After reposting many of his articles from La Vanguardia, getting immersed in his last book and rethinking his transformative questions once and again, I arrived to our meeting. Xavier Marcet sees management as humanistic, he is a startupper who is almost in his sixties, he has a curious mind, liquid talent, and he advocates for authenticity. His experience as President of the Barcelona Peter Drucker Society and Founder of the Lead to Change consulting company and 8Wires, a technological innovation space which combines big data and management, is not the only inspiring thing about him. Talking with him is also inspiring due to the power of facts: his simplicity, the clarity of his ideas, and the respect and closeness of our conversation are true reflections of the things he tells us about.
To go a little deeper into his world, we chose to start the interview by asking him about his “fine print”, that which defines him and not many of us know about. Who is Xavier Marcet? What drives you?
I would like to be seen as someone who strives to humanise management. Without any unnecessary fuss. Trying not to reinvent common sense. Learning a lot from people who do instead of talk, reading from people who think and make others think. That moves me, putting people at the centre of organisations. Too many people believe technology is the script, but that is not true, technology is only a sophisticated tool. We live in a world that is as interesting as it is challenging. At first, I was fascinated by the study of the Italian Renaissance, which was a way of putting the person in the centre of the universe, and I would like to finish by trying to make a summary with the lessons I learned from the Renaissance and those I learned in companies afterwards. I’ll give it a try. But I don’t know if I’ll succeed. I wouldn’t like to be embarrassed by juggling out of the blue.
It is fascinating how skilful you are to describe complex universes in simple ways. What is complexity for you? How would you suggest addressing it?
Thinking about complexity implies unlearning and undertaking. Complexity is something that goes beyond complication. We surely experience it due to the addition of phenomena such as digitalisation and globalisation. We observe reality with so much detail and data about interactions that it is not possible to reduce it to problems, that is why we are often presented with complexity in the form of dilemmas. And dilemmas cannot be tackled like problems, which may have a perfect solution. Dilemmas do not have one. The best way to deal with complexity is by trying to not let it grow. Learning to deal with dilemmas beyond problems will be one of humankind’s tasks.
In your book Esquivar la mediocridad [“Avoiding Mediocrity”], you talk about authenticity as key to leave mediocrity behind. What obstacles does authenticity pose? How can we overcome them to become more authentic organisations?
Authenticity has to do with the level of coherence with which we experience something. Authentic organisations do not superficially implement management trends, they focus on important things, on the fact that people within the organisation have self-respect and respect for those they want to provide services to. Authenticity is what makes us avoid mediocrity, understood as the thing that makes us ordinary, does not let us grow and affects our honesty. “In a VUCA world such as ours, running away from mediocrity does not mean escaping from complexity, but promptly trying new combinations that will enable us to explore without stopping”.
In an ever changing world where looking for answers is instinctive, you encourage us to pause and ask questions. What are questions to you? How much time do we spend asking questions within organisations? How can we train ourselves to ask questions?
Questions arise from canned answers. They are an attempt to go beyond the obvious. Asking questions is not easy. Learning how to ask questions can take a lifetime. There are no questions without reflection. Without connecting reasons with true honesty. Robots with artificial intelligence can be automated to give answers, but not to ask questions. The only way to train ourselves on how to ask questions is to train ourselves on how to think. And to write. “Asking doesn’t’ mean pleasing or hurting; asking means honestly trying to learn”.
You say innovation is not found in technology but in our view. Could you explain this concept a bit more?
Innovation is creating new value for our customers through new solutions. The important things are our customers’ needs, problems and aspirations, which we are able to solve through innovation. And for that, we need radical empathy. Innovation lies in the view, in the ability to adopt a different perspective, and technology comes after. Innovation works better if we go from observing the customer to technology and not the other way around. To innovate, we must know how to observe, propose our value and keep up to date with technology.
If we talk about organisational culture, we are talking about…
We are talking about what people learn within the organisation without actually being taught. We are talking about what people do when no one is looking. We are talking about automated behaviours that become tacit rules, about how things that have to be done and things that do not have to be done take place in an organisation. Culture can be a big lever or a big obstacle for many organisations to be consistent in their paths. Consistency is an organisation’s ability to evolve together with those it wants to provide services to. Changing the culture and being successful is one of management’s most serious challenges. The only way of changing a company’s culture is by generating personal change agendas, from high management to the lower positions in the organisation. Changes that have to do with individual experiences, with the logic of learning and unlearning. If change is not individual, there cannot be a real transformation.
What are the main challenges for organisational culture nowadays? What kind of leadership do you think will adapt better?
Most probably the need to be ambidextrous, to know how to exploit and explore at the same time. Our agendas are subject to the dictatorship of our daily lives. But, in order to be efficient, obtain results and also innovate, we need time for today and for tomorrow. Everything at the same time. That is why we need agility to solve, without hurrying, several things simultaneously. What is difficult is synchronising our current abilities with our future opportunities. Transitions are difficult, in life, in companies, in everything. The hardest thing is not imagining how things will be in a few years, but making decisions to focus wisely on our transitions. The wise thing to do is to take risks.
What role does strategy play in this new context? What about planning?
Our challenge is to have more strategies and less planning. The 20th century brought about a pairing that seemed unbreakable: strategy and planning. And in the 21st century we have realised that strategy, which means making our purpose operational, requires something other than a plan which is inherently ephemeral. The world is changing faster than the plans we dream of. We keep making plans to get closer to our vision, our desired future, but we can no longer do that without improving our ability to learn and innovate. We used to support our strategy only with planning, but now we need three legs: planning for the next two or three years, innovation and our ability to learn and defend our objective and its strategies in a world that is changing faster than ever.
Management nowadays: Start- Stop- Continue: What should we continue doing, what should we stop doing and what should we incorporate?
The future is not an extension of the past. Management means dealing with a legacy that is not a heritage, but an ability to learn and unlearn. Success always belongs to the past and a bit to the present, but the future depends on our potential to adapt in order to keep obtaining good results. Creating paths is the exciting thing about management, for a big, well-established company as well as for a startup. What the big company and the startup company have in common is the need to build a future without the ability to take uncertainty out of the equation. And we find it difficult to accept that this is not easy. Some people believe they have magical solutions for everything: they are known as management populists and there are a lot of them. Keeping a company afloat is a daily challenge. There is no truce. I admire the people who are in charge of companies for decades and keep the illusion and ambition of growing, and the humility to learn and respect everyone intact. These consistent paths express the best of management.
The management of the future requires consistent leaderships and cultures. Leaders who are consistent in what they say and do. Cultures where natural habits are connected with the organisational purpose. Organisations based on appearance will be less competitive.