What are the difficulties you observe in companies nowadays and how do you intervene?
For companies to be successful in a VUCA world, they need a culture of intrapreneurship where intuitive intelligence is key to successfully experiment; just like research scientists who operate in their lab at the frontier of what they know for sure works and what they assume could possibly work. This assumption cannot be formulated shrewdly without some level of intuitiveness. In his biography, Steve Jobs insisted on the power of intuition and described its impact on his work at the helm of Apple. “Intuition is a very powerful thing,” he told writer Walter Isaacson, “more powerful than intellect.” One of France’s most significant mathematicians and a philosopher of science, Henri Poincaré said, “It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover.”
When the SQUARE (logic) becomes dominant it belittles the CIRCLE (intuition) and deprives us of essential adaptive and problem-solving skills.
This is probably one of our biggest cognitive biases, yet I rarely see it discussed in the workplace.
This bias sits at the core of my advisory work with CEOs. I meet strong, driven leaders with exceptional analytical skills, strategic capacities and often clear intuitive abilities. Yet in their organizations, complex problems and team collaboration are approached in a SQUARE dominant way more often than not. Once a CEO recognizes this and its side effects on their business, their mindset shifts and in turn, this impacts their organizations. This is the decisive factor that allowed billion-dollar companies to succeed at reinventing themselves and overcome daunting business challenges, when recommendations of even the best strategic management consulting firms had not been enough to bring forth the level of transformation needed by our clients.
Becoming aware of the dominance of the SQUARE is the pivotal process that naturally unleashes an untapped innate potential in everyone. That is key to adapting and thriving in disruption. That is key to understanding more deeply post COVID consumers whose choices are shifting towards purposeful dollar spend and engaging employees whose preferred places to work are more and more corporations that operate responsibly.
Can you give us an example of a company operating from a “free CIRCLE” perspective? What does it look like?
I remember interviewing a senior executive at one of the largest global pharmaceutical companies. He was running the portfolio of all over-the-counter drugs. Because it was the least strategic and least profitable part of the company’s portfolio, his bosses were not paying much attention to his way of driving the business. So he and his team felt a certain independence and developed a real autonomy. Unlike the rest of the offices, they painted theirs in bright colors, had a new logo designed, worked different flexible hours to accommodate all personal situations. They spontaneously created a new work culture.
Over four consecutive years, they grew their top line by 40% although the global president admitted that they had repeatedly made mistakes in elaborating their strategy. Yet what made them successful was their ability to systematically pivot quickly. The pressure they felt coming from the C-suite was low, they became rather autonomous thinkers and created their own culture. That’s how the global president explained their success in spite of the repeated strategic misjudgments. This speaks to Peter Drucker’s famous conviction that “culture eats strategy at breakfast.” In my 15 years of management consulting I have repeatedly seen culture save groups or on the contrary dangerously compromise success.
So if culture is key to the success of a company in an instable environment, how do you change it? How do you concretely help organizations transform themselves and gain in agility?
Over the years, I have worked with a number of companies that had to reinvent their business models due to disruption by pure digital players, in industries like sports and entertainment or media, for instance. In my experience it is rarely wise to try to change the culture of an organization head-on, but there are ways to influence it.
To do so, our approach is very pragmatic. The work starts with a proprietary assessment that I developed. It evaluates how an individual, a team, or a whole organization is positioned to deliver on their strategy and reach their goals, as well as innovate and adapt in a fast-changing environment of unknown and uncertainty.
In the same vein as the seminal work of MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Edgar Schein on Culture and Leadership, our assessment analyzes the way executives make decisions through 17 parameters. The outcome enables people to focus on their strengths and be wary of their blind spots, the shadow side of their strengths. It makes diversity actionable and encourages organizations to value outliers, leverage untapped resources, and seize overlooked opportunities in their work culture. It awakens an innate human potential — deep human thinking — that looks at problems with a renewed perspective that doesn’t shy away from complexity. When we avoid complexity, we oversimplify. Sometimes it is necessary but at best this leads to incremental change and more often than not to status quo. It is only when we embrace complexity that we can access the deeper solutions needed to address the challenges of today’s disruptive environment.
