Connecting Dots 08 / Quantum Leadership

Welcome to Connecting Dots where interdisciplinary learning helps leaders innovate for the digital era. It’s an experiment during Brett’s    INSEAD journey   . This edition we explore adaptive leadership and launch our interview segment with our inaugural contributor the futurist Nik Badminton.

Welcome to Connecting Dots where interdisciplinary learning helps leaders innovate for the digital era. It’s an experiment during Brett’s INSEAD journey. This edition we explore adaptive leadership and launch our interview segment with our inaugural contributor the futurist Nik Badminton.

Normandie, FR  My body is zipping along at 234kph aboard the Eurostar.  Yet my mind is deep in the Fontainebleau forest behind the leafy INSEAD campus. I’m transported atop a ridge at sunset reflecting on innovation leadership academia. One of the curious things about leadership scholarship is how little there is. Especially innovation leadership. There is much understanding of processes and market dynamics but little on the behaviours of leaders working at the edge of their domain attempting to forge into new territories through technology. 

In the corporate real world I’ve often wondered why innovation attracts much interest yet little action. Many want to “look” in the form of a workshops or throwaway comments but not “touch” by committing themselves to taking something to market despite companies desperately wishing they would. A paradox seems that the decrease in organizational hierarchy and decentralization over recent decades has unexpectedly discouraged commitment to seeing innovation through. Without a protective organisation around one chaotic group dynamics really wear you done and erodes confidence in the many micro-decisions of any innovation. 

Making it trickier is the fact digital innovation works with software. A material that is actually very abstract even for engineers.  It’s a language technically but exists only as pulses of light. You can’t hold it, feel it or smell it. Even though you use it, regularly. At best you tap keyboards, slide fingers over glass or speak to a box but one really doesn’t actually “feel” anything distinct one program to the next.  As a professional it can be really hard to commit your whole self to something so immaterial.

Thus a concept I’m exploring is an evolution of adaptive leadership. It is a build of the leader-follower relationship to understand what’s really going on in successful digital innovation leadership. In the concept of quantum leadership we recognize that anyone regardless of title at any moment has the capability to lead some aspects and follow in others. Though it’s more than a binary choice as we aren’t always ready to commit either way. Like quantum computing there is a third state beyond leader and follower in successful innovation efforts; ambivalence. 

In ambivalence you are neither leading or following, but also not actively rejecting leading or following. You are holding a position of not having a position. It’s a safe position that allows people to not feel threatened by needing to choose whether to lead or follow at a given moment.  It is an active suspension of disbelief. The team takes no judgement. You don’t feel forced to defend just wanting to see how something plays out. It is its own statement of leadership by granting trusting space to your colleagues. 🙂

Let me know if you have examples of quantum leadership and the importance of ambivalence. It might be the topic of some academic research next year. 

Leaders who can successfully convert their negative emotions into positive energy will be less emotionally exhausted and less distressed than leaders who only engage in impression management and fake positive emotions in their outward expressions.
— Brotheridge & Grandey

Thank You

Your sharing is appreciated as the last edition of Connecting Dots on Unrealised Potential reached over 2,000 readers. Thank you.

Dot Makers

You readers of Connecting Dots are a smart lot so let’s learn from each other. Here’s our inaugural rapid Q&A with Nik Badminton who is a futurist, presenter and host of Dark Futures in SF, Toronto and Vancouver. 

What aren’t we talking about that we should?

The climate crisis and how we can all have an impact by changing how we live, travel, play and run our companies.

What a unexpected innovator do you admire?

Thomas Heatherwicke is an incredible designer, architect, and innovator. Constantly evolving and pushing boundaries.

What’s the hardest moment of your job?

Staring people in the face and speaking the truth to those that deny obvious change, supported by market indicators and/or science.

What does a break through moment feel like to you?

8 hours of sleep

When it comes to digital innovation what do you wish we knew that we don't?

That digital is not standalone. It surrounds us. It is us. 


It’s peak strategy season as we approach the end of the year. I’ll be in Copenhagen/Lund, Zürich/Zug, Vancouver and Parisx2 before Christmas. Say hi for coffee and Christmas chocolate. 

