Brexit is a rally cry for innovation

Now is the time for Business Schools to help their students capitalise on the opportunities that Brexit uncertainty could introduce, argues Victoria Harrison-Mirauer

Wherever you sit on the Brexit spectrum, from ennui to exasperation, there can be no doubt that, for many organisations, the present levels of uncertainty are uncomfortably high.

Uncertainty is nothing new to business – concepts such as ‘VUCA’ (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) have become so much a part of common parlance, and which so infuses Business School curricula, that they can sometimes float past almost unnoticed. 

Brexit has added a new dimension – a ‘perfect storm’ showing that many of the ‘old’ rules are ripe for reassessment. The current political chaos in the UK serves to highlight that many of the organising systems and structures we rely on to make decisions are no longer helpful. As these structures are proving themselves inadequate, now is the time to focus on innovation and the opportunities that Brexit uncertainty could introduce.

Whatever the terms of Brexit and its final details, the UK still operates in a global, networked, connected context, and the country will still be full of skilled, creative and forward-thinking businesspeople who can find opportunities in plenty of sectors. The innovative, competitive and dynamic economic forces that make up the UK’s creative industries, universities, health system, financial and professional services companies are the envy of the world and matter now more than ever. 

Innovation has a central part to play in rewriting the post-Brexit rulebook. Innovators (who are, by nature, optimists) might look at the situation now and hope that new politics, new types of organisation, new global relationships and new commercial opportunities are there to be shaped.

A 21st-century Business School can help its students step up to this opportunity in the following ways:

1. Contextualising the change. This will help ensure future leaders are well equipped to respond to the challenges of unprecedented technology-led innovation, the spectre of climate change and the responsibility of business to the planet, as well as the seismic implications of new-world demographics and emerging economies. This is about helping students see the ‘big picture’, and encouraging them to take some ownership and agency in shaping how it develops. 

When schoolchildren take to the streets to protest about climate change, our time to act on this issue must be surely be running out. What this tells us is that the world is in need of some ideas, and fast. It is the responsibility of Business Schools to ensure their students are ready to drive this change, and to help them graduate both wanting to, and feeling capable of, making a difference.

2. Equipping students with an innovation mindset. Without question, the ‘red threads’ woven through the success narratives of tomorrow’s leaders will be agility, a growth mindset, and resilience as a personal ‘super power’. Business Schools are well placed to encourage and facilitate the development of an innovation mindset, as well as to focus on building creativity and problem-solving skills. Students need to be prepared for new kinds of leadership in new kinds of organisation ecosystems. This environment is one where collaboration, co-creation, partnership and flexibility count. 

3. Developing students’ communication skills. Innovation and uncertainty both demand leaders who are brilliant communicators. Being able to lead for innovation means being able to bring diverse interest groups and stakeholders along with you. Communication is essential for those who want to work at pace in complex circumstances, where strategies are increasingly emerging in ‘real time’, and where priorities are constantly changing and so much is simply unknown. 

If Brexit teaches us anything, it’s the central role communication plays in creating understanding, building consensus and negotiation. It also teaches us what happens when communication breaks down. Tomorrow’s global leaders need to be able to communicate effectively across increasingly international teams and cultures, and to be technology agnostic, moving seamlessly between face-to-face and virtual contexts. Business Schools which use experiential learning effectively can help their students practise these skills in a safe space, as a supportive proving ground.

4. Focusing less on innovation processes and more on cognitive and behavioural approaches. As far as innovation is concerned, ‘where there’s a will, there‘s a way’. As with Brexit, innovation can be a messy and unpredictable business; however, as we all now know too well, being comfortable with ambiguity is easier said than done. Understanding and embracing the cognitive diversity that drives creative problem solving and innovation is an essential piece of the future leader’s toolkit. 

One of Google’s mantras is ‘creativity loves constraint’. The constraints of Brexit are therefore a rally cry for innovators. Educators must avoid fuelling panic and instead work hard to ignite the optimism that, in turn, fuels the kind of opportunism and entrepreneurship that can be the foundation of new markets, new technologies, new jobs, new business and growth.  

In response to some international businesses expressing concern about disruptions to their supply chains as a result of Brexit, UK-based businesses have to be persuasive and optimistic about their ability to meet these challenges. Innovation is a fundamentally optimistic pursuit; it has to be. Innovation is also positive and future-focused. These qualities are all the more important in times of crisis and uncertainty. 

Now is not the time to turn off the innovation tap, but quite the reverse. Investing in the ability to innovate, solve problems creatively and lead in the development and commercialisation of
new technologies is more important than ever as the UK forges new structures, new politics and seeks to lead different geopolitical relationships.

Young people, aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs are often described by the media as the ‘victims’ of Brexit. This may be troubling – and it may be true – but by creating connected communities, active global alumni networks and using genuinely international content, Business Schools are well-placed to counterbalance that narrative. 

Hult International Business School is a case in point. With five campuses globally and a globe-trotting cohort, its UK base is one cog in a truly international machine. Hult MBAs move across campuses in ways that mirror the international career aspirations of many of its participants. Perhaps this peripatetic option becomes more attractive to students as a result of Brexit who might otherwise have chosen a single-campus, UK-based institution. 

A few years ago, I came across some interesting discussions into a 300-year-old theory that challenges today’s innovators. A team at Cambridge University explored some ideas by English philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon, and used his approach to think about how organisations innovate today. 

Bacon’s theory was all about ‘unknown unknowns’, different ways of creating hypotheses and therefore ideas and hunches. Born in 1561, he was what history celebrates as an influential ‘thinker’ and someone whose ideas have stood the test of time by being both innovative in context, as well as useful and interesting, posthumously.

Commenting on this research, University of Cambridge Judge Business School Professor of Economics and Organisation. Jochen Runde said: ‘We urge people to imagine possible influences that might lead to business scenarios that are radically different from the one they think is most likely. By being induced to look for information about extreme possibilities, they will be taken away from the familiar places they would normally be looking and thereby put themselves in a position of learning things that are truly new to them. Effectively, the method we are proposing provides a means to counteract the confirmation bias, as well as many other biases that have been identified by behavioural psychologists. And it can be done on either end of the spectrum – extremely good outcomes or extremely bad outcomes.’

The future is certainly unpredictable, but what is interesting is our continued attempts to predict it. The efforts made to ‘future-proof’ loom large in the scenario planning around Brexit, with many businesses across the UK making plans for a ‘no-deal’ scenario. 

To an extent, this scenario-planning conversation is good strategy practice; thinking about the context of your operations, anticipating key influences and trends, working with organisational strategy as an ‘emergent’ rather than fixed entity. 

The organisations best prepared for the future are the ones that spend less time trying to predict it, and more time building the innovative, adaptive, and agile capabilities of their employees at all levels so that they are ready to respond to it and shape it.

Victoria Harrison-Mirauer is a Cambridge University graduate with 19 years of experience across innovation, marketing, digital and brand strategy. She is currently the Discipline Lead for Innovation at Ashridge Hult International Business School and runs a private innovation practice, The Ideas Machine.

How to become a creative problem solver like Elon Musk

Using lessons from Tesla’s Elon Musk and biopharmaceutical firm, Regneron, this excerpt from Innovation Capital looks at how you can use first-principles thinking to question assumptions and create new solutions using a blank-slate approach

Elon Musk has been instrumental in building three revolutionary, multibillion-dollar companies in completely different fields. His ability to solve seemingly unsolvable problems is essential to his success and he attributes his problem-solving success to first-principles thinking.

‘I operate on the physics approach of analysis by first principles,’ Musk told us. ‘The first principles approach to thinking is where you boil things down to the most fundamental truths in a particular area and then you reason up from there.’

