As we approach the end of yet another year, I want to go out on one of my favorite topics – passion. In particular, let me explore one very promising approach to catalyze and amplify passion within the workforce. By my best estimates only about 12% of workforce have real passion about their work, so companies need all the help they can get to stimulate passion. The companies that figure out how to draw out more passion among their employees will be the ones to create the most value in the Big Shift.
Passion and performance improvement
Why do I say that? Because passion drives accelerating performance improvement. One of the core attributes of the Big Shift is mounting performance pressure. So, the companies that figure out how to improve performance more rapidly will be those that survive and thrive in the Big Shift.
And why does passion drive more rapid performance improvement? To answer that, I have to clarify that I’m talking about a very specific form of passion – the passion of the explorer. This form of passion has three distinct attributes: (1) a long-term commitment to making an increasing impact in a specific domain, (2) a questing disposition that welcomes, and in fact seeks out, new challenges, and (3) a connecting disposition that seeks to find and build relationships with others who can help to come up with better solutions faster to challenges.
I've written extensively about this form of passion, beginning here and here. I discovered this form of passion by studying participants in diverse environments characterized by sustained extreme performance improvement, ranging from extreme sports to online video wargames. The one common element across these diverse environments was the fact that all the participants displayed this particular form of passion. On reflection, that’s not surprising because the three attributes of this passion are powerful drivers of accelerated learning and performance improvement. In fact, I’ve come to believe that people who lack this passion will never be able to learn as fast or improve performance as rapidly as those who have this passion.
So, the question is, how can we draw out and nurture this passion in business? There are many approaches, but I’m going to focus here on a distinctive approach to strategy, something that I call FAST strategy but that is also commonly known as a “zoom out, zoom in” approach to strategy. I’ve written about this approach to strategy here and here. The FAST strategy approach tends to be pursued by extremely successful companies in Silicon Valley and the technology industry.
In a nutshell, this approach to strategy focuses on two time horizons in parallel. First, it focuses on a ten to twenty year time horizon. On this horizon, it asks two questions: what is our relevant market or industry going to look like ten to twenty years from now and what are the implications for the kind of company we need to become in that time frame?
But there’s also a second time horizon – this one is much shorter-term: six to twelve months. On this horizon, the key questions are: What are the two or three (no more) business initiatives that could have the greatest impact in accelerating our movement towards that longer term future? Do we have a critical mass of resources deployed against those two or three business initiatives? How would we measure the success of those initiatives at the end of six to twelve months?
For many reasons, this is a very powerful, but generally neglected, approach to business strategy. It stands in stark contrast to conventional approaches to business strategy that focus on the development of five year plans. The FAST strategy approach focuses on two completely different time horizons, one much longer-term and the other very short-term. In fact, the one to five year time horizon that occupies so much time and attention of management today is virtually ignored in FAST strategy companies.
Catalyzing passion through strategy
So, what’s the connection between this approach to strategy and the passion of the explorer? Well, let’s look at the three attributes of the passion of the explorer. First, there’s a long-term commitment to achieving increasing impact in a domain. The long-term time horizon of FAST strategy helps to pull people out of a natural tendency to shorten time horizons and just focus on what is directly ahead. It expands horizons and builds awareness of longer-term opportunities and possibilities, and this in turn can help to cultivate a long-term commitment to a particular domain.
The passion of the explorer also requires a questing disposition. The FAST strategy approach focuses attention on 2-3 business initiatives that a company can take in the next 6-12 months to accelerate movement towards a longer-term opportunity. These are near-term challenges with the potential for a very significant impact. Properly framed, these can help to build excitement about the challenges – yes, they will be difficult but they have so much potential to accelerate movement towards a very rewarding opportunity.
Finally, the passion of the explorer includes a connecting disposition. By emphasizing the need for alignment around both a longer-term destination and shorter-term initiatives with high impact, the FAST strategy approach helps to build a shared commitment to achieving a very significant opportunity. This in turn builds a sense of community and connection. We’re not alone in this quest, we will work together to achieve even greater impact more quickly than we could if we were acting alone. It underscores that we will be much more successful if we work together.
By iterating back and forth frequently between the two time horizons, FAST strategy also helps to provide quick reinforcement that the longer-term opportunity is attainable. The short-term 6-12 month initiatives become powerful benchmarks to build credibility that the longer-term opportunity is in fact achievable. As participants begin to see tangible results of movement toward the longer-term opportunity, they begin to become even more excited and committed to striving towards that longer-term opportunity. Passion spreads and passion levels mount.
So, FAST strategy approaches can help to catalyze and amplify the three components of the passion of the explorer. Perhaps one of the reasons we have so few employees with the passion of the explorer is because so few companies have explicitly adopted and pursued anything like a FAST strategy approach.
Instead, our companies tend to focus on shorter and shorter time horizons which undermines a long-term commitment to a domain. As a consequence, our companies also tend to focus more on risks rather than rewards, which undermines a questing disposition. And, with a shorter time horizon, we tend to fall into a zero sum view of the world where someone is going to win at the expense of everyone else. This naturally tends to reduce trust, which undermines our willingness to collaborate with others and therefore our connecting disposition.
Conventional approaches to strategy can be challenging because they focus on identifying a significant strategic opportunity five years from now but they often don’t clearly tie tangible near-term initiatives to that longer term opportunity. In an increasingly uncertain and volatile world, there’s increasing skepticism about anything that does not produce tangible, near-term impact.
On the other side, if you want participants to learn faster, what could be more helpful than the passion of the explorer? Think about it. Someone who has a long-term commitment to making an increasing impact in a particular domain, who is driven to seek out new challenges and who actively seeks to connect with others to come up with even better solutions faster will inevitably learn a lot faster than someone who doesn’t share this attributes. It’s no accident that the passion of the explorer is so prevalent in arenas where sustained extreme performance improvement occurs.
So, as FAST strategies spawn more passion among participants, they accelerate learning and performance improvement. As participants develop the passion of the explorer, they become even more committed to the two horizon approach of FAST strategies and this commitment in turn draws out the passion of more and more participants.
And one final note
So far, I’ve been discussing FAST strategies in the context of corporations and other institutions. These strategies are very powerful at that level. But here’s another thought. Why shouldn’t we each develop a FAST strategy of our own as individuals? Such an approach would help to pull us out of the short-term environment that we occupy every day and discover a longer-term opportunity for achieving significant impact. Such an approach might even kindle a latent passion and help us to discover and connect with others who share our passion. Using this approach we might find that we make small moves today much more smartly and that in turn will help us to set big things in motion.