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The Big Shift: How to increase impact in a world of mounting pressure

Only about 13 percent of U.S. workers are passionate about the work that they do, across all industries, locations, and ages – not only is this number remarkably low, but it’s hurting our businesses.

John Hagel is the Founder and co-chairman of Center for the Edge, Deloitte’s Silicon Valley-based research center. He's also an author of the well-respected and well-read research report, “If you love them, set them free: Why building the workforce you need for tomorrow means giving them wings to fly today.” We discuss the findings of this report, what it means to be passionate about your work, and how it plays a role in the economic impact of a business.

The Big Shift

A key theme in The Center for the Edge’s research is how the global business environment is changing – what they call The Big Shift.

One of the elements in that big shift that they’ve documented is mounting performance pressure on all of us, as individuals and as institutions. It comes from a variety of forces, but their belief is that it’s going to continue and intensify.

One of the best indicators we have to illustrate this increasing pressure is the performance of all public companies in the United States, from 1965 until today. They measured performance by looking at the return on assets, and it turns out return on assets from 1965 until today has basically collapsed –  It's gone down by 80 percent.

“It's been a long, sustained erosion. There are short-term waves that correspond to the economic cycles. But the long-term trend is very clear. Not only that there's increasing pressure, but that we're increasingly unable to respond effectively to that pressure.”

As they started to see this environment of increasing pressure, they assessed environments with both extreme pressure and sustained extreme performance improvement. They ended up looking at a range of very diverse environments, everything from extreme sports like big wave surfing to online war games.

Despite the diversity of these environments, one common element that came out in all these environments was that all the participants had a very particular form of passion: The Passion of the Explorer.

“That seems to be a critical factor, if you're looking for sustained extreme performance improvement.”

There are three key attributes that define The Passion of The Explorer:

  1. A long-term commitment to a specific domain. This is something you're really committed to, and you're not just committed to being in the domain or even just learning about the domain; You're committed to making an increasing impact in that domain over time.

  2. The questing disposition, which has to do with your reaction when you're confronted with an unexpected challenge. In most work environments, a typical worker’s reaction is avoidance. The passionate explorers actually get excited by the unexpected challenge because it's an opportunity for them to get to that next level of impact, and they may get bored if they don't confront these unexpected challenges.

  3. A connecting disposition, which also has to do with your reaction when confronted with those unexpected challenges. Many people will isolate themselves and try to figure it out, then come back with the answer. A passionate explorer’s first instinct is to connect with someone who can help them get to a better answer faster. So they're constantly reaching out and trying to find others who can work with them on these challenges and help them get to that better answer.

“When you put those three attributes together, people are going to learn a lot faster than those who don't have them, and they're going to improve their performance much more rapidly.”

Changing the work environment

However, the work environments we’ve created are very hostile to this kind of passion.

Most companies are built around a model of what we call scaleable efficiency, where the key is predictability and reliability. There's no room to experiment or improvise or come up with new approaches, and there are rarely new challenges.

John believes we have to move to a very different kind of business environment – one characterised by scalable learning, where the goal is to create environments that will help workers learn faster and increase performance more rapidly.

The key is really stepping back and saying, in a world of increasing pressure, how do we create environments that will help people to learn faster and achieve more performance. “And those environment will naturally, we think, draw out more passion in the workforce because now we're making a real difference.”

Three things to discuss with your team:

  1. We're in a world of increasing pressure. We need to acknowledge that, accept it, and deal with it.

  2. If people are passionate about the work they're doing, they're going to learn faster and accelerate performance improvement in ways that are much more impactful than those who don't have passion.

  3. Recognise that worker engagement is necessary, but not sufficient. If workers are engaged, that says nothing about their commitment to achieving increasing impact. But that's what passion is all about. “Cultivating passion is really critical to achieving increasing impact in the world of mounting pressure.”

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And remember… Develop. Always.

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