In lay terms, first-principles thinking – which was first articulated and named by Aristotle – is the practice of identifying what you think is true and then actively questioning every assumption you have about a given problem or scenario.

Challenge everything

First-principles thinking helped Regeneron, the New York–based biopharmaceutical company, revolutionise how it develops new therapies. Whereas it costs, on average, $4.3 billion USD for the average company to develop an approved therapy, Regeneron has been estimated to develop therapies for less than $1 billion USD per approved therapy, which is 20% of the cost of its competitors.

How? ‘We challenge everything,’ says Regeneron CoFounder, President, and Chief Scientist, George Yancopoulos. ‘Every concept. Every scientific principle. Nothing is unchallengeable, and you don’t take anything for granted. Most of what we believe are facts are not.’

The next step is to identify the constraints to achieving what you want to achieve and then start with a blank slate and create solutions that might solve those constraints. ‘We always try to figure out what’s limiting in a field. What’s the bottleneck?’ Yancopoulos says. ‘Then you look for a game-breaking idea that addresses the limiting factor.’

Tesla’s approach to expensive batteries

To illustrate how to apply a first-principles process, consider Musk’s description of how automotive and energy company, Tesla, approached the problem of the high cost of battery packs for automobiles.

Some people say: ‘Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be. . . Historically, it has cost $600 USD per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.’ With first principles, you say, ‘what are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents?’ It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminium, carbon, some polymers for separation, and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis, and say, ‘if we bought that on the London Metal Exchange, what would each of those things cost?’ It’s, like, $80 USD per kilowatt hour. So, clearly, you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realises.

Of course, it isn’t that easy to ‘think of clever ways’ to combine the materials into a battery cell, but first-principles thinking starts with a blank slate, questions every assumption, and considers a wide variety of options. Here is a three-step process for first-principles problem solving:

1. Identify the problem you want to solve

In the case of Tesla, the key problems the company needed to solve were reducing the cost of the battery pack (to make it affordable) and increasing the range a car could go on a single charge (to reduce range anxiety).

At Regeneron, two big delays in the creation of successful new medicines were the time required to create and breed accurate animal models, a necessary step in ensuring safety before clinical-stage testing in humans, and the time required to develop ‘fully human’ antibody drug candidates that would be accepted in a human immune system.

2. Break down the problem into its fundamental principles, and list major constraints to solving it

The main constraint to an affordable battery pack might have been the cost of one or more of the materials. So then you would ask, ‘how could we possibly reduce the cost of that key material?’ For Tesla, the challenge of creating a lower-cost battery pack had less to do with materials and more to do with the process of combining them into a battery cell at enough scale to reduce the cost (hence the need for the Gigafactory, Tesla’s facility to design and build lower-cost lithium batteries at scale). A major constraint to increasing the range of a Tesla from a single electric charge was the weight of the car body. Thus, Tesla became the first automaker to use a lightweight, all-aluminium body.

At Regeneron, the limiting factor to rapid, successful drug testing was the time required to carefully test, select, and breed for certain genetic qualities in mice to ensure the closest parallels to future human patients. So Regeneron sped up the process by developing a precision technology capable of directly inserting human immune-system genes in mice, eliminating the need for many generations of breeding to accurately model human diseases and produce antibodies that could be safely introduced into humans. These ‘fully human’ mice have allowed Regeneron to more quickly and accurately identify medicines that will work on humans, thereby reducing the cost of each potential new drug. This breakthrough has contributed to a tenfold increase in the company’s stock price in the 10 years since 2010.

3. Create new solutions using a blank-slate approach

Ask yourself: ‘If I could create any solution I desired, what would that solution be?’ The point here is to imagine the perfect solution and then consider a wide variety of approaches that might eliminate the greatest bottleneck.

At Regeneron, the blank-slate solution was having an animal model respond exactly like a human during early-stage drug testing. Of course, Regeneron needed to figure out how to make this solution a reality, or at least closer to reality.

During this phase, you need to engage four behaviours actively – questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. Creative problem solvers excel at questioning, constantly challenging the status quo with ‘why not’ questions to turn things upside down. They also frequently ask ‘what if’ questions to envision a different future. They are also intense observers, carefully watching the world around them – especially customers, products, services, and processes— with a beginner’s mindset. Creative problem solvers also stand out at networking, talking with diverse people to spark a new way to solve perplexing problems. Finally, they search for new solutions by constantly experimenting.

First-principles thinking is a helpful approach to attacking problems creatively. And if you want to become an innovative leader, you will need to be as creative as you can in navigating around the obstacles that get in your way.

This is an edited excerpt from Innovation Capital: How to Compete – and Win – Like the World’s Most Innovative Leaders (2019) by Jeff Dyer, Nathan Furr and Curtis Lefrandt, courtesy of Harvard Business Review Press.

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Solving complex problems with design thinking

Design thinking requires essential ‘front-end’ questioning skills to understand the end user’s experience fully writes David Steinberg

Allow me to introduce you to three hypothetical individuals, with differing priorities, who will set the context for the following article:

Zaha is a full-time MBA student at a prestigious Business School, taking a design-thinking course and learning how to apply the process to her capstone project. Her School will apply design thinking to help her take the next step in her career.

Anna is a partner at a prestigious consulting firm and responsible for recruitment planning. She recently completed a design-thinking course for executives offered by Zaha’s Business School. She’ll apply design thinking to help Business Schools around the world visualise the ideal student profile in three, five and even 10 years. 

Etienne is Director of Post-Graduate Careers at Zaha’s Business School. He recently met and spoke at length with the professors who teach Zaha’s and Anna’s design-thinking courses. Etienne will apply design thinking to help his Business School align its curriculum to the strategic goals of the world’s most successful companies, including Anna’s firm. He’ll also help Zaha take that next big step in her career.

What Zaha, Anna and Etienne don’t realise is that their questioning skills are critical to the success of their design thinking. 

Why? Because design thinking begins with empathy. With empathy, we can immerse ourselves in the world of the end user, and by doing so, we can properly frame the problem experienced by the end user, and go on to solve the problem together in extraordinary ways. 

Design thinking fosters the co-creation of value, ideal for those who work in the highly competitive, ever-changing and relationship-dependent professions of graduate business career services and employer recruitment.

What is design thinking? 

Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, describes design thinking as ‘the integration of feeling, intuition and inspiration with rational and analytical thought.’ 

To Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, design thinking is a ‘balance between analytical mastery and intuitive originality’. 

Meanwhile, David Kelley, founder of IDEO and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, calls it a ‘framework that people can hang their creative confidence on,’ providing those who don’t consider themselves to be creative with a way to solve some of the world’s most complex problems. 

University of Potsdam and Stanford University are two of the leading centres for the study and application of design thinking. Companies flock to the campuses to apply it to their challenges and change management. Ian Wylie at the Financial Times writes that industry adoption of design thinking ‘has encouraged Business Schools to add design-thinking methods to their executive MBAs and help students find innovative solutions in sectors from healthcare and pharmaceuticals to banking and insurance’. 

It turns out that there isn’t one design-thinking process: several have emerged in the past decade, each with its own terminology and devotees. 

For example, IDEO’s process focuses on inspiration, ideation and implementation. Roger Martin’s version requires ‘moving through a knowledge funnel’ from mystery to heuristic to algorithm. The Design Council, Google and IBM have their own versions. However, the Stanford five-step process is considered the gold standard: empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test.  

Let’s bring in Anna and Etienne to help explain each phase of the Stanford process using a simple scenario.

Empathise: during a recent meeting, Etienne initiated a series of questions and learned some sobering news about new hires from his School. They’re not building trust with clients of Anna’s firm. Etienne then conducted extensive interviews with other clients and heard a similar story. 

