Roger Spitz of Techistential: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Leverage on disruption as a springboard to value creation. Disruption is disrupting itself, creating a space for sustainable value creation. Value destruction will arise for those who assume business as usual. In my own example, I learnt to harness human capital and explored how disruption provided me with an opportunity to develop both a foresight practice and an education platform.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Roger Spitz.
Roger Spitz is President of Techistential (Global Foresight Strategy) and Chairman of the Disruptive Futures Institute. He is a foresight strategist, venture capitalist, and author of The Definitive Guide to Thriving on Disruption. His expertise lies at the intersection of futures studies, systems thinking, and sustainable value creation.
Roger has two decades of experience leading investment banking and venture capital businesses, advising CEOs, founders, boards, and shareholders, evaluating their competitiveness, strategic investments, and disruptions ahead. He sits on a number of Advisory Boards of companies, Climate Councils, VC funds, and academic institutions worldwide.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I spent two decades advising on strategic transactions, particularly M&A, IPOs, and VC fund raisings. As former Global Head of Technology M&A with BNP Paribas, I advised on over 50 transactions with deal value of $25bn. I built the bank’s European Technology & Digital investment banking franchises in London & Paris, then launched its US Mergers & Acquisitions practice in San Francisco in 2017. In those roles, I was leading investment banking businesses, advising CEOs, founders, boards, and shareholders globally and evaluating their companies, competitiveness, and disruptive technologies. While my job provided comfort and stability, I was lacking a higher purpose and the opportunity to make a real impact.
When I arrived in San Francisco in 2017, I decided to spend time immersed in new ecosystems, including academic organizations and think tanks to explore complexity, systems thinking, artificial intelligence and emerging technologies, innovation and disruption, futures and strategic foresight.
During my exploration, I rediscovered my love of existential philosophy, particularly the concepts of agency and contingency. Only in retrospect do I see how serendipitously it aligns with my previous studies and interests at school (including Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Deleuze, among others).
So in 2019, I decided to craft a life more aligned with my interests: using agency for systemic change as a catalyst for transformation to drive impact. I formed a philosophically-aligned social entrepreneurship, sustainability, and foresight practice that shares insights with broad audiences through advising, writing, and an education platform. Through our executive education and courses, and by publishing The Definitive Guide to Thriving on Disruption, we are now sharing with others the frameworks that we use as the foundations for the Disruptive Futures Institute.
Given the focus of our Think Tank which offers education, research, and thought leadership on adapting to our increasingly complex, uncertain, and unpredictable world, we are currently experiencing huge interest. Today, the Disruptive Futures Institute is considered to be the world’s capital for understanding disruption.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Over 20 years ago, when I was starting my career with one of the largest professional services firms, I was training in London to qualify as a Chartered Accountant. I was seconded to the Paris office for a year. As temporary paid-for accommodation, I was given a week in a hotel, after which I would have presumably found a permanent apartment for myself. This was before services like Airbnb even existed.
But when I arrived in Paris in January, I was immediately required to travel a few days to work on a private equity transaction as part of a due diligence team. Not only are these deals quite demanding, they are time-pressured, leaving me no time to apartment hunt. To top it all off, there were major snowstorms that week and the city almost came to a standstill.
Inevitably, it was a most stressful week, and the firm was only prepared to extend a few more days at the hotel. I had already moved to Paris and so had limited leverage, and the deal with its travel demands made finding anything impossible, so I ended up with very limited choice. With Paris a very different market for furnished rentals than London, it dawned on me that I should have negotiated at least a month of paid-for accommodation.
Like many of these mistakes, they are very funny with hindsight, and indeed a great source of learning. First is to do your homework and know your market! Second, don’t trust your employer to have interests aligned. There is an asymmetrical relationship when it comes to relative power. Leverage is key, and you have more leverage while negotiating and before accepting to move than once everything is signed and you are shipped over. Learn to negotiate, look after your interests, and be convincing by putting forward compelling arguments.
