Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change, whose work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Barron’s, Forbes, Inc, Fast Company and other A-list publications. His earlier book, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business titles of 2017.
What started you on the journey you are on?
It all started in the fall of 2004, when I was running a major news organization in the middle of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. I was amazed by how thousands of thousands of people, who would normally be doing very different things, would all of the sudden stop what they were doing and start doing the same thing, all at once, in almost perfect unison. It got me thinking, what if we could bottle that force and put it to good use.
Of course, I had no idea how to do that then, but a few years later came across the work of Duncan Watts, Steve Strogatz, Albert-László Barabási and others who were developing a new science of networks. I was shocked to find that their work almost perfectly explained much of what happened during the Orange Revolution. It was eerie!
Anyway, that’s what got me hooked on researching movements. It was some time after that I met my friend Srdja Popović, who helped lead the Otpor movement that overthrew Milošević in Serbia and later went on to train activists in more than 50 countries, including Ukraine. So I got to see how what I witnessed during the Orange Revolution was planned and executed.
I was amazed how Srdja had developed a repeatable model for transforming entire societies and I thought that maybe similar principles and techniques could be used to transform organizations. That’s what led me to Cascades.
Your work is about transformational change. What is it that you do?
Today I work with a network of partners to help organizations overcome resistance to change. I think the crucial difference between what we do and more traditional approaches to change is that we see opposition as a primary design constraint and work from the beginning to overcome it.
In my view, you simply can’t think seriously about change unless you take resistance into account. The simple fact is that, if a change is significant, there will be some people who won’t like it and will be angry about it. They will work to undermine change in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive.
So if you want to have any real chance to bring about important change, you have to plan for that. To whatever extent possible, you want to avoid being surprised. Ideally, when something happens, you want to have a plan that you are ready to execute. Obviously, that isn’t 100% achievable, but if you work towards it, you can cut down on mistakes and missteps, hopefully to the bare minimum.
You’ve said the Digital Age is drawing to an end. What’s next?
The mantras for the digital age have been agility and disruption, but now we will see a new era in which innovation exploration and discovery will once again become prominent. It’s time to think less about hackathons and more about tackling grand challenges.
There are three main reasons that the digital era is ending, as I wrote about in a post on HBR. First is the technology itself. Moore’s Law is ending. Second, the technical skill required to create digital technology has decreased – which leads to commoditization. And third, digital apps are now fairly mature.
We need to stop trying so hard to predict the future and focus more on exploring the unknown. Innovation seldom arises from what we already know, but is driven by discovering what we still need to learn.
Another important point I make in Cascades: power has shifted from the top of hierarchies to the center of networks. To compete with networks institutions must become networks.
What impact do you see happening as a result of your work?
We see real change taking place, which is exciting! We get such a thrill from having that much of an impact!
Today we can’t transform organizations unless we transform the people in them and that’s why change management has got to change. It is no longer enough to simply communicate decisions made at the top. Rather, we need to put people at the center and empower them to succeed.
In many cases, when people come to us they are in trouble. Often, they were tapped to run a change initiative by someone higher up in the organization and, within 6-12 months, find that everything has gotten bogged down. What they thought was going to be a great career opportunity now seems like it might run it off the rails. This situation is mortifyingly common!
So, while we would prefer to be engaged earlier in the process rather than when the project is in peril, it is gratifying to be able to get things back on track and achieve something significant.
What are you working on now? What are your next priorities?
At the moment we are working with a number of organizations on their change initiatives ranging from digital transformation to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and just about everything in between. The truth is that what has passed for innovation over the last 20 or 30 years has been more focused on disrupting markets than changing the world. We need to do more. I’m advocating for a shift from disrupting markets to tackling grand challenges.
Who else should we be learning from?
I would wholeheartedly recommend the work of my friend Srdja. You can find his work at canvasopedia.org.
What challenges do you see for the future?
I think the next decade will be very, very tough. We are undergoing profound shifts in demography, migration, resources and technology. A similar shift in just demography gave us the tumult of the 1960s. We haven’t had multiple shifts of this size and scope since the 1920s and that ended very badly.
So I think we’re going to have to be very, very smart—obviously much smarter than we were back then—to avoid those kind of catastrophic missteps. I think we can do it. It is wholly within our power. But we need to be intentional with the choices we make. We can’t just leave it up to market and technological forces to determine our fate. History has shown that putting thing on autopilot isn’t a good strategy.
Thanks so much for your time.
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar