Interview by Mike Parker
“We’re at the front-end of a giant technological wave, which doesn’t just change our processes, but will change the whole nature of work for huge factions of society.”
Nancy Giordano is a noted Strategic Futurist, TEDxYouth organizer, well known public speaker, mom of three and tireless supporter of those seeking to find their way through the maze that is modern life. I managed to catch up with Nancy in between a string of tightly scheduled meetings and calls.
I know that you’re deeply motivated to help organizations make profound changes, from discussions we have had in the past, the videos of some of your talks as well as a shared interest in the development of the ‘Relationship Economy’.
So can I ask you, do you see major change as being inevitable and essential to organizations the world over, both commercial and non-commercial?
Yes, absolutely. There is no doubt. There is no other course.
Right. And that’s because of the hugely rapidly changing circumstances in which they’re all operating?
We’re at the front-end of a giant technological wave, which doesn’t just change our processes, but will change the whole nature of work for huge factions of society. It will affect who works, how they work, where they work and what they do. This further impacts education which impacts households and it just goes on and on.
There’s a domino effect about to hit us that we are unaware of.
How unaware would you say we are? Largely unaware or completely unaware?
I would say pretty much completely unaware.
Even the people who are aware of the technology that’s coming don’t necessarily have a sense of the full ramifications of what is to come or all the places that it will touch. From what I see, there are those who understand pockets of it such as all the good thinking being done on the future of work and the ethical uses of artificial intelligence. Some are thinking about workforce strategies, others about vulnerable populations and income inequality.
I think that technology will create tremendous upsides in our lives. I’m also very optimistic about what’s possible with these technology changes. But if we don’t also accompany these changes with a real and open understanding of their implications for society, we will have a lot more pain before we can get to the benefits.
And those conversations need to be about the systemic impacts?
Yes. We must be willing to question what we have held as true for a very, very long time about what the nature of work is and its role in people’s lives. We have built, in the West, anyway, a very narrow view of what our value is on this planet, and we associate it directly with paid work for others. And this work is done in a narrowly prescribed way.
And the prescribed way isn’t working anymore. We’re seeing millennials pushing back on our workforce practices and current organizations struggling with whether or not people should have unlimited vacation time or come into the office vs working remotely.
We’re still working on tiny, little changes when there’s big, huge shifts coming about whether or not people will be skilled enough to actually take on the work of the future. Or whether or not there will be work (as we know it) in the future.
I always used to think how trivial it was whenever I had to go and ask, “Is it okay if I work from home, today?”
It’s still a conversation in many corporate settings, Mike. Managers are focused here instead of on a much bigger questions about how we continue to create meaningful, ethical work and ensure folks are well trained and well supported in taking this on.
I think that people just aren’t thinking about it systemically. We’re not yet willing to question whether or not the system that we’ve created is still going to hold moving forward, even though it actually isn’t really holding people well right now. People are so worried about the future of work when 70% of the people who are doing the work today are dissatisfied with it.
It’s as if we want to hold on to something that we aren’t actually pleased by.
Some great articles have been written recently about the bullshit jobs that we’ve created so that people can feel as though they are busy. But the reality is many don’t believe their work really matters. Or that it’s actually pushing anything forward. Or that it’s going to hold for any length of time.
I think that people recognize that there is a conscious and unconscious reality. “I need to go to work. I need to do this thing.” But unconsciously, we don’t feel very safe and certainly not satisfied.
“Is all of this a purely corporate issue or challenge? Or isn’t it larger that that?”
Though I still think about it a lot from a corporate perspective, I also think about it from a youth perspective. How does all this affect teenagers? What is the narrative that they’re getting about the future? How confident are their parents? How comfortable are they in their education preparing them well for the future? And what is the path they will follow into the future?
We see a tremendous increase in anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide among youth. We should be completely freaked out. If you use this as a litmus test for what the future is going to look like, it’s a little scary.
So, I keep trying to talk about the fact that we’re in a place of radical complexity and radical change. And thus, we need to have a radical openness of mind, which you only get to with a radical openness of heart.
We have to get to a place where we’re willing to suspend the belief that we already know everything. Only when we are confident in our ability to manage ambiguity can we ever hope to manage change. Because if we don’t think we are capable of managing this ambiguity, then we can’t help but project this insecurity to our children and to society at large.
That is almost an answer to the next question that I was going to ask you, which is how do leaders changing their own mindset play into this kind of change?
I’m struggling a little bit with the concept of “leaders” these days. I prefer to talk about leadering — a term I picked up from Peter van der Auwera. We assume that “leadership” is a static thing and that once you’ve kind of locked it in, it is set. You’ve “arrived”. We also been taught to outsource this role to a few people “at the top” who are responsible for leadership in our organizations.
When really, we are all leadering and we’re all making decisions every day that affect the course of our lives and that of our teams, partners, customers, and other stakeholders. And increasingly, I might be the “leader” of one team and while simultaneously also being in a supporting role on another team, because we’re working on simultaneous projects collaboratively. Leadering is about being more adaptive and more dynamic in our thinking.
