How Can We Be Unstoppable? – Strategy



Let’s talk about strategy.
The classical strategic questions are:

  • whom do want to serve (why?)
  • what do we want to offer?
  • and how will we offer it (consistently)?

So if you can answer these questions consistently, you might win. There’s a catch though.
You might have all the elements in place and still fail.
And why is that?
Because strategy execution is about change. And change is about people.

Strategy is about change and change is about people.

It’s never about technology. You can solve the technology challenge more easily.
It’s about the behaviour people have, their (bad) habits, what they want, how they think, what they feel and need. It’s about having ideas, being resilient, being willing and able to work and be one’s best self.
Bummer. That’s hard to influence.

So the (extra) question to ask is: how will we be unstoppable?


So what do we need to do to be(come) unstoppable? Ask that question. There are two reactions / objections:

  1. we don’t know what is going to stop us. (Exact, disruption is behind every corner)
  2. so we don’t know what we need to be unstoppable.

You will not solve the first objection easily. But the second argument, I don’t agree with. Organisations need to be prepared to face the unpreparable.
You could call that resilience.
So start preparing. Use or develop whatever capability you need to do that: superforecasting, agility, ambidexterity, autodisruption, extreme customer centricity, super learning, resilience, continuous listening, radical innovation, internal entrepreneurship, design thinking, human-centricity, … (go to a business library for the latest terms).
Indeed, these are maybe fads. I’m not sure if they’ll do the trick. And let’s not follow them blindly. But what I do know is that it’s going to be individual and collective behaviour of people that will make you unstoppable. And you’ll need to find a way that is unique for your organisation. 

Being Unstoppable is about Behaviour

And so as a leader ask that ultimate strategic question, and look for the answer in the teams of people who want to do a great job for their current and future customers and be their best selves. And in that process, the quality of your leadership will be crucial as well.
So think about it.
Originally posted as article on LinkedIn.

5 Things Not to Do When Employee Survey Results Are Bad

So you want to know how your people feel about working in your organization. Why not do a survey? But the results can be an unpleasant surprise. What to do when you get feedback you did not expect, when you think is unfair or even irrelevant. Here are 5 things you should not do.

Hide the Survey Results

You asked for feedback and you got it. Hiding the results is one of the worst things you can do. Next time nobody will be willing to take part and whatever the bad negative might be, you will destroy a lot of value.
So the best thing you can do is give the brutal facts back to the audience. It’s an opportunity to get into a dialogue with those who have given a negative feedback.

Question the participation rate

You might want 100% of people to take part. It never happens. So if you have more than 50% participation it’s OK. If you use low participation as an argument to flush the results, think again. The reasons why people do not take part might be bad for you: no trust, no time, no belief it will help.
There’s always a lot of discussion about the reasons why people does no participate and if they have an even more negative view. You cannot know. But if people think it’s not important enough to spend some time giving feedback, you might assume they have something on their mind.

Criticize the method

You chose the method, so live with it. If you say that you will not take the results into consideration because of the method, you insult all those who have participated.

Do nothing

Doing nothing with the results is a destruction of value. You have the results, you should open all communication channels to reach deep understanding and start remediation. At least bad results give you a reason to talk to as many people as possible, try to understand them but also explain the reasons why the strategy is what it is. Don’t be defensive and you’ll learn a lot.

Stop Listening

Business strategy depends on how well you listen to people. You depend on them for its execution and they might know how to get ahead. So you’d better keep on listening. It’s not because the results of your survey (in whatever form) are disappointing, that listening is not important.
Next time you might consider not going for a survey but for a process of continuous listening. As long as you listen, show that you listen and do something with the information you cannot go wrong. There are alternatives to survey to gather information in a participative and fun way. But don’t forget that the reasons why people do not participate in your survey, will be the same reasons they do not take part in the other forms of exchange.


