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Growing the Culture of Disruption: A chat with Linda Bernardi, a Most Personable Provocateur

Linda Bernardi, author of ‘Provoke: Why the Global Culture of Disruption is the Only Hope for Innovation, is undoubtably one the most personable provocateurs I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with.  The fact that she is as inspiring as she is interesting is a bonus.  Once I read her insightful and thought provoking book, published in November of 2011, I knew I wanted her to launch the 2012 Season of the Innovation Interview Series.

Linda wears an wide variety of hats, she is: CEO of StraTerra Partners, a technology strategy consulting company focussed on new tech adoption; an an early-stage technology Angel Investor in the US, Europe and India; and a board member for several commercial and not-for-profit organizations.  Her work with the Bernardi Leadership Institute sees her training in large enterprises and academia as well as engaging entrepreneurs internationally in Innovation Based Leadership™.  If that weren’t enough, ConnecTerra, the company she founded in 2001, provides RFID tech to large enterprise IT.  All of this underlines that Linda knows what she’s talking about when it comes to ‘Capital I’ Innovation – and yet, as engaging as all of that is, none of it is why I was so determined to interview her for this series.  

The fact is, with all those feathers in her cap, Linda now also wears the hat of an author, and it is for that reason – once I had read Provoke – that I sought her out.

Linda Bernardi: Capital I Interview Series – Number 10

Throughout my reading of ‘Provoke‘, I found myself talking out loud and having a dialogue with the book, “Yeah, that’s right!”… “I know!” … “I’ve thought that for years!”  But, to Linda’s credit, I also learned a great deal, and found myself rethinking certain ‘givens’, which perhaps aren’t given any longer.  Credit where credit is due – I recommend Provoke to anyone interested in moving the economy, especially the economy of Innovation, forward.

Throughout this interview you will find ‘snippets’ from the book.  I hope they inspire you to purchase a copy and dive into your place in the ‘Culture of Disruption’ [CofD] that Linda opens to her readers.

“You are already part of the Culture of Disruption. Just by reading this book, you’ve become a disruptive force.”

Congratulations on writing such an engaging and insightful book Linda.  Provoke prompts readers to ask themselves, “What can I do to become part of, enhance, enrich and ensure a successful Culture of Disruption,” be that in their school or business, and regardless of whether that business is a startup or an entrenched, global corporation. You’ve defined the Culture of Disruption as:

“…the culture that invites and nurtures ideas and ways of thinking that continually disrupt convention wisdom and legacy models.  A CofD needs to be part of any organization looking to innovate.”

Added to that, you have made clear that change is inevitably uncomfortable, at least initially, but Innovation is the responsibility of everyone involved in the ecosystem.  This ecosystem encompasses entrepreneurs and employees, investors and Board of Directors, even academia and the media and, perhaps most importantly, Consumers – who are the market.  As you see it, working together – collaborating – they can create an unstoppable Culture of Disruption.

You refer to Collaboration a great deal in Provoke.  Why is collaboration so important in the Culture of Disruption?

Collaboration has very broad ramifications.  Part of what I hope to do with Provoke is explain the different constituents in the ecosystem… and illustrate how things are changing.  As things get more democratised and open, by nature they become more collaborative, and this includes decision making… even very fundamental decisions such as strategic acquisitions, product directions and market plans.

The process of making these decisions will become much more collaborative within companies.  It will also become more collaborative with the consumer – the market component, because the market now has an immediate voice regarding anything that company does. Decisions that used to be non-collaborative, where a company produced something for the market and the market had to take it or leave it, are now commented upon and can be broken, or not, based on the input of the market. Social media enables bi-directional communication.

These forces, that we never had in the past, allow uni-directional decision making, development, and communication; it’s becoming very bi-directional and collaborative.  For the first time we’re embracing intellectual development on all levels and planning strategic development at a collaborative, global level.  We’re respecting, or learning to respect, the power within individuals – whether they’re within a company or collaborating with the company – and the market.

In opening up to collaboration in such a social way, things are moving very quickly.  Do you see the CofD as evolutionary or revolutionary?

Parts of it are evolutionary, because it would be impossible to say that everybody has to stop what they’re doing and completely change tracks.  If it’s a big company serving tens of millions of consumers, it’s inconceivable that they’d immediately stop what they’re doing, abandon the past, and develop anew. On the other hand, certain Cultures of Disruption can be revolutionary, because they don’t have a legacy burden or have to service a huge market.

“The 3 Is–Inspiration, Impact and Innovation in the CofD.”

To that extent, you see companies like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, new generation companies that can evolve their business model immediately.  Because everything is very dynamic, smaller companies have the ability to be much more agile and evolve very rapidly.  Added to that, the bigger the company becomes, the less likely they are to reward risk and innovation.

Do you think that innovation is always risky?

Actually, I don’t think it is at all.  Innovation, fundamentally, is looking at something that doesn’t exist, or a new way of doing something… creating some new possibilities.  Innovation should be inherent in anything we’re doing.  [Unfortunately] bigger companies tend to think they’re not entrepreneurs.

When I give a lecture to a company where there may be a 100,000 employees, a common [theme] that comes up is, “I’m just an employee; I’m not an entrepreneur.  This stuff does not apply to me.  I can’t bring about change.”

“… a formula for figuring out the odds that a given acquisition will succeed, based on five conditions that exist when the ball gets rolling: 1. Purpose; 2. Plan; 3. Personality; 4. Players; and 5. Panic.”

Well, anyone and anything they do can be innovative.  That is why companies hire them; why companies go to the best universities and hire the best people.  They bring them in because they want their talent.  Their talent means they have brilliant ways of solving problems.  That is innovation!

But something happens in their journey, and within a year or two, these same individuals get frustrated and leave.  It’s ironic because they go off and doing the most fantastic things, and when you ask them, “Why didn’t you do it while you were at work?” They come back to their line of thinking: “I’m not supposed to innovate. I’m not entrepreneurial. I’m an employee.”

Provoke is trying to break that mould… to say that innovation CAN emanate from within.  One of the reasons that I wrote Provoke is to change the lethargic behaviour that we see in big corporations and conglomerates. Most of my clients have one-hundred-and-fifty to two-hundred thousand employees.

The Bernardi Leadership Institute

It is frightening when I enter these companies and see an attitude, which is much more about: “I’m here to do a job and collect a pay check,” versus: “I’m here because I’m super-bright.  I’m here because I have enormous talent and enormous capacity.”  I think they’re only operating at anywhere between 10 to 15 percent of their intellectual capacity in these types of companies.

There are reasons for this.  Often there are a lot of barriers – which I talk about in Provoke –  that prohibit people from being innovative.  After I give a lecture people will approach me and start sharing their stories.  They inevitably revolve around not having a supportive manager, having a leadership that’s disconnected, a system that does not reward risk taking or innovative thinking, and failed systems of capturing innovation from within.

“Smart leaders should be looking at a managing method I call “the baton”: orchestrating diverse groups, allowing expression within the boundaries of an overall plan, and making work emotionally appealing and creative…”

Think about it;  if you have one-hundred thousand employees… if one percent of those people – just one thousand people – were to have one idea a year… that’s one thousand ideas per year!  Yet if you look at the amount of innovation that’s actually captured within companies, it’s maybe three to four ideas per year.

To me, as an ex-CEO, it’s as if these company leaders are willing to bypass their most incredible source of innovation.  Often they think, “Maybe I need to make an acquisition to do an innovation.”  A lot of times the Innovation acquisitions that are made could have been accomplished within companies, but employees within the company were never consulted.  Imagine their motivation level.  The level of inspiration drops proportionally the less people are involved in innovation.

We have to disrupt this model, cultivate and inspire talent, and bring creative thinking out.  Currently I believe this is incredibly dormant, both within the US as well as globally.  Instead, it’s the big company model that prevails, on in which, for some reason, expressiveness and innovation go unrewarded and are even discouraged.

You must meet, at least initially, a great deal of scepticism in these larger corporations.

Well, scepticism is a lot easier than innovation, isn’t it?  In fact, in the five stages of dealing with disruption, scepticism is one of the first stages.  When cloud computing came out, it was very easy for people to be sceptical: “It’s not going to work.  I’m not going to use it as my corporate enterprise system.  It’s going to fail.  Nobody is going to want it.  There are security issues.”  The list went on and on.

