Max Mckeown: An interview by Bob Morris

Max Mckeown is a new breed of management guru. Brilliant, original and entertaining, he could become the most listened-to British business thinker of the new era. From CEO round-tables to conferences with thousands of people, Max Mckeown makes an impact wherever he goes.

Mckeown shows how to survive and even thrive in an age of uncertainty. Old plans won’t help; simply hoping for the best won’t work. Combining cutting edge strategy and management science with pragmatic wisdom, wit and pop culture, he pinpoints how the most resilient leaders continue to inspire all-important, trust-filled, make-a-difference energy from their people.

Max is a compelling communicator. He explains how to tap into potential and demonstrates that excellence always costs less than mediocrity. Presentations and workshops are based on hope, integrity and purpose as the sanest route to profit, a full night’s sleep and genuine customer friendships. He works as a strategy, innovation and leadership coach for the most admired companies in the world. He has been elected to the Customer Service Hall of Fame, been nominated as a “Star of Human Resources” by Personnel Today, and been featured on national and international radio, television, and newspapers.

He has written six books, including The Strategy Book, Adaptability, The Truth About Innovation, Unshrink, and E-Customer.

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Morris: Before discussing Adaptability, a few general questions. Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Mckeown: There are so many. You could think of Jerry Maguire and his declaration that “Success consists of simply getting up one more time than you fall.” The kid of a hockey player makes him feel like a superficial jerk, he goes to bed, and wakes up with a conscience but then spends the rest of the movie trying to find a way of transcending the old rules.

You could equally think of a film like The Company Men in which the CEO justifies downsizing for short term profit by saying “We’re not breaking any laws” to which his colleague replies “I always assumed we were trying for a higher standard”. This character, played by Tommy Lee Jones, makes a distinction between ‘legal scrutiny’, what you can get away with, and ‘ethical scrutiny’. This is the difference between systems, and cultures, which attempt to win at all costs and those that do all in their power to help everyone win.

We benefit when individuals hold themselves to higher standards. Not just holding onto their jobs but doing a great job. Not just retiring with millions in stocks and bonds, but helping as many people as possible to have jobs that pay a living wage, services that contribute as much as possible to their society, and company assets focused on improving the social fabric upon which all economic growth and cultural prosperity depend.

Morris:  From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Mckeown: Again there are so many. Steinbeck’s East of Eden has a wonderful example of how a business insight can turn into an innovation but not necessarily reward its inventor. In the story, Adam Hamilton has the idea of shipping lettuce in refrigerated trains. Hamilton is warned that his scheme is foolish yet continues with his plan which fails because the train is delayed, the ice melts and the lettuce arrives rotten. He loses money and is much ridiculed and yet the idea proved to be valuable.

In the real world, refrigeration was an amazing idea that just needed to be tried and tried and tried again until someone got all of the pieces to fit together into a network of individual innovations. Refrigeration was part of the globalisation revolution but the first inventors didn’t receive the full rewards for their tenacity, creativity and courage. That’s how society makes progress. It depends on the efforts of people you will never hear about and never meet

There are also hugely valuable insights to be gained from books that go beyond business. It’s tempting for the focus of business leaders to become overly narrow. Part of this focus is what allows them to dedicate themselves to the narrow goals of making money but this has limitations. That’s why reading beyond business is so important. Business is part of something much bigger than profit. As Scrooge remarked, “Mankind is our business.”

Morris: Your response to Peter Drucker’s statement, “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all”

Mckeown: It’s a great quote which underlines Drucker’s immense balance. He was very wary of extremes – and with good reason. He was suspicious of efficiency at all costs. In 1933, he left Germany for England because of Nazi oppression which included the burning of his first books. He recognised, even then, that efficiency is not automatically the right thing. Doing the wrong thing more efficiently is simply doing more of what is wrong. Even trying to achieve the right thing in an efficient way that is wrong can be not only useless but worse than useless. It is progress in reverse. It is chopping the last tree down whether in the fictionalised world of Dr. Suess’s Lorax or the collapsing society of the Easter Islanders.