Aligning Employees to Improve Productivity

In the same way as its service to end users, the success of a company largely depends on the relationship between employer and employees. If the bond is poor, the staff tend to exhibit low productivity levels because there is low morale and a lack of motivation. In order to improve productivity, employers must constantly keep in touch with their followers in terms of company goals and missions.
Here are a few ways on how you can keep your employees on the same page:
(1) Practice Transparency
In a previous post, Gary LeBlanc discussed the importance of involving your followers early on in the process. The gesture gives them a sense of fulfillment for their work and establishes clear, goal-oriented plans. One way to get them fired up is to involve them in decisions that will drive the company’s future.
It also helps for employers to stay truthful, no matter how bad the situation gets. Honesty can go a long way in building your employees’ loyalty towards the company. If you want each member to be held accountable for their actions, you should lead by example. When the firm doesn’t achieve its goal by the target date, explain the reasons for the setback to your employees.
(2) Paint a Clear Picture of Success
In line with transparency is an articulated explanation of what success looks like in your company. For your staff to stay inspired, they need to have something concrete to hold on to, which means your business strategies should have clear measures of success. They can be shown through different reports: number of projects closed in a year, sales reached, or all objectives achieved. With a clear end goal in mind, your employees can muster the motivation to strive towards the target.
(3) Establish Active Communication Channels
Communication – whether verbal or otherwise – directly affects the behaviour of the staff. Chron claims that lack of good communication causes negative consequences, like unmet expectations, stress, and low morale. If you wish to keep your employees on the same page, you have to retain active communication.
Aside from maintaining a collaborative working environment where anyone can approach a colleague for help, use tools like Slack or Facebook’s Workspace to your advantage. These programs can keep everyone in the company updated on any news and objectives in real time. You may also set up an exclusive channel that serves as an avenue for enquiries or expressing work-related sentiments. For instance, digital agency Ayima makes use of #AskAyima, which opens the floor to anyone within the company as well as those outside who have questions. Because of the space’s easy access, people can get answers in a short amount of time, thereby improving productivity and efficiency. In choosing a communication channel, keep in mind the ones that suit your company the best.
(4) Stay Updated on any Related Events
DecisionWise CEO Tracy Maylett stressed that news from the broader culture may affect employees’ behaviour, which is why business leaders have to stay on top of such info. Knowing the latest details on unemployment rates, ethics, violations, and other business-related issues can help you address your followers and manage their expectations. It’s better to acknowledge these concerns rather than be oblivious to them, especially if they bother the staff, which in turn may affect their productivity.

Experience versus Efficiency: How to Handle Change.

This blog is about the need to balance efficiency and experience.
It’s always about finding balance. Not that the balance should be stable, but still.
Leading an organisation means that we need to handle contradictions, paradoxes.
There are many of them.

  • Managing continuity and managing change.
  • Mobililising People and getting things done.
  • Exploration and Exploitation.
  • Cost and Growth.
  • Efficiency and Experience.

Let’s take the last one.
Going for efficiency means that you optimise the costs of your operation. Experience means that you focus on how people feel. Customer Experience or Employee Experience is about how people enjoy (or not) working with you.

Experience is about how people feel.

Some examples
(1) In the search for efficiency you might decide to reduce square meters, but if you exaggerate people wil have a bad experience.
(2) Or you might decide to limit the contact opportunities with customers, but they might start complaining that you force them into a mould they do not like.
(3) Or you can reduce the number of car brands you offer new sales people (you can choose any car as long as it’s a …), but you might fail to attract people for whom a car is important.
(4) You can go for a reduced offer in the cafeteria, and disappoint people in the process.
And so on.
But you can reverse all the examples. You can offer people 50 square meters or work space and go bankrupt. You can offer customers endless opportunities to get in touch, but lose your profitability. Et cetera.
So it’s about finding balance between the need for efficiency and the need to give people meaningful experiences.
And the first step is to stop seeing the seemingly conflicting aspects as conflictual. It’s “and-and”.

The first step is to stop seeing conflicts.

When I work with management teams about how to handle this, I always start with a reframing exercise. Once we see the common ground between the two, we can design solutions that take both aspects into consideration and locate an optimum.
Like I said. It’s always about finding balance.

Experience has become more important than ever.

But. Today experience is important. It has become more important than ever. Whereas people were content with functional relationships, they are now much more sensitive to the emotional journey. One of the reasons is that we have been spoiled. In the fight for customers and employees, organisations have offered experiential value.
That means that in the search for efficiency and experience, we must be very careful when sacrificing experience for efficiency. People will experience a sense of loss. And we now that loss has a high impact on human behaviour.
So before you start the next round of efficiency enhancing I invite you to anticipate the consequences on the experience of employees and customers.

When handling change, handle experience.

Behaviour is the Cornerstone of Strategy Execution


A story

That night I decided to have a steak with French fries and salad. Add a delicious (expensive) glass of wine and the meal was complete. I ate my steak and left my salad for last. But when I started my salad, I found a long black hair. So I stopped and called the waiter. Here’s what happened.
Me: Waiter, there’s a hair in my salad.
Waiter: It’s not mine.
Me: It’s not mine either.
Waiter: I’ll take it back to the kitchen.
—- After a couple of minutes the waiter returned
Waiter: I’ve checked and the hair does not belong to anyone in the kitchen.
Me: So what am I supposed to do with that information?
— The waiter apoligizes and goes to talk to the restaurant manager. Then he comes back.
Waiter: We’re sorry about this. The house offers you a glass of wine. And it’s an expensive glass too!
— I was happy about the glass of wine and looked forward to it. But then the waiter brought the bill – just like that – and gave it to me without saying a word. The glass of wine that I already had was deducted from the bill.