Those lessons served me well during my subsequent 20 years of travel and more recent move to San Francisco six years ago!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I had been researching to write a holistic, hands-on guide to understanding systemic change for close to a decade. My interest in nonlinear change was not only related to business strategy, technology, and investments, but philosophically too, as disruption creates more choice and opportunities for agency. Maintaining relevance requires constant redefinition, ideating, prototyping, and testing of our choices, as our imagination of the world confronts reality.
It would be a huge endeavor to curate and develop useful resources for living in the complex 21st century. I needed the right partner with fresh ideas, challenging points of view, diverse experiences, and operating in both complementary yet different ecosystems.
One of the triggers to producing The Definitive Guide to Thriving on Disruption was when I observed the drastic reduction of the lifecycle from science fiction to science fact. A few years ago, I gave a talk on using science fiction as a tool for technological innovation, a topic that Lidia Zuin had been studying for about ten years as an academic researcher and futurist in São Paulo.
Initially, I collaborated on a few talks and articles with Lidia, including a piece which caught the world’s imagination: How Science Fiction Can Help Chart Your Company’s Path Forward, published in Inc. Magazine. Through our exploratory discussions, it became evident that we would be as complementary as we would be different in order to challenge our own biases.
We were a generation apart, and lived in different parts of the physical and digital worlds. Lidia was immersed in her virtual worlds of gaming, science fiction writing, and evaluating emerging technologies on the fringe, with a deep humanities background. Meanwhile, I had spent two decades following the conventional investment bankers’ Wall Street career, immersed in boardroom strategy and advising C-suites on their most strategic deals.
Together we explored the paradigm shifts of business, strategy, governance, culture, information, society, innovation, technology, and the future of humanity itself. Lidia brought many perspectives; the magic happens when intersections create new combinations, and in our liminal world, there are no boundaries.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I founded the Disruptive Futures Institute because I felt that the world has become lost in terms of the speed and ramifications of change over the past few years. To flourish in our increasingly complex world, we needed to understand the velocity, trajectory, and magnitude of the underlying drivers of change, whether technological or otherwise. Also, unfortunately, the more I investigated the true nature of our world, the more I realized that many of our systems are beyond fragile, even outright ineffective. Everything in our lives and the world around us is constantly changing, but our institutions, governance, and incentive structures are not updating for resiliency. Many of us continue to act on flawed assumptions, assuming that the world is predictable, linear, stable, and controllable. But the cost and missed opportunities from these wrong assumptions is increasing.
I really felt that disruption, in the broadest possible sense, was something that warranted dedicated attention — for us and the next generations. I set up Disruptive Futures Institute as a dedicated think tank on these critically important topics. It is meant to be global and democratic, not just looking at corporates, but thinking about the billions of people who are unfortunately not provided effective education, even in the US. We focus on the skills, mindset, and tools required to understand what these transformational changes mean to you.
Given the need and interest in these topics, I decided to launch the only global education platform that teaches you to thrive on disruption, where we pioneer practical educational insights integrating Foresight & Futures, Complexity & Systems Thinking, Antifragility, Innovation & Design Thinking, Philosophy & Zen Buddhism, together with Exponential Technologies.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
My filter to the world is one where uncertainty is the only certainty. The creation of the Disruptive Futures Institute and The Definitive Guide to Thriving on Disruption was an emergent process. When we built the Guidebooks and education platform from scratch, I used our own AAA framework (Antifragile, Anticipatory, and Agility) to lead during those times of uncertainty.
Antifragile benefits from frequent and small errors that provide helpful lessons, so we constantly tested and prototyped our work, treating mistakes as valuable insights. Anticipatory refers to the capacity to take proactive steps to ultimately make more informed decisions in response to any futures which may materialize. We kept zooming in and zooming out to the longer-term, developing optionalities along the way. Agility describes what is required for emergence such as our ability to emerge in the “here and now” — when there may be no right answers to guide us.
