Creating the future story of business … the best ideas and inspirations from the European Business Forum 2017

May 19, 2017

Denmark’s fairytale city of Odense is a perfect place to write the future story of business. Birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, and now one of Europe’s leading robotics hubs, it seeks to become “the Davos of business thinking”.

Odense is a city in the midst of rapid change. €5.5 billion investment will create a smart city, local businesses like Universal Robotics are growing rapidly, drones dominate the local airport, it has the world’s most innovative sports track, one of Northern Europe’s top music festivals, and Facebook has just announced a huge local investment.

On 9-10 May, Odense hosted the first Thinkers50 European Business Forum, bringing together the world’s top business thinkers with Europe’s business leaders. I had the privilege of hosting this incredible event, probably the highest quality business forum in the world this year. This is what happened (click links to download presentations and find out more):

The Odense Moonshot. Sweden’s funky academic, Jonas Ridderstråle, set out the challenge for Europe in provocative fashion:

  • Creative destruction should be the #1 priority for every business leader. Do it now, do it fast. Before somebody else does it to you.
  • The starting point to creating a better future is to take new perspectives. You cannot go forwards with the same mindset and pathway as today.
  • Europe needs to find its creative edge. To succeed through the power of ideas, and to add a creative premium to its brands, innovations and business models.

Global Remix 1. Mona Hammami, from Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince’s Court, gave a global perspective on the biggest challenge for business:

  • Global change is accelerating in speed and scale. More crowded, older, migrant and urban, putting huge demand on scarce resources.
  • Public and private sector need to collaborate to find the $2.5 trillion investment required to fund the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals.
  • How can we all act as global citizens to solve these problems? In particular, how can business contribute to society in smarter, more strategic ways?

Global Remix 2. Professor Alexander Betts, leading thinker on refugees and migration, sees the fault in our progress, and the problem with globalisation:

  • Globalisation is fundamentally undemocratic. Citizens lose influence, decisions are compromises, the strongest nations dominate.
  • We need to rethink the nature of work, including the important role of migration in this, as well as the fast emerging role of AI and robotics.
  • Social impacts should be a major discussion in the boardroom. CSR is not a peripheral issue. It should be core to the business model.

Global Remix 3. Irreverent Finn, Alf Rehn, reflected on these challenges, saying that innovation needs to refocus in order that business can have more impact:

  • Together we spend around $3 trillion each year on innovation. That’s about 22 “moonshots” (the Apollo mission cost $137bn). Most of it is misused.
  • Most innovation is frivolous, wasted on things like smart socks, rather a positive force for progress. Instead it should focus on the big challenges in our world.
  • Time to use your brain, to reclaim innovation with ambition, get serious about exponential technologies, and unleash our cognitive surplus.

Finding New Growth 1. Professor Rita McGrath, the world’s leading growth expert, challenged us to rethink our business strategies in fast-changing markets:

  • We need strategy more than ever. Whilst speed and uncertainty make strategy harder, we have more infinite opportunities, requiring more strategic choices.
  • Companies spend too much time thinking about competitors. They should spend more time looking ahead, and seeing the challenge from beyond their own sectors.
  • The best opportunities for growth lie in resolving the inefficiencies of current market models, and moving from products and services to experiences.

Finding New Growth 2. Harvard’s Canadian judo-playing professor from Grenoble, Mark Esposito, took us to a different place, the future:

  • Strategy starts by making sense of the future. Understanding the megatrends and how they will shape your markets, customers and business.
  • Quantify the changes with DRIVE … D = demographics, R = resource scarcity, I = inequalities, V = volatility, E = enterprise dynamics.
  • The best opportunities for growth lie in a combination future possibilities and change drivers – finding the painpoints and new certainties.

Letters to the CEO. Thinkers50 asked 50 gurus to write a letter to the world’s CEO, spelling out the top priority for business leaders right now. It is captured in a new book called “Dear CEO“:

  • CEOs are focused on globalisation, change, complexity and technology. They need to decide with speed and decision, engage with impact, adapt proactively, and deliver reliably.
  • The most popular theme from the 50 letters was “think people not data”, to be human and engaging, embrace foresight and meaning, and to make good judgement.
  • Other themes included rethinking what success looks like (organisation and self), opening up (stretch and potential). less is more, asking courageous questions, and being the future.

