Hear how change is really an opportunity for growth
I loved this interview with Diana Wu David from February 2020 so much that I want to share it with you again. Our discussion was all about what she is seeing in the business world, particularly around technology disruption which is pushing our lives in entirely new directions. You'll also hear about her own research among companies, large and small, as she works with their leadership, their boards and their staff to enable them to adapt to the fast pace of change. As you know, at SAMC we're all about change! You'll also learn how everyone is a futurist! Enjoy.
What do you have to do to change?
According to Diana, in order to change, we need to adopt more agile mindsets and practices so we can become successful agents of our own lives, not just our careers. She says that today's blend of a person’s at-work and out-work life is creating new lives for us all. And new, younger generations are redefining their relationships to those they work with and the organizations they work in, which is adding another layer of change to the mix. Change is pain but we must do it!
Can you "see" where you are going?
Diana was in Hong Kong when we did our podcast but it was like we were sitting next to each other. We both work with clients globally, so this was very natural. In fact, these days there really are few boundaries except of our own making. In this podcast, you'll learn more how to eliminate those boundaries that are holding you back.
As a futurist, and a realist too, Diana's forte is helping people see what is happening all around them. Through her Future Proof Lab, participants are shown how to identify their own path to the future, something we all need to think about as many of us will live to 100, well past that retirement day.
Some background on Diana
An adjunct professor of leadership at Columbia Business School's EMBA-Global Asia, author and a former Financial Times executive, Diana Wu David now works with global leaders to help them make sense of mega trends and take advantage
of disruption. Her clients have included Credit Suisse, The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, Wharf Hotel Management Group, Expedia, the World Bank and KPMG. In addition, she began her career and leadership education as an assistant to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. And, she is the author of a new book called Future Proof: Reinventing Work in the Age of Acceleration.
Her company, Future Proof Lab (formerly Sarana Lab), provides education to help people make sense of disruption from senior executives via The Future Proof Course to young people preparing for a bright future via initiatives like The Opportunity Project. Past projects include gaming for good, robotics education, a global online
Podcast: training platform, and a social impact fund that trains women to invest via peer-to-peer learning and teamwork.
Want to know more about how to change so you're prepared for the future? Start here:
- Blog: Change Is All Around Us But It's Terrifying. So How Do I Make Change My Friend?
- Blog: Okay, Okay, I'm Ready To Change. How Do I Do It?
- Podcast: Andrea Simon—Now Is No Time To Be Afraid Of This Blurry Future
Additional resources for you
- My two award-winning books: Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business
and On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights
- Our website: Simon Associates Management Consultants
Read the transcript of our podcast here
Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. Hi, I'm Andi Simon. I'm your host and your guide. And as you know, On the Brink is here to help you get off the brink. Our job is to help you see, feel and think in new ways so that you can begin to do things differently to change. And that's what we want you to do, is to see yourself in a new light.
I have with me today Diana Wu David. Diana is the author of a book called Future Proof: Reinventing Work in the Age of Acceleration. I find it very timely. I've been doing some webinars on the fourth industrial revolution. I've become a member of the World Forum of Futurists. I've been called a futurist and our podcast was ranked in the top 10 futurists podcasts. I don't know what a futurist is so we've been writing and researching about it. But I have Diana here and I'd like her to tell you more about herself in a moment, but I'll give you a bit of her background.
An adjunct professor of leadership at Columbia Business School's EMBA-Global Asia, author and a former Financial Times executive, Diana Wu David now works with global leaders to help them make sense of mega trends and take advantage of disruption. Her clients have included Credit Suisse, The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, Wharf Hotel Management Group, Expedia, the World Bank, Asia Development Bank and KPMG. In addition, she began her career as an assistant to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Her company, Future Proof Lab (formerly Sarana Labs), helps young people preparing for a bright future make sense of disruption by learning from senior executives via the Future Proof Course and initiatives like The Opportunity Project. Diana, thank you so much for joining me today.
Diana Wu David: Thank you so much. It's great to be here, Andi.
