October 04, 2023

John Hagel on moving from threat to opportunity, the passion of the explorer, learning platforms, and scalable learning in practice (AC Ep13)

“I believe that if we’re focused on the opportunity of scalable learning, the excitement should be whether I can free up all the people who are currently engaged in these mindless, routine tasks, tightly specified. I can then redirect these individuals towards a different form of work, which I describe as addressing unseen problems and opportunities to create more value.”

– John Hagel

Robert Scoble
About John Hagel

John Hagel has been a leading Silicon Valley based entrepreneur, management consultant, author, and speaker for over 40 years. After working in senior positions at McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group and Atari, he founded Deloitte’s Center for the Edge which he led for many years. John is on the board of trustees of the Santa Fe Institute, is faculty for Singularity University, and has won multiple Harvard Business Review awards for best articles. He is the author of 7 books, most recently The Journey Beyond Fear.

Website: Johnhagel.com

LinkedIn: John Hagel

Facebook: John Hagel

Twitter: @jhagel


What you will learn

  • The importance of acknowledging and overcoming fear through cultivating positive emotions (02:58)
  • Introduction of the “Passion of the Explorer” as a distinct type of passion characterized by excitement and impact (04:33)
  • The concept of finding excitement in the face of unexpected challenges (05:42)
  • The profound impact of collaboration, trust, and shared excitement in problem-solving and personal development (06:00)
  • The importance of learning through the creation of new knowledge (08:34)
  • How challenges lead to groundbreaking discoveries and transformative technologies (11:22)
  • The intricate nature of narratives (16:01)
  • The geographic narrative that fuels Silicon Valley’s continuous growth (18:12)
  • Balancing threat-based narratives with inspiring opportunities (20:07)
  • The nature of unlimited opportunity (21:36)
  • Transformative concept of scalable learning, highlighting its potential to redefine work and drive organizational evolution (24:29)
  • Summarizing the essence of balance in organizational dynamics: empowering individual initiative through collaborative workgroups and inspiring leadership (28:55)
  • True transformation through scalable learning (33:05)
  • Embracing the “Explorer Mindset,” shifting from expertise to impact (34:56)

Episode Resources


Ross Dawson: John, it’s an honor and delight to have you on the show.

John Hagel: A pleasure to be here. Absolutely.

Ross: I’ve been a big fan of your work since the 90s. You’ve always been ahead of change since that time. I’d love to ask you that question. In a world where we need to amplify our cognition, how do we do that? Where should we start?

John: There are many different areas to explore in that context, but one of the key themes in my recent work at least has been the notion that to really amplify cognition, we need to expand our horizons and focus on our emotions, not just on mental models and frameworks and approaches that we can use in our minds, but looking into our hearts and saying, what are the emotions that are driving us. My most recent book is The Journey Beyond Fear. I started writing it because I was traveling around the world and everywhere I went, the dominant emotion that I was encountering was fear, at the highest levels of organizations, lowest levels out in the communities. While I think fear is an understandable emotion, if you’re focused on cognition, it is a limiting emotion. What we need to do is, first of all, acknowledge the fear, because many of us don’t even want to admit that we have fear. But then find ways to cultivate emotions that will help us to move beyond fear, learn faster, and expand our horizons much more rapidly.

Ross: I’d love to dig into that journey. First, perhaps looking at that, fear is limiting our ability to think effectively, not surprisingly. What is the opposite of that? What is the emotional frame of mind which enables us to think at our best?

John: Based on the research, I was looking at environments where I saw sustained extreme performance improvement over time, and said, what can we learn from those environments? There were very diverse environments, everything from the world of business to extreme sports, to online war games. A common element in all of those environments that I found, when there was extreme performance improvement, was a very specific form of passion. I use the word somewhat reluctantly because everybody has a different definition of passion. But we all use the same word. I’m talking about a specific form of passion that I call the passion of the Explorer. Again, it’s based on the research and looking at what these participants were feeling. The passion of the Explorer starts with excitement about having more and more impact in a specific domain. You’re not only wanting to have an impact, you’re excited about having the impact.

Secondly, it’s a notion of being excited when you’re confronted with unexpected challenges. For most people, unexpected challenges are kind of scary. These people with passion are excited because it’s an opportunity to have even more impact. Then finally, the third element of this passion of the explorers, these people when confronted with these challenges, their first reaction is, who else can I connect with who can help me get to a better answer faster? It’s no matter how smart or talented I am, I know, I’m going to come up with better answers if I have other people helping me. They’re constantly reaching out. I think one of the interesting things about people with this passion is that they form deep levels of trust because they’re expressing vulnerability. They’re saying, I don’t know, I need help. That builds trust. Then the excitement about coming up with answers to questions, motivates people to come and help them. Anyway, I think this passion of the Explorer is a very powerful engine to drive cognition and learning.