We designed a workshop for complex problem solving where participants are not afraid of getting lost in the process. Actually, after experiencing the SQUIRCLE Game they know in their hearts and minds that losing sight of any logical understanding of a situation is a sure sign of getting closer to a breakthrough idea. Eventually they look forward to that critical moment. By then you know you’re on a path to cultural evolution.
You mentioned an assessment you developed and use; can you give more info about it?
The SQUIRCLE test is based on a proven assessment I invented — The Intuitive Compass® — that helped 250,000 senior executives and students at some of the most successful companies and most prestigious business schools in the world. It gives respondents insights into their thinking preference for a SQUARE, a CIRCLE, or an EVEN approach to situations and decisions.
The purpose of the SQUIRCLE test is not to assign you to a specific profile or category. It is meant to foster self-reflection and promote open discussion with others. Whether your preference is for a SQUARE or a CIRCLE approach, we all need to recognize:
- The importance of CIRCLE in re-inventing our organizations, our modes of leadership and decision-making.
- The great contribution of SQUARE in analyzing, bringing facts and frameworks of reference, as long as it doesn’t become dominant, like an ideology that suppresses critical and creative thinking.
Based on a decade of empirical observations, we can say that by a large majority people favor a SQUARE approach. So it makes a big difference once people recognize their inclination and can better appreciate others’ difference or similarity. It’s not how many CIRCLE people you have in your organization that matters. It is how well you understand and support those with a CIRCLE preference. SQUIRCLE is really for everyone.
Could you share a case study?
Yes! The exemplary revival of Ralph Lauren Parfums. In 2010, the American brand was in strong decline (-25% growth). There was a great temptation to forcefully recover sales by focusing everything on commercial and promotional techniques at the risk of reducing margins and investment in product development. But the global president of the brand was able to unite his teams and consulting agencies around a radically innovative approach. Our collaboration and the transformation of his mindset allowed him, at a critical time, to reverse his perspective on the development of a collection of four fragrances for men called Big Pony. From a purely transactional approach, he moved on to an empathetic and archetypal understanding of his customers, and generated a product that met as much the needs of the time as those of the brand. Before the concept was even in the vernacular, he orchestrated the shaping of the brand’s raison d’être (reason for being), resulting in a double-digit capitalized annual growth rate (CAGR) in a single year and doubling the growth of the global market over five consecutive years.
Any other examples pulled from your own practice?
Here is another direct illustration regarding a billion-dollar US media company called Hachette Media. At a time when the media industry was upset by a plethora of new start-ups with disruptive offerings and revenue models, the CEO had to accept that he had no clarity about the future but that it shouldn’t hamper his ability to lead his direct reports, inspire his people, make decisions, and take action. One day, after an intense one-on-one session because a lack of clear vision of the future was unsettling to him, he eventually accepted that the “vision was the reinvention.” He also admitted that in spite of the constant pressure of the headquarters, the culture in the US division had to change from being financially driven with quarterly reports ruling their calendars to becoming more entrepreneurial and willing to experiment and take more risks, in the absence of a clear strategy and set roadmap. But this had to turn into a new, day-to-day reality, starting with the way his direct reports would rethink their business and adopt a new leadership mindset and behaviors. The holding had to invest in the digital transformation of their business, yet it was carrying costs that were now too high given the fact that a few important household name magazines like Metropolitan Home had to be closed for lack of advertising revenues due to decline in readership. At the same time, Elle magazine was doing remarkably well. That same year it had actually sold more advertising pages than Vogue magazine, a business milestone in the history of the iconic French magazine in its US incarnation.
To help get all executive team members to agree to invest time or budget in the digital transformation of the business model was not an easy feat. The SQUIRCLE Game helped a lot. The SQUIRCLE Game acts as a harmonizer, just like an orchestra tunes their instruments to the A note that the first violin gives to all musicians. It might seem esoteric, but it works.