Andi Simon: Now, for our listeners to know: Diane is in Hong Kong and that's a whole other conversation. But the world that we're in, it's a very small world. And so we're talking today about the future of you and work. And I'm anxious for Diana to tell you a little bit more about herself and her own journey. And then we'll get into what she's learned and what she'd like to share with you. So Diana, share with us: who's Diana, and how'd you get here?
Diana Wu David: Well, thanks so much, Andi. It's great to be on your podcast. And I think we're sort of a pair of reluctant futurists, perhaps, because I'm not sure what that means either. But I fall into that category as well. I think just a fascination with where we're going kind of unites us. And I have, for the longest time, been interested in the future.
In the 1990s, I worked at Time Warner and we were reinventing storytelling with this hot new thing called CD ROMs. Even back then, it was all about the future and what we could do, what the possibilities were. So it's always been really interesting to me. And my book, Future Proof: Reinventing Work in the Age of Acceleration, talks about three drivers of technology, globalization, and longevity. And I would say those are good frames for where I've come from.
I've spent the last couple of decades making sense of disruption as a management consultant, or for Financial Times for a dozen years and in startups. In terms of globalization, I came 20 years ago to Hong Kong, courtesy of the Henry Luce Foundation, met my husband here and remained. I've raised my children here in this very multicultural environment. And then the longevity when I'm working on demographics, but truly, I have been just really interested in how those things work together, and how, as individuals and organizations and societies, how we can navigate change in the best way possible for now for the outcomes we'd like.
Andi Simon: Well, you know, it's interesting, because folks are focused on pieces. They'll focus on blockchain or AI and machine learning and they'll worry about what the impact is going to be. How many people are working, or the hours they're working. You're really thinking about it from a higher level, about our social cultural transformations here. So the technology is going to be transforming. It will focus on work, but it's really focusing on society. It's more than just the technology and more than just the business. There's something transformational happening. So share with us as you put your book together. I have a hunch you've dug deep into the meaning of what's happening.
Diana Wu David: Well, yes. And I found just last month, I guess, or a month before, I was at the economist conference, speaking about it, some of those topics. There's some broad trends, like the shift of power and dynamism to the East from the West, and the general, you know, technology disruption in terms of our business models, which I've been working on forever. But really, it's changing the way that we as humans work.
And that is the most interesting aspect of it. So longevity, and the changes in work, mean that we're not doing what I was sort of educated to do, which is the idea of going to a good college and getting a great degree and going into my first job ever working for Dr. Kissinger, and then on from there, because the young people that I speak to now, and in fact, who approached me at after my TEDx talk, were really saying, "This is a new world for us. That's not what we're gonna do. We're gonna go out there, and we're going to experiment. We have more time and we want to learn, we don't just want to accomplish."
And so that shift from work to learning and the broader shift from really putting your head down and having a very linear short time period, to an opening to what's possible, I think characterizes the best parts of that transformation.
Andi Simon: That is a really interesting observation, though, because it isn't a job that I make a living at, it's almost like the ecosystem from inside and outside has become one that I'm learning and doing. But it's both inside and outside, that place where I'm going to make a living. And I don’t leave at five or six and go home to do other things, it sort of spans the whole spectrum of how we are engaged and interacting.
Diana Wu David: Well, I think part of what I'm seeing in my client work, and also with different people who've taken the future proof courses, that they have to have their own agency, they can't just let their company track their career. Statistically speaking, there are companies that have shorter lifespans. They're predicting that most companies will have a 12-year lifespan. So most people will have far longer careers than that. So you're going to outlast your company, you can outlast certainly your job function.
I have done consulting and digital marketing and that kind of thing. When I went to business school in 1995, we learned a lot about marketing that's no longer relevant. And so you have to continuously innovate. And so I think that that inside-outside individual is grappling with the fact that, "Hey, it's on me. I gotta learn what I want because I may just do a two-year tour of duty in this company, and then go on to another position or a different company, or maybe in a different country."
And then companies too, are adjusting. They're not really sure what to do if people are coming in for just a short time and what to offer them and how to motivate them if they can't have this ladder that they can promise that they will be able to climb. So it's an interesting time.
Andi Simon: Well, you know, I often remember Kodak when it came out with a brand new camera in 1906 and I think it lasted till 1970. It had digital stuff, but they ignored it. And now Kodak is trying to figure out if it has anything to offer to the world. You used to retire from a company, you had your pension, and you had your watch. Today, people think they're going to have 16 jobs.