See you on the digital frontier,


PS Please forward this newsletter to 2 or 3 of the smartest people you know. I’d love them to subscribe and we can grow the Connecting Dots Community.

Connecting Dots 07 / Unrealised Potential


St. Andrews, SCOTLAND - It’s a delightfully drizzly day along Scotland’s Fife Coast. Cycling through ancient fishing villages and their hardy hand built harbours it strikes me how much they made from so little. A stark contrast to now, when we do so little with so much. 

The unrealized potential of our time is puzzling. The barriers in the developed world to education, company formation and tools for innovation are unprecedentedly low. By exponential historical multiples in fact. Yet, we live in an era of decreasing patents, fewer startups, reduced market dynamism and stagnant productivity. We have the ingredients to innovate like crazy, but, we aren’t. Don’t let the covers of Wired magazine fool you. We’re in a winter of innovation. 

It’s not a tragedy of innovation, rather it’s a glut of unrealized potential. Why does so much ability stay trapped as ideas or creative thoughts, rather than graduate to launch and become innovations? Real things for real people. This is the puzzle of our time.

Based on my front lines research, the usual gripes of bureaucracy, politics, market consolidation and organizational hierarchy aren’t sufficient explanations. Since the Second World War companies have been getting less hierarchical, more individually empowered, more access to capital and drowning in data for better and faster merit based decisions. 

One hypothesis is behaviourally we’re getting in our own way. Like the star goal scorer who finds themselves in front of an open net and misses wildly. Or worse a defender who intends to smartly pass out of bounds and instead passes into their own net. 

This observation brings to mind some common innovation own goal behaviours we commonly see:

  • Novelty Seeking: unwilling to do serious work and move on when it gets hard.

  • Failing to Fail: see failure as something great, for someone else to do.

  • Disappointment Defences: partial commitment to easily fall back on generic “risks.”

  • Learning Liability: unwilling to truly challenge our own beliefs and worldview.

  • Permathaw: continual state of transformation launches without completions thereby nullifying progress.

  • Innovation Intellectualisation: talking about the potential of technology without understanding how it actually works by hiding behind process.

Those behaviours may seem counterintuitive to the conventional dogma or a com pay’ s intentions. Yet we humans tend to behave in counter intuitive ways. Just as most smoking prevention advertising is proven to increase smoking might many pro innovation programs prevent innovation? The evidence indicates in many cases yes.

But maybe that’s okay. Just as I want to win an Olympic gold medal, doesn’t mean I can win one no matter what training program I follow and how engaging are my slides dissecting competitive weaknesses and tends in my sport. Maybe we shouldn’t be talking about unrealized potential and rather interrogate why so many aspire to innovation in the first place, what need is it filling and might they direct that energy better somewhere else? Innovation is high risk and brutal, maybe that’s why we build so many defences around ourselves when trying to do it in corporate environments where failures are very public.

Good news, bad news time. There isn’t actually very much research in this space, so there’s a lot for us to uncover. Thanks for being part of the journey.


Also, thank you to dear readers and friends who have given such exceptional feedback. I’m working out the right format and audience for this newsletter but there has be a resounding endorsement from some. Mostly the smartest people I know. Who want something non-obvious, that makes them think. Which I believe is less about the words I write and more about the good thoughts already in their heads. A mutually beneficial exchange. 

Please do keep sharing your thoughts. We’ve only just begun. 

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Hungry for More?

Excerpt from Embracing the Paradoxes of Leadership:

“If we cannot construct good dreams for selves, families, regions, nations and the world; if we therefore cannot construct the future as a mental object collect- ing those dreams and utilizing them for vital matrices that connect citizens of all nations in a meaningful progression, then as adaptive creatures we have turned to new strategies in order to tread water.


Today I’m inbound to INSEAD where we’ll be going deep into leadership research, theories and practice. Later in October it’s San Jose and San Francisco. In between enjoying the crisp London Autumn. Say hi for coffee.

See you on the digital frontier,


PS Please forward this newsletter to 2 or 3 of the smartest people you know. I’d love them to subscribe and we can grow the CDC (Connecting Dots Community.)

