“Undisruptable: A mindset of permanent reinvention” is a great book. What do Amazon, caterpillars, imaginal discs, the Amara effect, a rugby stadium, Kintsugi, S-curves, infinity, mayfly, Sequoia trees, purpose, queen wasp, Archimedes, magic spells, Rome, Apple, crabs, lobsters, dragons, poison, jellyfish, Fujifilm, Walt Disney, Arnold Swarzenegger, trees, forest fires, coconuts and butterflies have in common? They are all used by Aidan McCullen as metaphors to explain the need for reinvention. I have never read a book that uses metaphors, biology, nature, history, fables, philosophy, etc and links it to management theory. It is awesome and delightful. Every chapter ends with the key lessons and questions. If you read this book, you will never be the same. And that is the point.
Increase your return on capabilities
As professionals, all the skills we learn accumulate to give us a unique combination. Return on capability is intangible when we compare it to existing, established and proven business (and mental) models. This is why new business models require new measurements and new mindsets. When the business environment is in flux, we cannot measure future endeavours in the same way we measure past successes. When you embark on an experiment, you build capability, and that capability can deliver unintended successes. Success involves continually investing in yourself and in your business ahead of the necessity and when you have the funds to do so.
We are stuck in the past
According to the Boston Consulting Group, the average life of a business model was once fifteen years. By their estimation, that number has drastically reduced to five years. That applies to you too. You are not spending enough time in tomorrow.
The seed of destruction is in success
The moment we reach the peak in any endeavour, the dip is already underway. Alas, therein lies the problem: our successes often blind us to the possibility of failure, our victories can sometimes defeat us. We become so preoccupied with optimising, enjoying and defending the competitive advantage that made us successful today that we neglect to prepare for tomorrow. This mode of thinking is outdated. We can no longer win with defence alone; there is no longer a safe harbour for organisations, there is no longer a career destination for individuals. That is so often the challenge: we resist reinvention for fear of losing the competitive advantage we have developed.
Reinvent in permanence
The key, we will see, is to reinvent in permanence. We must build a constant flow of reinvention initiatives into business, careers and life. His findings continuously point to a common trend: we cannot change what we do until we also change how we think. Within organisations, this translates as: we cannot change business models until we also change mental models. How do we navigate a world that is changing at breakneck speed, as business leaders and as individuals? What can we do to minimise the impact of disruption on our careers, in our organisations and on our lives? The answer lies with a mindset: a mindset of permanent reinvention.
I have been writing about VUCA for a while. This is how Aidan McCullen describes it. Nothing behaves as we think it should. Nothing makes sense. At such times the world appears to be staging a madhouse. It is never a madhouse. It is merely the great tide of evolution in temporary flood, moving this way and that, piling up against that which obstructs its flow, trying to break loose and sweep away the internal model that opposes it.
We don’t understand
VUCA and exponential go hand in hand. But VUCA and exponential clashes with our way of thinking. Deep in most of us, below our awareness, indelibly implanted there by three centuries of the Industrial Age, is the mechanistic, separatist, cause-and-effect, command-and-control, machine model of reality. People are more than machines. The universe is more than a clock. Nature is more than a sequence of cogs and wheels.
The undeniable fact is that we have created the greatest explosion of capacity to receive, store, utilise, transform, and transmit information in history, and that is causing an even greater explosion in societal diversity and complexity. There is no way to turn back.
What is the permanent reinvention mindset?
It is about filters. Every time we add a lens, it modifies how we experience the world. In this analogy, the brain plays the role of the optometrist adding lenses as we learn and experience new things. As we grow older, our lenses pile up through education and media, religion and politics, friends and foes, poverty and prosperity, society and culture and countless other ways. As we advance through life, our lenses become scratched and worn and distort our view, blinding us to both threats and opportunities. Read “Free you mind of being yourself“or “Rethinking strategy” or “Unlearn“.
Like me, Aidan is a fan of Amazon, and he uses Amazon throughout the book as an example of a constant reinvention mindset. Jeff Bezos focus has always been on keeping Amazon in the mindset of a start-up and never become complacent. Even he predicts the ultimate demise of Amazon in time. It is inevitable.