This Guidebook benefited from diverse contributions from hundreds of partners, clients, and friends over many years, exposure to a broad set of ideas, and constant interactions with various ecosystems. These interactions were conducive to the emergent process, generating synergies as we connected the dots between all the individual — seemingly disparate — aspects; and without requiring answers to everything at the onset to deliver effective outcomes.
Another important aspect to leadership is alignment — especially in times of change. For the AAA framework to be effective, it means you also need the Agency to make choices and Alignment to ensure that broader stakeholders also benefit. The Guidebooks and Disruptive Futures Institute were new approaches, and to achieve real innovation, we had to imagine novel ideas, question assumptions, and offer diverse perspectives. By aligning values while challenging conventional wisdom, we created something we are told is truly novel.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
The journey of an entrepreneur, innovator, and author can be a lonely one. There is constant questioning. One of our toolkits looks at how we rise above resilience or adaptability to actually enjoy the challenges and uncertainty. We call these the 6 i’s to thriving on disruption — Intuition, Inspiration, Imagination, Improvisation, Invention, and Impossible
For me, “Inspiration” is probably the most powerful to sustain my drive. More than ever, the multiplicity of possibilities can be a key driver to inspiration. When new connections are made with diverse perspectives and diverging points of view, inspiration is unleashed.
True passion — that intense desire or enthusiasm — unconditionally inspires and motivates. Steve Jobs believed that “people with passion can change the world.” Passion will prompt action and drive inspiration in the process. Howard Schultz, the Chairman and CEO of Starbucks for over two decades, never considered his company to be in the coffee business. Instead, he considered Starbucks’ role to be creating environments that fostered unique and innovative experiences.
Your passion is what drives you to immerse yourself in a field. Your curiosity is what drives inspiration.
I use inspiration to sustain my drive in many ways. First is passion: trying to start with the passion of an explorer, amplifying it, developing it, and making it contagious. Second, I sought varied exposure — different ideas, open ecosystems, and diverse people. Third, I was intentional about opening my mind to newness for novelty’s sake. Mechanically repeating your routine every day won’t work. Fourth, making connections: I constantly sought to build bridges, explore intersections, uncover patterns, and connect the shifting dots across unrelated fields. Finally, I embrace serendipity, creating opportunities to be lucky. I try to breathe happenstance and cultivate chance.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
Well I don’t know how effective a leader I am, nor whether it can be considered a book! But in terms of impact and inspiration in effective leadership, I actually try to follow many of the principles from Netflix’s famous culture memo (Netflix Culture).
One idea to drive innovation is the art of robust debate, thoughtful questioning, and the creative outcomes which arise from candid exchanges and respectful disagreements. Alignment is not synonymous with the absence of debate, but rather encouraging broad sets of opinions that foster new ideas and solutions.
Today, paradoxically, many incentives are misaligned, which can foster herd mentality. Incentives do not often go to those who challenge core assumptions, who question the consensus of opinions, or who reframe strategic plans with longer timeframes and broader perspectives.
In my day to day, I try hard to adopt transparent disagreement, inspired by Netflix’s Culture Memo, which comprises four steps. First, transparency and authenticity. If you disagree on a material issue, it is your responsibility to explain why you disagree, ideally through both in-person discussion and writing. Second, exploring perspectives. The back-and-forth of discussion can clarify the different views, and concise writing of the core issues helps people reflect on potential paths forward, as well as making it easy to share your views widely. Then third, you have the decision-making process. The “informed captain” on a particular decision has the responsibility to welcome, understand, and consider all opinions, but may not agree. Once the captain makes a decision, the expectation is that everyone helps make it as successful as possible and commits. And finally, feedback loops. If significant new information becomes available later, it is fine to ask the captain to revisit the topic. Silent disagreement is unacceptable and unproductive.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To embrace humility.