When Apple disrupted the music industry and brought out the iPod, it was an incredible revolution, it redefined the entire possibility landscape, it redefined distribution of music.  And then it came up with the iPhone and redefined telcos.

My big clients in Europe all said: “Well, a computer company that’s a music company… they are never going to make it as a phone company.  It’s not possible!  We’re a phone company!”

And when Apple redefined the iPad the sceptics said: “No one is going to walk around with an iPad, and an iPhone, and a MacBook.”  And what do you think are the most three prevalent devices at any meeting I go to?  Those exact three devices!  Then the sceptics said: “Nobody is going to abandon their iPhone just to get a new iPhone,” yet everybody does.

I’m so glad you brought up this question because there is so much scepticism and misunderstanding around innovation.  Innovation – or disruption – doesn’t mean just coming up with a flaky idea, going off and doing something new without considering what the ramifications are.

Innovation (whether it’s  by a small, medium or large company or an individual) looks at the possibility of developing something that doesn’t exist, or expanding on something that exists, and disrupting the model.

“Here are a few tips:

  • Try something that seems crazy.
  • Solve a problem.
  • Observe everything.
  • Ignore the naysayers.
  • Have a strategic plan and execute it
  • Expect more of yourself”

Look at companies like Kodak, which I talk about in Provoke, who owned the entire photography space, and I think about the myriad number of ways that Kodak could have taken digital photography and owned that space… It could have been the hub, the platform for all digital photos.  Or, look at Blackberry, that owned the business of communication smart devices…

I think there are very few companies that are willing to take the broad risk of blatantly innovating in the face of scepticism, while understanding the heightened level of gratification they have to give to the consumer.

Speaking of the consumer, do you see a widening or lessening of the generation gap – between those of a ‘certain’ generation and those part of what you deem Generation I (the Generation of Innovation)?

I’m delighted by how intelligent the consumer is.  Something magnificent is happening today, the like of which we’ve never seen before.  When the first personal computers came out people that were over a certain age, who had never dealt with a computer, never learned.  There was a very distinct gap.

Somehow, in the last five to ten years, with the help of social media, that gap is being bridged to the point where grandparents are revelling in the use of Skype… they know how to use their iPhones.  They feel a part of it.   And that’s fantastic!  A nine-month-old can take an iPad and play a game.  Of course there is a broad range of technical capabilities, but the generational gap is becoming less and less relevant.  In my view, it’s because innovation is becoming more practical and end-user-oriented.

We’re developing things with the idea that the mass of people should be able to use them; things are becoming simpler to consume.  With computers in the past, the art lay in  buying the computer, loading the operating system, figuring out what program to buy, going through the heroic task of installing it and figuring out how to use it.  Only a very small percentage of the population could actually do that.

It’s very different today with the ‘www.anything/anytime’ model, which allows anyone access to anything.  The art is the use rather than the technical prowess to be ‘able’ to use; and that has really diminished the generational gap.

Unfortunately I think a great many technologists miss the fact that, regardless of how ‘smart’ their technology is, if people aren’t using it, it just won’t matter.

Exactly.  If we ask the question, “what makes certain innovation distinct?” it is when you develop something that people use.  In Provoke I discuss each of the constituents within the ecosystem of disruption, which is the enabling body of the Culture of Disruption.  These include the leadership, the board, the investor and the employee.

I then talk about the market and its power, because it’s the market that is totally redefining advertising and marketing.  The market has a tremendous impact.  Look at what happened at Netflix within span of few days.  The company came up with a new business plan, people revolted and called it back.  Imagine if we could have done that  ten years ago with hybrid cars.


When Innovation becomes practical and usable, it redefines everything.  And the beauty of it is that, sooner or later, change is inevitable.  The sooner you embrace the disruption the better.  If you don’t believe in disruption, you’re fundamentally saying that you believe in nothing changing… companies that think like that are the companies that become extinct.

The business equivalent of the dodo bird.