Ross: Certainly something you manifest yourself, John. I’d just like to dig a little into that third point, I think which is extremely important, that part of the passion of the Explorer leads you to reach out to others. This obviously harks to the idea of open innovation whether you’re an individual or an organization you can never have all the answers for yourself. What does that look like? Or how do people shift their inclination to look to others for parts of the answer or answers or insights or whatever can be useful for them?

John: Again, part of it is overcoming fear. Because one of the consequences of fear is you lose trust in others. I can’t ask for help, I can’t be dependent on anyone else, I have to do it all myself. It’s very isolating versus, again, if you’re excited about having more impact, you want to do whatever is necessary to get that impact. Asking for help is a key way to accelerate your impact and increase your impact. People are very motivated, they want help, and they’re not just reluctant to ask for help, they’re desperate for help.

Ross: In your book, The Journey Beyond Fear, the third section of that is all about learning platforms. How do those fit into that picture of how it is we can reach out or learn together?

John: Again, my challenge is that I use terms that everybody uses, everybody talks about platforms, we’re in a platform economy. Platforms rule the world. I’m talking about a very specific form of a platform that I do not believe yet exists, but needs to exist and could exist. It’s, again, what I call a learning platform. But here, again, I have to clarify, because when I talk about learning platforms, most people say, Oh, you’re talking about Udemy or these online video courses, platforms that you can access all these courses on, that’s learning in the form of sharing existing knowledge. While I don’t want to dismiss that, I think that’s certainly helpful and valuable, the most powerful and necessary form of learning in a rapidly changing world is learning in the form of creating entirely new knowledge that never existed before.

I believe the opportunity is to create platforms where the primary design goal, not just a side effect, is to help all the participants to come together and learn faster in the form of creating new knowledge through action. It’s not just conversation. Again, I think if you’re talking about learning and creating new knowledge, it can start with a conversation. But until and unless you act on the insights and ideas, see the results, and learn from the results, you’re not going to learn. The platforms that I’m talking about create, again, I don’t know how much detail to go into here, but a core notion for me of this form of learning is that you learn faster if you come together in small groups, I call them impact groups. But typically, it’s between three to 15 people, not more than 15, because you need to form deep trust-based relationships with each other. These learning platforms would create shared workspaces where these small groups could come together on a long-term basis to learn together through action. They’re constantly focused on what action can we take. What impact are we trying to achieve? Have we achieved the impact? What can we learn from that impact? A key element here is rapid real-time feedback loops to the impact group saying, here’s the impact you achieved so they can learn much more rapidly based on what they actually achieved.

Ross: You say you don’t see that exists. Is there anything closer in the direction or things that are pushing toward that, that are reference points? 

John: There are pieces to the puzzle. One of the interesting examples that I go back to and say, it was back in the late 1990s, a startup called Portal Player wanted to design digital music devices as mass-market products. At the time, that was ridiculous. It was much too expensive. The products would be too big. The music quality would be pretty bad, and the battery life was short. What they did was they created a platform where they invited technology leaders from around the world to come together and address these challenges in terms of performance improvement, and long story short, over about two or three years, dramatic improvement, innovation in the various technologies required for digital music players. The Portal Player platform ended up being the core platform for Apple’s iPod. When Apple introduced the iPod, it was a Portal Player technology platform within the Apple skin. I think it was an interesting example of a platform that was specifically focused on learning in the form of creating new knowledge together with others.

Ross: An example that is not quite the same but really instructive is Topcoder. It’s a crowdsourced software development. It’s a lovely example of peer learning where Topcoder is not dozens in the place… For each piece of code, you get a few coders and then the ones who didn’t win can see what the winner did, and how they developed their code so they are learning from each other, as they’re on the edge of creating the best possible software with NASA and so on as clients. The peer learning, that’s where all learning happens on the edge of change. That’s where the connected world has been so wonderful where all of the people on the edge of any field can bounce off ideas and learn from each other as they create that knowledge.

