December 20, 2022

Jennifer Sertl on scenarios for sense-making, the power of reflection, sharing feedback loops, and building constellations (Ep44)

“If people valued that their lens and the strength of their lens is their competitive advantage, they would probably take better care of themselves. The mindset that I want to invite through this conversation is that if we only treated ourselves as well as we treat our gadgets, we probably would have a better time thriving on overload.”

– Jennifer Sertl

Tim O'Reilly

About Jennifer Sertl

Jennifer Sertl is president and founder of the leadership development company Agility3R, director of marketing at Circle Optics, and adjunct professor of Innovation at Rochester Institute of Technology. She is the co-author of the book Strategy, Leadership and the Soul.

What you will learn

  • Why is your personal processing and filtering also your competitive advantage? (03:10)
  • Why thriving on overload is ultimately trusting yourself (04:32)
  • How filtering using the 18 points is an excellent starting point (06:42) 
  • How your identity affects the way you filter information (09:15)
  • How to tag people you trust to reference and find interesting information (12:58)
  • How to take reciprocity to a higher level (17:46)
  • How to connect the dots to build a constellation of interesting ideas (20:50)
  • What actually is reflection and why is it so important? (23:58)
  • Why you and your ideas are inherently interesting (26:48)



Ross Dawson: Jennifer, it’s wonderful to have you on the show.

Jennifer Sertl: Thank you so much Ross for having me. I always think of the Knights of the Roundtable. When I think of the lineage of scenario planning where you and I learned someone that was part of the team that actually coined the phrase “scenario planning”, I feel like you’re a brother in that domain.

Ross: Yes, scenarios are one of the most powerful ways to make sense of the world. The classic idea is once you’ve established a set of scenarios, that provides a filter for perceiving what fits with the scenarios, what is more likely to lead to one of the scenarios unfolding, making sense of the world. I certainly feel that scenario planning is one of the most valuable tools to filter and make sense of a world of information.

Jennifer: Absolutely.

Ross: Jennifer, I’ve known you for a long time. I always think of you as one of the most visible and obvious contributors to the global brain in terms of being able to filter and make sense of the world and share what it is that you find, which people will find useful to contribute to their mental models and thinking. Where does that start for you? What’s that process? Perhaps starting from the attitude behind your seeking and finding and sharing.

Jennifer: Absolutely. One of the things that I feel especially in the world of gadgets is that people almost feel that they have nothing to contribute but their ability to interpret. What I really want to invite people to do is to realize that your competitive advantage is the accuracy in which you scan your environment, the way that you process what you scan, and make decisions. Ultimately, if people valued that their lens and the strength of their lens is their competitive advantage, they would probably take better care of themselves. The mindset that I want to invite through this conversation is that if we only treated ourselves as well as we treat our gadgets, we probably would have a better time thriving on overload.

Ross: How we can treat ourselves well in a world of overload?

Jennifer: I was lucky enough to be given a reviewer’s copy of Thriving on Overload. What was so great is that so many of the attributes that you talked about are things that are part of the practice. One is inviting everyone here to define their own sense of how to participate in the world. I was lucky enough. I know we had this conversation earlier that I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Thomas Friedman, who wrote The World is Flat, and this was back in 2005. One of the profound things about having that conversation with him is that he introduced me to John Hagel and the idea of the Power of Pull but I also realized that I was helping companies compete and that what I really should have been doing is helping companies condition, and that there’s a difference between preparing people to win or saying can you be in great condition.

I went through a pretty significant change in my consulting practice as well as in myself. I named three words. The three words were resilience, responsiveness, and reflection. My ability to make sense of the world is how well I can be resilient, be responsive, and be reflective. You had mentioned the word filter before when we talked about scenario planning, and what naming and claiming kind of my lens of the world is, is that it allowed me to sharpen what it is that I need to practice, and what fits and what doesn’t fit. I don’t try and come into an organization or come into people and say that you should use my three words, resilience, responsiveness, and reflection, I actually ask what is your filter, and if they don’t have their filter, then there are some neat exercises I can do to help them create that filter. With it, it creates an internal True North, and once you have an internal True North, you trust yourself. One of the things about thriving on overload is the ability to have a sense of trusting yourself.

Ross: Can you give me an example of that process in a nutshell of how you might take a leadership team through finding those filters? That way of viewing the world?

Jennifer: Yes, I can give you the exercise that I use, but it comes with a caveat that it is very dangerous to do in teams. Because unfortunately, we are hardwired to be loved and lovable. That ends up doing in a power struggle, and I have never been in an environment, including my family, that is not some sort of power struggle. The exercise that I use is I love the number 18, you’ve probably heard this before, it’s that every 18 months, there’s a lunar eclipse somewhere; whoever decided that a golf course should have 18 holes; then if you actually get into a situation like COVID, where you’re drinking a lot of whiskeys, you realize that there are 18 shots in a whiskey bottle. The number 18 means a great deal to me. What I talk to people about is the idea of the Elite 18. Again, the caveat is this is a very private exercise, you can set it up in teams, but no one should actually disclose what they come up with is their Elite 18 of people that they admire or hope they can meet in their lifetime.