That leads into my next question: is ego bad for innovation?  As a consumer I have a great amount of ego because I feel, more and more, that I can have an effect – especially if I group together with other consumers.  From my perspective as an innovator, I realise that if we (KimmiC) didn’t have ego, perhaps we wouldn’t be as audacious as we are in deciding that we can change the world.  

On the other hand, perhaps part of the reason that people and companies feel they don’t need to change is the ego they have invested in their current offerings.  

What are your thoughts?

It’s a very important question.  If we were to define ego, I think competence, belief, passion and drive are necessary attributes… they’re critical for any of us to do anything significant.  If you didn’t have those you wouldn’t be able to do what you believe you can do.  You wouldn’t have the passion or the drive to do it; or the fundamental belief, as an entrepreneur, that: “I know this is risky but I really believe in the fundamental outcome. I’m going to do it and very little is going to stop me if anything”.

On the other hand there is the misplaced ego, which is ego by virtue of what you’ve been in the past, or what you think you are, or what you think you have to be.  That’s wrong because that completely stifles growth.  Those are the companies (or individuals) that are not innovating, because they believe that if they shatter that ego, everything will fall apart.

It’s necessary to know what you don’t know, to know that you have to learn, and to be eager to learn.  Unfortunately, in the latter group of people (or companies), there’s very little learning or change going on because of their belief: “I’m company X.  I’ve dominated this field.  I own it.  No one can be as good as me.”

At the same time there are some entrepreneurs that can be unfoundedly egotistical.  They believe they know all the answers just because they’ve been successful in the past.  These are the entrepreneurs that believe they’re going to take their social media company public and, suddenly, it’s going to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Those that wear their Google Goggles proudly!

Yeah. Or because they’re 20 years old, they got their Ph.D. at MIT and somebody told them they’re super-bright.  They have expectations, at the age of 23, that they are going to be multi-millionaires on their yacht.

“The comfort and the recklessness born of wildly available capital are actually corrupting innovation. Obstacles and scarcity force us to be better, think creatively, and work harder.”

Silicon Valley, while it’s been enormous in bringing us tremendous innovation, is also the breeding ground for unfounded ego, both in entrepreneurs, corporations and investors.  There are venture capitalists there that believe that, in some sense, they’re God!  One of the things that inspires me about Asia (and some of the other continents) is that they are where Silicon Valley was about 20 years ago.  There’s passion and hunger, but there’s also an incessant energy and drive.  It’s extremely difficult to balance that with unfounded ego.

Talking about Asia brings me back to thinking about scepticism.  I believe, and I think from reading Provoke and speaking to you that you probably have a similar view, that woe betide those who are sceptical of what is going on in Asia.

Right.  One things that got me really worried and started me thinking about writing Provoke was a December 2010, CNN round table of six CEO’s from major companies in Silicon Valley – we’ll leave them unnamed.  For an hour they were being spoke about the prowess of the U.S. versus the global market, and how the U.S. would never lose in the innovation game.

Clearly, they all have operations in various countries outside the U.S. and they definitely, as executives travel there, but the answers they rendered really left me baffled.

“Among giant companies, only Apple and Google seem to have mastered the deliberate act of balancing a youthful, wildly innovative, disruptive organizational ethos with the iron discipline and market focus that produces win after win… What my students and clients want to know is how to capture that same spirit.”

In my role as an investor in companies across the globe, I get a unique opportunity to look at entrepreneurism in various countries at a fundamental level.  For instance, in India there were about 5,100 business plans submitted [to us] last year.  We’re expecting this year to top 7,000.  China, South America, Europe… Talent is everywhere. Genius is everywhere. So to think that it’s going to be in one place is a very dangerous game.

StraTerra Partners

Everything is available everywhere.  So, for companies and the leadership of those companies to sit there and say things like: “We are going to be the leader. Nobody can catch up with us,” really showed enormous blindness.

It could be posited that the current state of the U.S. economy is, at least partially, reflective of that blindness.

Absolutely.  Innovation is collaborative.  Right now, just within my client list, there are three to four million employees. That’s a lot of people.

