Leading From The Edge

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Interview with John Hagel


“As we begin to understand that the WE really is a global WE, we will need to rethink our institutions and our practices,” says John Hagel. In this interview John sides with a world of pull in which we define new institutions and practices – coming from the edge and moving forward in small but rapid steps towards, and within the framework of, a long term vision.


John Hagel III
… is an author and former McKinsey consultant who specializes in the intersection of business strategy and information technology. In 2007, Hagel, along with John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, founded the Deloitte LLP Center for the Edge. Hagel is also involved with a number of other organizations, including the World Economic Forum, Innovation Exchange with John Seely Brown and Henry Chesbrough, the International Academy of Management, and the Aspen Institute. He is credited with inventing the term “infomediary” in his book, NetWorth. with Marc Singer, published by the Harvard Business School Press in 1999.


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we_magazine:
John, to start with our WE-question: How has your understanding of WE changed since the rise of the internet? Has it changed?

John Hagel: I think it has changed in the sense of the opportunities available to expand on the notion of WE – to include anyone and anywhere. I think in the past when we talked about WE it was the WE in our local community, the WE in our corporation, the We in our country.

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But now there really is a global WE that is connected in very powerful and increasingly rich ways that make change happen much more effectively than ever before.

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we_magazine:
So you do relate WE closely to transformation and change?

John Hagel: Yes! I definitely do! Our institutions were all built around much narrower versions of WE.

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And I think that as we begin to understand that the WE really is a global WE, we will need to rethink our institutions and our practices.

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we_magazine:
In one of your articles you mentioned that you can only be a leader by creating leaders … what do you mean by this? When we look at companies, many of them structured in strict hierarchies … how can everybody be or become a leader?

John Hagel: I think one of the challenges we have is to really redefine leadership. We’ve talked about the notion of moving from a world of push to a world of pull – unfortunately most of our institutions are organized around push concepts. And in that context if you’re a leader you’re measured by the number of your followers – the number of people who will follow your direction, your instructions and execute what your vision is. I think that this form of leadership is increasingly challenged because today – in a more rapidly changing world – if you just have followers, you don’t have a lot of innovation and experimentation going on to figure out what is the best way to adapt to the unexpected changes we are experiencing. So I do believe that the new role of leadership is to develop other leaders, to continually enhance the leadership capability of anyone who is drawn to them. So that all of them together – collectively – can experiment, innovate and find more effective ways of addressing the changes that are going on around us.

we_magazine:
But is this what we really see inside companies? Or is it more wishful thinking?

John Hagel (laughing): It’s certainly not widespread at this point in time! I think you’ll find this kind of leadership emerging in certain parts of companies. Mainly on the edges I would say. These tend to be the areas where there aren’t very effective policies, no detailed manuals written on how things need to get done. There is “free space” which can be filled by individuals who simply take action. I think there’s an instinctive sense on the part of leaders on these edges that they need people who are willing to take their own initiative, willing to lead in their own domain and cultivate this new kind of leadership capacity. Because that’s the only way to be really successful on these edges.

we_magazine:
You suggest that companies should move on in small steps rather than have some big master plan … How does this affect leadership?

John Hagel: I think that the challenge of leadership and its great opportunity is on the one hand to make sense and on the other to make progress. One of the things people look for in times of great uncertainty and change is somebody who can help them make sense of all this. Somebody who can see the pattern and help to guide and focus on where the real opportunities are. That’s one level of leadership. The other level is to make progress. In terms of making progress in a very rapidly changing environment – typically if you develop a detailed blueprint it’s massive – that blueprint will be rapidly shown to be a total mismatch given the unexpected changes that have happened.

A far more effective process for this kind of environment is to start with small changes, small moves that go in the most interesting or high potential parts of the environment, parts where you can demonstrate the impact of change and where you can learn very quickly.

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So one of the roles of a leader – I believe – is continuingly encouraging people to reflect on the experiences they have had.

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One of the things we tend not to do – particularly under more and more time pressure – is we never step back and say: How did we do? What did we learn from that experience? What worked? What didn’t work? And I think leadership in small moves smartly made is much quicker in encouraging this kind of reflection and learning. We learn faster when we make these small moves …

we_magazine:
But then we need the processes and tools which enable and support this kind of reflection, don’t we?

John Hagel: I think we certainly need tools. But I’d say that more than processes we need practices – if I can make that distinction. A process is very tightly defined and tightly integrated. I think practices are something you would do instinctively at different points in time. One of the things we’ve learned from the World of Warcraft – this amazing online gaming environment – is the degree to which teams in games sit back and reflect on the various actions they’ve taken. This is a very powerful way to learn – and this is something a leader ought to be encouraging everyone to do.

we_magazine:
Do you think that playing World of Warcraft is a good exercise for becoming a great leader?

John Hagel (laughing): Well, I have actually gone on record as encouraging younger students to consider whether they should go to business schools or become guild leaders in World of Warcraft. Actually there are an increasing number of executives around who rose to where they are now because they were guild leaders and developed a set of leadership skills in a very uncertain, very challenging environment where you don’t have command and control kinds of mechanisms – where you have to influence, you have to motivate people to do things. And that is indeed a very powerful set of skills – increasingly so in the business world.

we_magazine:
Besides your arguments for these tiny little steps, you want to see a clear vision from a leader. Where will the company be in 20 years? Isn’t that a contradiction?

John Hagel: It’s a potential contradiction. But it can be resolved. I think the danger in small steps is you can fall into a very incremental pattern and never really change what you are doing in any fundamental way. You just marginally enhance your current set of activities. If you have a long term vision, however, then you can make short-term choices about these small steps and if needed adjust them to achieve your long-term vision. So it’s working from the outside in as opposed to just saying what do I have today, where can I move in a short period of time. And once again it sets in motion that learning process. Because as you take these small steps – depending on their outcomes – it will help you to refine your view of the long term future. Yet on the other hand the long term future helps you to evaluate which of the small steps are going to be most helpful …

we_magazine:
So this long-term vision is a kind of frameset …

John Hagel: Exactly. It’s part of that ‘making sense’ aspect of leadership. If you can say, yes, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world but generally we are headed towards the long-term vision, then this direction has implications for what we need to be doing in the short term in order to be successful. This gives the organization, the people who are engaged with you, a much clearer sense of why they are taking these small steps, and where they could lead. And again it drives that learning process.

we_magazine:
Doesn’t this prove your saying “flow instead of stock”?

John Hagel: Yes. It just highlights another aspect of leadership that often gets overlooked. Particularly in our current institutions we tend to think of leadership within the institution: how do you motivate within the institution, within the company? In this new world where flows are becoming more and more central, where flows cut across institutions, I increasingly think the role of a leader is to identify potential leaders outside the institution who could help in making sense and making progress. A leader creates an environment where they can connect in a much more effective way than people can just in their own institutions. We need to go across institutions and create a much larger movement …

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