Leadership In Disrupted Times: Becoming Better Leaders In A Global Crisis With Charlene Li

by | May 7, 2020 | Podcasts

SWGR 521 | The Disruption Mindset


How can we exercise leadership in these unusual times and incorporate team beliefs and culture in different set-ups? On today’s show, Elizabeth Bachman chats with Charlene Li about becoming better leaders. Charlene is an expert in digital transformation, leadership, customer experience, and the future of work. She is also the author of The Disruption Mindset, a book about developing a disruptive mindset that permeates every aspect of the organization. Join Elizabeth and Charlene as they talk about her book and how we can lead in the face of daunting uncertainties.

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Leadership In Disrupted Times: Becoming Better Leaders In A Global Crisis With Charlene Li

Charlene Li, the author of The Disruption Mindset, talks about becoming better leaders in the face of daunting uncertainties.

This is the show where we interview experts from around the world on how we can use presentation skills to move our readers to take action. I’m a presentation skills trainer, but I know there’s much more behind that leadership visibility. What is it that has you step out and be a presenter, whether you’re presenting on stage or in a meeting or to one influential person? There are hundreds of tools and strategies that we can use. Before we begin, I’d like to invite you to take our free assessment at www.SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. It takes about three minutes and that’s where you can see where your presentation skills are strong and where you might want a little bit of support.

Our guest is Charlene Li, who is one of my favorite people. She is super smart and interesting. I first interviewed her in December of 2019 and due to some technical complications, we didn’t get a chance to broadcast it right away. We don’t know what’s coming up and I thought that Charlene would be the perfect person to interview. This is in two parts. We have the original episode about Leadership and Disruption Mindset, and then a bonus episode about how we can look at leadership nowadays in the scary situation that we find ourselves in.

Charlene Li, for the past two decades, has been helping people see the future. She’s an expert on digital transformation, leadership, customer experience and the future of work. She’s the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller, Open Leadership, and co-author of the critically acclaimed book, Groundswell. Her latest book is the bestseller, The Disruption Mindset. She’s the Founder and Senior Fellow at Altimeter, a disruptive analyst firm acquired in 2015 by Prophet. Named one of the most creative people in business by Fast Company, Charlene is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School. You’re going to read two parts of this. When I say thank you and goodbye the first time, stay with us because we have the second part of the interview following right after that.

I am delighted to have you here. This is the show where we talk about how we present ourselves as leaders, as speakers and how we use what we know, our presentation skills in order to get the results that we want. If you’re going to present yourself, how do you present yourself in a way that gets your listeners to do what you want them to do? Whether you’re in a meeting or doing a keynote speech, speaking to promote your company or speaking to promote your services. It’s all presentation skills and the cool part is there are hundreds of years of tools that we can use to make our presentations better, to learn more. Before we start, I’d like to invite you to go over to our free assessment, www.SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. You could take the quick assessment and you can see where your presentation skills are strong and where maybe you could use a little support. I am excited to invite the amazing, wonderful, stunning and smart, Charlene Li. Welcome to the show, Charlene.

Thank you for having me here.

I’m excited to have you here. I’ve been following you for some time and we met a little over a year ago and we’re part of a similar group. I was rather awestruck by all the things that you have done. Charlene is the Principal Analyst at Altimeter, which is a Prophet company and she’s one of the foremost experts on business and technology. She’s got deep knowledge of leadership strategy, interactive media and marketing, which makes her an indispensable ally in a rapidly evolving marketplace. She’s the author of six bestsellers, The Disruption Mindset. Before starting Altimeter, Charlene was a Vice President and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research. She’s worked in online newspaper publishing and she was a consultant with the Monitor Group. She was also named one of the Top 50 Leadership Innovators by Inc. and one of 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company. She’s also frequently quoted in by leading media channels such as The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today. She’s even been on 60 Minutes, which is my family’s favorite Sunday night program, and many others. Charlene, I am thrilled to have you with us. I ask everybody this question. Who would be your dream interview? If you could be on stage to interview somebody from history, who would it be and what would you talk about?