Define: Etienne returned to his School and met with faculty and staff to define the problem. They determined that the underlying issue was that students, while certainly high-calibre, lacked training in advanced interpersonal skills.

Ideate: Etienne’s team held a brainstorming session and came up with several solutions, including coaching and feedback, workplace simulations and field immersion.

Prototype: a sub-committee of Etienne’s team developed a prototype programme to solve the problem.

Test: Etienne’s School tested and tuned the programme with a selected group of graduate business students before formally launching it the following year.

The enduring value of the Stanford process is that when it is applied properly, it can produce innovative solutions that emerge not from the ‘ideate’ phase per se, but from the ‘empathise’ phase – the information-gathering phase. Proper application means not moving too quickly downstream into the latter phases – what most of us would consider to be the exciting bits involving late nights and whiteboards and lots of pacing around the room – without first understanding the underlying issues associated with the end user’s experience. 

Here’s a common and costly mistake that many companies and organisations make: they conduct a few cursory interviews with end users; they think they understand the problem; they think they have a solution; they roll out the solution and go home feeling good. They return the next day… and the problem is still there. 

IDEO’s Tim Brown describes empathy as the most important skill for the design thinker. He adds that empathic designers ‘notice things that others do not and use their insights to inspire innovation’. 

Design thinkers are taught how to empathise by combining observation and engagement in ways resembling techniques used by ethnographers in the field. Observation includes looking for work arounds and for disconnects between what is said and what is done. Engagement means asking mostly ‘why’ questions to ‘uncover deeper meaning’. 

If empathy is the most important skill for the design thinker, then asking questions comes a close second. However, there are as many generic approaches to understanding the end user’s experience as there are processes for design thinking. One size doesn’t always fit all. What follows is an approach to questioning tailor-made for the ‘empathise’ phase of the Stanford process and for people in career services and employer recruitment. Indeed, business students can also use it to complete their external projects. This approach will put you on the right path towards successfully defining and solving the end user’s problem. 

Change points

Your first step as a designer is to determine the topics to explore with the end user. John Sawatsky, Michener-Award-winning investigative journalist and interview expert, argues that the secret to crafting compelling questions is to build them around ‘change points’, which are key changes in someone’s personal or professional life. In the context of design thinking, the designer seeks to discover change points in the end user’s experience and to understand the associated underlying issues. Focus on the timeframe before a change point and build your question sequence around it. 

There are parallels between this process and an intriguing principle in Eastern philosophy called ‘ma’. According to theatre director Colleen Lanki: ‘Ma is a Japanese aesthetic principle meaning “emptiness” or “absence”. It is the space between objects, the silence between sounds, or the stillness between movements… The emptiness is, in fact, a palpable entity.’

Listen for ma in Japanese conversation in the form of question fragments, or in the silence between drum beats or flute notes or lyrics in Kabuki theatre. Look for ma in Japanese visual arts such as paintings that have empty space in them. Author and TV presenter James Fox notes that ma can give structure to the whole, the way open spaces in traditional Japanese homes are given meaning by those who live in them. It’s the spaces between the change points in people’s lives that offer rich insights for the design thinker.

Ask ‘what-how-why?’

Your next step is to develop a list of questions. In the early 1980s, Sawatsky began teaching journalism at various Canadian universities. He noticed that students who asked ‘what-how-why’ questions (topic-process-motivation) for class projects elicited more vivid responses from sources compared with students who used other words and sequences. This sequence corresponds with the neural basis of human listening. 

Social Neuroscientist, Robert Spunt, at Caltech writes: ‘Listening requires not simply a comprehension of what others are saying and how they are saying it, but also why they are saying it: what caused them to say that and to say it in that way?’ 

Think of the what-how-why sequence as a navigational system in an aircraft cockpit. Use the sequence to prepare for your end-user engagement by developing questions that function as waypoints between the first and last topic you’d like to explore. 

In between the what-how-why waypoints, probe and clarify responses using questions that you deem appropriate; open-ended questions work best, particularly when you want to explore matters of degree such as confidence, dedication, and success. When you’d like the person to confirm or deny a topic, ask a yes/no question, but it’s best to do so after you’ve explored a matter of degree. Moreover, use what-how-why when the person offers you a revelation. If you only have one opportunity to ask the person questions, you must quickly improvise a new sequence. You might eventually return to your original flight plan, or you might decide to stay on the new course. You’re the pilot.

Remember: we prepare to improvise.

PHASE 1: DEFINE THE CHALLENGE

The Stanford ‘empathise’ phase begins with defining the challenge. This can be interpreted as discovering one or more change points associated with the end user’s experience. Three question models follow to jumpstart your information-gathering process: 

Etienne’s questions for Zaha

• What was a positive moment during your time at the Business School that you vividly remember and often reflect on?

• How did this moment make you feel?

• Why do you think this moment made you feel this way?

This question sequence helps Etienne ‘dig into the emotion’, as the Stanford design school phrases it, to help Zaha take the next step in her career. Etienne learns that Zaha often thinks about her idea for a startup project in her elective: to build high-definition cameras and install them inside incubators in neonatal units to help parents see their newborns when they’re away from the hospital. Her work group’s enthusiastic response to her idea gave her a level of confidence she’d never had before.

Etienne’s questions for Anna 

• What is your firm’s top strategic goal in the next five years?

• How will this strategic goal change your firm?

• Why is this strategic goal important to your firm?

This sequence is designed to create alignment between Etienne’s Business School and Anna’s firm, while at the same time assuring that he understands the underlying issues associated with her firm’s strategic goals. Etienne learns that Anna’s firm has access to vast quantities of data with no means of harnessing it for clients. He also learns that the firm’s managing director is growing uneasy about the fierce competition from rival consulting firms, and has asked for ways to design innovative solutions for clients and to roll them out more quickly. Indeed, Etienne learns that the firm would like to launch a new data/predictive analytics division.

Anna’s questions for Etienne 

• What, in your view, is the next step for our employer/ Business School partnership?

• How can we collaborate on this next step?

• Why do you feel this step is right at this time?

This sequence is also designed to align Etienne’s Business School with Anna’s firm but from Etienne’s perspective. Anna learns that Etienne’s Business School proposes to co-create the new analytics division to help the firm’s clients address their own customers’ challenges and make informed predictions about the future. Students would enrol in a new business immersion course and spend six weeks at Anna’s firm. 

After the induction period, students would then work on challenging projects based on their specialisation. This partnership would provide students with the immersive learning experience they expect, and provide Anna’s firm with a continuous supply of ideas and skills provided by students at one of the world’s premier Business Schools. 

PHASE 2: GATHER INSPIRATION

Once you have defined the challenge by discovering a change point, the next step in the Stanford ‘empathise’ phase is to gather inspiration, which can be interpreted as exploring the change point. Help the end user go deeper into their experience. 

As market research interviewers will attest, the end user’s first response may not fully capture their feelings. 

For example, the end user might initially describe their long-haul flight to Shanghai as being ‘fine’, but after a few probing questions, ‘fine’ turns out to mean ‘the in-flight meal was average and the entertainment was limited’. 

Here are three ways to explore a change point:

Ask an immersive question

Craft a question in a comparative structure and turn up the contrast. 

For example, Etienne might ask Zaha this question to learn more about how her work group’s positive reaction to her start-up idea has changed her self-perception: ‘Thinking back to your work group’s positive reaction to your startup idea, how would you compare your perception of yourself as an entrepreneur then and now?’

Embed a verbatim comment

Embed a verbatim comment made by the end user in a comparative structure and once again, turn up the contrast. For example, Anna might ask Etienne this devil of a question to learn more about his Business School’s vision of the ideal student profile in five years: ‘You recently said that “artificial intelligence will reshape labour markets in unimaginable ways”. How would a student’s profile that takes into account the rise of high-level machine intelligence compare with the profile of a current student?

Wrap the change point

Again, it’s the spaces between a change point that are as important as the moment of change. Ask one question that takes the person back into the moment before the change point. Ask a second question that explores the actual change point. Then ask a third question that explores the moment after the change point. 

For example, Zaha might ask the following three questions to her client at Lego as part of her capstone project:

• Thinking back to 2012, before you introduced your co-creation process, how did Lego developers bring their ideas to market?

• When Lego introduced co-creation with customers, what were the steps to bring these products to market?

• What’s the primary difference between products created only by Lego developers and those co-created with your customers?

Design thinking offers people in career services and employer recruitment a way to co-create rather than dictate solutions. It also offers a way for students to hone their problem-solving skills and to co-create solutions with their clients for class projects. 

However, design thinking requires essential ‘front-end’ questioning skills to fully understand the end user’s experience. Mastering these skills will assure that everyone involved is headed in the right direction. 

Dr David Steinberg is Principal at Reykjavik Sky Consulting. He conducts MBA masterclasses on advanced questioning skills at several Business Schools including Cass Business School and Nottingham Business School and is Associate Professor in Leadership, Strategy and Organisation at Heriot-Watt University.

Applying original thinking to business

Business Schools must encourage independent thinking and bravery in their students to help prevent future financial crises, says Fiona Devine OBE, Head of Alliance Manchester Business School. Interview by Jack Villanueva and David Woods-Hale

What were the key points of your presentation at AMBA’s 2018 Global Conference for Deans and Directors? 

I wanted us all to reflect on the global financial crisis of 2008 because the causes and consequences of that crisis are still being felt today and will be for some time. 

I wanted us to think about its impact on the world with a particular focus on leadership and management education. We have to produce the leaders of tomorrow who still take issues of corporate governance very seriously. There are many examples in the business world and in all aspects of life in which we have to think about fraud, accountability, corporate governance and how we address those issues. 

In light of that, how do you think Business Schools should be preparing MBAs to be leaders of tomorrow?  

Business Schools should be producing well-rounded people. By that, I mean people who understand business in the wider context – the social, economic and political environments in which businesses are operating. 

They need to understand this external environment as well as the environments of the organisations in which they’re working.
I think business leaders of the future need to understand how to manage change, how to lead change, and how to deal with risk and uncertainty. 

How can we be sure that the skills that are currently being taught are the right tools to safeguard against another financial crisis?

We’ll only know that when there isn’t another one. 

I don’t suppose we’ll never have crises in the future. But there should be people who will have the independence of mind to step up and say when there is uncertainty about issues. It doesn’t have to be a big crisis for people to draw attention to something. It’s about having the independence of mind and the courage and bravery to say something different – and not be part of group think. It’s about reflecting on and challenging things that come along if they don’t feel right. 

Do you think MBAs are being taught the necessary skills to succeed? 

I would hope so, as a Business School Dean. They will be taught what’s needed if the curriculum is up to date. An old curriculum doesn’t serve anybody, so we want an academic community that is abreast of the latest developments in the world of business and how it’s changing; and always bringing theory and practice together. 

Our strapline in the Business School in Manchester is ‘original thinking applied’ and it is really about defining theory and practice. Theory is often speculative and not grounded; it’s about connecting this to practice and this is very important and I know that many Business School Deans aspire to achieve it. 

How important is the continuation of learning after achieving an MBA? 

It’s hugely important. We all talk about it and we know that in a world of change, risk and uncertainty, it’s important to have the space to step out of your organisation, find a platform to talk to people about issues and challenges and get advice. 

Executive education and continuing professional development provide that space for you to do that. It’s easy when you’re in an organisation to think you’re the only person facing these problems and you’re the one who has to come up with novel solutions, but often when you join an executive education programme you’ll find yourself confronting similar dilemmas and challenges so it’s good to have those conversations and join that collective discussions about the best ways forward. 

In what ways have Business Schools adapted sustainable leadership into their programmes? 

Sustainable leadership is to do with resources and how you use them efficiently and effectively for the long term. One of our preoccupations is with environmental sustainability – but there are other forms – and in Manchester we have scholars working in this area. 

For example, there are lots of discussions at the moment about the need to move to a low-carbon future, but how do organisations get there? It’s a huge transition, especially if you’re a dominant player in a particular market. How do we get there? This has to be a core part of the curriculum [in Business Schools] whether it’s in the MBA or electives on specialist masters or undergraduate programmes. There’s a high demand for these programmes from students. 

What are some of the innovative teaching methods being used to prepare the leaders of tomorrow? 

Teaching has changed considerably over the past 10-20 years, most notably because of new technology. The days when you would go into a lecture for an hour of being talked at, as a passive audience member, are long gone. 

Technology has allowed us to do amazing things in the classroom and that learning engages students a lot more. It’s not about passive learning, even in large lectures. Material can be presented in innovative ways, using apps and gamification, to help people learn and think in active ways. 

Is the need for innovation a major challenge that Business Schools face? 

Like any other organisation, Business Schools have to think about change, evolution and relevance. Business Schools have to be useful to the business world, serving local as well as international communities. 

The biggest challenge is the politics of today – will the world remain as international as it has been for the past 20 years? Will we embrace people of all nationalities moving around the world and studying at Business Schools? Will people still feel comfortable to do this as the politics of the world changes? 

Which is the bigger issue for Business Schools: the volatile economic environment or barriers to student mobility? 

International mobility is important, not only for the Business School world but education in general. The academic world has enjoyed a surge of interest from students coming to Business Schools from all around the world and it would be shame if we lost that confidence people have to travel. 

We’ve got to think about keeping students up to date with current debates about politics, looking at international relations in terms of trade, how countries collaborate with each other, and all those sorts of issues. These are important for understanding businesses and what happens in the business world.

What innovations have you seen in Business Schools that have the potential to change the way businesses do things? 

There are lots of things out there and even as a Dean of a Business School, you hardly know the breadth of innovations happening in your own School. 

I’ve been interested in knowledge-transfer partnerships, in which Schools work with organisations. I have a number of colleagues working with legal companies at the moment, around legal tech. They’re exploring changes happening with legal technologies, how that’s disrupting the legal world and also how data is disrupting this sector, in the same way as fintech has disrupted the finance sector. 

Academics are bringing their expertise to the areas of solving business problems and helping companies through this. It’s important to be useful. 

How can a Business add value to a corporate with which it’s working? 

There are many ways we can work with corporates. Business Schools act as a platform to bring people together to discuss important topics. 

Manchester Alliance Business School recently held a talk on the industrial strategy in the UK, bringing people together to talk about this. What was gratifying about this event was that people were sharing business cards with each other. We can be a place where big ideas are discussed and we can bring solutions to problems as well.

Fiona Devine OBE is Head of Alliance Manchester Business School and Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester. 

Creating a beacon of culture in the darkness of war

Syrian-born businesswoman, Shireen Atassi, stepped away from a career in banking to launch a non-profit foundation in Dubai, promoting Syrian artwork and artists. She talks to David Woods-Hale about her unconventional career path, post-MBA

As part of AMBA’s 50th anniversary celebrations, we conducted 50 interviews with MBA graduates from across the globe, to celebrate the diversity of a global network of post-graduate business students. 

These stories showcase bravery, entrepreneurship, achieved ambitions, goals reached, careers changed, borders crossed and boundaries broken down. 

But, considering the global geopolitical environment, one story stands out from the rest. 

It’s the story of a woman who left her village in Syria – currently the world’s most violent country, according to the Global Peace Index – to complete her MBA, and then moved back to the Middle East in a bid to protect and promote the art and culture of her homeland. 

Shireen Atassi, CEO of the Atassi Foundation and an MBA graduate of Imperial College Business School, picks up her tale.

‘I grew up in a little town in the middle of Syria,’ she says. ‘My father was a partner in a construction company and my mother was a gallerist. I graduated from school, spent a year in Switzerland and then moved to Manchester, where I did a BSc in economics. I went back to Syria for three years. By this stage, my parents had moved to Damascus and my mother had another gallery there. I worked in a consultancy firm, and in the evenings, I worked at my mother’s gallery.’

Atassi is thankful for this experience, explaining that it gave her access to the worlds of both business and culture; but by 1996, she was ready to leave Syria for the second time.

‘Everything was too small for what I wanted and the opportunities were too few,’ she says. ‘I had a privileged childhood with access to lots of things, because of who my parents were. This wasn’t a path I wanted to go down and I wanted to open my own doors. I’m not someone who had a plan and worked according to that. All I knew was that I wanted to open doors and tick boxes on my own.’

Atassi opted to do a full-time MBA in London at Imperial College Business School. 

She explains: ‘A lot of people who do MBAs don’t know where they’re going. Some people want to change careers – from engineering or medicine to business. Others are like me with no masterplan and want to use the opportunity to regroup and broaden their horizons. Did the MBA give me a masterplan? No – but at the time it wasn’t an issue for me. I wasn’t keen to tell people where I wanted to go.

‘Instead, my MBA gave me a completely different perspective on business. As a consultant, you scratch the surface of business but you don’t lead companies. You talk big, but you don’t get your hands dirty and manage a business. The MBA gave me a well-rounded idea on the elements of how you would manage a business.

‘Back then, if you had an MBA it was either to be a banker or make money. It was almost surreal how students were motivated to think the bigger the words you use and the bigger your salary, the better your programme was.’ 

She pauses, before adding: ‘In saying that, the year I spent at Imperial was one of the richest in my life, academically, culturally and socially. It opened my eyes to a lot of the business questions that I hadn’t been able to answer when I worked in consultancy. I learned about the nitty gritty of managing and actually being in a business. 

‘I met my husband while I was doing my MBA and tried to find a job in London, but had to move to Dubai.’

Atassi received two job offers in Dubai, one from a young venture capitalist and one from established corporation Ernst and Young (EY). 

‘I chose Ernst and Young,’ she tells me. ‘It was a safer bet and I already had some experience as a consultant. This seemed the more conventional way to go. My hunch was telling me not to take it – but I did. But Dubai at the time was very young. Being a consultant is only as interesting as your clients and I have to say, my clients were not that interesting.’ 

In 2000, Atassi applied to work for Mars, which had built a factory to produce chocolate in Dubai; she was offered a different job to the one she applied for, finding herself on the operational side of business for the first time. She found it played to her skills.

‘I think I’m made for that kind of thing,’ she explains. ‘I loved operations and procurement. I managed a number of markets and was in charge of direct and indirect materials.’ 

In 2007, she decided to set up her own business – a consultancy firm for training and software around procurement and supply management. 

‘With hindsight, there were a few mistakes in my execution,’ says Atassi. ‘The timing was wrong. There were a couple of accounts that were close to being signed, but the [2008] recession materialised.

‘This was a male-dominated society. I walked into a boardroom of an oil company in Abu Dhabi to give a presentation on my software and it was a room full of men. One said to me:“where’s your team?” I was offended and replied“I am the team.” Had I taken a partner who was a male, who wore a suit, it might have worked better, but I have no regrets. Part of your success as a person is to accept these facts and deal with them because the world is not perfect. 

‘Even if I had set up my company in the US or UK, I should have understood that my clients were not small businesses,’ she continues. ‘They were large corporates and to walk into these big organisations, you need to have an appropriate corporate image. You need to play the game: I had big plans but I didn’t act like a big deal – this had an impact.’

A couple of years later, in 2010, Citibank in Dubai invited Atassi to come on board for six months, a contract that became nine months and then a permanent job. 

She says: ‘I loved it and I did damn well with them. I managed the Middle East and North Africa. I also co-managed Africa. My career was going well, but in 2014 it plateaued. I’d had a career path and I was worried about career progression.’

It was at this point that Atassi’s Syrian roots, and her immersion in the arts, through her parents, impacted directly on her career path. Like many ambitious business leaders, she came to realise that ‘sometimes life happens’, drawing you in a particular direction.

Due to the conflict in Syria, her parents had moved to Dubai in 2012. Her mother had been forced to close down her gallery in Damascus and had brought with her a sizeable collection of precious Syrian art and curiosities. 

‘I wanted to keep an open mind and an open heart,’ says Atassi. ‘I’d lived with this [art] my entire life. My parent’s home had been a cultural saloon, full of playwrights, artists and moviemakers, so it was something I’d always had in my life. 

‘We felt it was appropriate to counteract the narrative about the killing, blood and destruction in Syria, so we decided to put the collection online to show the world that Syria is a lot more than we see in the press. Syria is a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious country that has existed for thousands of years, in which people have lived together.’

The family had accumulated a sizeable collection of 500 pieces of artwork and decided to create a non-profit foundation to promote the artwork and the artistic production of Syrian artists all over the world. 

Atassi explains: ‘We wanted to tell the stories over and over again, because we were privileged enough to do this,’ she says. ‘With privilege comes responsibility towards the environment, family, country and friends. 

‘I’m privileged to have been able to go to Imperial College Business School. I felt like I lived in a bubble in Dubai – but I’m a normal person and when I feel strongly about something I find it hard to sit back and watch.’

The Atassi Foundation was incorporated in 2015. Dubai’s legal structure doesn’t allow the existence of not-for-profit organisations, so the company was registered in Lichtenstein and launched in March 2016. 

‘It’s just me and my mum,’ says Atassi. ‘We have a small team and we work from home. We do everything from inventory and stock through to curating, marketing, launches, websites and making contacts.’

She adds: ‘I went against everything the Business School taught me and set up the business without a strategic plan. I just needed to start.’

Since its launch, The Atassi Foundation has collaborated with museums and leading art galleries in Dubai, Toronto and London. In Dubai, it produced the biggest Syrian art show of all time and has commissioned research into the Syrian Cultural field. 

‘It’s been surreal,’ says Atassi. ‘But now, 14 months after launch, I’m taking a step back. 

The first year was great in terms of PR – we set ourselves on the map. Anything that’s happening in the arena of Syrian arts and culture is landing on my lap, so I’m taking a step back, to re-strategise. 

‘We need to think about funding,’ she admits. ‘We need to use our budget in the most sensible way. If we spend money in
the wrong place, we can’t replace this, so we want to build funds to do what we need to do.’ 

Does Atassi feel she made the right choice to forgo financial services for the world of art? 

She considers the question carefully. ‘I don’t have a big ego,’ she says. ‘But I was developing this at Citibank – I didn’t recognise myself. I could have gone places with that career, but it felt like I was wearing someone else’s clothes. At the time I wasn’t aware of that. It felt strange. Now, my commissioning committee and my board of directors are my parents and myself. I have teenage children. I’m able to do what I love.

‘I’m telling a story and it can’t get more personal. It’s my life story and the story of my mum’s art business. This is a beacon of culture. I’m talking about my country and I’m telling my story. I’m privileged because I can tell the story, but I’m just one of many people trying to tell it.’

She pauses again before adding: ‘I understand how humanitarian education and human development is a priority. We’re talking about millions of displaced Syrian people and I can’t begin to tell you about the level of hatred this war in Syria has created. It’s like opening a Pandora’s box of evil. But none of this [evil] has any relevance to Syrian people. ISIS has no relevance to us – they’re not home-bred. It’s out of our hands. 

In spite of this she adds: ‘It just takes more people to do what we’re doing. I was speaking to a non-governmental organisation in Lebanon, setting up schools in the country. They’re doing marvellous things.

‘When you decide to do something like this – and I can’t decide whether I’m a social entrepreneur or a cultural patron – you’re taking a very uncalculated risk. You have no idea how your career is going to go. If I decided to go back into employment, what would I do? Where has this put me on the career map? I’ve spent 20 or more years working in a corporate environment. 

‘No one in this part of the world sets up an art foundation. I didn’t know how it would be perceived. In Syria, entire streets were being wiped out and I was setting up an art foundation, but I’m doing this based on a very important conviction. Art and culture hold a mirror to society; they tell stories. There’s a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the artists themselves. They bring people together. In the situation we’re in it’s taken a completely different meaning.’

Given Atassi’s experience, her passion for art and the dramatic change from working in banking, to telling the world about the threatened artwork of Syria, virtually single-handedly, does she see herself as part of a new breed of ‘socially responsible’ MBA? 

She says: ‘I don’t think there’s ever one-size-fits-all for an MBA graduate. We need capitalists, bankers and entrepreneurs in the world, but from my perspective, Business Schools needs to nurture an awareness among students. I came to an MBA to open doors, not knowing what doors I wanted to open. Business Schools are evolving like everything else. 

‘When I went to Business School, the internet wasn’t available to everyone. The world was different, but we have to put everything into perspective in the right setting. Education doesn’t stop when you leave Business School, you always have to be on top of things or you’ll be left behind.’

So what is her advice for her MBA student and graduate peers? 

‘In terms of thinking about investment for an MBA student, you’ll ask a lot of questions,’ she says. ‘Will the MBA open your eyes to things you’ve never considered doing before? 

‘I think I listened to my head too much and not my heart. When I think about it, it was always open to me to join the art business, but I wanted to tick boxes on my own – it was my head and not my heart. I didn’t know any better then. 

‘My advice is to dig deep and question yourself about why you’re doing things. Don’t get stuck in corporate stress – you could realise you’re on the wrong track.’ 

As our conversation comes to an end and Atassi considers the next chapter of her story, for herself and for Syria, she muses: ‘Where would we be if we weren’t optimistic. I’m not expecting miracles but I’m definitely optimistic. 

‘What I’m doing is not selfless – it’s incredibly selfish. I’m buying myself back. I used to cry, but not anymore. I know I’m doing something worthwhile; I’m not changing the course of history; I’m not going to stop the war in Syria. I’m not going to remedy the agony of the mothers, the fathers or the children who have lost it all.

‘What I’m doing now doesn’t just excite me; it gives me the oomph and strength to make this work. It’s more than a challenge. What’s the worst that can happen to me [in Dubai]? We’ll still have food on the table. 

‘I owe this to my children. If you ask them, they might not have a Syrian passport, but they’re Syrian. I owe it to me and I owe it to them.’ 

Comfortably numb: the peril of a plateau

A plateau in business is really an invisible state of decline, unwittingly fuelled by those at the top. Leading out of it involves innovation, transparency, values-led decisions and sustainability, argue Khurshed Dehnugara and Claire Genkai Breeze

‘Hello… Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home?’

Does the above quote from Pink Floyd’s hit Comfortably Numb ever resonate with you and your workplace?

We have defined this comfortable numbness as a ‘plateau’: when a business or economy reaches a certain point in its growth trajectory and, while not failing, has become stagnant. 

Putting this into the context of a natural metaphor, a stagnant pond cannot support life; it is dying, poisoned, unhealthy and toxic. In short, both metaphorically and literally, the plateauing, stagnant organisation could be toxic as well. 

Crisis versus plateau
Companies, operating in the volatile ‘new normal’ of the business world will face crises, opportunity, highs and lows. Threat is a now a constant reality and, as a result, businesses are becoming increasingly proficient at managing through crises. 

In the short term, at least, crises can generate positive opportunities. 

They bring a degree of drama which energises the leadership population  and galvanises entire workforces into action. This crisis mentality can engage teams and spur their inner heroes, mobilising them into fight-or-flight mode, where the adrenaline is pumping and making them feel good about themselves. This often leads to great results. For the short term.

For most businesses today, however, there are the plateaus; businesses are failing to achieve growth. Many of these organisations remain in this state, with their only response being to keep generating modest profits through cutting costs; for instance, achieving a 0% sales growth but 2% or 3% profit growth each year, which keeps the city happy and the board and the all-important shareholders satisfied. There is no profit warning, so no real problem, right? Wrong. 

This cost-cutting phenomenon is nothing more than a metaphorical anaesthetic, numbing the pain, dulling the ache, keeping the proverbial wolves from the door – but it is lobotomising the business of the innovation, creativity or passion it desperately needs.

Its people – and leaders – are internally dissatisfied; they see no way through this fog. They are comfortably numb.

This is a financial plateau. Often underneath this is a cultural plateau – in which employees are bumbling along in silos, disengaged and counting the minutes until home time. There may also be a leadership plateau – an habitual state of not focusing attention on real change and, quite simply, not feeling the need to.

Plateaus produce a compelling, but largely unconscious, dominant logic in the minds of leaders as well as employees. This creates a perceived safety zone between the pendulum swing of modest profits and cost cutting. 

However, beneath the financial plateau is a plateau of the imagination. 

In this instance, people in the organisation cease to be able to imagine another way of doing things, or a place of business where purpose, boldness, creativity and innovation lie at the core of the culture and are not the exception. 

The cultural and leadership plateaus that cause, and result from, this failure of imagination are a threat to vitality, invention and wellbeing. They create a workforce of comfort seekers and cynics; they create an illusion of activity when really the business
is engaged in a sophisticated game of killing time. 

Killing time for what? Killing time until employees can reach the top of the organisation, pay their mortgages, achieve promotion or just pluck up the courage to leave their job and focus on something that would genuinely engage them. If these feel like strong and unpalatable statements, they need to be. A plateau is really a decline.

The trouble with crises
It is easier to strategise around a crisis than a plateau because there is a consolidated and absolute focus on getting a problem sorted. A crisis is often more about recovering after a difficulty rather than maintaining or sustaining growth.

A case in point is Samsung. In October 2016, just weeks after launching its flagship smartphone, the Galaxy Note 7, the company had to recall more than three million devices after reports of overheating and exploding batteries. One clever PR strategy later and some Samsung super fans are still holding on to their Note 7s despite the risk. Given strong customer satisfaction with the product line, plus loyalty to other Samsung products, this customer base looks set to put the Note 7 fiasco behind it quite quickly.

Another example is Volkswagen. According to Harvard Business Review, less than two months after a scandal broke around Volkswagen cars’ high emissions in 2015, German consumers were already ready to forgive the company and look past its transgressions In a national survey, 65% of respondents believed that Volkswagen still built outstanding cars and that the emissions scandal was overblown. Less than a year later, the company had returned to profitability.

There is strategic merit in distinguishing crisis from plateau. 

During a crisis, businesses experience the behaviour from their people that they would expect all the time: excitement flares up, employees shine, and then, as quickly as it sprang up, this enthusiasm fades away.

Businesses generate a lot of discretionary effort in crises; lots of high-level communications, collective responsibility, increased collaboration, more truth telling, more focus on customer, very high levels of support and a ‘can do’ attitude. 

But some organisations ‘manage by crisis’ all the time due to the misguided belief that this management strategy keeps people mobilised. The tragic reality is that this is neither helpful nor sustainable over the long term. In fact, this type of initiative will run out of potency fast and, if leaders declare a crisis every few months, then the impact of it declines over time.