We are all experiencing existing systems and leadership structures that seem to be failing at managing the world. They are unable to anticipate the unintended consequences of climate change, societal paradigm shifts, economic and geopolitical reshuffling, or emerging technologies. Current assumptions are becoming obsolete, and new questions must be raised. As humanity, we may need to accept with humility the realm of what we know.
Two of the most potent antidotes to relying entirely on fixed assumptions are imagination and a dose of humility. Humility is a place for learning. While imagination and humility should be abundant, somehow they have yet to surface at the scale required to face our complex challenges. Leaps of imagination and humility are required to build capacity for resilience, for more creativity and agency to strengthen capabilities in critical thinking and navigate complex environments.
In an effort to understand, survive, and thrive in our disruptive world and uncertain futures, it is useful to consider the timeless teachings of Eastern philosophy and Zen Buddhism. So in our Guidebooks, we learn to appreciate the variability and unknowability of the world with the humility of shoshin, a beginner’s mind. Mujō teaches us about the profound importance of change and impermanence, as everything in our lives and the world around us is constantly changing.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
One of my favorite books is Nelson Mandela’s biography, Long Walk to Freedom. There is a quote I like from it: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”
A superpower to inspire and motivate teams is reinforcing the belief in one’s own agency. The world’s lack of certainty does not deprive us from choice and opportunities.
The only certainty is uncertainty, which makes uncertainty unavoidable. As we explore how we think about the futures, if we only extrapolate from the past and assume predictability, certainty, and stability, we would exist in incredible constraints — a world already written in stone. Uncertainty can actually be an inspiration. The unfamiliar should not be frightening; it is what feeds our curiosity to think about our choices and drive underlying change, encounter new serendipity, and create novelty. Uncertainty is an underpinning to our agency.
So I believe that existentialist philosophers, particularly Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Sartre, provide a helpful toolkit for engaging in uncertainty and understanding choice. As Sartre famously said, “Existentialism is a Humanism… man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards.” It is precisely the uncertainty of the open futures (as opposed to a deterministic path) that enables our agency to define ourselves.
As individuals, we exist as free agents that determine our own development through our choices and actions. As existentialist philosophy teaches, we each have the agency and freedom to explore contingencies, serendipity, and emergence through our curiosity. If everything were predetermined and certain, we would lack choice and power.
Disruption creates more agency, freedom, and choice. Being motivated to engage confidently with the unknown means being empowered and regaining the confidence that we are builders and makers.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Trust is multilayered and nuanced, and is a prerequisite to achieve any understanding, let alone buy-in, from stakeholders such as team members or customers. There is a paucity of trust in society, so cultivating trust is key, and requires being ethical and honoring commitments over time. Authenticity helps build trust. Colleagues and clients deserve transparency and honesty.
The communication of difficult news has to include openness around perceived mistakes and vulnerabilities, and the learning and growth which arise from these valuable experiences. Being thoughtful, anticipatory and respectful, with a dose of humility, can facilitate this challenging exercise.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
One of the reasons I decided to focus my work on futures and foresight is to deal with the unpredictability of the world. With foresight, we are not looking for a predetermined answer or specific outcome. Foresight is the capacity to explore the possible futures systemically, as well as drivers of change, to inform short-term decision-making. We ask questions, challenge views, broaden possibilities, and explore what we may not be thinking about — what lies below the iceberg. We ask why?, why not?, what if?, what if not?, so what?. For these questions focused on the futures, there is no data. The futures are open and there are no facts relating to what lies ahead.
In foresight, insights from data and analysis that evaluate historic cycles, drivers, and trends are helpful for sensemaking, but only insofar as they provide a snapshot of the existing world as a base to start exploring from (not the finality). Our imagination helps build and explore many different scenarios, outcomes, and possible futures. Some of these are more probable and plausible; others may be our vision of the preferable futures; we will also integrate some outliers.
Foresight builds on linear strategic planning, but the fundamental departure is the recognition that the futures are different from the past, that longer timeframes matter (beyond the next few quarters or years), and that unpredictability and next-order impacts need to somehow be captured. Scenarios can help solve problems differently, as they imagine a world which does not yet exist.