John: Yes, absolutely. It’s an interesting kind of balance. Again, it’s based on research that I’ve done. On the one side, this emphasis on forming small groups with deep trust-based relationships with each other. But then there’s the notion of serendipity, unexpected encounters with other people outside your impact group, who can come up with new ideas and help you to think beyond the frameworks that you already have. The learning platforms I’m talking about combine that focus on the impact groups but then connect impact groups and participants in much broader ways where they can unexpectedly encounter somebody that they never knew who has a great idea.

Ross: Let’s come back to the fear and shifting of the passion of the Explorer. People would really have to read your book “The Journey Beyond Fear” to get the full story. But in a compact version, where people are in a place of fear, there’s the potential that limits their thinking, their ability to think better and act better. The potential is to get to the passion of the Explorer where they soak in anything which is useful to them to be able to shape their path. What’s the journey? How does one move from a place of fear to the passion of the Explorer, in three words or less?

John: Yes. I like to say if I could summarize my book, I wouldn’t have to write the book, it would just be a nice summary. I think it’s complicated. There are many different paths for the journey. It’s all based on where you come from as an individual. But a key element, again, this is based on research that I’ve been doing, is focusing initially on what I call your narrative. Again, it’s complicated because when I talk about narrative, most people think I’m talking about stories, and that stories and narrative are the same thing. No, I make the distinction that stories are self-contained, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end to them, the end, it’s over. The story is about me the storyteller, or it’s about some other people real or imagined. It’s not about you. In contrast, a narrative the way I define it, is open-ended. It’s about the future. The issue is there’s either a threat, a big threat, or a big opportunity in the future, not clear whether it’s going to be achieved or not. The resolution of the narrative hinges on you. It’s a call to action to say your choices, your actions are going to help determine how this narrative plays out.

Again, it’s complicated. You have to read the book, but I talk about narratives at many different levels. I start with the individual, personal narrative, and urging people to reflect what’s their view of the future. Is it primarily a threat or an opportunity? Do you have a call to action to others? Or is it all just on your shoulders and you have to figure it out? You’ll figure it out. In my experience more and more people when I do that, very few of them even articulate their narrative much less reflect on it, but most people when they start to think about it say, Oh my God, the future for me is pretty threatening. I’m not asking for a lot of help, because I can’t rely on other people. It starts with this notion of individual narratives. But then you can talk about corporate or organizational narratives. You can talk about regional or geographic narratives or movement narratives.

I’ll just give one quick example back to this notion of passion. I’ve been in Silicon Valley now for over 40 years. I always get the question, how do you explain the continued success of Silicon Valley over so many decades? Most people would talk about the universities, talk about venture capital firms, and the infrastructure, those are certainly not to be dismissed but to me, the real success of Silicon Valley has to do with a very inspiring geographic narrative, which is, we have digital technology that is exponentially improving, and can fundamentally change the world for the better but it’s not going to happen automatically. You need to come to Silicon Valley and help change the world. It’s an inspiring, exciting opportunity that has drawn people from all over the world. Most people don’t know that the majority of successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley were not born in the United States, much less than in Silicon Valley, they were drawn here from all over the world because of the excitement of an opportunity. It drew out this passion of the Explorer, they wanted to find ways to harness this exponential technology and really change the world.

Ross: If you hang out from San Francisco, you get the feeling there are lots of people who have drunk the Kool-Aid, which came from the Bay Area, the concept is what gave the Bay Area itself. You start to start to get inspired as well by, as you say, that narrative and that belief of the unlimited possibilities.

John: Yes. Again, I think one of the challenges we have in the world today is more and more, we’re being dominated by threat-based narratives. The movements that we talk about, climate change, the world’s coming to an end, we’re all going to die. It’s all about the threat in the future. I don’t want to dismiss that, again, there are threats. But on the other side, until and unless we can frame an exciting and inspiring opportunity, what would the world look like if we really address climate change? What kind of flourishing world could we create where we would all thrive? Not just humans, but plants, animals, everything would thrive? What would that look like? That would excite and inspire people versus Oh, I’m gonna die. It’s too overwhelming. I give up. Anyway, I think that we need to be very thoughtful about what narratives are driving our actions today and whether are they focused on threats in the future or opportunities in the future.

Ross: Just as you were talking, I was thinking there’s also a distinction between limited opportunity and unlimited opportunity. Seeing an opportunity as one part, you can say, Oh, I can see an opportunity to do this. But that’s still tangible as opposed to the unlimited opportunity which is when and where could we go beyond that?

John: It’s both the unlimited opportunity and the sense of continued expansion of opportunity. But it’s also this notion of win-win opportunities.  If it’s just an opportunity for me, or my small group, it’s going to put me in competition with others so that we can capture that opportunity for ourselves versus this is an opportunity where the more people who join in, the bigger the opportunity is going to become. This is exciting. Let’s all come together.