Just within that group of people, if I can start the process of active thinking and processing, just awakening people to the power that they have, and get them to believe in it…  To believe that an entrepreneur is just somebody that thinks creatively; that they can be, and are, an entrepreneur in what they do.  If the system around them is not designed to listen to them, they should create a system that is.

If enough people think like that… well, how could the leadership of a company resist 50,000 people wanting to express themselves.  What are they going to do? Lay them all off… because they’re thinking creatively?

“People need to feel valuable, creative, inspired.”

Disruption is simply another way to look at something.  Imagine if we’d never experimented… because that by default means disruption.  We would have never had any discovery.  That’s the power of the ‘what if’ culture.  That’s what engineering and science is, it’s about experimentation.  Disruption doesn’t mean disrupting the business, it just means opening up the business to new opportunities.

You mention in Provoke that you’d like an opportunity to rebuild the entire business school paradigm.  How would you change it?

I can actually answer that question with a very concrete answer.  I taught a number of classes last year at the University of Washington, in their MBA program.  It went so well that they’ve now offered me a lecturer position and, starting at end of January, Provoke will be used as a textbook.

It was very interesting to go into a program that’s well-established.  It’s very methodical, like every other MBA program, and I taught it completely differently.  I wanted my audience to participate with me, I wanted the students to think.

I made them  very uncomfortable because I told them I didn’t think they were thinking enough.  At one point I turned around and said I found it completely boring being with them.

I know they’re bright but they were just sitting there waiting for me to teach them things.  I said, “But you know everything!  Let’s talk about how you can change things!”  What ensued were incredible business plans; and I thought: “Oh my God!  They’ve woken up.  Look at what they can do!”

“Professors should pursue corporate relationships, explore creative funding options and worry more about impact and less about tenure.”

This is the first step.  We’re going to incorporate it with formal teaching and, over the course of the year, I hope to expand it to other universities and other business programs.  I really think that business programs have to be completely disrupted and revamped for the new world that we’re entering.

In Provoke you mention your respect for (The Daily Show’s) Jon Stewart.   What is it about Jon that moved you to mention him in particular?

In addition to being a comedian, Jon played a very important role during a very difficult previous [Bush, Cheney] administration.  His was probably the most unbiased and candid voice talking about what was going on in the administration, in congress, in politics in general.

Jon Stewart

Part of the comedy passport that he has allows him to bring things to the foreground and talk about them both in a way that audience connect with.  He is able to make light of very complex things which, frankly, need to be made light of.

It’s ironic, but though he’s a comedian, he’s one of the cleanest source of political news.  That frankness is also needed in discussions about business, Innovation and the Culture of Disruption.

He’s very much a provocateur, as are you.   Like Jon, you don’t seem to have any reticence in voicing your opinion, nor qualms about how you may be perceived in doing this.  That is not necessarily a position that a lot of women are comfortable taking.

I would say that, as we enter 2012, it’s really disturbing to me how few women do what I do.

When I look at technical conferences, and go through the list of keynote speakers, there are no women.  We’re 50% of the workforce, yet we’re not there.  When I sit around an investment table, I don’t have women investors with me.  When I’m on a board of directors, I don’t have women with me.  It’s disturbing to me that in a course of decades, instead of this becoming a non-issue, in fact it’s a real issue in that, women are still uncomfortable taking centre stage.

I’d like to have a lot more women doing what you’re doing – asking tough questions, putting themselves on the map.  But generally women lack a desire for risk.  Women dislike failure and want to play it safe – for a lot of historical reasons – yet women have enormous power.  I’m hoping that, as the world becomes more and more collaborative, more and more women will come to centre stage.

How will you measure the success of Provoke in the Culture of Disruption?

I really believe in the power of the people and I want Provoke to have a role in it.  So, if you ask me: “What would be a measure of success for me in a year?” it is how many people I might have touched with Provoke.  How might I have helped them change their thinking around the inevitability of disruption and their positive role in the Culture of Disruption.  To me, those would be incredible success factors.