Boom and bust 
Considering the logic of organisational history, companies in the past would typically move through a cycle of massive change, steady state, then massive change, then steady state. The aim was to get through these waves as efficiently as possible and businesses became experienced at catching up and repairing gaps, to return, eventually, to where they wanted to be. Corporates that were good at change management were celebrated, but change management sometimes equates to nothing more than an illusion to keep people active, productive and focused.

The low-growth environment of the past decade has partly contributed to an acceptance of plateaus in productivity and growth. But a plateau is a long burn; an unseen issue within the business that can be easily disguised. It is a major challenge, but it is insidious because its damage will only be noticed when measured over a long period.

A well-supported decline?
We’re going to throw a spanner into the works here, because after defining the plateau, we want to argue that the plateau doesn’t, in fact, exist. It is an artificial state of mind. 

If the only way business leaders can generate any positive results is through cost cutting, then their business, essentially, is not plateauing. The ‘plateau’ is nothing more than an invisible state of decline – unwittingly fuelled by those at the top. It is an illusion – a cloak of artificial buoyancy that props up a lack of positive activity. 

So, with that in mind, our definition of what has commonly been described as a ‘plateau’ in corporate life is, perhaps more appropriately, ‘a well-supported decline’. 

This decline occurs when organisations stop challenging their limiting assumptions or constraints. They’re creating results through deficit rather than innovation and, in a psychological era of austerity, it’s understandable how this subconsciously unfolds within business.  

The hollowing effect
If businesses continue in this stasis for long enough, they become hollow. 

Their core values, purpose, culture is removed and this often manifests itself through people movement. 

Senior executives typically remain in a role for no more than three or four years; they simply become part of the hollowing mechanism coming to believe ‘cost cutting is what we do here’. 

In large organisations, whole generations of leaders often leave within months of each other, simply because they’re unable to shift or lead the business away from decline. In other words, instead of companies making difficult changes or hard decisions, leaders who don’t make a difference are moved on. 

As a result, these businesses don’t disappear – the cycle merely starts all over again. Leading a business in a state of gradual decline is much harder work than leading a business through a crisis. Some leadership teams are ‘relieved rescuers’ when a crisis comes along, adopting the mentality ‘right we know what we are doing here, let’s roll up our sleeves and get on with it…’

Leading through a crisis
Waking up the organisation up in a crisis is easy – you don’t need to tell people too much about it as they usually already feel the heat from the metaphorical flames. The clichéd burning platform is screaming at you so there little analytical is skill required to diagnose the challenge ahead.  

Crises respond well to the traditional hierarchy of status and power. Leaders want people to act immediately without too much deliberation when a command is given. So, divide up the tasks between the team, project manage, communicate quickly and regularly, and make sure everyone knows where you are up to by establishing crisis management teams for employees outside of their day-to-day work.

The leaders’ role is often to act as a container around the crisis in a bid to stop panic, keep calm and project an in-control image. The brief is to make the difficulty go away, recover and return to order with perceptions of security, as quickly as possible.

Leadership energy during a crisis is characterised by endurance: grit your teeth, get through it even if you have to collapse on the other side. This is one of the reasons that it isn’t a sustainable, long-term strategic choice. 

Leading out of a ‘plateau’
Waking the organisation up to a well-supported decline, a ‘plateau’, is an altogether subtler act. It is an act of observation, looking differently at what is reality rather than what we imagine it or wish it to be. 

This is an act of courage and responsibility; a process of leaders being comfortable with their vulnerability and saying ‘we don’t know’. The diagnosis here is mostly about identifying and surfacing the repeating patterns of behaviour that are keeping the business stuck and circular in its leadership activities. 

Leadership action in a ‘plateau’ has an experimental nature to it: trial and error, probing, testing and learning; finding some data and bringing it back to the table for examination. It involves applying all of the organisation’s efforts to the day-to-day work, and not separating from it through analyses. The day to day is where the insidious patterns exert themselves and where they need to be disturbed.

Authority at this time emerges from how the system organises itself around the leader, how the individual is connected to others and how much they trust in their team, the culture and the corporate vision. This is because new performance needs leaders to disrupt the system and to disturb it first. After this, a leader needs to take a stand to achieve breakthroughs, bearing in mind that this tactic may be received by the establishment as something ridiculous that feels ‘out of sync’ with the way the business is currently tracking. 

Leaders in a plateau display anxiety in a different way to what is needed in the crisis. They put themselves at risk, but at the same time need to create a sense of psychological safety so that others will want to step out and join them on the precipice. They must quickly become experts in dealing with disappointment, loss of hope, resignation, and perhaps most importantly, resisting invitations to return to the past. 

Conclusion
So, in short, do we live in a business world led by people who love a crisis but are so comfortably numb the rest of the time that they embrace a plateau with open arms? 

In terms of energy and ongoing momentum, anything that looks like a straight line on the balance sheet is actually a decline. The flat line causes a decline in energy, expectation, imagination, belief in possibility and desire. Over time (and perhaps unnoticed) all the people with any energy and purpose start to leave. 

Those with more of a personal investment in the organisation will stay until their own needs are met, but ultimately the effect on the overall organisational system is one of intransigence and self-justification. 

Austerity is the fiend that appears to be the friend of growth – when the real solution to leading from plateau to profit is innovation, transparency, values-led decisions and sustainability. 

Retaining leadership energy in a plateau has a different feel to leading through growth or indeed crisis. And, if you’re reading this and you feel comfortable in your business performance, you should ask yourself if this is, in fact, merely a placebo effect of numbness?

Shouldn’t we, as leaders, always be uncomfortable? If not, how can we possibly be agile enough to innovate perpetually? 

Now is the time for leaders to be savvy, strategic and take a sustainable, long-term view. Great plateau leadership will ebb and flow and leaders need to know when to rest and when to up the intensity. 

But the challenge must be moderated by encouraging teams and peers, in order to keep up the momentum – because the cloaked nature of the plateau can make the finishing line seem a long way away. 

Khurshed Dehnugara and Claire Genkai Breeze have been Partners at Relume Ltd. since 2000. Specialists in coaching senior executives to be challengers of the status quo, their clients are listed corporations worldwide. 

They are authors of The Challenger Spirit – Organisations That Disturb The Status Quo (2011) and Flawed but Willing – Leading Large Organisations In The Age of Connection (2014). 

A calling in business

From Sri Lanka to Europe and grocery shop to international corporation, Allirajah Subaskaran, Founder and Chairman of Lycagroup, has remained agile and adaptable, creating an 8,000-strong business with a family feel. Interview by David Woods-Hale

Can you tell us about your career to date, outlining some of your biggest challenges and achievements?

I was born in the town of Mulllaitivu, Sri Lanka, to a working-class family. 

I am from humble origins, having lost my father at a young age and being brought up by a single working mother as a result. During my childhood, Sri Lanka experienced internal conflict caused by a civil war and my hometown was a major conflict zone. My family decided to emigrate in the hope of finding safety and increasing our chances of having a positive future.

In 1989, I followed my brother to Paris and was joined shortly after by my mother and sister. After some time, my family, led by my older brother, opened a restaurant. It was entirely family run and it was soon joined by a grocery shop. We began selling calling cards for people who wanted to phone abroad. Initially, a distributor was providing us with
the calling cards to resell. However, they stopped providing the cards, creating a sudden vacuum. My brother recognised that there was a demand for the product and identified the opportunity for us to distribute the cards ourselves.

As this venture developed, instead of selling cards produced by someone else, we started producing and distributing them ourselves. By 1997, our market had grown from just Paris to a number of countries in Europe, and we found ourselves, led by my brother, travelling from Paris to many European cities.

After marrying in 1999, my wife and I decided to move to London and continue the business; in 2002, I started Lycatel, a telephone calling card company. 

By 2006, with advancements in technology and the emergence of the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) market thanks to government regulation, there was a void to be filled. This is how Lycamobile came to be.

Due to our price positioning and the global movement of people, the company has been able to expand rapidly and now, 10 years on, we are operating in 21 countries and have become the world’s largest international MVNO and the market leader in international prepaid mobile calls. 

We have also expanded beyond the telecommunications space, launching a range of complementary businesses servicing different market segments, including LycaMedia, LycaHealth, LycaFly and Lycaremit. 

In my younger days, I didn’t have any plans for the future. I always focused on seeking out and seizing the opportunities available to me. This approach has been fundamental to the growth of Lyca Group over the past 10 years and is something I continue to live by now. 

What does your role as Chairman involve?

In the early days, we were very focused on the day-to-day business activities and tried to be spontaneous, seizing every opportunity as it came along. 

Now, while I play a very active role in everyday business activities, my priorities as Chairman involve developing a long-term strategy that will ensure we are delivering the best services to our customers and meeting their ever-changing needs. This involves thinking outside the box and introducing innovative and complementary ideas, as well as looking for big investment and expansion opportunities. 

Part of my role has also been about building a strong team from the ground up throughout the business. I believe in the need to diversify a company’s power base and I know the business would not be where it is today without the work and support of my management team. These individuals play a vital role, overseeing the development of the business as we continue to innovate and grow. 

What has fuelled the growth of Lyca Group over the past 10 years and what are your next steps? 

Lyca certainly looks different now than 10 years ago. Geographical expansion has been a long-term focus and strategy of Lycamobile, in particular as we work towards our goal of reaching 50 million customers by 2020. We are now present in 21 countries around the globe, ensuring we are the largest MVNO by geographical footprint. This means we are able to offer a cost-effective service, and we are constantly innovating to meet the needs of diverse markets, geographically and across sectors and communities.

Some of our recent product launches have seen us breaking into new territories to bring our low-cost calling, messaging and data services to emerging markets such as Tunisia and Macedonia, and we have plans for further expansion into six new countries this year, including Ukraine, Serbia, Russia, South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe and South-East Asia. The market context in these regions presents numerous challenges that we have continued to tackle through focused innovation and building meaningful relationships with partners.

To meet the needs of a rapidly developing global community, we have also needed to innovate, not only by launching Lycamobile’s services into new territories, but also by expanding our range of services into new business sectors. 

Today, it isn’t enough for families to be able to contact each other; they want to be able to transfer money to each other, watch the same shows, listen to the same music, and share in each other’s everyday lives. It is along these lines that the Lyca Group has evolved. The Lyca Group is now a multi-national corporation delivering low-cost products to more than 15 million customers, not just in telecoms but also across technology, media, financial services, travel and transport, healthcare and entertainment.

We have bold ambitions, and have already launched a number of new products and services in recent months, including Lycalotto and ChilliTickets, which we acquired earlier this year. Ultimately, we want Lycamobile to be an industry leader in the technology, media and telecoms (TMT) sector and for the group to be a well-established brand, synonymous with connectivity, trust and affordability.

What are the challenges and opportunities you’re facing in a VUCA world? 

We are operating in a highly competitive environment that is becoming increasingly saturated. 

Our flagship brand Lycamobile is faced with the entrance of businesses from a wide variety of sectors, which are showing an interest in launching MVNOs, be it post offices, football clubs, social-media start-ups, multilevel marketing groups, banks, and non-for-profit associations. 

In addition, the sector is rapidly changing with new technologies coming to market, and new regulations being brought in to manage them.

We need to ensure that we are always offering a differentiated service to our customers. We have done this not only by expanding our existing MVNO business into new geographies, ensuring we are able to offer a cost-effective service in the market today, but also by diversifying the business, offering our customers a range of complementary offerings that meet their needs. 

Do you think it’s possible to have a long-term strategy in business, or is success based on agility within the marketplace? 

In this volatile environment, I believe it is important to focus on a long-term strategy and core product offering, ensuring it is delivered consistently, with the highest possible levels of service. 

At Lyca, this means being dedicated to driving forward our ambitious growth plans and customer acquisition target. However, it is crucial to ensure this long-term strategy is never static and continuously reviewed. We must continue to have an innovative, dynamic and entrepreneurial approach that will allow us to react quickly to changing technology, customer needs, and the developing economic and political climate. 

We would not have got where we are today without this ethos. We have always been committed to staying ahead of the game, and so must remain dynamic and adaptive and push forward into new areas and markets that others haven’t, adapting to our external environment accordingly. 

What do you see as the trends impacting most on employers’ strategy globally? 

We are predominantly a technology-focused business and must compete with some of the world’s largest tech companies, to source and retain people with the right skills to drive the business forward and remain on top of the recent technological advancements. 

By fostering employee growth and development, we aim to create an environment where our staff are able to thrive, feel supported, become adaptable to different situations and want to remain loyal to the firm. Despite being a company with more than 8,000 employees, we retain a strong family feel, with everyone invested in the success of the business and experiencing the same highs and lows together. Everything we do at Lycamobile is about connecting with people and bringing communities together, and that’s also our attitude towards our employees. 

How do you ensure there is a culture of innovation throughout the organisation? 

Ensuring a culture of innovation within the group is crucial as we continue to develop high-quality products and services to meet our customers’ varied needs. 

Lycamobile is proud to be a market leader in our industry, and a large part of that is down to our commitment to staying ahead of the game by pushing forward and moving into new areas or markets that others haven’t. Not only have we been able to capitalise on this approach, but we’ve ensured we are delivering the best services to our customers, by continuing to meet their ever-changing needs.

We are dedicated to supporting, developing and nurturing the next generation of senior management, so hiring the right people at all levels of the business is vital, ensuring we maintain and foster the company values of trust, connectivity and innovation. It’s important that despite being a company of 8,000 people, we’ve maintained an open atmosphere, where staff at all levels feel comfortable putting forward ideas, big or small, which are supported, discussed and explored. 

You’ve moved between borders throughout your career. How have you been able to adapt?

I’m not sure how rare this trait is; the movement of people is as old as the world itself. However, having moved from Sri Lanka to Europe to escape the civil war at an early age, I’ve had to learn how to quickly and purposefully adapt to new cultures, markets and contexts in both my personal and business lives, and this certainly hasn’t been easy. But, over the years we’ve managed to transform these survival tactics into a set of core skills which have become the foundation of Lyca’s success and the key to running a successful global company. 

These skills – agility, flexibility, being relationships-driven – are not only the skills that we drive every employee to have, but also enable us to adapt our products and services across borders, and build strong and constructive relationships with partners across our operating regions. 

Lyca Group has employees in 21 countries – how do you ensure there is
a consistent mission and culture?

Working across such a diverse range of markets, it’s important that we uphold the clarity of our mission to connect communities and bring people together through a range of high quality products and services. To ensure that this message is spread across all our operating regions, we have a strong culture driven from the centre of the Lyca Group. 

Our management team is committed to travelling across the different markets to lead negotiations, build lasting relationships with our partners, and place people who share Lyca’s values in key positions.

Do you feel optimistic about the future of business in the age of the ‘new normal’?

As a group, we continue to adapt and evolve to market developments and new environments and are excited about plans to ensure the continued success of the Lyca Group through a programme of expansion into new markets and sectors. 

Reports have shown that the MVNO market will continue to grow in the coming years and we aim to be at the forefront of that growth, with plans to have 50 million people using Lycamobile by 2020, focusing on Africa, Asia and South America for growth – huge, largely untapped markets for MVNOs. We know we can make a real difference to people’s lives by bringing cost-efficient, high-quality products and services to help them better connect with their communities. 

I certainly feel very optimistic about the future.