The asset manager for GM was at a conference I was speaking at. He said, "We need to really figure out something. Employees last three years and it takes me five years to get a project done." Which, if you put it all together, the company's longevity is changing, the need for speed and ease and smarts is changing. And then the person isn't looking at the company forever. They are, quite frankly, looking at it in terms of a moment of something that's fulfilling, gives them purpose and they can grow. And they know how to, because now they've had to train or at least try so that you're a self-managed learner that can really develop yourself. So everything is changing: the individual, the company, even the lifespan of the product. It's very interesting.
Diana Wu David: Yeah, absolutely. I've spent the last 10 years working with board directors, and what I found and what really inspired the book was that they were thinking about the future, thinking about the future of their organizations' innovations, about the future of work. And then they came to this moment where they realized they hadn't really thought about themselves. So there are a lot of CEOs and sort of poor director types who are shifting to this portfolio career or to "what's the next step." Frankly, hasn't been invented yet.
It has been an interesting journey. And for companies as well, trying to figure out how to make the best use of a multi-generational workforce. Some people are doing an amazing job. Mercer has been trialing, using the people who have retired as consultants on specific jobs. They have a whole platform that they're trialing where ex-Mercer consultants can come in and bid for smaller projects and then they may roll that out to their clients. Manulife is bringing people on, at least here in Hong Kong, for very specific functions that they find they no longer can fill because a lot of their senior talent has walked out the door. And so they're hiring people back but really being intentional about it by integrating the different generations and functions and skills and characteristics so that they can be nimble and be ready for what's to come.
Andi Simon: Well, if you add to that, we've become a freelancer nation. And I've met people as I've been interviewing them for my book who are permanent freelancers. They never want to go back inside. I had one gentleman who said he's part of the gig economy. He drives an Uber, he has an Airbnb, he's a computer engineer, and he never wants to go back inside any place. And so you have all of these; you have the retirees who are now coming back just in time as needed for smaller projects, you've got a whole freelance nation that's not unhappy not being embedded in an ecosystem in a company. There's a lot of freedom going on.
And I have one woman I'm going to interview about how do you manage a decentralized remote workforce. So you put all the dots together, and I'm a dot person: Is something major coming in this transformation? And I love the fact that the board members are all of a sudden having an epiphany that they haven't got a plan for the next phase. And the next phase is: it's here. So now as you're looking at it, let's focus on how you are helping those board members to the next phase. Because I think it's interesting; the implications are powerful here.
Diana Wu David: Well, the ability to keep track and keep current on what's coming is, I think, a big aspect of it. And you mentioned the idea that I've been looking at the big picture. And I think that starting with that is really important.
So I was just in Dubai and did something on the evolution of governance. And it really did look at the mega trends, things like resource constraints and the history of new generations feeling like there's been some poor stewardship of our resource constraints, and the issue of transparency, which is a big trend. Then really understanding how it affects both their businesses, but also how it affects the expectations of boards in terms of what they're responsible for, and what they may be on the hook for.
And you can see that with the #Metoo movement, you can see that with a lot of companies like WeWork recently, like Abraj in Dubai, and like 1MDB in Malaysia, where all of a sudden the sort of captains of industry are having to adjust to some trends that they didn't expect to. So transparency, data, privacy, all these things, and really understanding how it affects them is a first step.
And then, as you said, there's all these sort of more tactical aspects like, "Oh, gee, do we need to automate pieces of our accounting?," a process which I've been working on since I started management consulting, and I think that it's interesting. And then of course, there's the people because, as we all know, it's where processes meet people that things break down, frankly.
Andi Simon: Now, a word from our sponsors, Simon Associates Management Consultants/Simon Associates is us, and we love to help you see, feel and think in new ways to help you and your business grow. We specialize in applying the tools and methods of anthropology, but we're also entrepreneurs and business builders and we love to share our experience and expertise with you.
So if you're stalled or stuck or starting up, give us a buzz. And let's see if we can help you as well. You can learn all about us at Simonassociates.net and read my books, Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business and On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights. You can learn about them at Andisimon.com. There's a free chapter you can download and a toolkit you'll find very helpful. They're on Amazon, and you can buy them as a book and ebook or even an audible that I recorded myself. We look forward to hearing from you at Simonassociates.net, or email@example.com. Write to us. Now back to our podcast.
We specialize in working with organizations that need to change. And those are made up of people who need to change, they're not separate. The resistors resist, and I talk often about how the brain hates change. It doesn't want to change, it fights it, the amygdala hijacks it. It flees and it fears. So I am suspecting that you also are seeing the resistors. I always say, "If you want to change, have a crisis or create one." I don't really want you to have a crisis. But unless you do, you're not going to pay attention.
What are you seeing out there? Are people embracing your aha moments on your board? Do they overcome it? Are there particular kinds of folks you're seeing who are running with it? What are your observations?
Diana Wu David: Well, as somebody who's been a leader in a corporation myself, I think that being able to tell the story of the crisis, or the need for change, or to reframe it into the opportunity for growth, is a big one. And so sometimes I find, being able to work with leaders to talk about that story, to communicate it to their staff, is an aspect that is not to be overlooked and really important.
That genuine ability to inspire people about what's next is really important, and then being very clear about what that is and how it will work. And also there seems to be a sort of democracy in organizations that that hasn't been available. And so some of what I do, even before a big consulting firm or big client wants to do a change, and they've decided what it's all going to be. And this happened by accident.
In fact, when I was working with facilitating a group of partners and they brought some young people in, and we were talking about this new program, and the potential leader said, "Nobody asked us." But I thought, so that's just sort of basic buy in, I guess, but that sense of transparency, that I talked to the sort of crowdsourcing that you have some of those trends, bringing those into an organization and bringing into the way that they work can be transformative to them. It can make it easier to change, but if also there's not a change, and then we all are fine.
I think that the thing that I have found is that it's really to practice understanding what's coming, understanding where we are, iterating towards that taking small bets, learning from them, and time-binding them and then kind of going on from there. It's a practice of innovation within a company, within any company, small or large, that really yields great results, and it makes it less scary because you're always doing it.
Andi Simon: I want to try out your storytelling for a moment because the brain needs a new story. The way it works is, it has the data to create a story that becomes your reality. So I want to emphasize Diana's point for the listeners, because this isn't just a little, this is big for you to develop an organization that embraces innovation, change, creativity, problem solving, whatever it is: you've got to engage everyone. They have to begin to draw up a new story. And if you can get them engaged in that story, create a visualization at a granular level, all of a sudden, their brains will say, "Oh, that's what you mean."
If not, they will make up their own story and then everybody will go their own way trying to think about what they meant. And often people say, "What do they really want? I heard what they said, but what does it mean?" And out of context, that story has no meaning; they can't live it. And then we need the small wins to practice, to demonstrate, so we can actually do it. We'll learn from it, and then it sticks. It's a ripple effect that keeps going through the organization. It doesn't end, does it?
Diana Wu David: Yeah, yeah. It's fantastic when it works. And you're right. And people do need their own stories. I think one of the biggest jobs of many managers is really taking that overarching narrative and bringing it to their people so that every single person can feel like, "Oh, I get it. And this is what it means to me. And this is how I can contribute." Yeah, it's quite simple, but very powerful.
Andi Simon: Now, as you weave technology into this, are you finding that people are jumping on the bandwagon and embracing it? Or are they finding it difficult to deal with, because the technology side is going to be blamed for lots of things?
I love blockchain, it's going to be transformative. And people are running away from it. And they're putting blockchain on diamonds and on food and on pizzas and, what is this thing? But artificial intelligence is everywhere right now. So, weave us back into technology just a little bit, because I don't want to lose the thread that you started out with, which is, you know, globalization, technology and longevity. How do you see technology come into play here?
Diana Wu David: Well, I think that most of us are pretty well-embedded in terms of technology, or technology is embedded in us, just with our smartphones and how reliant we are on those. I was trekking in Mongolia and had this wonderful moment where somebody had left their phone in the hotel and was on the tour, which was a plane ride and an eight-hour journey away. And I said, "Oh, my God, I can't believe you did that." And somebody said to me, "When you left your three children in Hong Kong to come here, you don't seem to be worried about that. But your smartphone, God forbid."