In all acts of sociopathic evil and careless destruction, there are those who help bad things to happen more efficiently. Without the sycophants and the indifferent functionaries these great failures and man-made horrors cannot happen. To transcend the limits of our situation, and to avoid collapse, we need to seek paths which lead to better futures however inefficient.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Mckeown: Davenport and Manville’s theme is important. Being infallible is not a human characteristic, nor is omniscience. Leaders, as stated in Unshrink, an earlier book, with Philip Whitely, are not superhuman; they are human like the rest of us. They depend on shortcuts to make any decisions and cannot possibly understand every consequence or solve any problem.

Part of our strength as a species is the way we can pool resources, expertise and insight. This approach to working together allows us to accomplish what we could not accomplish alone. And sometimes we can see better together than any single person, but not always. My note of caution is that human groups can suffer from blindness and bias that are greater than those of many individuals in the group. We should be careful of assuming the crowd is always wise

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should  we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Mckeown: Because the crowd is not always wise, and because the individual is never infallible, sometimes we need to gain more accurate information that can only come from experimentation. Schoemaker extends experimentation to include the idea that we have to learn from what we never intended trying, our unintended experiments. However he then suggests we make deliberate mistakes in order to test our assumptions, and this is a paradox.

This is something tackled in Adaptability by looking at the difference between learning fast and failing fast. In recent books, authors have praised the idea of failure as the source of all success but this is not quite true. Experiments seek to test what you think may be true, or disprove what you think may be false, but the genius of the great learners is that they gain insights from what was never intended, whether they were involved or not.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many leaders seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Mckeown: There are many reasons that executives may find it easy to delegate responsibility to other people but find it very difficult to delegate the authority for getting the work done. They are also many reasons that an executive may do certain jobs that would be better shared out with the group. Here are a few common scenarios:

Only I am capable of doing the job well. They may be right (sometimes), maybe they are always right, but the problem comes when they cannot do all the jobs necessary for the organisation to thrive and transcend.

Only I can be trusted to do the job. This is different. They know other people could do the job and maybe others could do the job better, perhaps much better, than they could but they have trust issues. They need to see the job done to believe it has been done. They may also to keep information about the job to themselves to keep power to themselves.

Only I deserve the praise from a job done well. This executive has learned, from childhood or college or early in their career, that they like direct praise for doing a job well and that certain jobs attract more praise than others. They keep the job to keep the adulation.

Only by doing these jobs can I avoid work I can’t do well. This is an avoidance tactic that keeps the executive so busy that they can avoid dealing with tasks, questions, problems, and issues that they would rather not do.

An executive might spend time at press conferences when they should be collaborating with members of their team because they don’t like – or feel competent – working with other people or other specialities because they don’t know enough yet. An executive could review contracts in detail rather than invest time in figuring out the direction of the company because thinking about the future scares them in a way that keeping busy doesn’t.

We all have tasks and situations that we avoid. The executive is just human – much like the rest of us – and yet can become trapped in myths of superhuman leadership. They may have risen to dizzying heights by passing tests that required immense effort, ability in a narrow range of activities and very individual accomplishments. They reach a new level of incompetence and retreat into control-freakery which fails to engage the talent of others.

Only do the job of a leader. If an executive wants to do a great job as a leader, which is not a universal motivation, they need to understand clearly what that job includes and then only do the job of a leader. The job of a great leader is about influencing others in ways that the combination of people to accomplish, or produce something, much more wonderful than the sum of their individual talents could ever do alone. The great leader transcends the individual

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Adaptability. To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Mckeown: Adaptability started as a book with more of a specific business focus about change and strategy for winning amid uncertainty. I’d already written several books including The Strategy Book, which had been very well received. I felt that there was significant importance in highlighting human capacity to deliberately shape the future in a form that would dig down into the science and combine it with stories that would stick in the memory.

The publishers encouraged me to pursue adaptability as a central theme. They believed in the value of increasing our knowledge of how to adapt bad situations into something better.