Ross: What are you doing now on your mission to get these ideas more broadly through society?

John: Certainly, I’m very passionate about it. I’m excited about the opportunity. My goal is to create a new center that will offer programs based on the book The Journey Beyond Fear, programs to help people make that journey, not just read the book, but actually come together and work together to cultivate emotions that will help them to achieve much greater impact and ultimately create learning platforms as well where they can exponentially improve their impact.

Ross: We should keep posted for that?

John: Yes, absolutely. Certainly, if anyone’s interested, I have my website, johnhagel.com. I’m inviting people who have an interest to sign up and that’ll keep people posted on the center, it’s not yet been formed, but I’m about to look for funding for it. My goal is to launch before the end of the year.

Ross: Fabulous. One of the things that I’ve loved about your work and very often referenced is the idea of scalable learning. You always talk about the shift from scalable efficiency that used to be what drove the old industrial companies, you get the efficient scale. Now, the imperative is to scale your learning both for individuals and organizations. Particularly in the context of a world where AI has risen frame this as Humans plus AI, where we have individuals that are complemented by AI and supported in being able to act better to achieve more. Organizations, of course, have wonderful people and AI, and those will be shifting and changing them, that landscape will be changing, the Al will be developing, people will be developing more capabilities, organizations will be evolving. Let’s say an organization says, Yes, we believe in scalable learning, how do they go about that? What does that look like in practice?

John: It has many different dimensions to it. Ultimately, I think it leads to the transformation of the entire organization. But I urge starting with the notion of, first of all, recognizing that most, if not all, large organizations around the world today are still driven by the model of scalable efficiency. The way that has been implemented is to tightly specify every task that needs to be done in the organization, and highly standardize those tasks, so they’re done in the same efficient way throughout the organization. I think that the interesting thing to me is that, if you recognize that’s the way work has been defined, that work is much more efficiently done by machines. The unfortunate situation I get when I talk with leaders about artificial intelligence, AI, and automation is, the two questions I get are how quickly can I automate and how many jobs can I eliminate? Those are the only two questions they have.

I believe if we’re focused on the opportunity of scalable learning, the excitement should be if I can free up all the people who today are doing these mindless tasks, routine tasks, tightly specified, I can focus those people on a different form of work. I describe it as addressing unseen problems and opportunities to create more value. Wherever you are in the organization, you could be a janitor in a facility, you could be a maintenance worker, wherever you are, what are those unseen problems and opportunities to create more value, and now that you’ve been freed up from all those mindless tasks that automation and AI is now helping with, focus on that, and you can harness AI to help you analyze and address the environments where those opportunities are. But I think that’s the potential to drive scalable learning where you’re focusing everybody in the organization.

Again, I worry because when I talk about scalable learning, most leaders will say, Oh, we have training programs, we do scalable learning, anybody can sign up for a training program. Great. No. That’s again, sharing existing knowledge, and again, not to dismiss it, but the real value in scalable learning is learning in the form of creating new knowledge by addressing unseen problems and opportunities, problems, and opportunities that were never seen before and need some kind of new knowledge to create the value. That’s where I get excited about scalable learning is that opportunity to... I’ve talked about how technology can restore our humanity, it makes us human again, and it makes us do work that we as humans are uniquely designed to do.

Ross: Absolutely. For a long time, I’ve been talking about the shift to fluid organizations. Currently, you’ve got a lot of people in boxes, job descriptions, you have a box and you put somebody in it, which means as soon as you’ve done that, either it can be readily outsourced or automated. You’re tapping a fraction of the potential of the person. There is still a question of how far can you push that in terms of creating a completely fluid organization, where everybody does what they think is the best thing to do. We have some nice examples of WIGO or Morningstar or so on, a few ones which are the so-called managerless organizations. But there’s this loose-tight thing, tight is very efficient, very structured, very process, loose is anybody does whatever they think is right. Is there a balance? Is there a journey? Can we achieve that completely loose as an organization?

John: Again, I think everything in life is ultimately a question of balance. Here for me, the balance is on the one side. The initiative of each individual worker in small workgroups, again, I think coming together into small groups in the workforce can really accelerate learning. But on the other side, from the leadership side, it’s having leaders who can ask really inspiring questions. Today, the mark of a strong leader is somebody who has the answer to all the questions, no matter what the question, you can count on the leader to have an answer. I believe in these organizations, we’re talking about the mark of a strong leader is the one who has the most inspiring questions, who would say, imagine what we could accomplish if we could answer this question? I need help, I don’t have an answer. They’re expressing vulnerability and helping to create a culture where asking for help is not only okay but necessary. 

