to Mary Parker Follett.


Talk – Action = 0

We are what we do

Do stuff

“We need to get better at executing strategy.”

I heard something like this from about five different speakers at the Global Peter Drucker Forum last month. I hate statements like this – at best they’re half-truths, but mostly they are dangerous myths.

This was my response:

Do stuff

“We have to stop talking about strategy development and execution as two different things. What you do IS your strategy – so do more experiments to build a better strategy.”

When we try to separate thinking from action, both suffer. They must be integrated. This creates a management problem. “Thinking” jobs are often higher status and better paid than “doing” jobs – so telling the “thinkers” that they must “do” as well doesn’t go over very well.

But they must.

In fact, I think that if we’re not doing, we’re not thinking. We’re just fantasising.

This has some practical implications.

ideas without actions are fantasies

  • Innovation is executing new ideas to create value. If we skip the execution part, we just have fantasies – a common innovation mistake. The solution is to get the people coming up with ideas involved in validating the value they create, and in the execution.
  • When you’re launching something new (a new product, a startup, or a piece of research), the normal way to do things is to work out the idea first, then the business model. However, you can double your chances of success if you build your idea and your business model simultaneously, not in sequence. Lean startup tools help with this.
  • A brand is not a slogan or a positioning statement, your brand is what you do. It’s the sum total of your organisation’s interactions with your stakeholders. If you want to change your brand, you have to change how you act.
  • An organisational culture is not a vision statement plus some corporate values, it’s what everyone in the organisation does every day. once again, it’s a sum total of interactions. If you want to change your culture, you have to change how you act.

If you look at those four examples, in the flawed versions, thinking and acting are separate, while in the better versions, thinking emerges from acting.

As Jerry Sternin says:

It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.

This has one critical implication – our organisations need to be more participative, with shared responsibility and opportunity to both think and do. In the area of strategy, Nilofer Merchant says:

The same few problems crop up, over and over again. We limit participation in strategy creation based on title and rank rather than relevant insight. We insist on lobbing strategy over the wall to the execution team without creating a shared understanding of what matters and why. And we reward individual accomplishment because it is easier than rewarding co-ownership of the ultimate outcomes.

If you want to get better at executing strategy, thinking and executing need to merge. If we treat them as two separate activities, we’re much more likely to fail.

Note: I’ve swiped the title for this post from DOA – the third band I ever saw play live.