Essentially, we are born for mirroring. That’s one of the reasons why, not to bring religion into it, but one of the reasons why the Madonna, a figure is so important is that there’s the idea of someone looking into a child, and a child really doesn’t know a child exists until it has the gaze. Behaviorally, we are hardwired for modeling. When you take the time to think of who are the models that you admire, this is where it gets tricky in teams, people want to know who’s on your list or who’s not on your list. I say that it’s very tricky business to be thinking about who would be on your Elite 18 lists.

But once I’ve seen people’s perceived Elite 18 list, meaning that I probably never get the truth of who they really want on their list, I can usually help people determine what are the most significant three words because each person represents a latitude and a longitude, and it makes it accessible to be able to get at what is their core identity, and then how can they cultivate, protect, and strengthen that particular identity?

Ross: Bringing this to the information or the overload, I use the word purpose as the first frame and what it sounds like you’re talking about is identity, is that what are you identifying and understanding so that you can filter the world?

Jennifer: Yes, if your competitive advantage is your ability to have a sense of accuracy relative to X, it’s really important that you name what X is. Even as far as technology goes, at the end of the day, it’s all about a sense of belonging and identity. It’s so hard for me to separate a filter from a sense of belonging and being. Although these terms are intellectual, they’re very private to how a person believes that they can create value, and the whole creation of value is being lovable at a core human level.

Ross: This outcome of the words that define yourself, how is this applied? Yes, of course, it’s applied throughout everything you do in the sense of being able to determine what is relevant to you. Does this then become something that you refer to or just implicit in terms of understanding what’s relevant to you?

Jennifer: You had mentioned at the beginning, I have a very global brand. I built it simply by being true to resilience, responsiveness, and reflection. When I began to put things through the portal that was either my LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever it is I do, I put it through that filter. What it creates is like a lighthouse, there’s a sense of affinity, and people have an affinity toward my lens. I know that no matter who’s listening if they took the time to codify their lens and they used it as a filter by which how they participate externally in the world, it would help them create more of a pull strategy.

Internally, I know when I do my own journal practice, that we do have to create a time in which we reflect on how we perceive that we’re being. When I used that same tool? Where was I resilient? Where was I responsive? How can I be more reflective? When I ask those questions, there is never a time when I haven’t had something to say, both plus and delta: Plus being something affirmative in which I noticed that I did it well, and the Delta being the triangle for change is that I still have work to do. My lens does not have an inner critic because I know if I’m afraid of judgment, I won’t be as accurate as a read in the macro environment, so my job is accuracy and truth. Truth can be critical, truth has to be accurate.

Ross: I struggled a bit when I was writing chapter one of Thriving on Overload on purpose, and part of it says the purpose is not what the book is about. It’s about information, like purpose is relative to information but began with that idea of identity, this idea of you need to know who you are, and the information is filtered by the perception of your identity but also shapes your identity. As you see new things, you could learn more about who you are. That journey of identity is one that you can look at from many frames. But in just simply that information frame, it’s fundamental in terms of saying you need to know who you are, to know what’s relevant to you, and as you discover that information, that helps shape your identity. We’d like to move on to you as a curator, it’s one word, there’s more to it than that. But you uncover wonderful things to be able to share on your channel. What’s that? Let’s get quite tactical here. What do you look at? How do you find these interesting things? How do you determine what’s relevant to your community? How do you share that? What are your daily practices to do that?

Jennifer: Thank you so much for asking. I know sometimes talking about Twitter now is somewhat volatile but I was an early adopter. In 2009, what I began to do is I tried, believe it or not, very hard not to be a woman and try not to be an American in that when I participated, I participated at the idea level. As I began to be a beacon, I noticed people started following me back. What I ended up doing is I started collecting people that I found interesting and then putting them into categories, both from where they were, from what country as well as what their thought model was. I have a group of system thinkers, I have a group of people that are design thinkers, and I have a group on sustainability. Now I’m in the world of 360 imaging, I now capture thought leaders that are talking about that photography. This is my secret sauce. I just got really good at being able to see the identity of the person I was following, and then put them into categories that were important to me.