Connecting Dots 06 / Innovation’s Process Paralysis


Zürich, CH - The water smacks my face as my heels helicopter awkwardly over-head. At this moment it strikes me that I don’t really know how to dive off a 3m springboard any more. I mean I know what to do, I’ve done it before, could even draw a chart but right now I’m out of practice and don’t know how to. As dusk settles over Lake Zürich the well tanned locals silently agree and flawlessly fling themselves off the diving board for elegant entries. 

I had just left visiting an innovation lab for a prominent manufacturer. They were doing serious work creating proper digital things for real people. Yet they are grappling with how aquire a new kind of know how within the company’s exceptional high performing talent base. They knew what they needed to do but recognized they don’t know how to do it. They had enough theory and needed help developing the practice. 

It made me think about all the Medium posts and “canvases” sharing innovation  “know what” masquerading as “know how”. It’s one hypothesis I have for the stagnant rates of innovation and growth in corporations. We confuse grabbing yet another process or framework with developing the ability to actually do innovation at a high performing level. 

Like any craftsperson the first times you use a tool it’s awkward. With practice and application it goes from knowing what to do to how to do it.  All the agitation for change and innovation is just telling us to awkwardly jump off a diving board. I’m much more interested in once we’ve jumped how to enter the water elegantly, repeatedly and under any conditions. An ambition we’ll continue to explore in coming editions of Connecting Dots.

Are you paralysed by process discussions at the expense building know how?

Hungry for More?

  • This post was inspired by Clayton Christensen’s anecdote of Andy Gove at the pinnacle of Intel’s innovation era. Andy challenged Clayton to separate the what (to do) from the how (to do it.) Ref: The Four Disciplines of Execution


This week I’m in Girona Spain cycling, eating and reflecting on my upcoming INSEAD research in 2020. One leading candidate topic is ‘what is enough stability in constantly transforming organisation to enable meaningful digital innovation.’ We challenge the conventional notion of permafrost and change resistance with the concept of permathaw as a phenomenon of organisations under continuous digital transformations.

Late September I’ll be in London with another possible visit to Zürich. Early October it’s Fontainebleau and Paris possibly followed with anther SF jaunt. Say hi for coffee. So great to meet up with readers/friends Tom Williams and Dan Moore in SF last month.

See you on the digital frontier,


Next Edition - my dispatch from San Francisco and what hardened corporate leaders can learn from hardened criminals in the Pelican Bay innovation accelerator. 

Connecting Dots 05 / Fair Process and an Identity Crisis


Paris, FR - I’m coming down from my most recent INSEAD EMC Module with a Sunday morning wander through Fondation Louis Vuitton. It’s Frank Gehry’s latest white washed and tranquil temple of contemporary art. Plunked down in the middle of Eastern Paris’ leafy Bois de Boulogne thanks to some successful bag and box merchants. Today I embrace my new favourite artist I need bigger walls for in Gerhard Richter (sorry Ed Ruscha.) 

As always in a contemporary art museum I gravitate to the artist’s descriptions of how they seek to redefine “what is art” in our current time. The definition of art, like the definition of many industries, triggers an identity crisis at industrial scale. As artefacts of the past definitions of an industry are always up for discussion. Especially as they emerge, fade away or bleed together.

What is law? What is design? What is IT? What is digital? What is FMCG? What is management consulting? What is advertising? What is software? Are all questions I’ve heard professionals grappling with lately. 

Often these days it seems the identity crisis is triggered by digitisation or transformation. Two magic generative words that serve as vessels for hope and disappointment. Words absent of singular meaning or clear answers. Words that provide the opportunity to take a team or organisation through the ever fraught definition journey. 

In the last EMC module we dug into “fair process,” also known as procedural justice. Which explores why fair outcomes often aren’t satisfying, even if the outcome is in our favour, if the process isn’t perceived as fair. 

While I’ve long been very thoughtful around process I realized I have fallen into two traps that trigger fair process challenges in the definition journey:

  1. Too fearful of engaging stakeholders without the process defined

  2. Too fast to act on the outcomes of the process

These two traps leave little space to mourn the end of a prior worldview before internalising a new one. Leaving detachment, even behind a smiling and supportive facade. Fair process actually isn’t actually about the process itself but how we engage with people as part of a process. So next time rather than stick a definition on a wall I’ll engage even more folks beyond just the chosen few to help define it. To create an organization’s own definition sui generis. Maybe that way it won’t need to go on the wall, they’ll already know it.

Does a process you’re in or leading feel fair?

Trial & Error

Connecting Dots is about making the complex simple and multi-disciplinary learning to help leaders innovate for the digital era. It’s an experiment, thanks for being part of the journey, please tell your friends and enemies. Feedback most welcome.

Hungry for more?

  • It’s August, go out in the sun and start one of those books you’ve been meaning to read…


Next week I’m in Zurich for a couple days and possibly NY/SF later this month. London in between where I’m researching “perma-thaw” as a byproduct of ongoing digital transformations in many corporations. Say hi for ☕️

Until next time,


PS. I’d be grateful if you might forward this newsletter to one or three friends and colleagues so we can grow the community.  Click here to subscribe at Connecting Dots.


Connecting Dots 04 / Artificially Intelligent


Welcome to edition 04 of Connecting Dots. A slightly longer dispatch. Thanks for being part of the journey as I experiment with the format.

WESTMINSTER, UK - It’s a searing and saucy day to be in Britain’s House of Commons. I’m feeling relieved. Unusual when it comes to discussions on artificial intelligence (AI.) Normally I get the same bottom of my gut unease when people talk about AI as I did circa 2005-08 social media. Where intelligent sounding yet artificial point scoring ran the day. 

I was relieved to join a Select Committee all party policy group panel of MPs, academia and industry sensibly discussing the opportunities and implications of AI. It was full of optimism with caution. Capturing the strengths and limits of our social contracts. As well golden doses of AI’s potential with pragmatism. Recognizing that we have existing legal frameworks and the precedents enabling us to address the unprecedented uses of AI that will continue to emerge. Unusually intelligent. 

Yet why was this such an unusually intelligent discussion? Why are so many AI discussions consumed with tech utopia or dystopian rejection with seemingly little substance in between?

My working theory is that general technology topics like AI overwhelm our mental models. It triggers the vital defences of the most educated, comfortable and participatative “know it all” era ever. We have so many who are so good with analysis of other’s work and talking about innovation. So much so there is little time or space to actually innovate. A similar dilemma of people and organizations obsessed with drafting strategy yet rarely enacting them. 

I’ve seen some great value creating AI powered services and have been a part of a few. I’ve also seen, felt in fact, a lot of angst, unease and superficial attempts. Might you have observed either of these patterns?

  • Action without thought

  • Thought without action

Both leave unrealized potential on the table. Ending in defeat as the intelligent, well intentioned and ambitious protagonists ultimately are consumed by their defence mechanisms. Let’s get clinical (zzzzz.... sorry) what defence mechanisms do we mean? Scanning the American Psychiatric Association’s catalogue of defence mechanisms these jumped out for commonly playing out in AI discussions.

  • Intellectualisation - avoidance and suppression of the emotional component of an event (e.g. skirting around implications of the technology or a solution)

  • Reaction Formation - Substitution of wishes or feelings opposite of the true feelings (e.g. claiming to want to change through AI but then not actually)

  • Splitting - unacceptable positive or negative qualities of self or others are suppressed (e.g. just going with the conversation ignoring the inevitable iceberg crash)

  • Rationalisation - Give socially acceptable explanations for behaviour (e.g. rehashing generic non-specific ideas or phraseology like “data is the new oil”)

We’re talking AI here but actually these mechanisms are present when any new ideas emerges. It protects existing world views and limits exposing oneself to risk. It’s why people celebrate the aphorism of fail fast, but would rather it’s actually someone else who does the failing while they succeed. Which ironically is a great way to fail long run 🤷‍♂️

Is technology the problem? Or the humans?

Trial & Error

Connecting Dots is about making the complex simple and multi-disciplinary learning to help leaders innovate for the digital era. It’s an experiment, thanks for being part of the journey, feedback welcome.

Hungry for more?


I’m in France at the moment. Trialing a “thesis writing” venue in Burgundy for next year. Much of next week is Fontainebleau/INSEAD then back to London for the rest of July. Say hi for ☕️

May you thrive,


PS. I’d be grateful if you might forward this newsletter to one, two or three friends and colleagues so we can grow the community.  Click here to subscribe at Connecting Dots.


Connecting Dots 03 / The Tyranny of Collaboration


It’s a sunny and brisk opening day at the 2019 D&AD festival in East London. As the New Blood jury president for the McKinsey Case For Her brief, the standard and holistic mindset of the young creative teams is uplifting. Though I can’t help to think about the amount of collaboration that would be essential to execute for real. 

The importance of collaboration in business is a common refrain. Especially in our times of heightened complexity and interconnectedness. A necessity when it comes to innovation. Where evidence tell us the best creativity comes not from solo work, or even a team but people networked across organisations and ecosystems.

But what if we think of the frequent calls for collaboration as a symptom rather than ambition? I’ve long noticed those most apt to preach collaboration are the least able to listen to others and give up control, to actually collaborate. I sometimes imagine everyone on a collaboration driven initiative thinking “collaboration, great, finally they will listen to me.”

A helpful definition of collaboration is “traitorous cooperation with the enemy.” Often blindly fuelled with a bias to action or low hanging fruit. The absence of addressing resistance or ambivalence results in passive commitment at best. Disintegration of the team at first opportunity. 

A more helpful mindset is one of careful cooperation. Digital innovation, if significant, requires everyone to learn from everyone in a team and across teams to collectively synthesize something truly new. The first action, either through reflection or exploration, is to address the inevitable learning anxieties: the fears of difficulty, looking stupid or parting with old ways.  Often failures can be linked to not addressing this selfish truth of collaboration and the collaborators. 

How often is one traitorously collaborating when the deeper wish is for cooperation?

Trial & Error

Connecting Dots is about making the complex simple and multi-disciplinary learning to help leaders innovate for the digital era. It’s an experiment, thanks for being part of the journey, feedback welcome.

Hungry for more?


I’ll be in London much of June then back to France in July; Beaune for the stomach, Fontainebleau/INSEAD for the mind and the Alps for the lungs. Say hi for ☕️

To a better today and tomorrow,


PS. I’d be grateful if you might forward this newsletter to one, two or three friends and colleagues so we can grow the community.  Click here to subscribe at Connecting Dots.


Connecting Dots 02 / Oh Man the Future


Recommended backing music: Oh Man the Future by De Lux

It’s a tranquil post King’s Day morning in Amsterdam. I’m canal-side under an elusive sun ordering a virtuous Blood Berry (beetroot + apple + ginger juice).  I’m reflecting on why “The Future” is before my eyes, in my ears and on my mind, everywhere I go these days. 

I’ve just left a great exhibited titled Futures Past & Present at the Huis Marseille photography museum. Four women over four decades with four perspectives on post industrial societal change. As my radically red juice lands I pick up a well thumbed copy of Soffa magazine, issue theme: The Future.  In my bag is the revamped Scenarios by the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies. Meanwhile Instagram is lighting up with first reviews of the Stanley Kubrick exhibit at the London Design Museum on... his vintage view of... “The Future”.

Innovation is of course always about new, ergo the future. Though rarely is Future itself the topic, it’s more problems, needs and outcomes. However, is the resurgence of futurism revealing weak signals we are in the middle of a generational shift in how we think about the future? More importantly, what is behind our desire societally to think about it at all?

Over my life the view of the future has been dominated by “the startup”. The West Coast dogma where “new is always better”. A view increasingly coming into question as we find “move fast and break things” breaks a lot of things quite fast.

In economics we call the unintended consequence a firm doesn’t pay for externalities. Some view this resurgence in futures thinking, models and mindset a signal for people and organizations to better envision what their futures might be AND how to widen the picture of their externalities. As well a cry for help from people wrestling the cognitive overload and anxiety at work. A very real struggle where smart people work hard on things they know can’t last forever or that don’t solve the meaningful problems of our time. 

However we envision futures we aren’t predicting. We’re creating a transitional space. To invite and include many perspectives to collectively reframe, reform and rebirth how we do things like banking, transport, finance or anything else. It’s unsettling and hard but with a picture of possible futures in hand we have a space to create better futures.

Where might imagining a different future help your teams and organisation address today’s challenges?

Trial & Error

Connecting Dots is about making the complex simple and multi-disciplinary learning to help leaders innovate for the digital era. It’s an experiment, thanks for being part of the journey, feedback welcome.

Hungry for more?


I’m back in Fontainebleau this week at INSEAD. Then returning to London life serving as President of the McKinsey Case for Her brief on the D&AD New Blood black pencil jury. Say hi for ☕️

To a better today and tomorrow,


PS. If you like this newsletter please forward to a friend so we can grow the community.  Original post and subscription at Connecting Dots.

Connecting Dots 01 / Systems at Play


The economist Adam Smith came to mind as I stood astride a dim zinc bar off Place des Vosges savouring a reliable Rhone red.  Under a flickering Parisian candle the foundational material from module 1 of the EMC at INSEAD flipped by in my notebook. So much mainline knowledge straight from the source to digest, process and practice. 

Smith’s construct of “The Invisible Hand” that drives the economy through rational decisions and irrational actions has shaped the behavioural change focus of my career. Work to help companies create new products, services or ways of working that succeed or fail in the face of resistance from the super rational and conscious schools of logic most of us deploy at work, or at least think we do.

The sketched quote represents a key aspect of our work at INSEAD pioneering the emerging B-school field of systems psychodynamics. By accepting systems as constructs we shape and that shape us we can even more impactfully help leaders, teams and organizations. Typically, we think of the system as an external thing, a sort of machine we can tinker with. Yet systems live within us and are manifest by us; rationally and irrationally. 

Instinctively I always deconstruct the system I’m working in, rationally mapping and strategizing. However, I’ve never really interrogated the system in me, yet it has always been at play. My own invisible hand.

Ask yourself, what comes to mind when you think of the system you work in and the system working in you?

The answer may be a glimpse into your own invisible hand.

Trial & Error

In these newsletters all we’ll do is try to connect a couple dots during my INSEAD journey.  Something that might spark a different perspective in your own work. Comments and questions along the way most welcome. Thank you for joining the journey. Next edition will be later May.

Hungry for more?

  • Immunity to Change a classic that gives “Three Plateaus” in complexity that act as internal systems. 


I’ll be back in Fontainebleau early May. Gothenburg, Toronto, Paris and London before. As well presenting “The Innovation Crisis” at AI Financial Services 2019. Say hi for ☕️.


PS. If you like this newsletter please forward to a friend so we can grow the community. Original post and subscription at Connecting Dots.

Introducing Connecting Dots

Photo Credit: Let’s Go Freeriding (pictured: Philipp Baier,  Adrian Hewlett ,  Julia Dujmovits ,  Brett Macfarlane ,  Gerry Haag

Photo Credit: Let’s Go Freeriding (pictured: Philipp Baier, Adrian Hewlett, Julia Dujmovits, Brett Macfarlane, Gerry Haag

Charging down remote Austrian backcountry on a brilliant bluebird day, it struck me. I had recently been accepted to the INSEAD Executive Masters in Change in Fontainebleau, France. As well, I had just completed a three year project building a design driven strategy and innovation practice in a Scandinavian technology company. My annual freeriding innovators and entrepreneurs retreat landed perfectly in the middle of a transition period.

I was seeking a way to unite my past and future through an organising theme that could collect and develop my thinking while capturing my research experience. As my skis softly slalomed off a stump and into a cloud of crisp Salzburgian powder the concept of Connecting Dots sparked.


Connecting Dots is a blog and newsletter to share my research and to connect with likeminded innovators. It may not be frequent or polished but is a forum to challenge and expand conventional thinking when it comes to innovation and collaboration.

My goal is to publish once between each of the eight on campus modules in Fontainebleau over the next 18 months. Think of it as field notes and interviews from the front lines of innovation.

We all have a lot of good work to do and share. So please subscribe below and forward to anyone other allies leading innovation. 

I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish.