As the former Futurist and Chief Evangelist at Intel Corporation, Steve Brown has more than 30 years of experience in high tech, half of that time spent in strategic planning roles where he imagined and built plans for a world 5, 10, and 15 years in the future.
After leaving Intel in 2016, Steve built his own company, Possibility and Purpose, which encourages businesses to understand the exciting potential of technology–including artificial intelligence, Blockchains, and augmented reality–and to embrace those technologies to fulfill their corporate purpose in new ways. Steve encourages companies to build a better future for people by creating new products and services, optimizing operations, innovating business models, empowering employees, delighting customers, boosting sustainability, and elevating human work.
Now a sought-after keynote speaker, Steve shares his experience in engineering, business, and communications to help audiences understand how automation and other technology will reshape industries, improve our lives, and forever alter the world of work.
Steve uses plain language that’s accessible to all and inspires his audiences with stories about the future, challenging them to think beyond the status quo and to reimagine their businesses, and their lives, for the better.
He has been featured on CNN, BBC, Bloomberg TV, and in The Wall Street Journal and Wired Magazine, among many other media outlets. He is also an author. His new book, The Innovation Ultimatum, was published by Wiley in February 2020.
Steve holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Engineering degrees in micro-electronic systems engineering from Manchester University. He was born in the U.K. and became a U.S. citizen in 2008. He lives with his wife in Portland, Oregon.
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The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
I owe a debt of gratitude to a guy by the name of Stuart Robinson. He saw potential in me and plucked me from the engineering ranks at Intel very early in my career, offering me a job in marketing. Rather than be excited by the opportunity, my initial response was to try and talk Stuart out of offering me a job. My self-imposed identity just didn’t allow for it. So I told him I was an engineer and had no marketing experience and that he definitely shouldn’t hire me. Talk about slamming a door in your own face when somebody tries to open it for you!
Three times Stuart sat me down and explained to me that I had potential to use my engineering skills in other ways. The third time, he finally got through to me and I took the job. He changed my perception of myself and freed me to think about myself in a new way. That changed the course of my career and set me on the path I am on today. If only we all had a Stuart Robinson in our lives at just the right time. I now challenge myself, and I challenge your readers too…how can you be a Stuart Robinson in somebody else’s life?
To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
As I indicated, my formal training was in micro electronic systems engineering. That is, how to design silicon chips and write software. These engineering skills were useful to me while I worked in engineering, but once I moved into marketing, communications, management, and then strategic planning, most of the skills that I needed to be successful in the workplace were either developed as an extra-curricula activity in my college days (running a film society, being a DJ, and organizing events) or were learned on the job working at Intel.
The engineering foundation continues to be useful, though. In my business, I need to explain complex ideas in ways that everyone can understand. I have found that to simplify or summarize complex topics, you must first understand them in depth. So this core understanding of how technology works serves me well to this day.
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?
Confidence is half the battle.
Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes the challenges when having to make a high-impact decision? Please explain.
Hidden Figures was my favorite movie of 2016. The true story of the brilliant women behind the early NASA launches is inspiring and thought-provoking. It shows that difficult tasks are only achieved when teams of talented people work closely together, treat each other with respect, and keep their eyes firmly on the ultimate objective. When making high-impact decisions, it’s important to understand as many of the variables as you can and to create an inclusive culture so you can incorporate the insights of as many minds as possible.
Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
We live in a world of incredible possibility. The six technologies that I describe in my book — artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, 5G and satellite networks, the Internet of Things and sensors, augmented reality, and autonomous machines — can be combined to achieve amazing results. Designers use them to create incredible new products and services. Managers use them to streamline operations, improve working conditions, and boost customer service. Leaders use them to take companies in entirely new directions.
The landscape of possibility is so broad that Porter’s words are perhaps more important than ever. There is so much that companies CAN do. In a world of limited resources it’s vital to decide what you’re going to tackle first. Finding focus is easier for companies with a clear sense of purpose. The task at hand for all leaders today is to survey the incredible landscape of possibility, understand what new technology can make possible in the coming years, and then use the mission of the organization—the humanistic purpose of the company—to narrow focus and set clear priorities. This is one of the major business challenges of the 2020s. Strategy sits at the intersection of possibility and purpose. That’s why I named my consulting practice “Possibility and Purpose LLC” as a recognition of this challenge.
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.”