It became easy to then collect what are these people that I find interesting thinking about daily. What also is a word that is underutilized now is reciprocity. It isn’t I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine, and that is very transactional. We were using the word Metasphere before it got a little bit contaminated. But in the new sphere, in the collective intelligence of the groups that we participate in, if we found things that were interesting to them, if you can identify a person’s core theme and core purpose, if you found interesting things, you could tag them, and through, believe it or not, well over 15 years of tagging and collecting and nurturing people and ideas, it ends up being this incredible feedback loop where, I hate to say it, but I wake up and I have the most important information literally at my fingertips because I’ve created those filters and people tag me as well.

I’m so lucky that I’m involved and people know that they’ll be attributed so it isn’t about hoarding information, it’s really about being someone that, say, people trust Jennifer’s Sertl with information because it goes further with her, she becomes an important agent of that information. When that happens, you don’t have to look, you have to look at who you trust. That’s why the next layer is that I can’t possibly process all the information but I know who I trust. One of the reasons we’re talking is that early on, Ross, you were someone I trusted, it was accidental that we learned that we had some people in common. It was your commitment to visualize information, and it was beautiful. You made it shareable. You made it easy to extend your brand and make sure that you were being attributed because it was all so frictionless to make sure like sometimes the sharing is frictionless, but the attribution piece is missing. For people that really care about attribution, it’s hard, because then you have to make sure that you attribute and do all that. What you did so wonderfully and continue to do so wonderfully well even in Thriving on Overload is the images that you create are so prescient, they’re just condensed information, beautiful to share, easy to share.

Ross: I mentioned in the book the idea of diffused reciprocity, but yours is more specific. The essence of what you’re describing is when you see something which is interesting, you know who it is interesting to, because as you say, these are not just identities that share information, they’re not just tweet streams, they are people. Because you understand what these people are interested in, when you see things, you share with those people, Oh, I think someone would be interested in that, so and so. You are actively giving, this is precisely contributing to the global brain in the sense of saying, it’s not just here’s something I’ll throw out there but I’ll throw it in this direction, this direction, and this direction because I know it’s there. That reciprocity comes when people say, Oh, I know that Jennifer would be interested in that. She shared with me, I will share with her. You become then in that center of that sharing, and particularly knowing who is going to be interested in something described in the book.

Fred Wilson, venture capitalist says the most important information I get is from people, and it’s just people who know what I’m interested in, they send me what I need to know and everything I need to know people send to me because they know what’s interesting to me, and these are the most interesting people out there. It is an interesting intersection which you’re describing here of the Thriving on Overload, how it is that we thrive in a world of information and the living networks, where it is those who are contributing not just by filtering for themselves but by filtering for the community, filtering for those people they know, by knowing their identities, by knowing what it is they’re interested in.

Jennifer: It’s so amazing talking to you, Ross, because as I look at the background, you have a wonderful galaxy behind you. The decade for me, 2009 to 2019, was really about connecting those dots, participating, and creating clusters. This is a brand new idea, for everyone listening, this is a statement I’ve never said before, in this context with Ross right now, I think that the decade that we’re in now, 2022 through 2032, will be the constellation, making constellations, beyond curating, I think it’s making sense of things, sense-making, and beyond connecting those dots is actually creating iconic ways that people can actually both see the shape of the thing as well as make sense of it. It’s about making sense right now.

Ross: Yes. The idea of the synthesis, of connecting the dots, then the constellations is how these dots are connected, oh, in this particular pattern, it’s a lovely description of that. For you, what’s that process going to look like? Obviously, what you’ve been doing for a long time anyway is being able to pull together those dots and making sense of them but just to speculate on this is a time of the constellations, of connecting the dots, what is it that we are doing, can do, and will do to be able to build these constellations? What do you think?

Jennifer: I know that there was a time where there was this pressure to publish or perish, and you had to keep creating content and all, and I was someone that, you know I wrote a book in 2010, Strategy, Leadership and the Soul. I felt like I don’t like to write unless I feel compelled. As you’re asking this question, I’m thinking, I look forward to knowing what my role is with the constellations because the only thing I can feel right now is that I want to invite people to have more courage. For me, the answer to your question is to create time and space for processing and to not force anything but be open to it. Then what I need to have the patience for that next thing to emerge is the word courage. We’re in a place where we might feel frenetic to have an activity or feel that we’ll be left behind if we don’t do a certain thing, and I feel in the sense-making, the truth of it all is that what we need is quiet, and what we need is trust. I believe that the collective unconscious is speaking through us, the next layer wants to be known and it probably has a new language. I’ve never been disappointed by allowing quiet to inform the next iteration of whatever it is that I’m doing personally, or whatever it is that needs to be said.

Ross: This comes back to what you said, the third R is reflection. Several things we’ve already talked about, including what you’ve just been saying is about reflection. I’d like to dig into that word, reflection. What does that mean to you? What does that mean when you’re explaining that to somebody? What is that practice? What are the inputs to reflection? What are the outputs to reflection?

