Richard Hames is a corporate philosopher and knowledge designer. He is one of the most influential strategic foresight practitioners currently around. I had the chance to experience Richard’s wit, intelligence and sharpness in projecting the future of our world and its consequences for society, business and government. Richard is an acclaimed writer and speaker and has authored a few bestsellers of which ‘The Five Literacies of Global Leadership’
has resonated deeply with me.
Ruben: The Five Literacies of Global Leadership is from 2007. How much have your thoughts evolved since then?
Richard: There is a constancy to the Five Literacies that makes them still very much applicable today. There is, however, one emerging literacy and that is the ability to code. You have to become adept in the digital world and coding is critical for all digital skills. It’s the ability to translate ideas and create products in the digital age. And more and more it’s being taught in schools.
Ruben: Are you a 5 literacies leader?
Richard: I strive to be one… (short moment of silence)… You have to realise how the 5 literacies arose. From the research I was doing in the 10 years prior to publication of the book it was difficult to see what kind of leadership was needed for our world. The conventional leadership models didn’t make sense with what was going on around us: social inequities, climate change, shifting balances of power…. These issues require an entire different take on leadership. The leadership models en vogue did not address new realities. By adding the word ‘global’ our thinking started to make sense. Being a 5 literacies leader requires humility and a determination to change the world for the better.
Ruben: Do you have an example of a 5 literacies leader?
Richard: A lot of them are working behind the scenes. They are not in the public eye because they tend to be the kind of people that lead social movements or small companies. You will find them less involved in major corporations because those institutions still put profits above everything else. Even someone like Richard Branson is not a 5 literacies leader because he tries to extract as much wealth as possible from the current paradigm instead of truly transforming it.
Ruben: So, who then is a 5 literacies leader?
Richard: It’s not a naming game, but if you really want examples with some notoriety then I would name the American specialist on Climate Change Joe Romm, the social activist Naomi Klein, the writer George Monbiot, and the Chinese artist Wei-Wei, for example. They all try to break through the current paradigm that no longer makes sense.
Ruben: Do you see a rise of 5 literacies leaders?
Richard: Yes, definitely. There is an exponential rise – in tune with an awakening in society to new truths.
Ruben: Why is that?
Richard: There are currently two big power shifts happening in our world. The first one is away from our Eurocentric world to Asia and the Global South. It’s a restoration of an old balance and we’ll see regions in these areas of the world becoming much more influential. Secondly there is a shift from corporate power to social engagement. New social movements, enabled by new technologies, are becoming much more powerful and they will clash with most corporations in ways that these will need to change their intentions, direction and policies.
Ruben: What does this have to do with exponential rise?
Richard: Under the surface there’s a groundswell – a movement of exponential activism fueled by a new empathy. It’s still difficult to see of course. But imagine a pond in which you put water lily leaves. If the lilies double in size every day, then for a long time you don’t notice anything. But by the day the pond is half covered you’re too late, because a day later the pond will be totally covered and smothering all life in the pond. If you look at our world closely it is possible to see a parallel universe, enabled by generosity, equity, learning, and a sense of abundance that is growing exponentially.
Ruben: Yet it’s not all happening under the surface. Some big companies are showing the way in this world. You call them keystone companies. These are companies that are at the centre of a network delivering a new kind of blended value in their products and services.
Richard: Yes, a company like Apple for example. They create incredible loyalty from their stakeholders because they are a meaningful brand. It is not what they do that is important, but why they do it. Their intentions and values are totally aligned with the values of the people that buy their products – for the experience these offer. Increasingly we will buy experiences that align with our own sense of purpose and therefore will seek out companies that are aligned with our own beliefs. It’s what I call brand resonance and it’s rapidly coming to the fore in business.
Ruben: Why are so many organisations not capable of brand resonance?
Richard: Many traditional organisations are still working in an old paradigm but using the language of the new one. They’re good on creative spin. But that kind of thing no longer fools us. It will not hold. Look at the topic of CSR. Until now CSR has basically been seen as a compliance activity. In the new paradigm social responsibility is far more real and strategic.