There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen. Exponential growth is back-loaded, which helps explain another phenomenon, known as Amara’s Law, after the scientist Roy Amara. This law states we overestimate the effect of a technology in the short term and underestimate the impact in the long term.
I always use the chess set to explain exponential. He uses the example of a rugby stadium. Exponential means that from the very first drop to completely filling the stadium would take a mere forty-nine minutes. And here is the rub, when you and those seated on the upper rows of the stadium realise there is a problem, you think you have enough time to take action. After all, you see that the water took forty-five minutes to reach the people at ground level. Most of us are sitting in the upper row and have no idea what is coming. A tsunami of digitisation, Moore’s law, artificial intelligence, data, globalisation, climate change and pandemics is already upon us.
This is what happens when industries adopt a defensive approach to business, believing change will not catch them off guard. This is what happens when organisations ignore evolving customer needs and business models. Internal clock speed. Jack Welch warned when businesses do not keep pace with the speed of change in their marketplace, they face extinction, as Nokia discovered. We must learn to understand the trends and surf the waves of change. As the Chinese proverb tells us, ‘When the wind of change blows, some build walls, while others build windmills.
Rather than a rigid set of frameworks or business models, Aidan presents the book as a series of mental models. Starting with the caterpillar. Imaginal discs begin life as single-celled organisms and remain dormant until they instinctively awaken when it is time for metamorphosis. Imaginal cells are so unlike the caterpillar’s cells that the immune system attacks them as invaders. Despite being rejected by the organism, imaginal cells persevere, multiplying within the caterpillar. These new cells resonate at the same frequency, communicating and coordinating to overwhelm the caterpillar’s immune system. They induce the caterpillar to find a twig and harden its skin, which acts as a cocoon. This is when a caterpillar becomes a chrysalis. Then, the caterpillar goes through a beautiful transformation by dissolving into a nutritious liquid that fuels the metamorphosis into a butterfly. For the new being to emerge, it does not destroy the old but rather builds upon what was already there. The old plays a noble role in enabling the new. There is no better way to describe transformation.
As I was thinking about this, I read somewhere that you also should not help the butterfly to leave the cocoon. The butterfly needs the struggle to inflate the wings fully. The struggle is also a necessary part of transformation.
Change is resistance
Transformation means letting go of the old. It is the psychological warfare between the existing and the emergent. It needs different mindsets. We don’t like changing, and the bigger the change, the greater the resistance. Despite such a high death rate, considerable research shows that ninety per cent of cardiovascular-related patients will not make the lifestyle changes required to reduce the chances of another event. Even when faced with such life-or-death situations, only ten per cent can adapt. When confronted with such figures, is it any wonder that seventy-five per cent of organisational transformation efforts fail?
The Japanese word Kintsugi literally means golden (‘kin’) repair (‘tsugi’). As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as an integral part of an object’s history. What is damaged, scarred and vulnerable is something to celebrate rather than disguise. They call the mindset of reframing flaws and setbacks Kintsugi Thinking. It is a valuable lens through which to see the world. Mistakes are the foundation on which we learn. The higher the tolerance for mistakes, the more we will learn. Business today is a mix of both executing what we know and experimenting with what we do not know. This duality of business will inevitably result in mistakes. The key is to review why the mistakes happened and what we can do with the learnings.
Many models of change exist, but one that is particularly relevant to disruptive innovation is the Sigmoid curve or S curve. Typically, the S curve is broken into three broad phases: growth, scale, and maturity. I like to break it into six distinct phases, with the emphasis on the crucial phase six, which is often overlooked. This sixth phase is a blind spot because it is counterintuitive; it also needs to begin before you reach phase five. Gone are the days of sitting on the laurels of success because disruption is the new normal. Even when we become king of the mountain and reach the top of the S, the mountain can suddenly become a molehill. Because phase five is where organisations and individuals stagnate, decline and decay. Phase five is a long kiss goodnight and a slow, painful decline where the organisation competes for an ever-decreasing market spend. This is the realm of the metaphorical melting iceberg. The death by a thousand cuts. The long goodbye.