Jennifer: What’s so important is that we’re learning more and more. In the United States, even doctors are now prescribing the idea of going out to nature. When you’re working, and hopefully many people are working in hybrid spaces, it’s really important that you have downtime, and that you actually design downtime. If people work full time, I remember them really liking having to drive to work from having a meeting with me and having that time between driving to go, and now people are doing Zoom meetings, they may be less likely to create space between things. The first is to always make sure that there’s space in between things.

The other is to make sure that you’re in an environment where you can be in nature, even if you’re in an urban environment where you can’t go in nature, that you create a way to listen to water rustling. There are wonderful noisemakers that have all kinds of natural sounds, and I would invite you to take sound baths. If you don’t have access to nature, take an environment and force function it. It literally feels like a forced function. It’s counterintuitive. Be sure that you’re reading poetry in addition to fiction, in addition to whatever you need for your technical trades. I believe that poetry forces the pauses in between and that just being exposed to that type of nonlinear architecture does something to the brain. All the rules that you have in your book around managing technology, you have to actually say to yourself, I’m valuable, and my senses are valuable, and I will take care of myself the same way.

The most literal example is that I used to work with a manufacturing company that had a glass-cutting machine called a CNC machine. They knew when it had to be unplugged, and when it needed to be cooled down. You have to be unplugged, you have to cool down. The practices for me are journaling, writing, and always making sure that I create space. I too am someone that does have a lot of alone time. Everyone probably experienced me as an extrovert with a capital E but the truth is, I have an enormous amount of alone time. It’s because I value processing. I’m not doing anything at that time except just knowing something’s happening. It’s almost Eastern religion, or is it there’s never nothing going on? I just trust that so much.

Ross: It’s, in essence, giving yourself the space, particularly for that reflection, for what comes up, for processing. Is that right?

Jennifer: Yes, totally. Solid, liquid, gas. The solid is in physical spaces making sure that you’re actually creating space between. The liquid might be like the journaling, where you’re actually creating a space on a page, that you’re like, Okay, I don’t know what’s going to happen, maybe nothing’s happening, this is boring, I want to go, but there’s space on a page. Then the gas is really just being in silence, silence would be the gas. If we wanted to make it a physical component, that would be the three ways in which I’d say we need that.

Ross: Fantastic. I want to round out by, you sharing what you believe other people could find useful from what you do. You have a very distinct, unique frame, perspective, and practices that are yours. What of what you do do you think others might find useful in their practices in daily life and the world of emotional information?

Jennifer: I love that. There are so many ways to answer it. If I don’t feel like something, if I’m not a contagion, and you don’t feel like I want to find out more about her, my hope is that even on this call, I’ve given a couple of suggestions that people should take advantage of. Honestly, the truth is to be interesting, don’t underestimate the way that you carve out your reality, somebody wants to learn from that. I feel like I’m not answering the questions, particularly. What I care about right now is data ethics. The themes that I’m paying deeper attention to really have to do with data ethics and just learning more and more about our biases, and how important it is to know about biases because biases are being baked in. I was always lucky as a coach to have a great coaching practice, but I’ve been able to translate that into being able to be a Director of Marketing for a couple of startups, and really creating coherence inside of a company as well.

I invite people to find me, and they will see pretty clearly who I’m representing, and hopefully, they find it interesting. I know that you’re creating a new practice group with your Thrive On Overload. I would love an opportunity to help in any way I can with that practice. Because I do think the thing about you and I is that we’ve been to the future and are coming back, we have a lot of strength in how we lead this, and I do think people need strong models to help support them in creating new practices that are quite frankly, counterintuitive, and certainly counter-cultural. I invite anyway I can further the conversation around Thriving on Overload. I feel very lucky to be talking to you about this, and it’s within our best interest to care that deeply about Thriving on Overload. I think you’ve created a beautiful roadmap for people.

Ross: Where can people find you, Jennifer?

Jennifer: Yes. the neatest thing is just in my name Jennifer Sertl, and I can be found on LinkedIn as well as on Twitter. I’ve started to do more in women’s equity, and trying to get some funding for female founders. I have a podcast, think, build, launch to help support that practice. I love our communities and curating together so I’m sure it will lead to even better things.

Ross: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time and your insight, Jennifer.

Jennifer: So great to see you.

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Founder, Platformation Labs and Author, Platform Revolution

“This must-read book shares the pragmatic secrets of how to overcome being overwhelmed and how to turn information into an unfair advantage.”

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“An amazing compendium that can help even the most organised and fastidious person to improve their thinking and processes.”

Justin Baird

Chief Technology Office, APAC, Microsoft

Ross Dawson

Futurist, keynote speaker, author and host of Thriving on Overload.

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