They practiced the SQUIRCLE Game on a regular basis each time their Executive Committee was meeting. SQUIRCLE Game enabled them to understand that in full uncertainty you don’t necessarily need a clear vision to reach your goal. They were able to accept the unexpected “vision as the reinvention,” even if it felt somewhat blurry to the SQUARE profiles. They saw that they didn’t need to agree on the path forward either, which appeased tensions and allowed a space for disagreement without brutal confrontation. At the same time, they experienced firsthand that it required a different type of leadership (more receptive and less opinionated, which is hard when dealing with a burning platform) and a different type of navigation: day by day evaluation, moment to moment vigilance, overall acceptance that not having the upper hand was not a problem in and of itself. But to not accept this uncertainty was either paralyzing or leading to willful force, which of course without fail produces misjudgments and exhaustion. This new approach to business trickled down throughout the organization. It triggered a sense of possibility and calculated risk. The company won 6th place on the App Store for a media digital solution invented in-house that people could download on their phone. The company regained profitability in less than a year. Soon after it was sold to Hearst as part of a global sale of all media activities decided by the shareholder and global CEO.
Two years later we got rehired by the former CEO of Hachette Media US who took on Lagardère Sports and Entertainment, EMEA. Due to digital channels, that division was also heavily disrupted. The financial state of the business was even steeper. The organization was also more complex due to multiple countries, sports and business models. Nevertheless, we got the same results. In less than a year, the business turned around with profitability, business growth, and financial risk brought back to green.
In a COVID and post COVID world, how do we regain nature and make it central to our lives?
This is the fundamental objective of SQUIRCLE: to reconnect us — through intuition and instinct — with the intelligence of nature in us. McKinsey Global Institute conducted extensive research about innovation. It showed that when pursuing innovation the focus should be equally — if not more — on people and culture as we process and structure.
Once professionals and individuals use a SQUIRCLE mindset to fluently tap into their natural abilities for complex problem solving and decision making in uncertainty, we will have made substantial progress. One decision at a time, we will surely move towards a more innovative and more sustainable future.
Did you start the SQUIRCLE ACADEMY in order to reach a wider audience (more people and culture)?
In addition to my SQUIRCLE book, I have launched the SQUIRCLE ACADEMY. Its purpose is to bring to as many companies as possible the same principles and techniques that The Human Company brings in our management consulting assignments, to help some of the most successful global companies transform and thrive in disruption.
At SQUIRCLEACADEMY.com executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and professionals can access:
- Original outcome-based e-learning courses
- Off-the-shelf workshops facilitated by our certified coaches to boost communication, collaboration, adaptation, and innovation
- Training programs (customized with and for their specific needs)
- Certification track to become a SQUIRCLE coach in their own company, or as independent agents working for our various clients or their own clients.
I believe in the power of purpose-driven community — everyone aspiring to a shared vision, making a difference in the world, upholding principles that maintain the integrity of it all, and moving us forward. This is why this certification program is one of our priorities at the SQUIRCLE ACADEMY.
Moved by the same spirit, we also created the KNOW BETTER WORLD FOUNDATION, targeting more specifically women, who still have to overcome in so many ways the invisible barriers.
In conclusion: Is there one last thing you would like to share?
During my 15-year practice, as I mentioned earlier, we have trained and worked with about 250,000 business students and executives. We’ve heard from many that it changed them beyond their professional life. I sincerely hope that we will be able to affect many more people with SQUIRCLE.
It is clearly possible for organizations to change and reinvent themselves; I’ve seen this happen even with large global businesses in free fall, due to broken business models, in disrupted industries and very tough economic environments. To make this possible, the work has to start at the top but then quickly this new way of thinking needs to cascade through the ranks to make the transformation process possible, efficient, and durable. That’s essentially the raison d’être of SQUIRCLE.