It’s the notion of, again, helping to focus, the initiative, within the organization, because you’re getting people excited about these high-level questions, and figuring out how, wherever they are in the organization, they can help come up with answers and achieve more impact.

Ross: Again, I know it’s hard, but are there any leaders or organizations that show some inklings of what you described?

John: Unfortunately, there are a lot in Silicon Valley in the small entrepreneurial companies. But one of the tragedies I see in Silicon Valley is as startups gain scale and start to grow larger, the investors start to ask for adult supervision of the organization. What they mean by that is, let’s bring in some experienced managers who can help dictate what needs to be done when, the routine tasks, and all the rest. You lose that culture of asking really exciting questions and motivating people to come together to answer the questions.

Ross: Which comes, in a way, back to that earlier question. For a large organization, 5-10,000 people plus, what do you need, bureaucracy, structure, governance, and so on?

John: Now, again, it’s a balance, but it’s more about, in my mind, focus, helping to focus people on common objectives. The questions help to do that. Then specifying how would we measure the results of the answers. What would make a good answer in terms of the impact that we would achieve? Then being very rigorous about feedback loops to help people see what impact is being achieved and learning from that, and encouraging them to find even better ways to get even more impact. It’s the performance metrics and the feedback loops that become, again, a focusing device to help people really stay focused on the important questions.

Ross: Back since the 1990s, and I suspect similar to you, we kind of expected organizational transformation in a decade. We have to recognize how far organizations have come since the last one to three decades. The organizations are very, very different than they used to be, but they’re still pretty similar.  We can hope that, let’s say, the next year, the remainder of this decade, we’d start to see extremely different organizations from what we’ve had in the past. Do you think that’s feasible, or possible?

John: I’m an optimist by nature. I believe it’s not only possible, but essential, and it will be achieved. I have to say, I’m also a bit of a cynic. In the business world today, one of the buzzwords that has become widespread is digital transformation. We all have to engage in digital transformation. I guarantee virtually every large organization that I’m aware of has a digital transformation program. But when I probe into that digital transformation program, basically it’s how we apply digital technology to do what we’ve always done faster and cheaper, scalable efficiency. To me, I use the metaphor of the butterfly and the caterpillar. If you’re just making the caterpillar walk faster, that’s fine for the caterpillar. But please don’t call it transformation. Until it becomes something unrecognizable. A butterfly is not transformation. I believe, again, if we’re serious about scalable learning, we really need to transform everything, how we do our work, how we organize, and how we operate. Yeah, it is very basic. 

Ross: I’m going to use that caterpillar story, don’t mind. Any last words of advice or questions or things to invite people to do? What are your final words of wisdom in this brief, but delightful conversation?

John: There are many different avenues to be explored. I recently did a blog post where I talked about the fundamental shift in leadership models, from expert to Explorer. I believe the leaders of today and everybody in the organization, the key to success is demonstrating your expertise. What do you know? What have you accomplished? That’s your expertise, you are now an expert. It’s all about the past, versus the Explorer, which is all about the future. 

It’s all about saying there’s so much more to be accomplished, so much more impact to be achieved. How do we learn to come together to achieve that impact? I believe that we all need to adopt that Explorer mindset where it’s looking into the future, looking at opportunities, getting excited about the opportunities, and being driven to have more and more impact by coming together. Again, it’s not just me as an individual, it’s me bringing other people together because no matter how smart or how much expertise I have, I’m going to have a lot more impact if I’m working with others.

Ross: That’s fantastic. We’ll share in the show notes, of course, links to all of your many books, most recently, The Journey Beyond Fear. You mentioned johnhagel.com. Are there any other places people should go to find and learn about your work and what you do?

John: I’ve published a lot of research reports, you can just Google my name and research or whatever, but also, I’m very active on social media. I do a lot of postings on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, so people can follow me there. I keep people posted on some of my latest thinking, ideas, and questions. 

Ross: You share some wonderful stuff. Thank you so much, John, for your time and your insights. Your work is so important. It’s so aligned with what I believe in. I hope that your vision is something that we’ll make happen in these coming years. There’s unlimited possibility.

John: That’s the excitement. I very much see an alignment between your work and mine and I’m glad we were able to connect on this.

Ross: Thanks so much, John.

John: Thank you.


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