Remember, Adaptability was written against a context of the financial crisis of 2007, the Great Crash of 2008 and the subsequent economic stagnation that has led to around 250 million unemployed worldwide along with bailouts of banks, automakers, currencies, and entire nations. The previous system did not appear to be working. Pretty much everyone recognised the problem was urgent, but the system – on the whole – did not simply recover

Few people were happy with the situation but we remained stuck somewhere between collapse and survival. We had reached some form of miserable equilibrium. The more I thought about the notion of miserable equilibrium, the more examples came to mind. Look at a newspaper, the 24 hour news channels or Google news – the articles are full of recurring examples of situations – military wars and social conflicts which do not improve despite not appearing to act in the best interests of everyone or even a sizeable majority.

My interest was in figuring out why such situations persist. More importantly, perhaps, I wanted to find out, or make clearer, how bad situations can be transcended. Bad situations can be changed. Some of the time we are dealing with physical problems – problems relating to physical conditions – the weather, the terrain, disease, resources or lack of resources – but very often we are looking at bad situations with social, or behavioural solutions.

Humans did not get to where they are now without changing the way they did things back then. It’s our ability to think our way to changed behaviour that makes us human. It’s not the shape of our faces, or our opposable thumbs. We can deliberately, even joyously, consider our past, present and future behaviour and then change it.

The newest parts of our brain, comprising the neo-cortex, are all about choice, thinking what to next to make our world better. They surround they old brain and can think our way out of problems that the old brain could only fight or flee. We can think our way beyond current constraints. And that’s the argument that was eventually published in Adaptability.

Morris: To what extent (if any) did you have to adapt in response to the challenges of getting this book written?

Mckeown: The book comes from my desire to better understand how humans make what can be termed progress. My understanding of human adaptation is still deepening as I follow the threads of what we have discovered so far.

To learn more is requiring me to explore in more depth the findings of scientists, particularly social and evolutionary psychologists. I’m able to bring those to a new audience and combine them with on-going research into strategic and behavioural science.

Fortunately, there are opportunities to update and share new findings and insights. I’ve just been asked to write a preface for the Chinese language edition of Adaptability which is going to allow me to offer additional levels of detail to my original explanations. My aim will be to also clarify, tweak the structure, and expand on arguments that are in the first edition.

Morris: You suggest, “Adapt or die is not the only choice.” Please explain.

McKeown: I’ve heard “Adapt or die” used as a rallying cry by many authors, politicians and business people. The problem is that it’s not very accurate. In fact, it’s misleading and one-dimensional in a way that is quite unhelpful. There are some many other possibilities.

You may choose not to adapt and still not die. Maybe you, or your organization or your society, make no changes but you get lucky because your situation changes. You get lucky because the situation is now a perfect fit for your particular blend of behaviour. You may choose to try and adapt and still die. You make some changes but you’re unlucky because external changes mean that your new behaviour doesn’t fit the new situation.

Even if a social group doesn’t die – or fail or collapse – the nature of your continued existence can be very different. You could continue to exist in a pitiful state or dysfunctional system. This isn’t just hypothetical – real people continue to live in ways that don’t make them happy for generations, decades, or centuries. Unending problems that are unsatisfactory to the vast majority, that appear senseless to those outside – and often inside – the situation but somehow continue.

Also,  you could rise above the limitations of a bad situation. You can choose to thrive, and then transcend the way things were done and replace it with a better system. The good thing to remember here is that people have done this over and over again. Countless different approaches to living, cooperating, and working have been attempted, and some of them are markedly better than others. Some are revolutions, and are marked in history books as such, featuring massive technological or social changes that move groups to a better place.

Evolutionary forces don’t care – on an ethical basis – whether you’re smart, good-looking, or kind. Bacteria survive without any particular thought, while dinosaurs disappear without doing much wrong. Humans are capable of doing much more — or much less — than surviving.

Morris: Which of the steps or stages during that process do most people seem to have the greatest difficulty completing? Why?

Mckeown: Evidence suggests that the most difficult step depends on the nature of the people and the problem. Each step seems simple but typically if a group fails to do any of them then they will fail to adapt successfully.

The first step is to recognise the need for adaptation. This isn’t about just accepting that change is necessary in general. Nor is it about recognising that a problem exists. It’s about recognising a specific requirement for change to improve a specific situation.

