Paul Nunes and Larry Downes on organizational dexterity: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Paul Nunes is the global managing director for thought leadership at Accenture Research where he leads the company’s principle business research programs. He is coauthor of four books, including Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation (2014), and his work has been featured in publications including Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.


Larry Downes is Senior Fellow with Accenture Research.  He is the author or co-author of five books, including the New York Times bestseller, Unleashing the Killer App.  His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Forbes, The Washington Post, and The Economist.

Paul and Larry are co-authors with Omar Abbosh of Pivot to the Future: Discovering Value and Creating Growth in a Disrupted World, published by Public Affairs (April 2019).

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Note: Before discussing Pivot to the Future with Paul Nunes, Larry responded to a few general questions.

First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Larry Downes: I had many wonderful teachers over the course of my education.  Usually, the ones who were hardest one me pushed me to make the biggest improvements, especially as a writer.  In college, I took half a dozen courses from the school’s leading medievalist, who never once gave me an A and who always expressed confusion at my ambition to become a professional writer.  But I learned more from him about how to read and challenge a text than anyone else—a skill that has proven essential.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

I had the great privilege in 1993 to serve for a year as law clerk to Judge Richard A. Posner, perhaps the greatest legal mind to appear in the last 100 years.  Posner operated his chambers in a totally counter-intuitive way.  Instead of the clerks drafting opinions for him to critique, he wrote all the drafts himself (always within a day of arguments) and tasked us with challenging his reasoning until we were satisfied that the opinion was done.  I learned more about law in a year with Posner than I did in three years of law school or in twenty five yeas of practice since.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Most of the turning points in what has been a chaotic and unplanned career have begun with terrible choices and big mistakes—accepting or quitting or getting fired from various jobs.  As a student I wasted so much time anguishing over a career path and discovering the color of my parachute, but what I have found is that everything is random, with about half of the mistakes turning out well and about half turning out poorly.  I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time planning!

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

My formal education has been invaluable mostly for teaching me not specific subjects but how to read, to write, to think, and to interact collaboratively with others.  Everything I learned about computer science is long obsolete, and little of my legal education comes up on a day-to-day basis.  But every now and then some tidbit of history, or literature, or programming, or law proves the perfect reference, or metaphor, or organizing principle, for something I’m working on.  I just wish there were more, and that I could slow the pace of forgetting it all.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

The most important skill is attention to details.  Ultimately it’s the most important contributor to success in any field.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

I always tell my students that the most important thing in weighing a job offer is whether they think they’ll have fun with their co-workers.  Since you’re going to spend the majority of your waking hours with them, everything else is secondary.

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what [begin italics] not [end italics] to do.”

I don’t agree.  The essence of strategy is relentless experimentation, measurement, and assessment.

From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

There are, unfortunately, far too many educated professionals who can neither read nor write.  Let’s start there.

From  Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Absolutely.  This is a big part of what I meant when I said attention to details is the most important thing.  I have fired long-time clients who regularly paid their bills but who never once said thank you.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Or, as Alan Kay often said, “Most ideas are bad.”

From Theodore Roosevelt: “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

In college I took a wonderful course on the “character ethic,” where we read classic pop culture self-help books including Horatio Alger, Norman Vincent Peale, Jerry Rubin, Benjamin Franklin and Dale Carnegie.  What I took from these—although I still struggle to put into practice—is what Steven Covey later boiled down to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

The problem is one rarely knows until much later what was important and what wasn’t, so you might as well do everything as if your future depended on it.

Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be engaged in one-on-one conversation over an extended period time? Why?

The greatest leaders are nearly always considered such because of accidents of history.  I would much rather sit down with some of the great skeptics. satirists and iconoclasts—Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr., Henry Adams, Stan Lee, and Richard Armour.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

After the success of the “Killer App” book, I spent years helping companies come up with their big ideas.  What I found very quickly was that the great thinking was already done, everyone knew what the answer was, but that there was little to no chance of getting executed because of organizational obstacles and corporate antibodies that were fine-tuned to maintain the status quo even if meant the (imminent) end of the organization.  I was asked to solve problems of organizational psychology, but I worked for a company of one, who’s biggest problem was office politics.  I still don’t know how to solve these problems, but at least I know now that that’s what’s needed, not genius thinking.

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

Mutual respect, a great sense of humor, and unimpeachable good manners.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

Human beings are nowhere near as civilized as we tell ourselves we are.  We may not even be the best-behaved primates.  As Hamilton or Madison said in Federalist 55, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

In every industry, technology-driven disruption is coming, especially in those that have so far escaped the impact of digital innovation.  The winners will be distinguished from the losers by those whose leaders see opportunity rather than threat.  And the organizational, financial, and human resources to act on their instincts.

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Paul and Larry cordially invite you to check out the resources at these websites.

The book, Pivot to the Future



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