“I’m a free thinker, not a Kool-Aid drinker”

If I can just provoke people to think differently, the mathematical combination of possibilities grows infinitely.  I’m very pleased to see  companies – some as large as federal agencies – saying: “You know what? We need to bring in innovative thinking.”  In fact, they’re replacing my “Culture of Disruption” with “Culture of Innovation.”  They’re saying: “You need to help us create our Culture of Innovation.”  Right there, suddenly there’s a positive translation of my dream.  The “Culture of Disruption” has now been translated into the “Culture of Innovation,” or, as you call it, the “Capital I”… which is huge!

Linda is giving a free gift of the first chapter of the Provoke eBook, along with a Culture of Disruption membership card, to any readers of this Innovation Interview who sign up for her monthly ‘Innovation Excellence’ newsletter by clicking this link!!

You can find out more about Linda, Provoke and the Culture of Disruption on her website and blogYou can also connect with Linda on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

(Kim and Linda Skype’d from their homes in Sydney and Seattle.)

Chewing on Black Swan for Christmas

Rather than looking back at 2011, we chose to talk to Doug Vining – chief technology adviser to the FutureWorld Global Think Tank and Editor of MindBullets: News from the Future – about the future, and his hopes for it, in this, the last Innovation Interview of 2011.

Doug Vining: Capital I Interview Series – Number 9

Futurist, entrepreneur, guru, writer and editor – these are only some of the words used to describe Doug Vining.  With an eclectic career which has encompassed advertising, corporate consulting, and working for tech titans such as IBM, Doug has had his finger on the pulse of Innovation and its commercial applications – along with its potential for solving real world problems – for many years.  With 30 years in ‘the game’ and three business degrees, Doug is a tech and strategy consultant, with a particular fascination for emerging technology .

You define yourself as a futurist… what does that term mean to you?

Well, I’m part of a group called ‘FutureWorld‘.  What we do is teach companies and organisations how to learn from the future.  They call us ‘futurists’, but we don’t predict the future, the future is impossible to predict.

Life is not perfect, reality is messy, that is what you should expect.  Anything is possible in the future.  What is needed is an attitude of durability and adaptability… expect the unexpected and learn from what could happen.

We look at scenarios.  We don’t say, “This is what will happen.” We say, “This is the kind of thing that could happen.”  Even if some of it would seem to be improbable.

Very often it’s the  least likely scenarios that occur.  Looking at the opportunities in those scenarios and planning a strategy today, that will help you in the future, that’s what we mean by ‘learning from the future’.

Your fellow FutureWorld gurus are very impressive.

Yes.  For over twenty years “Future World” has been in operation, so we have quite an impressive group of gurus.  There are four core members (I’m including myself) who have been involved with the business for about twenty years, and then there are others who come and go, or get involved in one stage or another.

Your fellow core members are Wolfgang Grulke, Anton Musgrave, and Neil Jacobsohn.

That’s exactly right.  Wolfgang started this whole thing when he was still with IBM.  Many years ago he said, you can’t look to the past for strategy.  Strategy has got to be about the future; strategy and innovation are tied together in that future perspective.

“In this warp-speed world it is no longer enough to learn from experience, we must learn from the future.” Wolfgang Grulke

Anton Musgrave

It’s about agility, adaptability and flexibility.  If you expect everything to be ordered and measured, then unfortunately, you’re going to be wrong.

That sounds like one of your MindBullets.

MindBullets: News from the Future‘ was one of several that Wolfgang came up with. The idea was to present a scenario in the form of a short, sharp news story that would make business executives sit up and think. Executives are often far too focussed on operational issues, and need a jolt to get them to think strategically and consider the future.

The mind bullets are little news stories from the future.  We produce one every week, we’ve been doing it for years.  Because we have been doing it for so long, some of those ‘futures’ have become the present, or the past.  It’s quite interesting to see how many of those MindBullets, which we thought were crazy ideas at the time, actually look pretty normal in today’s world.

Such as?

A big one must be world-wide communication and the adoption of cell phones, and smart mobile devices; it’s completely changed the modern world.  We said that these sort of things would become commonplace.

Another example is an article we wrote four or five years about communication becoming a basic human right.  Just last year the United Nations said that internet access should be considered a human right, and countries are starting to put in broadband for their citizens.  Those are the kind of trends that we considered futuristic at the time, and now they’re commonplace.

Would you say that is something like the smart/mobile phone, which enables easy communication, is the most important piece of innovation in your lifetime?