When we are leadering, having a flexible mindset is critical.
In terms of the individual, we have to hold ourselves in a way that other people feel that they can trust us and that we feel confident in what we’re doing. We have to show that we are willing to give and to share. When I work with teams where this is not the case, we are left with a growing sense of insecurity, that sense of “Oh, my gosh. I don’t know if I trust myself.” Which then shuts down all capacity to be able to support and collaborate with others. We become entirely worried about preventing people from finding out what we don’t know, or there’s this insecurity around what we do.
At one point I was helping to hire people for an AI company. We wanted to hire those who’d been through the fire — maybe they had gotten divorced or had battled an illness or decided to take three months off and travel through China, just to find themselves. We needed people who had that capacity to get through something tough and know that they could survive it. To not find ambiguity and pivots threatening, because that was clearly what our company was going to go through as it grew and took shape.
To be be fair, it wasn’t so much that they had to go through fire, but that they had to have somehow developed a keen sense of self-awareness. To be willing to look at themselves and understand where their edges were — to be ok pushing themselves to a place of discomfort.
Interesting. One of the things that I’ve thought for a long time is how do we prepare children for a future where they are able to embrace working differently and with mindfulness from kindergarten onward.
It’s funny that you say that. I’ve got this little lab I call my TEDxYouth team. And we practice exactly that. When I went to the AI company, I used a lot of the stuff that I’d learned on the TEDx team, but mindfulness is actually something we have not yet brought to the team. That would actually a cool thing to do with these teens.
Can I ask what the terms values and higher purpose mean to you? I hear them being spoken about in the context of changing organizations quite a lot. Do you see these as being core to the development of successful and fulfilling organizations?
I started my practice more than a decade ago with the idea of value-centric branding. So, I brought values into the conversation really early. Values are the beliefs around which we make decisions. If I believe this, I’m more willing to do that. And if an organization doesn’t have a clear sense of what its values are, it ends up making very transactional decisions that are anything but cohesive, coherent or congruent.
When I began my advertising career, decision-making was simpler; we had lots of “best practices” to share and learn as we each became proficient at replicating and scaling historical success. But then things shifted — more channels, more choices, the internet, TIVO, “new media”, social media, mobile — the list goes on and on. So as decisions become more complex, we have to become navigators (vs replicators) and therefore what guides us in making these decisions in an understanding of who we are and what really matters to us. So, yes, I do think values are really critical, both individually and as an organization.
I think “higher purpose” is an interesting phrase. We were hired by a large restaurant chain to help them find their purpose. And it felt like this weirdly ephemeral thing that we were looking for … as opposed to instead framing it as identifying a societal role in which they are contributing, not just extracting value.
So, we talked a lot about value creation versus value extraction.
I think that to create value you have to hold the belief that you have some role on this planet. And to ensure that it is relevant, you need to understand what the future needs and expects of you and then pay attention to what you are in a unique position to create and contribute to that future. My goal is to help organizations understand both of these things.
So, if that’s called purpose, that’s great. But in our work, we’ve found this to be highly contextual and connected to one’s belief of what the world looks like now. Said another way, if you still believe the world is flat and I see the world as round, I’m gonna suggest a purpose that’s different from what you might think is your purpose.
As such, “purpose” becomes a term that we can easily get tripped up on. But if we think about what it is that really creates value in a unique way, I think purpose is a hugely important center of gravity — like the spine of an organization.
So, you’re the founder of Play Big and you’re a public speaker. You are a mom. You do stuff with TEDx. Life’s gotta be super duper busy. Is there any such thing as a typical day? What does it look like for you, a day?
There is no such thing as a typical day, but it’s interesting that we started talking about the future of work.
I have four roles on the planet, only one of which is paid. And I would argue that the other three roles are probably more valuable to society: raising three happy and healthy children, creating these TEDx events that really empower a significant number of teens and getting to meet a lot of people and help them with their journeys.
Every year I pick a guiding theme for myself and last year was “get real”. That theme totally kicked my ass. It was not a fun one to focus on, honestly, but as part of this, I actually did the calendar math and realized there are only X amount of hours that exist in a year. And if I want to sleep X hours and if I want to take a vacation and spend quality time with my children, I have to pull those hours out first.
And then I started to look at how much is left for paid work? For learning? For volunteer efforts like TEDx? I also realized how much I spend in a conversation with Jerry Michalski or with thoughtful colleagues like you that I didn’t include in my calculation of “work” hours. That time has to come from somewhere. And usually, it’s funded by me not sleeping. Fortunately I don’t need eight hours — I’m a four to five hour gal — but on many nights i was only getting two to three hours sleep, which clearly is not good. This was a big epiphany and I addressed it in part by confidently raising my speaking and consulting rates to include the time I invest in learning since this is critical to my ability to deliver. (I also decided to make 2017 the year of “nourishment”. Ahhh!) 😉
But even with all that self reflection and time auditing, there is still a big stressor I’m facing in learning how to take effectively take on “more”. Right now I have huge stack of reading to do and at least ten emails that I owe people that I haven’t responded to, like yours. Like a world class cardiologist who is finding it hard to practice “health care” in a system designed to compensate “sick care”. Like the guys who’ve invited me to help start the “Global Synthesists Network”. Or the team from ASSET battling labor trafficking and the CEO of a thriving incubator focused on underrepresented entrepreneurs who both want to talk about growth strategies. Or the three new folks that just moved to Austin and want to say, “Hi!”. None of these are classically “paid” projects but all are things I WANT to be a part of… I just, frankly, don’t know (yet) how to make time for new/more input.
Finally, last question. If there’s one piece of advice that you would give to organizations wanting to move towards a new, more complete kind of organization, something like but not limited to or bound to the idea of Teal, what would that be?
There’s a great quote from Mark Twain that I use in my talks. He says, “You can’t trust your judgment if you imagination’s out of focus.”
I don’t think people spend enough time nurturing their imagination. So, that would be number one. Because I think when you stoke your imagination, your curiosity, you start to see connections. You start to say, “Oh, that’s actually kind of cool.” and get excited about what is possible.
And the second piece of advice would be to nurture the relationships that allow you to build the capacity for action.This means taking the time to have lunch with someone. Taking the time to have a call like you and I are having. Taking the time to reach out to go to a provocative conference or community event. While fun (and quite nourishing), investing time this way also allows us to build the network that makes it possible to learn, grow and actually go do the stuff we want to do, because building the new is often so much bigger than any one of us can take on alone. It requires so much support.
I don’t think most organizations value either of those two things enough. So, I think that they are cutting off two vital lifelines for people.
If I was going to add something else, I think I would add compassion. I think there’s a lot that we are holding individuals accountable for that is actually more systemic — and Isee people feeling very overwhelmed by that. And they aren’t being compassionate with themselves, either. And then they aren’t very compassionate with others, even their customers. When a customer calls and is frustrated or upset, recognize that just like us, they also have a bunch of stuff that’s being piled onto them. Our customers are trying to see us as a solution!
So, to the extent that we can have a little more grace around all of that, I think that would be super helpful. And then, if I’m going to use another C word, I do think consciousness matters — taking time to integrate all the stuff that’s going on around us.
I often see big gaps between what we preach and then how we hold people in it. We ask people to be collaborative while they work in big, high cubicles. Or the technology and tools they are using aren’t in any way helping them do that. There’s very little or no training or coaching that helps support them. I see many organizations where infrastructure isn’t aligned with shifting demands and expectations and I can see the stress it creates. So, I think we’re putting too much pressure on the individual and we’re not thinking enough about what is going on in the organization itself. So I would look for all the places inside an organization that are not congruent.
Same thing with incentives. We ask people to do this but we incentivize that, either financially or socially. We ask people to be on the front edge, but if they want to go to a conference that has to do with learning the potential but not the application, people think that’s a waste of resources. They classify it as “personal development”, not “professional development”.
To put it simply, I think that we’re not inviting and supporting people to be as curious, connected, compassionate or in many ways more conscious as they will need to be as things continue to shift dramatically
Right. How can we expect to create the kind of immensely synthetical multidisciplinary people that we’re going to need to be able to comprehend the emerging future if we don’t actually give them the means to be able to do so right now? We appear to just want to carry on trying to squish them into a matrix, which was created from a managerial system, which is over a hundred years old.
I touched on this briefly earlier, but as I see it, we are moving from an age of replication to the age of navigation. We were taught to be replicators, which is: if we understand the handbook and are able to do it more efficiently, we will be able to grow consistently and at scale. This was the objective throughout the 80’s and 90’s. That’s how McDonald’s and The Gap and Starbucks and everything grew.
Only the reality is that we’re now moving to a place of constant innovation. And the only way to do that is to become a navigator. The skill-sets that someone needs to be a navigator versus a replicator are really different, but our infrastructure is still set up to be really good at producing replicators. Changing that means, again, that you would have flex time, you would have certain technologies and you would incentivize completely different things.
We built a whole conference last year to introduce C Suite leaders to the seven technologies that are going to change business: artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, etc. We had a great crowd of people and yet we heard time and again that they were having a hard time convincing their co-workers that this was an important event to attend because people saw it as personal development. It wasn’t about replication. It wasn’t “applied.” How to do AI on Monday. How to build a 3D network today. And I was stunned because as you and I know, that’s not how this — transformative change — works.
We need to be encouraging our people to scout and explore the future and ensuring they have the resources and support to do so. Things are happening so fast and so much is piling on people, people can’t do this in their personal time.
I’d like to elaborate on another thing that could be interesting in this context: as I mentioned, I am connected to a group in the Midwest starting the Global Synthesist Network. It’s part think tank, consultancy and a community for like-minded thinking. We also want to become a SWAT team called in to help tackle really big problems by encouraging people to think more broadly, to better connect the dots and to look at things more holistically because of what you just said, “The problems and the opportunities continue to become more complex.”
Our visibility into the problems must become wider. We can’t wrap our arms around it if we continue to come at it with a narrow point of view. We need to see and play bigger.
That’s brilliant. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to share these views and just some of the initiatives you are active with