Dreams and Details reviewed by Nik Gowing

Nik Gowing is founder and co-author with Chris Langdon of ‘Thinking the Unthinkable’ – A New Imperative For Leadership In A Disruptive Age.

Leaders at all levels are struggling to grip the new scale of global disruption.

Strategic assumptions are being turned on their head, sometimes daily or even hourly. The conformity which qualified leaders for the top in too many ways disqualifies them from embracing the scale of what now has to be understood, embraced then acted upon.

For many, the scale of change needed is beyond the kind of professional challenge they relish or even understand. It is not just uncomfortable: instead the evidence is that it is driving at least anxiety and in reality often deep fear.

Dreams and Details is an important book that help defines new thresholds of anxiety for leaders. It sets out to encourage those leaders by urging them to assess frankly their strengths and frailties, then re-define their capacities. In this way, there is a far better chance they will be able to re-invent themselves and survive, instead of being offloaded in summary fashion by a disillusioned board or governing council under pressures from shareholders or stakeholders.

For every leader the new challenge is how to disrupt all their assumptions about what leadership requires these days. It is about re-framing every way in which they assume they have to work. Snabe and Trolle argue that at the moment, too many just ‘paint over the rust’ and hope dark issues will just vaporise. ‘ Apparent success hides a crisis’. Ultimately – as with Kodak, Motorola or Nokia – ‘even the biggest become disrupted and irrelevant’.

In summary it is about ‘Goodbye Business Plan’, say Snabe and Trolle. Plans ‘rarely create the needed change’. So leaders ‘have to undo all they believed was right’. Yes! Business Plans are a conformist distraction.

‘Goodbye Business Plan’ captures their blunt and radical message of a new need for non-orthodoxy. It will be a struggle for most leaders, probably a painful one. Why so? ‘Change is hard – radical change is even harder’, they write. ‘The more detailed plans we make, the more defensive we become.’

But being defensive is the direct opposite of the new boldness that leaders now need.

Overall Snabe and Trolle argue that leaders must embrace a new unleashing of human creativity and flexibility. They must break out of their conformist instincts that probably got them to the top. They must re-embolden themselves. They must show empathy not resistance to new disruptive realities.

They must ‘challenge existing assumptions about who and what the company is, what it can do and what it should do.’ This applies to products, markets and customer relations. Leaders must assume that much of what they take for granted is either wrong or out of date.

So easy to write. But in doing so Snabe and Trolle make a vital new contribution to pushing leaders stuck in a tightening clamp of increasing uncertainty and self doubt to re-examine everything they do, and how they do it.

They make clear there are no prizes for taking refuge in what worked once, and might still be working as what they regard as ‘normality’ fragments around them. Yet it is so easy to take comfort from the status quo. ‘Reinventing an organisation from a position of strength is one of the most difficult leadership challenges. . . It is normally very difficult to convince people that there is a burning platform and that the alternative is worse’, they argue.

Yet realistically there is no other option. There are huge existential costs for institutional brands plus personal reputations if those at the top allow themselves to be ‘lulled to passiveness in the warm glow of good news’ and refuse to listen to what they need to hear.

At the heart of the new vulnerabilities lies a core truism. ‘Unless there is a compelling reason for change , most of us try to avoid it – and for good reasons’.

The book might seem to have an unlikely co-authorship. One is a leading corporate driver of innovation in the new digital world. The other is the inspiration for managing and running a national sports team.

But it is an inspired combination. And they pull it off.

They do it by emphasising a vital focus on the human element of leadership – frailties and all. Leadership for the new time of disruption does not require neat flow lines on diagrams. ‘Changing organisational structures does not typically create a burning desire in most people’. Neither does traditional performance management. It ‘seldom achieves’ what is needed.

Instead like sport captains, for leaders there has to be a new mindset of ‘playing the game’ not just ‘reading the game’. Like an ‘elite sport coach’ a leader ‘does not have to be the best player on the field, but you must be fully able to understand the game to identify the opportunities’.

Snabe and Trolle also argue that there also has to be what they call a ‘change of season’. It must be a new culture where there is no personal cost for experimenting or failure. This can be achieved through what is labelled a ‘keyboard of motivation’ that promotes new dimensions of engagement. Within this framing, ‘willpower’ can be improved upon by way of a core ‘willingness’ to achieve new heights during disruption.

Are there risks? Yes! Of course. But why should leaders worry? Overall, ‘high employee engagement often surprises . . .by outperforming expectations’.

Instead there must be ‘care, empathy and creativity’. The aim must be to ‘unleash human potential as a differentiating factor’. Overall ‘humans are not just a resource, their mind and soul make the difference’.

Jim Hagemann Snabe comes with a wealth of leadership experience (and probably professional bruises). He is the former co-CEO of the software solutions giant SAP, who is now chairman inter alia of Siemens and AP Moeller as well as being on the board of the World Economic Forum. Mikael Trolle is CEO and head coach of Volleyball Denmark. His bruises will be both physical – from injuries – and reputational in the world of instant victory or defeat.

Together Snabe and Trolle find a unique common ground and converging of executive experiences. The crossover of industry and sport makes for fascinating (although occasionally disjointed) reading. (Further editing for the next iteration of the book would improve and sharpen the argument).

What resources should top leaders now rely on? The days of consultants are numbered, Snabe and Trolle argue, certainly in their current incarnation. They are great at selling and charging high fees. But their value can be suspect and marginal. So instead leaders must have the confidence to harness their internal resources that ‘involve employees’ in ways which become ‘owned by management. Overall, ‘such efforts cannot be outsourced’

Is there a will and bravery for doing what is needed, especially in this new era of disruption and increasingly hyper uncertainty? Hardly. ‘Most people prefer to defend their existing business instead of disrupting it’, warn Snabe and Trolle.

So what is the takeaway of Dreams and Details?

It is a brutal wake up call based on the scale of the challenge. ‘We believe that as a leader you need to spend one third of your time [yes! One third] on each of the crucial details in order to ensure the needed radical change’.  The grail is the search for ‘clarity’ and the ‘few crucial details to transform’. There is no getting away from the priority. ‘The more time you spend leading the transformation of the crucial details, the greater the changes are likely to be.’

Wise advice.

But in a new disrupted world of what our work labels the unthinkables of Trump, trade tensions fostered by the US, the institutional implosions created by Brexit, a fragmenting EU and a global rules-based order that is being shredded led in different ways by the subversive hands of Russia and China, one has to ask how many leaders will grip what Snabe and Trolle say in the powerful ways they must do now.

In a time of aggressive uncertainty and disruption, the instinct of even leaders with the wisest reputations for risk taking is to bunker down or run for the hills, dig deep and wait for stability to re-emerge.

In old think it is an understandable ambition. But that is no longer appropriate for the unthinkable world of unpalatables which leaders must recalibrate themselves to confront. At stake is the very survival of corporates and institutions, plus the integrity of the public organs of governance.

So having shouted in books like Dreams and Details, those like Snabe and Trolle need to shout even louder. They must not just do it just from the roof tops. They must yell assertively with this kind of compelling argument from the tallest and most visible of structures. This will ensure that their voices are heard and the leaders hear them – just as they need to.

Snabe and Trolle’s work should generate further brave resonance in order to make a difference and embolden leaders, arguably via the World Economic Forum where Jim is a trustee of the board. There is much still to be done, and far less time to do it than most assume. Unthinkables and unpalatables hit both fast and hard.

Leaders need to be grateful for this wake up call in Dreams and Details, then take note. They have no other option.

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