Well, that's it. So I do think that we are so reliant on it. I just wrote an article for Fast Company about how we use technology to augment soft skills. I spend a lot of time talking about future-proof skills and have an assessment for people as to their future proof ability. I'll send you a link but it's crucial that technology is the biggest driver, I would say, on a sort of day-to-day basis.
We have new things that happen all the time. If you're in a company, you are perpetually trying to figure out data, how to use it, how to analyze it, how to reach your customers in new ways, how to organize your employees, and the changes there happen on a day-to-day basis. And, yes, there's taking advantage of them, but then there's the proliferation of information. And also the question for business people: Do I get on his bandwagon? Do I need this technology? How long will it last? And how difficult will it be to change to it?
So on a company level and also on a society level, we're testing. And I think that one of the things I see generationally is that young people coming up are much more comfortable with the idea of testing. And when I submitted my article, which is about whether or not technology can teach us empathy, there was a lot of heated debates and people were very angry that I had put out the idea that was even possible. And other people took it as, "Oh, well, who knows?" Sort of the way I approached it, like if you put VR goggles on and you walk a mile in somebody else's shoes, does it work? I don't know. Let's test it.
So I think that there is a schism between people who find technology overwhelming and a sort of newer generation of people who are really curious. They know that it's not going to last; we don't have the luxury that we once had to think of our strategy in 10-year terms.
Andi Simon: Maybe we do a lot of strategy to get two to three years out of this one. And you might as well stay glued to your data point. If you're not watching the data, it's going to eat you. I actually teach a course for healthcare strategists: "Your data is talking to you, can you hear it?" Because it's fast and they don't know what to believe in the data and what the value is. It's an interesting time. As we're beginning to wrap up, I always like to leave our listeners with two or three things that matter that they should walk away with. Your book is really an excellent book for them to read, but a couple of things you'd like them to pay attention to?
Diana Wu David: I think that some of the messages are that everyone is a futurist. Everyone has to be their own personal futurist, everyone is innovating. It's not a job for some person in an innovation lab in your company, it is for everyone, and it is for you. It's for your company, but it's really for you.
So the second thing I would say is what we talked about before, which is that it's a practice. It's a practice of innovation, it's a practice of learning, it's a sort of day by day, being curious, learning what you can and really making incremental, maybe incremental gains and small, imperfect, forward movements.
And the last one is: just start. So I have developed the 11 questions to prepare for your future, because so many people said, "Oh, I'm overwhelmed." The book was for people who said, "I don't know what to do next." And then they said, "Okay, so where do I start?" So I developed 11 questions. And I think that that's so important. A lot of times the fear we have prevents us from starting. And once we start, we can figure it out. From there, it's practice.
Andi Simon: I think that your ideas are very important. I want to emphasize this idea: you need a culture where innovation, risk taking, empowerment, collaboration, ideas don't come from people sitting in an office by themselves, they come from talking to each other. The density of those ideas really matters.
And so if you don't have a culture where that's encouraged, you're missing out on what people can do for each other at all different levels. 80% of the great ideas come from employees, so do you have a place where they can all talk to each other, and then encourage them and then test. We have a testing mentality. If you can't keep testing things and make mistakes, you can't figure out what works and what doesn't work, and what works now may not work tomorrow, changes the whole conversation. And it really makes it a very exciting place to be, doesn't it?
Diana Wu David: Yeah, absolutely. I think that people are looking for that in terms of their employers and the opportunity to have enough psychological safety for them to unlock their own potential and try new things and grow.
Andi Simon: Well, that goes to the growth part because as these folks are beginning to reach a certain stage in that growth, it's time for them to move to the next stage. And that's a big part of the world you're in as well. And I don't want to forget that as we're beginning to wrap up here. For those who are looking at 20 or 30 years more of life, but they've already gone through their careers in the traditional sense, they're looking at retirement, whatever that word is. So my advice for them is that those 11 questions are good for them.