What we can learn from an everyday Situation

This is an everyday situation. A hair in your food, it can happen. And when it happend, the customer experience is not necessarily destroyed. It depends on how the person facing the customer responds to the situation. In this case he handled the situation badly on two occasions. I was not happy and will not return.
How an employee handles a customer depends on many factors. Competences and attitudes play a role. Social intelligence, flexibility, initiative, creativity, … all of these help to improve the customer experience. But there’s also context: apparently the waiter did not have the freedom to make a decision and make an offer to compensate.
So before we put the entire load on the individual employee, we need to check the context where people work.

20,000,000 chances to mess up

In service we have as many chances to create positive customer experiences as there are interactions. A retailer that has 20,000,000 customers who visit one of the physical shops, has 20,000,000 chances to do well or do badly.
And the same goes for digital customer experiences. Every time I use my bank app, I can have a positive experience or a negative one. And of course I can be delighted (in NPS terms that would mean that I give a score of 9 or 10 on 10) or not.

Confirmation of Strategy

The thing is that these experiences are a result of a strategy and its execution. Every time there is an encounter (a touchpoint) between customers and the service provider we can confirm, reinforce or weaken the strategy. And we know what customers do when they have a consistently bad experience or when experiences are inconsistent.
So when you enter a shop, a restaurant, a bank, … you could ask yourself what the strategy is. And maybe the answer to this question will tell you why you go there in the first place. But here’s the thing. It’s the behaviour of people that will determine the answer to that question. Even when the strategy is discounts or product excellence, there is no tolerance anymore for bad behaviour.

Behaviour should be consistent with the strategy at all times. Without this, any strategy will fail.

In the case of the story, the waiter seemed to be untrained and unprepared. His clumsiness got worse as he came back with useless information. He apologised very late and gave a solution I did not need. The fact that he responded in a transactional way, by trying to buy my satisfaction instead of giving me a better experience made it worse. So maybe the waiter is in the wrong profession, and lacks the talent to be in service. Or maybe the manager does not create the right context for people to behave properly. Either way, the behaviour was inconsistent with a customer-oriented strategy which a hospitality usually is.

Bad Leadership Comes With a Cost

The cost of bad leadership is tremendous. So Should we invest in leadership education or is it just hopeless? @dducheyne argues that we should change our view on leadership.


Recently, I did a keynote with Leaders in Mind in Düsseldorf. I talked about sustainable leadership. I asked the audience what % of leaders actually met expectations. The % that I got from the people present was frighteningly low. Someone even said only one out of 100 were up to standard. There seems to be a lot of bad leadership around.
In VUCA times we need leadership  to respond quickly to changes. But we seem to have been unable to build lasting leadership. In a recent HR conference I attended, participants reported their fatigue, their disappointment and their fatalism. Pfeffer rightly says that most leaders do not display humanistic behaviour and are selfish. And indeed, to climb the corporate ladder you need to play the system and follow the unwritten rules of the political culture. To beat them, you need to become one of them.
This sounds like dispair. Should we then stop working to improve leadership? What is the point of leadership education? Or should we even replace leadership with something else? What could that be?

Let’s not be naive

Leaders have to do many things. First, they have to steer towards results. Second they have to support people so that they are able and willing to go for these results. Third, they have to make sure that the organisation is sustainable, future proof. And lastly, they need to survive the many political games, disruptions.
I mainly talk about two Ss, supporting people through sustainable leadership. But I know we should not neglect the steering and the surviving. Bad quality of leadership arises when the focus lies on only one of them, especially surviving. If that happens the objective of leadership becomes self-centred. And this is what often happens in politics. Politicians are tempted not to take the right decisions, but the decisions that get them re-elected.

bad leadership
4 functions for leadership (the colours have no meaning)

The message is: leaders should focus on all 4 and adapt their leadership actions according to the situation at hand. Someone who works in a highly political or even toxic environment can create optimal conditions in their own team (downwards) but might need to engage in survival mode when dealing with the board. The biggest challenge is then to make sure that the one behaviour (survival) does not jeopardise other behaviours. Leaders who find themselves under pressure might take short-cuts that are harmful.
That’s why sustainable leadership is important. Leaders should be aware of the effect that pressures, expectations, power, etc. have on the quality of their leadership and on their own character. Again, we should not be naïve about leadership in a volatile context, but we should not stop trying to move forward.
If leadership is not based on human characteristics such as empathy, fairness, kindness, reciprocity and the courage to be human in an unfortunately dehumanized world, it will not be sustainable. Someone made the remark that she experienced this kind of leadership in a start-up organisation, but not in the bigger corporation where she came from.

If leadership is not based on human characteristics such as empathy, fairness, kindness, reciprocity and the courage to be human in an unfortunately dehumanized world, it will not be sustainable.