Ruben: So people see that CSR is not changing the system. Why do people turn away from it?
Richard: We’re aligning ourselves differently: with our values, with our localities, and with each other – even when we’re a world away. More and more we want to preserve our humanity – things like compassion, friendship, love. Small groups and communities provide many of the things we need and cherish. And we find different ways of expressing ourselves. We create alternative small economies for example. We’re actually already redefining the industrial means of production. Look at 3D printing! Manufacturing is becoming cleaner, smarter, more precise and far less wasteful. Local production in the community is becoming as important as mass production was in the 19th century. Mass customisation down to the individual is where we are headed – even in fields like medical science for example.
Ruben: What about the role of governments? You haven’t mentioned them yet.
Richard: Governments are failing on every traditional measure. They are slow to react to global change. They can’t fulfill their most basic promises anymore. Not on a national level and not on a global level. Look for example at the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change). They’re about soft change, slowly pushing the issue of Climate Change forward. But in the meantime things change rapidly: new pressing issues need to be tackled such as the alarming rate of the loss of species, the increasing salinity of our oceans, pollution from fossil fuels and chemicals, and the collapse of the economy.
Ruben: And what does this mean?
Richard: By the end of the century nation states will probably have disappeared. They are becoming inconsequential and are interfering in ways that are simply not sustainable. We are already seeing cities and micro-regions becoming much more important in terms of delivering a quality of life as well as the essentials for our survival.
Ruben: It seems to me that it’s quite difficult to find your way in this new world. I mean, if under the surface there is a groundswell movement growing, then the water is not that clear anymore. What advice do you have to find one’s way?
Richard: If you look really close at a fundamental issue such as climate change, water conservation, or food production, it’s too big, too confrontational. It becomes an existential matter and that is scary. People that see that get overwhelmed and switch off – or deny that such things can be happening. So the answer probably is, is to keep it personal. Be awake and try to translate issues into immediate and meaningful action for you.
Ruben: And what does this mean for organisations?
Richard: We have to curate different conversations that highjack the space for thinking and systemic design within the enterprise. We must guide and mould them in a constant dialogue from past to future to present. These strategic conversations have to become the central mode of communicating and transacting within organisations.
Ruben: How do you organise that?
Richard: The Hames Group has designed many methods for curating value through conversation and design. One of the methods we invented is called transformational narrative. It shapes and unifies numerous conversations at all levels within an organisation. Internal facilitators curate an experience and hold a new space by sustaining relevant discussions. At different levels within the system the conversational flows occur at different speeds. For example, the Board would have occasional discussions focused on matters of consequence, whereas teams would discuss the consequences of any activities associated with these matters at every meeting. Their goal is to remove constraints within the system to allow new conversations and improved performance to happen. The people in the organisation become much more awake to possibilities and much more responsive to changes in the environment. By responding more rapidly to the challenges faced by the organisation, long-term viability is assured.
Ruben: Do you circumvent the hierarchical division of work and power within the organisation?
Richard: Yes. Self-management invariably works better than management hierarchies in almost every situation. We tap into the power of what in my book I call the Café (The Café is the network of individuals where the informal discussions within organisations take place. This is opposed to the Cathedral with its arrangements of centralised power). By doing so we can redesign a problem within hours where a normal consultancy would take much longer to tackle the problem – possibly even months and at immense disruption to the business.
Ruben: Why would a CEO or anyone on the Board be interested in this?
Richard: The people in power at the moment are supposed to have all the answers. Yet, they are facing challenges that they can’t respond to. They sense they need a new system. But they do not know where to turn. I’m building a new system and it’s for people that want to be challenged in that way. That is why I wrote The Five Literacies Ruben.
Ruben: So that in the end more and more people will join the groundswell movement you’re describing. Many thanks, Richard with sharing your thoughts!
Richard: Thank you.