Diana Wu David: It's really for anybody. I found over time that when I think it's for a very specific segment, I get surprised. But we do have a course based on the Future Proof book. It's aptly named The Future Proof Course. I've been running it and I found that all of the things we just talked about are really so important for the people in the course. Many of them are in transition, really thinking about what's next. And it's about helping them tell their story about what they do, what they aspire to, what their legacy is, helping them develop a strategic network so that they can be good printers if they want or they have some kind of side hustle or second job and really thinking about how they can contribute in the last third to even half of their lives.
There's really people who are thinking, "Okay, I've done 20 years, that was good enough for me." The world is really wide open. It's cracked wide open. It's something I've done myself. So I think that I have quite a bit of firsthand experience. And as you said, before we even started the podcast, you work with people all over the world, who all are pursuing their specialties in their passions, and you can put together extraordinary meaningful work really anywhere from the world, working with people all over the world on important issues. So I have the 11 questions or I have Future Proof Lab, which is our own internal testing.
Andi Simon: Exciting! I am tempted to go to your Future Proof Lab. Can an individual go or is it just for companies to do your Future Proof Lab?
Diana Wu David: Yes, the courses for individuals will be delighted to have you. We have people from all over the world, and they are doing amazing work. We have Jordan Watson, who's doing the resilience initiative. Out of North Carolina, we have somebody who is writing a memoir in Hong Kong after 35 years of government service across Asia.
Andi Simon: Well, I'm building a Leadership Academy for a multi-hospital system. And what is the leader today? And I'm listening to your Future Proof book and I'm wondering how to weave that into the Leadership Academy. The reason that we're setting this up is that the leadership of this hospital system isn't quite sure that the millennials know how to lead the way the boomers used to, and they're not quite sure what leadership is. Folks are creative and curious but I'm going to go take a look at your program to see how to help them at the same time, because in some ways, it's all connected, isn't it?
Diana Wu David: Absolutely. I mean, one of the things I love is the idea of anthropology, because I think that there are some really timeless pieces to these that we forget about. And coming back to the idea of the story and the storytelling is amazing. The reason I went to Mongolia was with a friend who runs the Nomadic Business School, and he works with nomads and says they have been able to find the clarity, the agility from having to move all the time. What kind of timeless wisdom do they have for us about being able to tell the story, being able to adopt technology, being able to really think about leadership over time and how it needs to change.
So I think that what you're doing is great. One thing I would say is that the millennials that are coming up to lead, they don't have to lead like the boomers, they can invent their own way to lead and take the organization into a completely new frontier.
Andi Simon: That's exactly correct. But sometimes they need a tool or two to add to it. So the lab that you need, something beyond this, is what I think you need to have some perspective and context. I'd love to know more about that Nomad Academy. It's very interesting, I will share with you that Joseph Henrich has a wonderful book called The Secret of Our Success. You should add it to your repertoire. It's about how humans have evolved because of the stories that we have shared, that have given us a way of passing our culture from one generation to the next.
And we have evolved co-evolution. The stories have changed our brains and our brains have then evolved as well. And it fits into exactly what we're doing now, which is co-evolving. It's not just physical. And it's not just cultural. It's connected closely. And that technology and empathy is really hot, cool stuff. I think we have to wrap up as much as I enjoy our conversation. Diana, if they want to buy your book, where should they get it?
Diana Wu David: If they can get it on Amazon, that's the easiest place. And they can go to my website, which is Dianawudavid.com and download the first two chapters of the book, or the 11 questions. I'll send you the link to the Fast Company article on technology and empathy as well. Just as a provocation.
Andi Simon: We'll put it onto the blog that we post with your podcast. And so for our listeners who want to learn more, you'll be easy to find. Diana, this has been absolutely wonderful. Thank you for joining me from Hong Kong. It's been just a great conversation.
For all of you, listeners, thank you for coming to On the Brink with Andi Simon. It's always a pleasure. It's exciting to be among the futurists as we figure out what that's all about. And it's fun to share with you people like Diana, who want to help you see, feel and think in new ways. And that's exactly what we are doing tonight, is to really think about what we are all about and how to transform ourselves during fast-changing times. Send us your ideas at info@Andisimon.com. And my books are on Amazon: Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business and On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights. And I really enjoy your comments and I appreciate them as well. So thank you very much for joining us. It's been a pleasure. Bye bye now.