Absolutely.  In my life time I think the most profound piece of innovation has been the internet and the convergence of the internet, cellphones, and smart mobile devices.

The mobile phone on its own has completely changed the way the world works, especially in places like Africa and Asia.  In the past, for example, a manager, or someone with some product, would have to travel to another town to find out if there was a market for their goods, or their labour.  Often that trip would be a fruitless waste of energy and they would miss other opportunities by making it.  Now, with cell phones, they can find out where there is a demand for their services or products.  That completely changes economic opportunities.

And, of course it’s become more pervasive, more into the realm of social communication. We’ve seen what’s happened in Egypt, and Libya and Tunisia.  The catalyst has been the ability to communicate and organise socially, and to be heard.  People who were powerless have been given power.

Speaking of power, FutureWorld has a very impressive list of clients: huge companies and multinationals such as British Airways, Cisco Systems, The Financial Times, Gartner, IBM, Kraft, Microsoft, SAP and Oracle. 

There’s a number of reasons for that.  When we engage with clients on a formal basis we are quite expensive, so start-ups can’t afford us.  And, start-ups normally already have that innovation… that future-looking, crazy-idea mentality.

Therefore, yes, most of our clients are big corporates who are kind of set in their ways and very static.  They need the intervention from FutureWorld to get them to consider programs of innovation such as setting up a separate a business unit to take new ideas into the future.  Start-ups don’t need us and can’t afford us; big companies who can afford us definitely need us.

I suppose one of the ways that a start-up, or an individual, could gain access to you and the rest of the gurus would be to sign up to MindBullets.

Absolutely. There are a number of entrepreneurs who’ve been subscribing to MindBullets for years.  There’s a lot of intellectual property, a lot of our thinking, available for free on our website.  We also started a discussion forum; everyone that subscribes is free to comment and enjoy the conversation.

And the controversy?

That’s the point.  The future actually awards people who stand out.  I mean, look at Steve Jobs. He was the obvious example of the unreasonable man.  He wasn’t part of the crowd; he was a maverick.  He expected the impossible and he often got it.  There’s an old saying: “To change the world all you need is an unreasonable man”.

There’s a book called “The Black Swan“, written by the international speaker Nassim Taleb.  Now, a black swan is an inventor or invention that is unreal, unusual, and appears to be random.  But, it – the black swan – completely changes the landscape and the status quo; so much so that things are never the same again.

The origin of the black swan was from the time in history when all swans were thought to be white (because all swans in Europe were white).  This thought prevailed until someone from Europe went to Australia and ‘discovered’ the black swans there.  Of course the discovery completely changed the previous volume of knowledge… the certainty that all swans were white.

There are so many obvious examples of black-swan events, like the 9/11 attacks, the Fukushima tsunami, and earthquake.  Even the global adoption of mobile phones is a kind of black swan thing.  People didn’t predict it, they didn’t expect to be quite so dramatic, and so profound in its impact.  The key thing about the black swan is the world will never be the same again; we can never go back to the way it used to be.

With that in mind, do you think that movements such as OWS (Occupy Wall Street) are Black Swan events?

I do.  I think that they are important events.  I think they’re also a symptom of a shift in mind-set.

There are a number of themes around this kind of thinking.  The first one is the rise of the individual.  One of the lessons from the future is that the individual becomes much more powerful than institutions, and corporations.  The individual has the power to connect, to communicate, to organise and to make big changes in society, and economies.

A more recent theme, which Niel (Jacobson) and I put together over the last year or so is called “Naked Leadership“.

Neil Jacobsohn

This theme has proved to be very popular with our clients in the last few months.  It looks at social media bringing about things like the Occupy movements, and the uprisings in Egypt, and Tunisia.  There are number of factors playing there: communication, the power of individuals, the transparency that people demand, and the fact that institutions, countries, governments, big businesses, and big brands, are no longer in control.

I wouldn’t like to predict where it’s going to, as it does change from day to day, but there is the argument that Occupy Wall Street is the manifestation of individuals demanding their rights, and their freedom.  On the other hand, there’s a feeling that this could be a kind of socialism which could subjugate individual desires of to those of ‘the group’.  Once the 99% are in power, where does the individual stand?

How very Ayn Rand-ian.

Exactly. It’s about individual rights being under threat.

Speaking of individuals, who inspires you as an Innovator?

One of the innovators who I truly, truly admire is a young chap called Elon Musk.  Elon is a multi-millionaire entrepreneurs living in California, but he is originally from South Africa. He helped found PayPal, which he sold for hundreds of millions of dollars.  He’s currently involved in three things: Tesla Motors (electric cars); SpaceX, his private company, which is the first private commercial company to launch a space craft into the atmosphere and orbit Earth; and, he’s also very interested in the concept of green energy.

Elon Musk

This year [2011] he was awarded half a million dollars for the Heinlein Prize, for ‘accomplishments in commercial space activities’ – which is no mean feat; and apparently (according to Wikipedia and Jon Favreau) he was the inspiration for Tony Stark, of the ‘Iron Man’ movies.

He’s an amazing guy.  And, it just shows you that innovation can come from strange places.  I think Elon epitomises what I consider to be a ‘Capital I’ Innovator.  At FutureWorld we talk about Radical Innovation, which think that ties into your view on “Capital I” innovation.


Radical Innovation creates new products, new businesses, new business units, and creates a steep difference in the performance of a company.  That’s one of the truths you learn from the future… to create radical innovation in your businesses and in your life.

Radical Innovation is about expecting and getting ready for what’s next…  the next big, radical, exponential increase.  Sometimes that means you have to kill off your old business to make room for your new one.

An example of that, of course, is the iPod.  Sony could have had the iPod years before Apple did, but they said: “No! It’s going to cannibalise our Walkman business”.  Of course it did; except Apple did it for them!

That’s just a typical example.  That’s one of the lessons from the future: eat yourself before someone else does.

Its about consistently, and continuously are editing yourself.  Very Darwinian.

Certainly radical innovation is all about taking risks and finding those opportunities that are going to be the next big thing, even if it does mean killing off existing things.

When we go to companies, we try and help them to engage in programs of radical innovation.  We say that they should look at using their existing businesses, which hopefully include some cash cows, to produce the revenue necessary to invest in risky ventures for the future.  It’s like taking some of your mature business lines and nurturing them, while at the same time pouring money into more risky things that may be the next radical businesses of the future.

As a futurist, do you have any thoughts or lessons to share for 2012; what do you think we should be looking out for?

Well the problem is that, for me, 2012 is almost yesterday.  We’re looking beyond 2020, because what’s going to happen next year is already old hat… it’s kind of discarded and even obvious.  The longer view is much more important and much more interesting.  Having said that, there are lots of thing that I expect, maybe not to happen, but to start becoming much more mainstream.

One of the things that I’ve been talking about for years is solar energy becoming cheaper and more efficient.  To the extent that, ultimately, it will probably dominate as a primal form of energy world-wide.  Now, there are many reasons why you might want to debate that, but it certainly seems to be emerging as highly probable.

I’ve got a blog where I talk about ‘The New Energy’.  Whether it’s solar, biofuel, bacteria [microbial fuel cell], genetically-modified organisms or organic waste [pyrolysis], I think it’s definitely in the future.  When?  I don’t know.  But the sooner the better as far as I’m concerned, because it will offer so many opportunities and solutions to problems that everyone assumes can only get worse.

This is the big thing about the future: futurists are very optimistic.  You have to be!

Image: Peter Griffin

I think we will see black swans in climate change, in energy, in communication, and all sorts of things.  I believe that the future beyond 2020 will be a bright future.

(Kim and Doug Skype’d from their homes in Sydney and Johannesburg.)

This is the last Innovation Interview of 2011. I’d like to take this opportunity, on behalf of Michael and myself, to thank all the Interesting, Insightful, and Inspiring ‘Capital I’ Innovators who have given their time so graciously and who’ve been so enthusiastic in becoming involved in the Innovation Interview Series this year.

We’d also like to send our thanks to the thousands of people who have joined us on this journey, as readers, supporters, commentors and influencers.

To all of you we wish a very happy holiday season and an Innovative 2012!