The person who I grew up who was my hero in many ways is a woman by the name of Helen Keller. She was born in Alabama in the late 1800s. When she was three, she got a horrible fever and became blind and deaf. Imagine living in a world where you can’t hear or see anything and the most basic ways to communicate and connect with the world have gone. She got a teacher who at a point when she was about ten years old, connected with her finally. The whole world opened up to her with language and connection. She went on to get a Bachelor’s degree. She was the first deaf and blind person to go and get a degree in college. She went to Radcliffe and became a public speaker, suffragist and activist. I like her story because when you think about all the things that are allied against you, all the obstacles you have to overcome, she overcame some of the most debilitating disabilities and it never stopped her. I would love to be able to interview her.

It is important to understand how you leverage technology and harness its power. Click To Tweet

What would you ask her about then?

“How did you keep going? Not only did you keep going, but you also went above and beyond what even anybody else was doing.” Doing it at a time when women were not seen as leaders, not seen as having permission to go out there and do this. None of those stopped her from being able to go do all of these things. What kept her going because it must have been hard?

This is interesting because I’ve been asking this question about everybody, and over and over people would say, “I’d like to interview so and so about how she kept going.” Mostly, if you’re interviewing women, “How did you keep going?” Steven Kirch, one of our guests, wanted to interview Gandhi and he said, “Gandhi, how did you keep going?” There’s something to be said about putting one foot in front of the other and keeping going. That’s going to be great. I would be in the audience for that one. I would love to hear that.

The second question was, “How did she think big?” That is the other question that I usually ask people, “What gave you that ambition? How did you think that it was even possible to go to college? How did you think that you could go onto the world stage and make a difference in the world? Why did you think it could be you? How did you pick yourself?” It’s something in particular that I wonder for myself and I encourage other women in particular or people early in their careers is, “How do you think big? How do you play bigger than where you are comfortable? How do you reach for promotions? How do you have ambitions more than anybody has ever said you have permission to do?” When we are encouraging ourselves and the people around us, the people we are nurturing and developing to think bigger, constantly thinking bigger, they will achieve bigger things.

That’s great, which leads me to my next question. You have published your sixth book called The Disruption Mindset. It’s about disrupting and all about leadership. My first question is, you and I are both in Northern California. We’re around the whole Silicon Valley thing. Maybe it’s the Silicon Valley bubble. Why is disruption such a big thing? Why do we want to disrupt things? Why can’t we stick with the tried and true? Do we have to throw everything out to be disruptive?

In Silicon Valley, we have this distinct way of thinking about disruption as a new technology, out with the old, in with the new. I think about it in a different way. I think of disruption as what happens when you grow quickly and everybody wants to grow. What if you could grow, not X next year, but 2X, what would it take?

Not everyone is a Silicon Valley speaker here. What do you mean by X or 2X?

If you plan on growing 10% next year, a decent rate. For some industries, it’s high. What would it take to grow twice as much of that 20x? If you’re a nonprofit, you wanted to go raise $1 million for the funding for the things that you want to support, what would it take to raise $2 million? When I ask people this question, they go, “I know exactly what I would do but it would be incredibly hard and disruptive. I would have to do everything differently.” What I found is that people oftentimes are looking for some disruption in order to drive growth. The reality is that growth itself is disruptive. When you think about growing a lot, we stepped back away from that because that would be too much. It’ll be too hard. This is not about looking for disruption for disruption’s sake. When somebody goes, “Could we do things the same as we normally do?” I’m like, “Sure. If you don’t want to grow, if you don’t want to serve more people, have more impact, do more things and create more opportunities, go for it.” That’s completely your prerogative, but if you want to do things that have a greater impact, have a strong embark in the place in the world, serve more customers, whatever the word growth means. It’s going to take a lot of effort and I can guarantee you it’s not going to be easy.