As an example, consider stress in the workplace. In 2012, The Lancet, the world’s leading general medical journal, published a study into how job related stress is strongly correlated to heart disease. This research recognises that stress is a problem but recognising the problem is only the first part of the first step towards successful adaptation. The rest of the first step would be recognising that something needs to be done to improve the situation.

It’s entirely possible to recognise a bad situation without thinking it should be solved. There are people who recognise a problem but don’t see how it’s their problem. If they are not suffering from job related stress they are indifferent to efforts to reduce its negative impact. They are others who will empathise but consider negative stress as an avoidable fact of life. For these people, the problem exists and will always exist so do not look for solutions.

Sometimes people recognise that a bad situation should be changed but don’t understand what kind of adaptation would be necessary to create a better situation. Think of political leaders who speak about the ‘need to do something’ about the economic crisis, or the jobless recovery, or poverty, or war. Some of them will speak about urgency more than they will say specifically what they will do. And, even more importantly, they do not explain how proposed action would make the situation better. They lack understanding.

It makes me think of an episode of the South Park cartoon in which the characters all meet the Underpants Gnomes (see clip here). The gnomes have a business plan. Step one: Collect Underpants. Step Three: Make a Profit. Even when pressed for details, the gnomes can’t answer the question of what comes between step one and step three. They don’t even understand the question. They are so interested in getting to work that they fail to see the gaps between their aspirations and actions. They are obsessed with doing, doing, doing.

Hard work is not the full answer to any problem. You can dedicate the blood, sweat and tears of a nation to the wrong answer to the wrong question. Your efforts can create a situation worse than before or one in which nothing ever improves. Some of this comes from decisions that are made too quickly. Some of it comes from decisions that are made too superficially. Most of it comes from collective thinking that is incapable of learning and then adapting action to benefit from lessons learned. Everyone benefits if the group learns faster together.

Morris: You suggest that the results of adaptation initiatives – or lack thereof –could be collapse, survival, thriving, or transcendence. Please explain the defining characteristics of each. Let’s begin with Collapse.

Mckeown: Collapsing is where a human system risks final failure. The social group might be a family, or a relationship, a community or a corporation and if it continues to follow the same set of rules for behaviour, there is the likelihood of disaster or even extinction. When that happens no-one left in the group will benefit because there will be no group left.

Morris: Survival

Mckeown: Surviving is better than collapsing, generally, but here a kind of miserable equilibrium exists where the social group endures without many happy with what it does for them. There are some winners but there are far more losers and the group is only one stage up from collapse. Everyone might stay here for a long time, years, decades, or longer but they’re just getting by in a human system that doesn’t really do much good for anyone.

Morris: Thriving 

Mckeown: Thriving is a whole lot better than surviving, with many people benefiting from the rewards such a system provides. Usually there are more winners than losers, and there is certainly more optimism about the future. However there are limitations in every system that may lead downwards to survival or simply have inbuilt weaknesses that are more, or less, desirable to different individuals or groups.

Morris: Transcendence

Mckeown: Transcending is about leaving behind the limitations of the previous system. There is a new set of rules, habits and interactions that change the nature of the game so that the winners and losers change, or that there are simply more winners. Some technological revolutions certainly come under this category because everyone (or almost everyone) ate more as a result of greater production even if inequities and human nature remain unchanged.

Morris: These terms remind me of the levels of Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” that can grouped as survival, security, and self-actualization. Is that comparison a stretch?

Mckeown: Although the levels of adaptability were not written as a direct response to Professor Maslow’s work, the comparison is useful because it can be used to highlight some valuable features of both models.

The hierarchy of needs was proposed by Abraham Maslow, a psychologist, in a paper about human motivation, published in 1943. He argued that ‘man is a perpetually wanting animal’ driven by a complex set of needs and desires. A complete list of human desires could never be completed since human desires are endless so instead he organised them what he termed a hierarchy of different needs. In his view, most people worry about food before they worry about security before they worry about love or concern themselves with loftier objectives.

Maslow’s focus was on the individual. The focus of Adaptability is the social group and the role of the individual as part of a social group. Individual actions are necessary to improve how social groups function but it is entirely possible for individuals to meet their needs while groups fail, or even for groups to fail because of the actions of specific individuals in pursuit of their individual needs. A musically minded emperor may play his lyre while his city burns.

The highest level in Maslow’s hierarchy is the need for self-actualisation. Maslow maintained that ‘discontent and restlessness will soon develop unless the individual is doing what he is fitted for’ so that a musician must make music, an innovator must innovate, before finding peace. He says that ‘what a man can be, he must be’ and describes people who are meta-motivated to be better. Instead of studying those seen as dysfunctional, he felt that psychologists could spend more time enlightening our understanding of what demotivated pursuit of improvement and what motivated super-functionality.

In Adaptability, the argument is made that social groups can be more, or less, than the sum of their individuals. This difference is because of systems that multiply or divide the potential of the group. In one country, a social system, (most) people are close to starvation worrying about war to another where (most) people live well without fear for their lives. Someone leaves the collapsing country and moves to a thriving country where they get their children into school, gets a job, buys a nice car, and contributes to their new nation for the rest of their lives. The person doesn’t change but the system, in all of its complexity, does.

In the old system, the individual was equaled talented but his abilities were squandered. In the new system the individual thrives and his abilities are harnessed for the greater good. There are about 200 million migrants in the world who move from one national system to another in search of something better. The United States, as one example, was formed almost entirely of people who left Europe to establish a new life and a new world.

Morris: Your chapter titles are superb. I now ask you to focus on a few. Please explain the key point for each. First, “All failure is failure to adapt.” (Chapter 2)

Mckeown: Failure, in the long run, is not a matter of bad luck but an inability to adapt to the limitations and resources available in a particular situation.

In the short run awful things can happen to an individual or group or nation, circumstance can trample over the greatest of talents. Over the long run, the individual or group or nation will be measured by how intelligently, creatively and wisely they adapt to the circumstances and opportunities available. Thus all success is also successful adaptation.

Morris: “Plan B matters most” (Chapter 8)

Mckeown: Some people decide that changing the plan is a sign of weakness. They are wrong. Changing direction will be necessary because of events about which you knew nothing, or had not yet occurred, when you came up with Plan A. These events necessitate clever recalculation of how best to proceed. These new events may create new opportunities that are better than the old opportunities. They may also create scenarios which Plan A would make much worse. A leader without a plan B is failure waiting to happen.

Plan B matters most because you will always need a Plan B! In fact, a brilliant strategist will need Plans A to Z, and beyond, to keep adapting successfully to what was not known, what has happened that was not certain, and in response to what is learned after starting Plan A.

Morris: “Get a kick-ass partner” (Chapter 11)

Mckeown: You can’t adapt as well if you’re alone, particularly if the changes you need to make are very different to the way you have acted in the past. You need eyes and insight outside of the limits of your own experience and bias. For this you need a partner and, most of all, you need a kick-ass partner, one that will back you up and disagree, a partner that will go into the struggle for a better way with the skills and knowledge that you may lack. And having two people is start of a group capable of finding new members, new people to create a better future.

Morris: Many (most?) of the examples of adaptation provided in the book involve decisions that have major implications and potential consequences.

Here’s my question: Will the three-step process work just as well when making decisions about relatively minor adaptations, albeit some of which may prove more significant than previously believed? Please explain.

Mckeown: You make a great point. Adaptability was written to remind people that deliberate, imaginative, unreasonable adaptation is their greatest strength. The more people understand of how far we’ve come, the further they will believe we can go in the future.

This applies as much with small scale adaptations in our daily lives. Some of our learning and adapting is done without us even being aware of what we have learned. From even before birth we are responding in simple ways to what happens to us and from that we gain the ability to piece those new abilities into yet more complex skills.

One huge lesson we learn is that we can cause things to happen in the external world. We can make our mothers comfort us by crying. We can gain attention by smiling. We can move a toy with our feet. We learn about our power to cause things to happen and then we gain greater skills that can do greater things while also learning how to look forward and plan whole sequences of events. Some people do this better than others, and we can all do it better.

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Max cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His homepage:

His articles and columns about management:

A video of Max discussing innovative adaptability:


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