Big Talk 1 (co-creation by Europe’s CEOs). What is the new agenda for Europe? The first co-creation session saw CEOs sharing their biggest challenges and opportunities, and then agreeing what mattered most in the next 1-5 years for business in Europe:

  • CEOs’ topics were diverse, including fast change and slow growth, ageing, unemployment, lack of talent, fragmented society, digitalised everything, how to embrace AI and robotics, fat cats, risk avoidance, and problem fatigue.
  • The biggest challenges for European business are complacency (too comfortable, backward looking, rigid society, lazy and unable to change), and talent (new education to deliver new skills and entrepreneurial mindsets).
  • The biggest opportunities for European business are social innovation (enhancing business-enabled social, welfare and green solutions), and then capturing these innovations as a global export.

Future Business. Business leaders from across the world then came together with leadership coach Rene Carayol to explore what the future looks like:

  • We live in a two-speed world, we can have dynamic engagement (global, connected) or splendid isolation (local, isolationist).
  • Nobody is average in this changing world. However everybody wants something relevant to belong to, and something relevant to believe in.
  • As business leaders we face the relentless challenge of quarterly results, but we must also rise above this to drive change, and create a better future.

Exponential Lab. Dutchman Yuri van Geest is author of the bestselling Exponential Organisations, from Singularity University, focused on the power of new technologies for fast growth:

  • The best vision of the future is peripheral vision. Corporate life expectancy from 67 (1920) to 12 years. Business competency from 30 (1980) to 5 years.
  • Exponential organisations – driven by abundance, millennial mindsets and exponential (typically, network-based) technologies – have dispropotionate (e.g. 10x) more impact.
  • They harness 10 scale drivers – interfaces, dashboards, experiments, autonomy, social, gig work, community, algorithms, leveraged assets, and engagement.

Faster Better Results 1 (the soft stuff). INSEAD’s American professor in Paris, Erin Meyer has created “the Culture Map”, an indispensable tool for every business today:

  • Global organisations need to learn how cultures work together – understanding the different attitudes to time, influence, trust, agreement, leadership etc.
  • Example: multi-culture teams need low context processes (explicit/simple, like in USA or Germany, rather than implicit/nuanced, like in Russia or China).
  • This can be applied to internal teams, but also in aligning internal/external (organisation/brand) cultures, and in marketing/selling around the world.

Faster Better Results 2 (the hard stuff). How do you make change happen? Spain’s Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez is the world’s leading project guru, and also VP of GSK Vaccines business:

  • Business ratio of “stable:change” (i.e. operations:projects) is rapidly shifting from 90:10 to 30:70 … which means projects increasingly dominate.
  • Agile organisations are project driven, cross-functional, less hierarchy, more speed. Even customers want projects not products (e.g. to run a marathon).
  • CEOs are the ultimate project managers, or more likely, portfolio managers. This requires focus and prioritisation, engagement and collaboration.

Leading Change (case study). CEO Peter Terium described his transformation of Germany’s largest energy company, Innogy SE, with his coach Deborah Rowland:

  • Business change starts with leadership. But leaders must also change. Start with the being (mental change), then the doing (physical change).
  • The “being” skills of change leaders are: seeing the bigger picture, being curious and responsive, staying present, and tuning into the system.
  • The “doing” skills of change leaders are: the pull of an inspiring purpose, creating tension to create disrupt, channeling energy, and changing the now.

Big Talk 2 (co-creation by Europe’s CEOs). What is the new agenda for Europe? The second co-creation session saw CEOs discussing how to overcome the many obstacles, and then defining their priorities for delivery, now and in the mid to longer-term:

  • CEOs concurred that it was time for action – moving forwards through a new mindset, where ambition conquers fear, longer-term vision beats short-term continuity, embracing cultural and societal progress.
  • The top priorities for European business were seen as clarity of direction, and making this future happen smarter and faster. Competing on ideas, design and creativity to embrace human and social progress, with a creative premium.
  • What does this mean Europe’s leaders need to do differently? They need bolder vision, to inspire and engage talent and society. They need agility and collaboration to deliver, to be distinctive globally and relevant locally.