SWGR 521 | The Disruption Mindset

The Disruption Mindset: Think about communications as a tool every single time you open your mouth.


This is having an honest discussion around, “What does it take to grow? What does it take to be more than just innovative?” Let’s have an honest discussion because in many ways when we talk about being innovative, we want it to be easy. We want it to be smooth, not causing any problems, not going to get gray hair. I think that’s a false promise. Those innovations are incremental. If you want to do big things, create a big splash, create a big change, have a big impact, it’s going to be disruptive. The reason why it’s disruptive is that when you do these things, it changes the balance of power in relationships. It changes the power with your customers. Customers are causing you to be more disruptive because they’re demanding more or you may be asking them to do more.

It’s disruptive inside your organization because the normal way you do things or being completely upended inside an organization now. Who does what? Who has power? Who has control? Who has decision making? Who has data and information changes in organizations? That’s disruptive until you can find a new normal. It could also be disrupting the relationships you have inside an ecosystem or an industry. Thinking about new industries that you may be going into. All of those things are highly disruptive and that’s what happens when change and growth happens.

Disruption is a big word in Silicon Valley. Is this an American attitude of everything needs to be new or do you find this around the world?

I find this around the world. I speak around the world constantly working with clients and people want to know, “What’s new? How do I get better? What’s the new technology or idea or business practice I need to be aware of so that I can stay on top of things?” It’s human nature to want to go and improve ourselves, do better, have a bigger impact, learn and grow. People want to hear what’s new and that’s why it’s called new. In some ways, it’s all the new things. I also think that in Silicon Valley, we have this huge way of thinking about it from only primarily a technology point of view. As somebody who has been a technology analyst for years, I can tell you with great confidence, it’s almost never about the technology. The technology is important. It is important to understand how you leverage it, how you harness the power but in many cases, it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people. People don’t use the technology. They don’t understand how to use and how it’s changing the relationships, you’re not going to get any results.

This is a perfect lead to my next question then, which is if you are not the founder of your company if you’re not the CEO and you want to be able to use this disruptive mindset. When I was reading your book, I was thinking, “It’s another word for doing something about your pet peeves. The things that annoy you.” It’s like, “Let’s fix this.” How can we as leaders use the lessons from your book or any of your other books to show up and then show up in a way that we can lead well and convince people to willingly do what we ask them to do?

The core strategy of a disruptive organization I found in my research is to focus on future customers. It’s one thing to be customer-centric, customer-obsessed and be thinking about customers but you have to be thinking about the right set of customers. It’s not the customers of now only, it’s the customer of the future because that’s how you set your strategy. You’re thinking about what you’re going to have to do in order to achieve something in the future to serve these customers in the future. If everything you’re doing is for the customers now, you’ll be meeting those needs six months from now but those customers have moved on. How do you think about making the customers now for the future?

As a leader who’s not a top setting strategy, I was talking to some individual contributors. They were two women out of college going, “We see so much change that has to happen. We’re not even leaders and managers in our organization. How can we make an impact?” I said simply this, “Leaders are people who see an opportunity for change to make things for the better.” That’s all it takes. You don’t need a title to be a leader. If you can make and frame what you’re trying to change or think needs to happen in the context of serving your customers and in particular our future emerging customers, then people will listen. If you say, “We should do something different because we should be doing something different.” That’s not valid, but you can root it in a common view of the customer.

Draw that other person in to say, “Can we agree that this customer is important?” “Yes.” “Can we agree that this is a need that’s emerging from this customer?” “Yes.” “Let’s take a look at how we’re set up to meet those needs. We see a gap. How can we close that gap?” That’s a way to bring people in a way that holds you accountable, not to some unknown thing that’s out there or power dynamics and politics inside of the organization, but to the most important element and part of your ecosystem, which is your customer. You don’t have them, you’ve got no business. You have no organization.

You cannot be vulnerable unless you feel safe. Click To Tweet

That’s a way that no matter who we are, whether we’re entrepreneurs or whether we’re working within an organization, we can show up as future thinking. Thinking about future customers and leading. The more you lead, the more you show up and the more visible you are, the more you are likely to move up towards being a CEO or move up be promoted in your career because people are going to want to work with you if you’re a leader. Are there rules for women versus men? A lot of my work is helping women be heard within organizations. Sometimes it means helping them speak up and often it’s about, once you’re speaking up, how can you get people to listen to you? The rules are different for men or women. How do you phrase this? How do you deal with this?

I go back to one key statistic that I saw and that women will raise their hands, ask for the promotion, go for a job and start a company when they feel 100% ready. Men will do that when they’re 60% ready or something even less. We’ve seen this all the time. Somebody will speak up in a meeting, typically a man, and we’re like, “What are you talking about?” They’re making no sense and people ignore them and they keep going but he spoke in the meeting. How does he think that saying something that isn’t well-formulated would make a difference? At least she’s jabbering along and women will do the opposite. We will wait until we have completely formulated the idea and the concept and are pretty sure that it’s going to be acceptable and wait for the right moment and then the meeting is over.

I talked to somebody and she goes, “I would love to start a company, I need to do a few things to get ready.” I’m like, “What do you need to do?” She was like, “I need to take care of a few personal things.” I go, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, are those personal things like health or family or their skills and capabilities?” She goes, “Skills and capabilities.” I’m like, “You don’t need them. Just go and do it. If it’s a matter of your confidence, let’s go talk about that.” She goes, “I need to think about this.” I go, “You just thought about it.”

I wish I’d known you when I was 25 because I think about the years that I wasted needing to be perfect, ready, certain that I knew what to do and not seeing where I was bumping into glass ceilings, things like that instead of stepping forward.

I did not do this myself. I kept doing entrepreneurial things inside of companies, but I didn’t start to learn until I was 42. I’m one of those late bloomers too as well. One of the issues that I found, even then, because I didn’t know what I was doing and made a huge amount of mistakes. I’m still learning along the way, but now I’m much more comfortable winging it. It’s a mess and I’m comfortable with things being a mess. It’s total chaos. My team’s going like, “What the heck?” I’m like, “I’m figuring it out as we go along.” I have a team of all women by coincidence working with me and I’m encouraging them, “Don’t try to make it perfect, just send it back. Let’s go launch it and see what happens.”

It’s one of those things where, “I wish somebody had told me this earlier in my career that they could see myself hesitating from doing that.” It’s a major reason why I decided to go to Harvard Business School versus other business schools because much of the grade and your success are based on your ability to speak up in a classroom of 90 other hard-charging MBA students. I could not have imagined a more supportive environment to try that. I was lucky in my section to have people who would be highly supportive of it, understood that when somebody was having problems, is articulating themselves, and would cheer for them after they opened a case. It was a great place to be able to practice. Being unsure, not confident and faking it until you make it is something I learned.

That’s another thing that women wait until they know what they’re doing and then you get passed over. That’s a useful thing which brings me to courage. You have a concept in The Disruption Mindset called the Big Gulp. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Many times, when you’re having to make a big decision, do something highly disruptive. It feels awful. You know how much is at stake and you’ve done all the preparations. Finally, in the end, you take a deep breath, big gulp and then jump. It’s the most terrifying thing. I talked to many people who go, “It was hard but once I did it, it felt great.” I rarely hear people say, “I did this big step and it was awful. It was a big mistake.” What I oftentimes hear from people is that even if it didn’t turn out well, they’re glad they did it, they’re glad in hindsight that they had that opportunity to go and stretch themselves, try to push the envelope, didn’t work out but I learned a lot and now I’m doing something different. My life has not failed.

SWGR 521 | The Disruption Mindset

The Disruption Mindset: Disruption is what happens when you grow really quickly.


That’s what it feels like oftentimes like, “What would happen if we fail?” In some of the cases, I talked about with businesses and made these huge bets, but they got there by making lots of little bets and feeling better. They were prepared to make that big gulp decision. It didn’t happen overnight. They trained themselves to do this. For us as leaders, it’s a preparation for those days when we’re going to have to make big gulp decisions and when we don’t have all the information. We’re not 100% sure and we’re going to have to take that big gulp and make that decision and hope for the best. We’ve done everything to prepare for it and there are no guarantees.

You talked a little bit about setting up a structure so that when you do take the big gulp or the big step into the unknown, it’s not out of nowhere.

What I found with these disruptive organizations is that they were incredibly well-run. They have strong organizations and structures and that gave them a lot of scaffolding and support. I think about it from a leadership perspective that when you’re making a big gulp decision, you’re putting yourself in a vulnerable space and you cannot be vulnerable unless you feel safe. One of the ideas here is that you come into your leadership potential when you are vulnerable because then you’re showing and modeling the way for everybody else to say, “This is hard. I don’t have all the answers.” The way that we’re going to move forward together is to do this together. That’s what enabled a lot of these organizations to take that big gulp. They were all in together. They went around the table. I’ll be all in with those, any objections. We know what the risks are and we’re going to take it.

Have a structure.

The structure, the buy-in and the process. I’m a big believer in this horrific workout governance and anytime I say the word, governance, you start cringing, but it’s the organizational structure, the decision-making processes and how information flows inside an organization. Good governance allows you to be more disruptive. It’s counterintuitive because of a good structure, a good process that is there to lay back foundation, you don’t have to worry about how things are going to get done. You just get it done and then you can take all of your energy, pushing hard against that governance structure and jumping high. You create it through jumping off of the sand. You can’t jump very hard with sand. That’s what it feels like when you don’t have a firm foundation of organization, process and governance. You have to spend so much energy pushing against your organization.

How can you do that if you’re not on the board of trustees or something if you are within an organization? How does that translate to structure within your team, for instance, or within your department?

Within your sphere of influence, you can set up organization structure, you can set up process. How do you work together? What are the beliefs and the behaviors you want to see amongst each other that are going to help us focus on that customer? Make sure that we are leaders at the moment and make sure that our beliefs and our culture within our team is the way we want to do it. I was sitting down even with CEOs and they were like, “We don’t have the right culture for disruption.” You’re the CEO. Who do you look into helping you set the culture? The board? Who else? We throw up our hands and say, “We can’t do anything about this.” This is why I keep going back to that discussion like, “If you can, who is going to? Why are you waiting?”

One of the most interesting beliefs of disruptive organizations is this belief of agency that every single person has the power to act, believe and behave like an owner. That you own this strategy, you own our values and our mission. You personally own this and you were hired and brought in to achieve that purpose. If you understand that and you understand the strategy, go for it. Be accountable for what the outcome is and own that results but also the impact, positive and negative. Show up as a leader and have agency. When we said to people, “You already have the agency.” It’s different from being empowered because empowered says, “I’m ready for somebody over there to give me the power. I am waiting to be empowered.” That doesn’t work. It has to be that you already have the power right from the beginning the minute you walked into the door.

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We’re almost out of time. Do you have a thought you’d like to leave us with?

Yes, especially for what your show and what you’re doing is focused on getting the results. More than anything, it’s making sure that you are connecting personally with people who are likeminded, who are going to be able to see you and see the pushes that you need to have to be able to do that. One thing I encourage people to do and especially women or people early in their careers is to think about communications as a tool every single time you open your mouth. People say, “I’m not comfortable being a public speaker. How do I become a better public speaker?” I go, “You do public speaking every time you open your mouth.”

It’s who you are in the room. It’s how you show up. Charlene Li, I said before we started, I had about two hours’ worth of questions for you, but I know you’re busy. You’ve got places to go. How can we find out more?