Phase Six: Jumping the S Curve
Phase six is ‘jumping the S curve’ and involves a transition from the success you have achieved today – whether it be in business or in your career – to possible success tomorrow. Sometimes the output from an S curve jump is not a financial gain; it can often be a new capability or skill. If you are flexible, agile and adaptable to change, then this new capability can be applied to another S curve. Many individuals and organisations neglect this crucial phase because it is so damn counterintuitive. The jump to a new curve always looks like a step backwards. It presents the classic innovator’s dilemma. Christensen suggested we invest in new products and/or new business models that often compete with our existing businesses.
Now is too late
The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining. This is the principle of the Spartan warrior mantra, ‘The more you sweat in times of peace, the less you bleed in war’. The organisations who had repaired the roof when the sun was shining can weather storms when they occur. In a VUCA age, there is always another storm coming, so jumping the S curve in permanence is essential for the permanent reinvention mindset. Too often, when leaders realise they need to jump to a new curve, it is too late. And the problems is you never know when to jump to a new S curve, so you must do so in permanence. Infinite change.
It is infinite
The ouroboros is an ancient symbol often represented by a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. Many of us consider the snake to be a symbol of evil, but the ouroboros is actually a symbol for eternal, cyclical renewal or a cycle of life, death and rebirth. The need for a learning mindset.’ In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.
It is evolution
A mayfly lives for only two days, while a sequoia tree lives for over one thousand years. The earth is like the tree, and we are like the mayfly. Aidan shares this story to emphasise how everything on the planet evolves at a different. We can’t force the same timeline on everything. It only results in frustration and desperation. When we visualise time as a series of cycles, we reframe past experiences as fuel for the future, setbacks as lessons and sunk costs as learning costs.
It is cyclical
Using cyclical time as a lens helps us to reframe a variety of phenomena. As an organisation, this cyclical mindset provides a useful way to view transformation and reinvention efforts. When we reframe the organisation as a living entity, we see that it is also in a continual process of becoming. Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes.
Go with the flow
Don’t resist it; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Business leaders can reframe reinvention as a process of building on the past rather than defending it.
This is what I call the WASP Trap, W.andering A.imlessly S.ans P.urpose. Wasp life cycles are shorter than ours, but the WASP trap highlights why purpose is so important. Like the queen wasp, who emits a unifying pheromone, organisations can align people around a compelling vision to achieve dramatic results. And once you commit to a vision, the most amazing things happen in a phenomenon called synchronicity. Without something to strive for, without a vision, we wander aimlessly through life. Purpose is the new black. Combine it with vision (and as far as I am concerned passion. Those are lenses all by itself.
Where There Is No Vision, the People Perish Proverbs 29:18 reads, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish. Vision lives at the top of the S Curve and serves as a North Star to guide. Vision informs purpose. Just as we need to build capability before we need it, we need to cultivate vision in our lives before discovering we have none. Without a clear vision, we don’t have our radar on for opportunities that are often sitting right in front of us. You are activating your RAS (Reticular Activating System). The Science of Synchronicity. We shape our life by deciding to pay attention to it. It is the direction of our concentration and its intensity that determines what we accomplish and how well. The law of attraction, where we attract those things we focus on most. It is why positive people see reasons to be positive and why negative people find more reasons to be negative.
- There is a lot of mindset in the book as well.
- If you can hold it in your head, you can hold it in your hand’.
- Abracadabra with magicians pulling rabbits from hats, but it is an Aramaic term that translates into English as, ‘I will create as I speak’. A clearly articulated vision works in a similar way: the words create a mental pathway to a future state.
- Once you commit to your vision, the universe conspires to present a plethora of opportunities. Ask and it is given.
- There is no gain without struggle.’ — Martin Luther King.
- Death is nature’s way of making things continually interesting.
- Feelings are the language of the body, and thoughts are the language of the mind.
- The Spartan warrior mantra, repopularised by American General Norman Schwarzkopf, encapsulates it well: ‘The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war’.
Maxwell Maltz was the pioneer of a field of psychological training called psycho-cybernetics. He believed that our nervous system cannot tell the difference between an imagined and a real experience.
Archimedes pretty much invented the first laser beam. Normal light, such as sunlight, is incoherent or dispersed; thankfully, it does not burn through things like a laser would. Lasers emit particles of light, known as photons. When photons are aligned in lockstep, they are described as ‘coherent’. When light is tightly concentrated like a laser, it is not only potent but can stay focused over vast distances. When leaders align human energy in a coherent way towards a shared vision, our efforts are magnified. A leader must share a unifying vision for their organisation. Articulating a vision frequently provides mental rehearsal for employees, like the mental free throws for basketball players or mental recitals for pianists. Vision harnesses collective energy, just as Archimedes’ death ray harnessed disparate beams of light into a laser beam.
All roads lead to Rome. Hub and spoke models are still used by transport planners, airlines and network developers. Roman history shows how a vision, supported by execution, can ensure years of dominance, even if that dominance eventually ends. People will do a better job and spot threats and opportunities when they understand and are aligned with a vision.
Apple needed a means to connect these disparate products. If they succeeded, Apple could become the Roman empire of the computing industry. In retrospect, the jump to a digital hub makes perfect sense today. What Jobs didn’t reveal was that Apple would not just produce the Mac as the central hub, but Apple would, in time, produce the spokes that connected to that hub. Apple’s vision gave us the iPod, iTunes, Apple TV, Apple Music, iPhoto … and later iCloud, iPhone, iPad, iWatch, and ultimately a two-trillion dollar undisruptable organisation.
The exoskeleton of crabs is inelastic, so they eventually outgrow their shells. The crab sheds its shell as it evolves throughout its life. The evolution of the crab provides a wonderful lens to consider how we outgrow our stations in life: our careers, our skill sets and our habits. I include organisations because unless they provide people with scope to develop, they constrict growth.
We are one hundred trillion (programmable) cells. The human body is composed of one hundred trillion (one trillion = one thousand times one billion) cells working in unison to create our bodies. If our body regenerates every seven years, what about us? What about our careers? What about our organisations? Just as the crab outgrows her shell, we all outgrow various stages of life.
You need support
When a crab moults, she hides for several days as her new shell hardens. During this time, she is vulnerable to predation. Our emergent self is susceptible to discouragement and doubt. When we are in this emergent phase, it is vital to surround ourselves with people who support us.
Rather than exploring new growth opportunities or new ‘shells’, leaders get stuck managing today’s shell as their main priority. Even when organisations invest in new growth engines, they sometimes forget that the emergent stage is also the most vulnerable one, just like when a crab sheds its shell. Leaders must provide a safe haven for the fledgeling business model and for those change-makers who are assigned to nurture it.
Lobsters also reach a point when they grow too big for their own shells. Shedding shells and growing new ones takes a lot of energy. Eventually, the amount of energy required to moult a shell and grow another is a step too far, and the lobster succumbs to exhaustion, disease, predation or shell collapse. As with lobsters, age can become a hindrance for organisations too. They find it increasingly difficult to reinvent on an ongoing basis.
Dragons represent our fears, our ego, and anything else that holds us back (including our past). Are we making use of our gifts, or are we prisoners of our own dragons? The real tragedy is that some of us never embark on the journey because fear prevents us from beginning the odyssey in the first place. ‘When it comes time to die, let us not discover that we have never lived’.
What keeps us from reinventing, from evolving, from pursuing our visions? Pursuing a vision not only involved overcoming obstacles, but many visions are stillborn by the fear of failure. Fear naturally occurs when we have a vision for the future. Once we have the new idea, our ‘change antibodies’ activate and attack the new idea like the DNA of a caterpillar attacking an imaginal cell. The permanent reinvention mindset requires us to reframe fear as growing pains. In an interview with David Bowie, a reporter asked what advice he would offer for aspiring artists. Bowie replied: ‘If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. To adapt and benefit from the change, we must be flexible and ready. Read “The unbeatable mind“
“The dose makes the poison” is a term attributed to Swiss physicist Paracelsus. He claimed that ‘poisons’ were not necessarily negative because it was the dose that determined if a substance was poisonous or not. Researchers found that the introduction of stressors – intermittent fasting, exercise and cold shower therapy, for example – produces anti-ageing effects. Instead of reaching a certain point and recoiling back toward safety, we venture just far enough to get used to a new tolerance level. This is the spirit of the infinity curve. There is no destination. Every time we become comfortable, yes, we enjoy the crest of the wave, but we do not sit still, we do not stagnate, we do not atrophy.
Slay the dragon
Slaying the dragon does not always turn out the way we had hoped. The point is that we venture out of the cave, we don’t remain a prisoner and spend our life wondering what might have happened. The permanent reinvention mindset encourages us to stage crises within our control before we encounter those beyond our control. Reframing fear builds up our resilience to deal with unexpected events and minimises the impact of such events on our lives and in our organisations.
The immortal jellyfish
Turritopsis dohrnii or ‘the immortal jellyfish’.When faced with death, it willingly reverts to a sexually immature stage and starts its life cycle all over again. In doing so, it discards the mature parts of its body – its limbs and tentacles and plunges back to the ocean floor to become a baby polyp once again. This fascinating life cycle highlights the benefits of a regular return to an emergent state and the willingness to discard elements that are weighing it down and wasting valuable energy. By taking stock of the ingredients we have at our disposal, we can identify interesting combinations.
In a stellar display of reinvention, Fujifilm unbundled their capabilities, which included patents in chemical compounds and nanotechnology. Next, they systematically sought to apply previously built capabilities in novel ways. What is especially salient about the Fujifilm story is how they unbundled and rebundled their capabilities to spectacular effect, adding missing elements through mergers, acquisitions, learning new skills and unlearning old ones. What was one of their success characteristics? The assembly of a platform of capabilities.
Undisruptable organisations take stock of broader capabilities. You should too. When we only have one string to our professional bow, we are at risk of career disruption. When our roles are made of repeatable tasks, we are susceptible to automation. The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. History is littered with organisations (and individuals) that became blinkered by their success. (Aidan uses Nokia and Blackberry as examples). To stay on the infinity curve, we must stay hungry, keep learning and continually evolve. In doing so, he showcased another trait of permanent reinvention: using spare time to develop capabilities, without knowing how those capabilities might reward you in the future.
Evolve or die
The book uses Walt Disney and Arnold Swarzenegger as examples. Once you stop evolving, you start dying. Vision, powered by hard work and perseverance, became the blueprint for his future achievements. The capabilities of discipline, resilience and perseverance
Trees, fauna and foliage in those forests prone to fires have evolved in fascinating ways. Some trees produce resin-coated cones containing mature seeds that are only activated when fire breaks out. The heat of the fire melts the resin around the cones, like the wax of a candle. This apparent act of destruction releases seeds that have been waiting patiently for their opportunity to germinate. Other forest plants contain seeds that have a thick outer coating – these seeds require fire to burn off their outer shell to release their kernel. When crises happen in life, they can feel devastating in the moment, but they can release latent potential.
The Coconut Trap
In order to reinvent, you must let go of past achievements. Like the monkey holding the fruit, many of us cling to the past with clenched fists. A space shuttle uses considerably more energy to escape the gravitational drag of its home planet than it does travelling to its destination. As the Zen proverb goes, ‘Knowledge is learning something new every day. Wisdom is letting go of something every day. Systematic abandonment is what author Peter Drucker called the deliberate process of letting go of familiar products, services and business models in favour of exploring new or as yet unknown experiments.
The flight of the butterfly
Once the author learned about the metamorphosis of the butterfly, he discovered a perfect analogy for permanent reinvention for organisations, individuals and life. The death of the former self does not mean that the old us was not useful. Our former selves helped us get to where we are today. The final stage of the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into a butterfly is the most beautiful. When the butterfly emerges from the cocoon, it holds on tightly for a moment, as it gazes longingly into the cocoon. The cells of the caterpillar have nourished the butterfly to fuel this new and evolved being. It is as if the butterfly holds the cocoon in a moment of gratitude, thanking its former self for the contribution toward its new becoming. After this moment of thanks, the butterfly lets go of the past and flies into the future.
This leaves us with only one question. Would you rather be defined by a record of your past or driven by a vision of your future?