The Cost of Bad Leadership is High

I have seen many bad examples of leadership behaviour. But I also have seen good ones. And when I talk about good or bad, I am not talking about morals. I am talking about the impact a leader has on their environment. Only a few leaders seem to reach a balanced kind of leadership. Nevertheless improving the overall quality of leadership Is important. Because the cost of bad leadership is very high.
The entire audience agreed to that. We cannot even imagine how much damage bad leaders cause. The cost in terms of demotivation, attrition, silent acts of sabotage … is tremendous. Bad leadership creates a toxic culture, hurts people, destroys trust and goodwill, and damages the reputation of the organisation.
Not all of this has a direct monetary value. But it’s clear that bad leadership is a big problem for the viability or sustainability of an organisation.

(Bad) Leadership in its Context

The surprising thing is that people who display bad leadership can be successful. They can thrive in a context that favours one element of leadership over the other. Some organisations do not mind a leadership approach that is less supportive, as long as results are achieved.
Sustainable leadership implies however that the results are future-oriented and that all stakeholders are served. Organisations that continue to favour results over people, and short-term over the long-term might get in trouble. People are looking for a context where they like to work. If that context is characterised by bad leadership, people will leave and will spread the world.
In times of talent scarcity there is practical interest of being human, next to a moral dimension. Bad leadership comes with a cost, and this might be enough to inspire organisations to invest (more) in the quality of leadership.
This will require a different way of dealing with leadership education. I will deal with this in a next blog.



sustainable leadership

In my book on “Sustainable Leadership” I explain what sustainable leadership is and how leaders could protect themselves from negative contextual influences. Leaders should base their leadership on sustainable sources, not on unsustainable sources like power, position, pressure or popularity.

Mindset: Becoming is more Important than Being

In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, Carol Dweck differentiates between having a fixed or growth mindset. Before I read the book, I assumed I had a growth mindset. However, as Friedrich Nietzshe stated in his book “Aphorisms on Love and Hate”, “not even the finest mind is capable of adequate appreciation of the art of polished maxim if he has not been educated to it, has not been challenged by it himself”. I got to be educated to and challenged during the end of the year Performance Discussion with my manager.

Listen to Yourself

At the end of the discussion, my manager said to me “You see it was not as bad as you expected. You now sound and look more relaxed than when we started the discussion”. I was taken aback by her observation and feedback. I was unaware that I looked and sounded tense. Afterwards, as I came back to my body, I realized that I was feeling tense. I could see that I had approached the Performance Discussion with a fixed mindset.
I cared a lot about what my manager thought about my performance. I wanted her to think that I am smart and I have achieved all my objectives. Knowing that I was unable to achieve all the goals we had agreed upon at the beginning of the year, I was anxious of the feedback she was going to give me. As a person who claimed to have a growth mindset, I should have seen the impending discussion as an opportunity to get her opinion on how I could have done better. In this way, I will learn and improve.
However, having a fixed mindset, I wanted my manager to see me as smart and successful. The focus was on “being” smart rather than learning from my previous year’s performance so that I can “become” smarter.
A lot of people are afraid of failing and to be labelled as failures. If goals are not achieved, they do everything in their power to blame others. Hence, most organizations suffer from a blame culture where employees do not want to take accountability. Leaders may unconsciously be promoting such a culture through their mindsets.

Fixed Mindset Leaders

Leaders who have a fixed mindset are difficult to work for and with. Some of the characteristics that are displayed by leaders with a fixed mindset include:

  • They protect their positions and see everyone with more experience and expertise on a certain subject as a threat
  • They are not willing to develop and coach their employees – they don’t have succession plans in place
  • They enjoy being needed and pride themselves that things will not move if they are not there
  • They are short-sighted and cannot see beyond their current circumstances
  • They are very internally focused and believe that everything revolves around them
  • When things go wrong, they always want to know who did wrong so that they can punish the perpetrator
  • They rule by fear so that employees are afraid to speak up and challenge them
  • They are focused and try to impress others by their status and material possessions
  • They can destroy anyone who threatens their security and status
  • They promote a blaming culture and that of command and control
  • They don’t care about the role they play towards employee engagement. They therefore accuse employees of being ungrateful

Growth Mindset Leaders

Organizations are however looking for leaders and employees who have a growth mindset. Such employees can embrace and promote a High-Performance Culture. Some of the attributes of such people include:

  • Believing in the potential of others
  • They coach and mentor their team members
  • These leaders believe in life-long learning and continuous improvement
  • They encourage their team members to learn and improve their skills
  • They allow team members to speak up as they believe in the power of diversity
  • They are agile, promote innovation and therefore able to lead in the VUCA world
  • They find it easy to recognize and reward good performance
  • Since they invite feedback from everyone, employees find it easy to receive developmental feedback from such leaders.

There is nothing new on the items listed above. Most leaders know these characteristics like the back of their hands.  Some regard themselves as the best gift to mankind. They strongly believe, just like me, that they have a growth mindset. Some leaders are in denial. Even when 360ⷪ assessment gives them feedback about their behavior, they would probably find someone to blame. Other leaders even go out of their way to find out who said what in the feedback.

What do you Believe about yourself?

The purpose of this article is to challenge the reader. We need to stop assuming that we have a growth mindset without having tested it or being challenged by it. This could either be at the workplace, in a relationship, as parents or any area of our lives.
You can start by thinking about how you feel when you are supposed to have a conversation that has a possibility of unmasking your imperfectionists. Do you care more about how smart other people think you are? Or the possibility of learning from their perception of who you are so that you can improve from it?
Are you more concerned about “being” smart or “becoming” smarter?

New Year’s Resolutions

So, for this year 2018. Which mindset are you going to adopt?
What are you willing to do to ensure that you are applying the “right” mindset?

If you want to read the book by Carol Dweck, click on the picture below.

Ecosystem Thinking: why is it so difficult?

After Nike, Apple, Google, Amazon …

Ever since Nike, Apple, Google and Amazon started integrating their products and services into their ecosystems, companies want to copy the model and build their own. But it’s harder than they think. The companies that I mentioned have been building their ecosystem brick by brick, or should I say click-by-click since decades.
And not everything they’ve done was successful. Over the years they have discovered and perfected the way they “surround” their customers with their offer.

The Power of an Ecosystem

An ecosystem is a fully functionally integrated user experience. Devices and services combine into one incredibly relevant experience. And that experience is not pushed on them through intrusive and annoying advertising, but through experience. As the services are so embedded in the lives of the customers, using them feels natural.
And that’s the power of an ecosystem: customers do not want to leave it, because leaving it would diminish the value of the experience. Once you have started with Apple, you are likely to buy another Apple device to take advantage of the App Store, iTunes, IOS, iCloud. Why would you leave it and buy an Android Phone?
Ecosystems are also captive because they create value for their customers that goes beyond the simple usage of a device. They create contexts that allow customers to get access to services in various ways and to experience a seamless integration.
The key to ecosystem thinking is functional integration. Simply put, this is about adding new functions (devices) and integrating them into a customer experience.
Most companies do not own an ecosystem. They can be a part of it, but they have failed to integrate their own products into a captive system. Most companies have added services, without combining them. That strategy determines the customer experience: a series of interchangeable and commoditized product to which there is no emotional or functional adherence.


And when starting an ecosystem, there are no quick fixes. Many organisations underestimate the difficulty of designing, building and maintaining an ecosystem approach. Here’s why.
A first mistake that many companies make is mistaking an ecosystem with an organisation model. An ecosystem is not an organisation. It is not a structure.
The second mistake is that organisations want to introduce the ecosystem idea without thinking it through. Ecosystems are about customer experience. And that means that organisations need to change all bad habits, old ways, … and that the design of services and all that entails needs to breathe the customer.
The third mistake is that organisations are paralysed by the shit of yesterday (an expression I borrow from Peter Hinssen). Legacy systems are clouding the future of Banking, Payroll, Insurances, Tourism, … By holding on to the legacy for too long – maybe for good reasons that have nothing to do with the customer – the idea of fully integrated ecosystems becomes impossible. If this happens, organisations look at the customer through the lens of old technology and old ways of doing things. The customer has however other expectations. And other rights.
Then, a next mistake is that too many organisations do not think about customer experience in the first place. They have an introverted view of the purpose of the organisation, where the customer does not play the first fiddle.
The fifth mistake is that there is an incompatibility between the ecosystem idea and the organisational culture. Ecosystems can thrive when both innovation and agility go hand in hand. But to have this, organisations need to foster autonomy, creativity, trust. The prime directive is to think for the customer first. If every employee, freelancer or person who works with the company would be convinced  and empowered to act upon this conviction, the ecosystem idea can work.
And the last mistake is that organisations underestimate the urgency. The big players are increasingly integrating new functionality into their ecosystem (Apple Pay, Amazon buying WholeFoods, …). And new agile players are eating away the market of the established organisations . So there is no time to waste.
Looking at the agenda of most organisations, it seems that they are still thinking in old models and paradigms. How important is experience in contrast to efficiency? How often do boards talk about the customer? How much of the budget is given to customer relevant projects?

The Era of the Customer

2018 is the year of the customer, we might think. Well probably, it’s more like we are in the century of the customer. Let’s not forget that an organisation derives its relevance from the service it gives to its customers, patients, citizens, … Organisations who do not have this notion in their DNA are today’s dinosaurs. Tomorrow they will be extinct. Thinking of products and services as a part of a customer-oriented ecosystem can enable organisations to take a leap forward.
And I know that leadership, organisational design, people strategies should all be directed towards the purpose of the organisation: the customer. An organisation exists only because (and if) it enables someone to work, play, live, heal, succeed, survive, thrive, flourish, …
Let’s make this work in 2018.
David Ducheyne

Building the Next Organisation

This article is an end-of-the-year reflection about the future of organisations and the future labour market. I wish everyone who reads this the very best for 2018, a year that will be disruptive.
By clicking on the pictures you can read more on 

The Future of Work is Hybrid and Agile.

The ideal career

Not so long ago the ideal career was stable, with a fixed employment contract. Leaving an organisation was something that people should avoid at all cost. Changing a career orientation is something that was not done either.

Because changing jobs is a risk. And risks were considered to be bad. Why throw away the certainty and comfort of a job and risk an adventure? The psychology of loss is so powerful in career decisions.
Inspire of all the fuzz about new forms of employment, to most people this is still the most preferred employment status.

An Industrial Definition of Work and Organisation

This model of work started in the early industrial era, when people left the countryside to go work in the factories in the cities. They gave up their status of independent (home) worker to become salaried. By doing this they gained certainty and lost the responsibility to “hunt” for work.
The organisation became bureaucratic: hierarchy, top-down decisions, division of labour, command-and-control. And it has worked reasonably for a long time. Why? Because the environment was reasonably stable and predictable. Technological evolution was linearly progressive and took long. There were no surprises.
But there was a downside to this kind of organization. These organisations dehumanised work. People needed to adapt to the work and fit in. And moreover they needed to follow the lines others set out for them. People were seen as one of the input factors, Human Resources. And once the input and throughput were under control, output was guaranteed.

Times are a-changing: the World is VUCA-D.

Today many organisations, not to say most, still follow that model. But the context has changed dramatically. Demographic shifts (longevity, migration, talent scarcity) and Digital Disruption change the way we need to look at work.
Today organisations cannot offer any certainty. The world has become VUCA-D, volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and digital. Organisations cannot know what will happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. They can assume, they can guess, they can think in scenarios. But in general, we are very bad at predicting the future.
Yet, organisations need to be prepared for the unpreparable. And a long-term employment relationship does not provide the right answer to that versatility: not for organisations, and not for people either. People tend to fall asleep in a long-term employment relationship. The pampering by organisations stops them from thinking about their future, their plan B.
I always ask people what their plan B is, even when they just start. And the problem is often that they do have a plan B, that is fixed employment, but they do not have a plan A. Sometimes potential needs a push.

The Assignment Economy: A Matter of Exploitation?

We are moving towards an assignment economy. Sometimes this is called the gig-economy. Like musicians go from concert (gig) to concert, workers of the future might go from assignment to assignment. The sequence of assignments might occur within an organization or between organisations. To some this reeks of exploitation because people might not acquire any rights and might find themselves in a precarious situation.
That of course is the challenge. When Uber, Deliveroo and others enter a market, they challenge the status quo. They operate outside established rules and gain a competitive advantage because they have freed themselves from the burden of legacy rules, many of which are simply bad habits.
It’s not because they challenge the rules that they are wrong or right. The good thing is that when they challenge the status quo, a discussion can take place. A new framework can come out of the friction between old and new. And it’s up to us to decide how we can construct that new framework: what kind of flexibility and what kind of protection should we install? That is a discussion on the level of the whole society. The design of a new labour market that enables individuals, organisations and industries to remain or become competitive and that enables sufficient protection for those who are without assignment, that is the real challenge.

The design of a new labour market that enables individuals, organisations and industries to remain or become competitive and that enables sufficient protection for those who are without assignment, that is the real challenge.

The Assignment Economy: A Matter of Empowerment

So the changing nature of our economy and the changing nature of our organizations has an impact on employment and work. There will be a growing number of people who have no fixed relationship with an organization. And also within organisations the relationship with employees is changing.
As organisations need to be more agile (speed, flexibility), employees need to become agile too. And the way to do that is to give people more autonomy, a sense of purpose and the competencies to cope with that uncertainty. Empowerment not only mean giving people more freedom, it also means giving people more energy and a framework that both leaves space to take decisions and gives enough support to have a sense of direction. Empowerment entails also responsibilities!

The Next Organisation

Next organisations will have a small core of employed people (who might own the company too), enlarged by a talent cloud, a group of independent professionals that can help an organization to achieve its purpose. There are different kinds of relationships from fixed, to long-term flexible, to short-term with people that form the talent base. The talent cloud is quite diverse and enables organisations to shift gears fast and accomplish flexible goals.
There might be parts of that organisation that still are in factory mode and governed the industrial way. But this ambidexterity is extremely difficult to organise, so companies with different speeds within, will tend to split up.
And organisations will not stand alone. They will be networked, not around a supply chain, but around a customer and a purpose. And so will people. The traditional hierarchy will probably not disappear completely, but will change and become less dominant. A different kind of leadership will be needed, one that allows for people to take decisions autonomously. I have called that sustainable leadership in my book.