The way to connect with me is through my social accounts. I am always Charlene Li. On Facebook, I am Charlene Li, Author. You can also, by all means, email me, Charlene@CharleneLi.com. I enjoy connecting with people. Please don’t be shy. This is what I also find, I give people my contact information and then nobody reaches out to me. I do give that contact information out because I want to hear from people.

Charlene Li, thank you so much for being with us. I invite you to share with us, like us, talk about us, tell more people if you had fun. I’ll see you on the next one.

Welcome back, Charlene. I’m excited to be talking to you. We had our first interview in December of 2019. Who knew that we would be working from home and sheltering in place and all of that and that the rules have changed? My question for you is, how do we think about leadership and disruption mindset? How do we move forward?

I wrote a book called The Disruption Mindset and never anticipating that this would ever happen in my wildest dreams and at the same time, some of the ideas still hold. The idea is that we have to disrupt ourselves and be comfortable, constantly thinking about moving out of the status quo. We all got a huge dose of doing this, having this done to us because of COVID. We’re in this interesting phase. You know what the world used to look like and we know that the world doesn’t exist anymore. We’re in this new normal here and I like to think of it as we’re pausing now. Some people have said that we put ourselves into a coma waiting for the world to heal. This is a great time to step back and take stock of how we’re going to move and operate in this new world.

The biggest one is knowing that it is not going to be clear and easy. There is going to be a huge amount of uncertainty and the more that we can be ready for that with The Disruption Mindset which says, “Disruption is an opportunity for growth, an opportunity for change.” You can either approach this because with what disruption has done, it’s taken our world as we know it, tore it into itty-bitty little pieces and throw it up into the air. The people who are going to thrive with destruction are going to be jumping up into the air and trying to catch those pieces and put them back together again into this new normal.

SWGR 521 | The Disruption Mindset

The Disruption Mindset: Really good governance allows you to be more disruptive.


The people who are going to become victims of that disruption are the ones who are ducking their heads trying not to get hit by those pieces as they fall. It’s a choice about how we enter into this space. Are we going to sit back and wait for it to develop until it’s clear and it’s certain before we enter into it? Are we going to take an active role in defining what this new normal is going to look like? Are we going to take this as an opportunity to say, “How are we going to have to change? How will we change the world around us to be able to create that growth that we know and that healing, the impact, and the change that we know we have to have in order for the world to heal?”

I love the way you’re thinking about that and being able to embrace change is scary. One of the things that we talked about is having how women tend to wait until everything is certain and men tend to go for it. I’ve finished doing a program for a group in Austria about, how men and women communicate? How do men and women think? This whole thing about women being trained to be safe and certain. How can we look at it through that lens of, if you’re female and you’re not quite sure what’s happening next, just still have the courage to move ahead?

There’s also this one other typically assigned feminine aspect which is, we are also built to serve and inclined to help other people that when there is a need, we will fill that void. We are ingenious in the way that we come up with solutions. When there are no possible solutions there, that’s when we’re at our best when our backs are to the wall because we will power through it. We’ll find all the resources. We’ll use our networks and our community to come together and make this happen. This is that time. We don’t know what the solution is going to be, but we see the need. This is the biggest thing that disruptors do. They see the problem, they see the need and they’re not going to wait around looking for other people to take the lead. They’re going to jump into that. That’s what overcomes the sense that, “I don’t know what to do. Do I have permission to lead? I have to be 100% sure.” What overcomes that is this tremendous desire and the need to serve.

That’s a wonderful way to think about it. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is where women tend to be multi-focused and think about ideas and also women often like to gather in community. I’m big on allies, find allies. As women, we can use our tendency to find allies and communities where we can talk ideas through rather than going straight for the basics, super focused, not paying attention to everything else around.

That’s going to be especially important in this next phase because it’s not going to be clear what the solution is. If it was clear, then everybody would be doing it. It’s not clear. We don’t know what’s going to happen with Corona. We don’t know when a cure is going to be available, a vaccine or even a treatment. We don’t know what it’s going to be like as we lift the sheltering in place and we go back to work. It’s going to be dicey. When they sound the, “All clear, come on out.” Are people are going to come out? I don’t think so. We’re comfortable staying where we are. Unless we need to go out, we’re not going to go out. I think about this new space to find these new opportunities, to find those pieces and put them together, it’s going to take a lot of people. The more diverse a coalition that you can build together to address these needs, the better the solution is going to be because you have all these people looking at things from a different direction. That’s what’s needed.

I keep coming back into post-war issues and here we are sheltering in place. Thank God we don’t have people dropping bombs on us. Most of us don’t do. Although it is that disruption, with the attendant loss of life are less, although maybe not much rebuilding things. When you do have to rebuild, we’re lucky because there is a lot of infrastructures that are still in place so we can rebuild. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have regular electricity, internet and so forth. I know here we are, we’re under siege but with the internet, we are fortunate. Here’s a great time for us to look for things. Indeed, there’s not going to be a single answer. I’ve been thinking a lot about plans for 2, 4, 6 months out. Could you do a little guess about where do you think we’ll be 2, 4, 6 months from now? Any thoughts? Any ideas?

Being an analyst, my job has been always to say, “What is the future going to look like?” The best way I’ve been able to figure that out is to do what I call scenario planning. Scenario planning says, “I don’t know what the future’s looking like. In fact, it’s looking uncertain.” I can see certain scenarios coming together. There were about 3 or 4 different scenarios that I’ve seen out there that seemed plausible. Depending on which of those scenarios come out, I’ll have a strategy to say, “If this happens, I will do that. If option B happens, then this is what the plan forward would be. Option C, this is what the plan will look like.” Robust strategies for each of those scenarios and then see what the commonality is. The commonality across all three of them is what you do now. You know for sure you have to do those things and then you develop options as the data comes in, as information comes in to know which direction to head in.

I was giving you an example. Are we going back to an open society quickly over the next six months or is it going to be coming in fits and starts? Is it going to be an explosion of chaos? Is this going to be an incredible period of collaboration with everybody suddenly comes together, not just in our communities and our country but globally? We realize we’re not getting there by ourselves. We have to cooperate. You can develop these scenarios, see what the percentage likelihood of each of them are, and then develop your strategies against them. This is a robust planning process that organizations use. I also know that people use to figure out like, “How do I deal with uncertainty?” It’s not about picking one future. It’s about developing robustness and resilience and building that into your strategy of how you want to move forward.

The biggest thing that disruptors do is they see the problem without waiting around looking for other people to take the lead. Click To Tweet

I’ve been asking all my clients, “What do you do if the shutdown lasts 4, 6 months or whatever?” They were announcing possibly no large public gatherings until 2021. Who knows, that may have changed? I think about my former 30 years in the Opera business and that’s going to hurt the performing arts and sports. I’m sure people are doing that. How can we talk about or approach ways of men and women working together so that you have the multi-focused collaborative looking at all the things that the multi-focused people do? It’s not male, female. I like to think single-focused at first as multi-focused. The single-focused people and the multi-focused people can work together in 2020, 2021 where we’re trying to come to parody and diversity. Do you have any thoughts about that?

In a chaotic world, it’s helpful to have leaders who say, “This is what our focus is. This is what our goal is. Everybody, this is where we’re heading and these are the people in the resources we need. Let’s go get them.” That leader procures that and makes sure then everybody is going on that road. It seems fairly simple, but it’s incredibly difficult because I go into organizations and the first thing I ask people is, “What is your strategy? Tell me who your customers are and show me your dashboard that tells me that you’re accomplishing these goals.” They can’t tell me those three things. They don’t have a dashboard. They don’t have clear metrics and definitions of successes because they’re not clear, even themselves of who their customers are serving and how they’re going to get there.