The Winning CEO. So what makes an effective business leader? We brought the world’s #1 business leader, Lars Rebien Sorensen of Novo Nordisk, together with the world’s #1 business coach, Marshall Goldsmith:

  • The CEO’s responsibility is to deliver a long term strategy, not just quarterly results. Business also needs a bigger purpose, to make the world better.
  • Leadership is a lot about luck. Most leaders have most of the right ingredients. They need the right organisations, markets and teams to win.
  • What are the most important attributes of a winning CEO? Courage, humility and discipline.

The European Business Lecture. Harvard’s Professor Michael Porter is the world’s #1 business thinker. His five forces have powered the world’s businesses for too long. So what is his vision for the future of business?

  • Business is about more than capitalism. Competition should have a net positive impact. Social value is the best starting point for business strategy.
  • Social needs represent the largest unserved market opportunities. How can your business make a useful contribution to society, and the future?
  • Creating shared value (CSV) is the evolution of philanthropy and CSR. It is the strategic business process of making the world better, profitably

The future story of business: Defining a new agenda for European business leaders.

So did we create the future story of business for Europe, and probably beyond? A clear thread emerged through the Odense forum. Not by pre-planned design, but a natural flow of insights and inspiration. Stories, like Hans Christian Andersen reminds us, are a powerful way to spread ideas. Stories of the future are particularly important for business, as they give direction, shape progress and give hope.

A simple framework which I use for articulating stories (visions, strategies, propositions, reports, speeches,  and more, in business) is built on SCQA (which stands for situation, complication, question, answer). So here it is, the new agenda for European business:

S. Fast change has left business out of touch with people. Globalisation feels undemocratic, AI and robotics have created fear. Short-termism creates a blinkered obsession with financial gain rather than value creation that supports financial and social progress, that makes the world a better place. As new markets surge forwards, with lower costs, bolder ambitions, and fast action, Europe is squeezed and left behind.

C. Leaders are complacent, and innovation is wasted. Companies have grown lazy and arrogant through stability and success. They live on the success models of the past, rather than creating new. They avoid risk, big ideas are mocked (except Elon Musk’s), leaders avoid real change. Innovation is trivialised, incremental not exponential, not focused on the big challenges and opportunities that move the world forwards.

Q. How can European business rediscover its place in the world? How can fast change be the catalyst for accelerating growth? How can our assets, from geography to capability, cultural diversity and social beliefs, be creatively applied to industry 4.0? How can we harness creativity, intangible assets, for more value? What do business leaders themselves need to do better? How can Europe lead and win the future?

A. Business should be a force for positive progress. It should drive social innovation, harnessing the potential of new technologies, from digital to robotics, to make life better. Tech should not threaten us, but enhance our lives. It must be profitable too, a premium to invest and share. Social innovation – welfare, green and cultural – are embedded in Europe’s make-up, and can be its advantage, its export and its future.

Ideas that spread further: How Thinkers50 moves the business world forwards.

Porter described the European Business Forum as “an important milestone in reenergising the world’s management thinkers”, and connecting the best academic thinking with the most important issues and opportunities for business leaders.

At the end of the forum he was awarded the Thinkers50 Lifetime Achievement Award by founders Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove, which he said was “one of the most important honours he had every received, because it was the acknowledgement of his peers, the best thinkers in the business world”.

The world’s #1 leader, #1 thinker and #1 coach together for the first time, perfectly captured the magic of an incredible, exhilarating (and exhausting) two days, that also included events for 500 local entrepreneurs, 1500 business students and the local public.

I remember sitting down a year ago with Anker Boye, Odense’s transformational mayor, and Bjarke Wolmar, local organiser and VP of Odense & Co, the city’s investment agency. We wondered whether any of this was possible. Yes it was, and much more. The excellence in content, energy of the interaction, and electric atmosphere created an incredible event.

As director of Thinkers50, I will be working with my colleagues, Stuart, Des and Cosimo Turroturro to build on this momentum, both locally and globally. In Odense, we are putting in place an ongoing program of smaller events, virtual content and supporting resources, throughout the year, building to next year’s EBF18. We are building a community of business leaders across Europe, with local satellite networks, who will come together in Odense each year.

Globally, we are looking to replicate the format with our partners in each region. Next stop China, where Haier is our partner in Qingdao, and then onwards to the Middle East, South and North America. The combination of leaders and thinkers, digital content and physical experience, definitive and defining, is what makes this format distinctive.

Ideas to change the world.

Download a summary of all the best ideas

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