The battle between trust and control

It’s clear that these organisations will have to develop a sense of purpose, but also a sense of trust. Without trust these organisations cannot succeed. Today there is a lot of discussion about self-organisation, autonomous teams, empowerment and the liberated or empowered enterprise.
And at the same time we have never had so many control mechanisms in place. Discipline, authority, compliance, CCTV … it’s all there. There’s a battle going on between control (cost to reduce risk), and trust (a risk that enhances agility). There is never 0% control and never 100% trust. But 0% trust and 100% control would be at least as catastrophic. Of course it should not be a battle, but a quest for balance as trust and control are not mutually exclusive as long as the control is meaningful to those who are subjected to it.

New Organisational Practices

These are the organizational practices that need to be reviewed:

  1. How will we decide? Top-down or more participative? This is the question about autonomy, empowerment and distribution of decisional power.
  2. How will we coordinate? Centrally or decentrally? This is the question about steering, follow-up, hierarchy.
  3. Who determines what we do and how it’s done? Who determines goals? How will we evaluate? This is again a question about empowerment whereas people who are close to the customer will define how the business is run.
  4. How will we motivate people in both the core and the talent cloud? How will we unite them around the common purpose? This is the question about identification even when people are working on assignments. This is the challenge of building rapid trust within temporary teams.
  5. To what extent can someone take decisions about how a job is done? This is the question of customisation.


One way to tackle the future challenges in that new labour market is to customize work. In 2011 I said that we’d need a kind of iHR, an HR policy that takes individual characteristics as starting point, instead of taking rules and procedures as framework.
Of course we need to do both. But customisation is about adapting the work (context) to the individual. By doing that we will enable people to work longer and with more motivation. And through customisation, organisations can become agile.
Don’t forget that the essence of HR is to make sure that people are able and willing to perform sustainably. And as careers become more hybrid and flexible, other solutions are needed to lake sure that this happens. The old way of dealing with people within organisations will no longer suffice.

The Return of Ethics

In all this, ethics will become more important. Ethics is about dealing with others according to some values. These values steer behaviour. And so if we could build organisations that inspire to act ethically, we are half way. Ethical behaviour reduces the need for control, supports decision-making, reduces the risk of fraud, allows people to do the right thing, …

A new Labour Market: from exploitation to empowerment?

To many the new labour market seems a return to the past, when home-workers had to find their assignments and where the customer decided whether or not to pay for the work done. The direct and individual relationship between worker and customer lead to a relationship based on reputation, quality of work. This gave rise to exploitation, precarity and aleatory decisions.
The best way to avoid precarity is to work on both the individual level and on the regulation of the labour market.

The Next Labour Market

The current labour market has many defects too. It is in itself imperfect as it is not as inclusive as we would like it to be, or because there is too much distance between the world of work and the world of education.

So if we talk about the labour market of the day after tomorrow, we are still faced with the situation of today that needs to be resolved.
There will be fixed employment. Yes. But that fixed employment will be limited in the time, either because the contract says so, or because the employer will need different skills, or because the employee wants a change. So we need to prepare for that.
I strongly believe that the idea of flexicurity as guiding principle could work. We give people not the job security they want, but the employment security. By focussing on sustainable employability we can make people less dependent from the dynamics of the labour market.

The Next Individual

The concept of sustainable employability must be guiding for how we approach the individual. Sustainable employability means that a person is prepared (willing and able) to work in the future. Being employable is good for the organisation, for the employee and for society. Whatever the employment status (employee, freelance, self-employed), it’s important for everyone to develop one’s own employability. Only then, the assignment economy and the related labour market will not be a problem.

Joint responsibility

But given the current imperfections of the labour market, we still need to take steps to develop this notion and to integrate all stakeholders in an active approach of sustainable employability: the education system, the employers, the employees, the unions, the government, …
The assignment economy does not have to become a problem. If we are able to build the next labour market, next organisations and help the next individual to rise.
Thank you for reading until the end. If you appreciate this free content, please like and share it. It’s my way of giving back what I have learned to my own network

Downshifting: Managing the S-Shaped Curve of Learning

This blog is about downshifting, the practice of taking a step down to relaunch one’s career or learning. It’s a difficult part of a long career.

The Piano Player

When I studied the piano, a long time ago, I had several times the experience of reaching a “plateau”. Suddenly I did not progress anymore. This happens a lot and certainly not only in the world of music. Also athletes, artists, business people and everyone who is executing a human activity and wants to become good at it.
Back to the piano. Someone who starts to play the piano, can get to a certain level very fast. They can play simple tunes, with two hands. But to leave the level of the simple tunes and go to the first simple pieces of classical composers, they need to put effort into it. And even with the effort, it’s possible that there is no significant progression? How come?

We can answer this question by looking at learning as increasing performance (or ability) over time. This is sometimes called the S-shaped curve of learning.

The S-Shaped Curve

The Theory of the S-Shaped curve (a sigmoid) of human growth states that learning occurs in certain phases. When learning a skill, people usually start at level 0. They will first start out slowly. They they enter a phase of fast progression. They add skills and the progress is exponential. At a certain moment progress gets at speed there is a steady evolution, followed by a period of slower evolution. To finally reach the top of the evolution. This is the “plateau”, the experience that growth is over.
S-Shaped Curve
This is an interesting moment because there are 3 options:

  • one can maintain the level of performance at the current level (maintain)
  • one can regress (fall)
  • one can find a new S-shaped Curve, which means that the exponential growth starts all over again (reboot).

When a piano player reaches the level of stagnation, it is even kind of risky to continue practicing. It is not unlikely that the techniques will be spoiled by sloppiness. That’s the free fall moment. And once the technique has become less pure or disciplined, it’s very difficult to unlearn. Doing more of the same is not always the best idea. At first people become better at it, but after a while they can stop learning or learning some bad habits. And we all know what that means.
This so called sigmoid growth curve has been used to explain many dynamic processes, like innovation, learning, …It’s only one of the possible descriptions of a learning curve. It has been observed in many instances of learning, like language acquisition. Even when this is an ideal model of learning, it’s interesting to consider this model when thinking about careers or even life-span development. .

How to Relaunch Growth?

So, once on a plateau, the piano player should find new ways of progressing to get into another S-Shaped Curve. There are many options:

  1. change the instrument.
  2. do a master class with another teacher.
  3. change the music, find new exercises and pieces.
  4. unlearn bad habits, find new techniques and get feedback on them.
  5. change the teacher.
  6. stop playing and find another instrument.

Some of these are drastic, others are more feasible. But there is always a sense of downshifting. Downshifting is the act of leaving known territory to learn new things. It requires that people abandon their job, their role, their status, their accumulated prerogatives. Downshifting is a painful process that many people avoid.
The French call it “reculer pour mieux sauter”. 
You could compare it to shifting gears when your car is climbing a slope. You have to shift down in order to conquer the mountain.

You have to shift down in order to conquer the mountain.


We are all like a piano player. At a certain moment we find ourselves at a level of stagnation. And then we need to decide what to do.

  • Shall we try and maintain our level of competence? That is risky, because it’s likely that we will be overtaken by changes which will make our competencies obsolete anyway. It’s important to understand why we do this.
  • Shall we allow ourselves to fall down? That’s a recipe for failure.
  • Shall we try and relaunch ourselves into a new phase of development. That’s the only way to succeed. But this requires career disruption and downshifting.

Downshifting is always painful. Like I have described in another blog, people stay in a job for the wrong reasons. Even when people are aware that the job is no longer suited, they stay, for convenience, for comfort, for the money, out of fear. The psychology of loss (I know what I have, but don’t know what I’ll get) plays an important role.
We should get rid of the idea that a career should be linear and continuous. If we are to prolong our careers (as we live longer), we need to build in disruptions, moments of dowshifting. A plateau is always an opportunity to learn, to progress and to develop one’s employability. It’s not by doing the same over and over, that people will develop employability in the long run.

Future Self

As downshifting is so hard to do, people need to develop a concept of what their future will or might be, an attractive concept of themselves in the future. Alternatively one could also develop a disastrous concept of the future: if I don’t change I will end up …
Building a future self is extremely difficult. People are usually unable to do so. But it helps to think in scenarios. What if I stay in this job? What could I do if my employer goes bankrupt? What is my alternative? Can I develop skills that are transferable to other industries, jobs, activities? What do I want to do when I retire? Do I have a plan B? What happens when I stay?
As it is very difficult for people to see themselves in the future, there are very few disruptions in careers. And even less moments of downshifting. People tend do to the same, more of the same, or the same but better. But as we live longer, more of the same is not the right strategy. The risk is that the same will not exist anymore.
I can only advise people to change regularly. It’s the only option to stay agile and versatile. Mobility within the organisation or between organisations or roles is a good thing. It avoids reaching a plateau. It launches growth and enables people to use their potential. But when that plateau is reached anyway, we should take heed.
For people who are in a mono-job career like medical doctors, teachers, nurses, police officers, … it’s more difficult to imagine a different future. They have invested heavily in studies to become what they are today. But even in these positions there are possibilities: changing the employer, changing the country, adding something new, retraining, going for managerial responsibilities, … There is always something that is possible to make sure you can reboot the s-shaped curve and to avoid falling down.

Downshifting helps to avoid falling down.