If you are not clear on those three things and everybody in the organization isn’t aligned around that, then you have no chance of being able to be successful. You’re hoping that the thing that you’re doing is going to work. As a leader, single focus, multi-focus, as long as everyone’s focused eventually on those things, the few things that have to get done for us to be successful, it’s not going to work. There are different ways that people get work done. I’m not saying that there’s a right way, but let’s be clear on the work to be done.

What else are you saying to people? Are there questions I should be asking you?

In many ways, this is the time to invest in what I call structure and process. I talked a little bit about governance and I’m going to double down on that again. If you are talking about process, it’s usually seen as a bad word, but it is so much more important even now and I want to emphasize that again. This is not about putting more process in, it’s about putting a better process in. One of my favorite ones is something called Minimally Viable Data. This is this concept where instead of trying to get all of the answers, all of the possible solutions for something, being a 100% sure to this metaphor of we need to be sure before we make a decision, define the opposite. What’s the minimally viable data we need to have in order to make this decision? What is the one piece of information I need to know to choose between option A and B to take my first, next best step forward? It’s not to define everything, but if I take one step forward, I’ll have a better idea if it’s going to work or not.

SWGR 521 | The Disruption Mindset

The Disruption Mindset: The Disruption Mindset: Why Some Organizations Transform While Others Fail

If it doesn’t work, I can quickly retreat and choose option B or maybe even option C. We won’t know for sure until we throw it into the market, test it and see it. It creates a new process that says, “It’s not about being 100% right. It is not about being afraid of failing, it’s about learning and moving forward and creating all these experiments to figure out what is the right solution.” The world is in such chaos right now. Everything is changing constantly. You don’t have time. Time is your biggest enemy. You have to make decisions quickly to keep up with all the fast-moving changes that are happening.

Thank you, Charlene. Is there anything you want to leave us with or any thoughts for 2020?

In many ways, this is a great time to make connections with other people, to connect and find your brain trust. I don’t think people invest enough time in this. They may have a couple of people who they call on a regular basis, maybe once or twice a year to get some advice on. There’s nothing that replaces a continuous group of people who will be your trusted board of advisors and they’re not your board. These are people who can help you think through all aspects of your life, work, family and community. They’re there with no pretensions about impressing each other or other than making sure that you’re all succeeding and thriving.

Having a group, I’ve been a part of that. I’ve been through a group called YPO. It’s a group of other CEOs and my group of eight people was all CEOs. This is my lifeblood. To have them know that they’re there, I could be 100% vulnerable with them. I know that there’s not going to be any judgment and they’re right there 100% for me is such a blessing. I would encourage people to form those groups to find those people and connect with them. I have a little bit of self-interest in this because I have this group called Quantum Networks. One of the things that we’re doing in there is creating these short-term groups to give people a sense of how this works, how this does it.

We’re doing it for free for four weeks and if people want to stay with it, continue doing that with Quantum Group, we have a solution for that. We hope that this will inspire people once they have a taste of this to go and do this even on their own or even in their organizations. It is one of the most powerful things to do these peer-based groups. It’s especially important during this time and it’s something in particular for women because it gives you that confidence to move forward and to think big when you didn’t think that you could.

That’s wonderful because often we are our own enemies. Getting the chance to do that is a wonderful thing. Charlene Li, thank you so much for coming back. I certainly hope that we’ll check in with you. We’ll do another episode. We’ll see you at the next one.


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About Charlene Li

SWGR 521 | The Disruption MindsetFor the past two decades, Charlene Li has been helping people see the future. She’s an expert on digital transformation, leadership, customer experience and the future of work. She’s the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller, Open Leadership and co-author of the critically acclaimed book, Groundswell. Her latest book is the bestseller The Disruption Mindset. She is the Founder and Senior Fellow at Altimeter, a disruptive analyst firm acquired in 2015 by Prophet. Named one of the most creative people in business by Fast Company, Charlene is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School.