The era of training for a career, and then enjoying 35-40 years working in that career, is long gone. With the rapid change that’s coming, young people entering the workforce today must be trained for jobs that don’t yet exist. This means that the primary skills they need are tenacity, adaptability, and the willingness to constantly learn new skills throughout their careers. Indeed, they will likely enjoy several careers in their lives as they adapt to rapid shifts in the workplace.
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.”
When you step back and think about what people really want, there are some fundamental potentialities that we are all trying to fulfill in our lives. When working in Intel Labs as a futurist, my boss was a cultural anthropologist, the wonderful Dr Genevieve Bell. Genevieve taught me that everything starts with people. I was part of a 90-sperson team of social scientists, ethnographers, and anthropologists doing research to better understand people: What they want, what they need, what they fear…their values, their relationships, and so on.
I’m not a social scientist, but I learned a lot from hanging around with these researchers. They study people deeply, sometimes spending days or weeks with families to understand how they live their lives. Angelou’s quote makes me think about what the research shows about what really matters to people. Sure, we are looking for ways to get things done more efficiently (we all feel busy, and also are fundamentally lazy), and we are all trying to reassert control over our lives in a world where we increasingly feel a loss of control.
But the main driver for all of us is a desire to create meaning in our lives. To build connections with other humans. To feel creative. To love. To be entertained. To create memories. To FEEL. Companies that understand this will be far more successful in the marketplace. Companies that create products, services, experiences, and transformations that help their customers to create meaning in their lives will win.
Similarly, companies that strive to build a workplace where employees feel they are doing work that is worthwhile, valued, and meaningful will win too. How products and services make us feel matters—from the moment of excitement we experience when we first hear about a cool new product, through the anticipation of purchase, the joy of first use, the pride of ownership, then through to the memory of its use long after it’s left our lives. Angelou is right. No matter the industry you’re in, how you make your customers feel really matters.
From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”
Edison was right. Every strategy is only as good as the execution against that strategy. There is no point dreaming up great new products, services, or experiences if we never take the time to implement them. I think it’s very important to take the time to do the hard work of figuring out how to take a vision and then create a plan to make that vision a reality. We must always ask ourselves not just “what’s the future that we want?”
But also “what’s the future that we want to build?” It’s the building part that matters. I worked at a monumental manufacturing company, Intel, for many years. The culture there was always focused on output, and on making things possible. Everything else was just PowerPoint. In my role as a futurist, I strive hard to be like Marty McFly. You need to come back from the future in order to get to it. I use the futurecasting process, created by my former colleague and fellow futurist, Brian David Johnson. After ideation using the futurecasting process that helps you to imagine a product, service or experience that you want to build for a future time, it’s important to then use a backcasting process to work your way back from the future and work out all the steps it’ll take to get you there.
Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
Drucker’s insight perfectly captures the value of purpose-driven companies. If your organization doesn’t have a crystal clear humanistic purpose, step back and take the time to ask the tough question….why are we in business? As Simon Sinek says, the purpose of a business is NOT to make money. That is a result of successful execution against your corporate purpose. Your purpose should be to do something useful for humans. Figure out what that is, focus your organization’s efforts around that purpose, let go of things that don’t support this core effort, and your company and your employees will thrive. Make sure that what you’re doing is truly worthwhile.
Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be engaged in an extended conversation? Why?
I should very much like to talk to Andy Grove again. I only met him a few times, but I always came away impressed by his intellectual curiosity, willingness to embrace change, appetite for attacking big problems, and of course his amazing personal story. He had incredible business wisdom and I learned a lot from him. The notions of constructive confrontation (“attack the issue, not the person”), strategic inflection points, and the value of investing time in your team (“Ninety minutes of your time can enhance the quality of your subordinate’s work for two weeks, or for some eighty-plus hours”) has always stuck with me. I would love to get his take on how technology will shape the world in the coming decade, and the strategic inflection points that he sees coming in the 2020s.
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?
The best way to lead people through change is to paint a vivid picture of the future, and show people their role in that imagined future. Get them excited about it. Show them they have a stake. Show them that this future is better than today, and build their belief that it’s possible to get from here to there. And again, show them their role in that journey, and the importance of their contribution to the team’s success. Help them see that this change is worthwhile—worthwhile their discretionary effort, time away from family, perhaps some late nights—and that the risk associated with upsetting the status quo is worth it.
Some prefer the “burning platform” approach, trying to use fear to motivate people to move, but I’ve found that a carrot beats a stick most days of the week. And that while a combo approach may offer benefits, a stick alone usually just leads to organizational paralysis within a workplace environment of intimidation.
What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?
In my experience, companies that invest in their talent, and that support that talent to grow, reap huge rewards. A corporate culture that challenges employees, encourages them to take informed risks, rewards informed risk-taking even when it ends in failure, and that gives employees a chance to prove themselves in roles for which they have eagerness but perhaps not the formal qualifications, can be a recipe for great innovation. By allowing talent to cross boundaries—a finance person that wants to try their hand at marketing, or an engineer that wants to get into sales—and properly supporting that talent with managers that nurture them and guide their development, the company gains employees with a broader perspective that spans multiple disciplines.
The big challenges of the future will only be solved with the collaboration of diverse minds working together. Take risks on your people. Let them spread their wings and try new things. Get them into jobs they love, even if they weren’t formally trained for them in school. This requires leaders to take a risk too. Sometimes it won’t work out and you’ll need to adjust. But when it works (and it often does), the results are well worth it.
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?
You have to give people a reason to invest their time and discretionary effort at work. Some cultures say they encourage risk-taking (which is required to fuel innovation) but punish those that take risks and fail. The message this sends to other employees is clear: keep your head down, keep your nose clean, and just keep collecting the paycheck. To engage employees you have to help them answer two simple questions: 1) Is what we are doing worthwhile? and 2) What’s in it for me?
To address the first question, companies need a clear corporate purpose, one that is focused on doing good things for people. Organizations with a clear humanistic purpose that is clearly and regularly communicated to, and fully understood by, employees (as measured by them being able to explain the purpose in their own words and to do so with pride and passion), are shown to have superior financial results to organizations that do not. Purpose matters. Money motivation only goes so far. What people care about is contributing to work that they consider to be worthwhile.
Secondly, you need to explain to people what’s in it for them, personally, if they become fully engaged. Different people respond to different motivations…usually they are driven by a set of motivators: money, challenge, mission, competitive drive etc. For each employee, you need to find out what that unique blend is, and ensure they see what’s in it for them to step up. Get them excited about the future, link bonuses to results, challenge them to learn and grow, and never underestimate the power of providing true inspiration.
Another angle to consider regarding engagement is the old adage that people join companies and leave managers. This is still (mostly) true. The difference today is that in a world where people fear unemployment, or in the USA fear a disruption to family healthcare benefits, sticking with the status quo and phoning it in can feel like the only option. Most people have experienced a bad manager, somebody that either treats their people poorly, tries to micromanage their activities, or fails in the basics of leadership.
All too often, success as an individual contributor is rewarded with promotion to a managerial position. Sometimes that works out. Often it doesn’t. A great engineer often does not make a great manager. These two roles require utterly different skillsets.
Yet these “promotions” continue to be made. It’s time to reconsider how companies reward the achievements of individual contributors, and start to recognize that not everyone is suited (or really even wants) to be a manager. Some people take manager roles despite their best instincts, because it’s a path to social status and increased income. Despite the fact that they should never be put in charge of people. Most of these managers are expected to continue to deliver on individual contributor work as well as managing a team. We need to start to promote people into senior individual contributor roles when that’s appropriate, rather than forcing them to be managers to get on in life. Otherwise we risk continuing to create a poor work environment for people, and continue the cycle of disengagement.
In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?
Another way to look at engagement was coined by my old boss and friend, Mike Green. He ran employee communications at Intel and was a strong advocate for the notion of “Believe, Belong, Matter.” That is to say that engaged employees believe in the mission or purpose of the organization and think that the mission is worthwhile. They feel that they belong to and are a valued part of the organization, and that their individual contribution matters to the outcome of the mission, even if as a small cog in a giant machine.
Mike was quite right: Believe, Belong, Matter.
Building this connection from every individual, so they can see how their effort ladders up to the larger mission, is vital for engagement. Give everyone in the company an understanding of why their efforts matter, why them coming in early and staying late made an impact. Why time away from their families on a weekend was worth it. Tell stories about the impact your organization has on PEOPLE. Real stories. Told honestly. And link those stories back to what you do, and you’ll get an engaged workforce and financial results will ultimately reflect that.
Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?
One of the big questions CEOs are asking themselves right now is….where do I invest? Do I invest in new capital equipment, in talent, or in technology? Powerful new technologies—most notably automation, robotics, sensors, and networks—make it possible to automate some tasks and to augment the efforts of human workers. The challenge for CEOs is to understand what new technology makes possible, and how to build high-functioning teams that are a collaboration of human and non-human workers.
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Steve cordially invites you to check out the resources here:
His website link
His Amazon link