The purpose of scenario development is preparation, not prediction. As we evaluate the opportunities and risks that emanate from the scenarios developed, we scrutinize the potential consequences of the different alternative futures. This allows us to plan while building resilience and the capacity to sustain even the most unpredictable impacts and outcomes.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I am tempted to bundle the longer inventory of common mistakes into two: relying on assumptions, and treating disruptions as discrete special cases.
Fixed assumptions are like making a singular bet on a specific future, often to the exclusion of all else. The danger lies in relying heavily on the completeness of what is known in relation to the assumptions made and the implications of those assumptions if they prove to be flawed. The issue today is that the cost of relying on those incorrect assumptions is increasing.
While there are no outright alternatives to making assumptions, there are considerations in how assumptions might be used or relied upon. First, acknowledge the limitations and increasing cost of assumptions. Second, appreciate that the futures are open, as outcomes are not predetermined. Third, in a dynamic world, static assumptions need constant updating. Fourth, we need to appreciate that assumptions will be amplified in nonlinear environments.
Another highly dangerous mistake is looking at disruption as isolated, special cases or independent episodic events. Disruption today is omnipresent. It is a constant which establishes entirely new paradigms, which themselves will evolve. Disruption is no longer a single event but a steady state, increasing in impact as spillover effects ricochet.
Strategic analysis focuses on discrete risks and opportunities. Organizations too often take a siloed approach to problems. What happens when risks and impacts compound simultaneously? These are intersecting hazards at different levels, including natural disasters, food security, nuclear threats, the energy crisis, financial meltdowns, and even weaponized information threatening democracies. With compound risks, hazards increase in frequency, velocity, and intensity, intersecting at different levels. Effective planning requires multi-disruption filters to evaluate feedback loops and interlinkages, rather than treat single disruptions as one-off events.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
First, leverage on disruption as a springboard to value creation. Disruption is disrupting itself, creating a space for sustainable value creation. Value destruction will arise for those who assume business as usual. In my own example, I learnt to harness human capital and explored how disruption provided me with an opportunity to develop both a foresight practice and an education platform.
Second, in aligning our leadership and decision-making among stakeholders, values, and actions, we have the agency to make impactful changes despite our complex world. Changing the underlying structures to incentivize longer-term thinking is a prerequisite. As we have seen with the Covid pandemic or energy transition, the cost of being prepared pales in comparison with the costs of lacking that anticipation.
Third, embrace ecosystem innovation, with Business Models-as-a-System (BMaaS). BMaaS blur boundaries between partners, customers, suppliers, and competitors. They constantly nurture the creation of new markets and work collaboratively to address systemic challenges, such as how Tesla leverages user data to train self-driving models, pioneers agile over-the-air software updates, and lays the foundation for million-mile batteries.
Fourth, consider the duality of disruption with Greenaissance & Sustainability, as the ultimate disruptive opportunity. We define Greenaissance as an era of renewal with momentous innovation and investment opportunities, aligned across fields with the common objective of sustainable energy transition.
Firth, understand the next phase of digital disruption as industries and sectors converge, intersect, and emerge. The clearly delineated “industries” or “sectors” of yesterday are disappearing. The futures are hybrid; in this liminal world, there are no industry boundaries. The magic happens when intersections create new combinations.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Probably Nelson Mandela’s quote from Long Walk to Freedom: “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
Without drawing any parallels whatsoever between myself and Nelson Mandela, I found the analogy nonetheless inspirational for my own little journey. At our own level, we all have major milestones and objectives we aspire to achieve, we work hard to achieve, only to realize that there is another hill to climb. One other lesson from this analogy is actually to seek some smaller hills, or bite-size initiatives. The magic also arises from a small — but regular — investment in time — walks up more manageable hills and seeing the compounding returns. As you plant what might seem like insignificant seeds today, strolling up dunes or hills, these can grow considerably over time.
How can our readers further follow your work?
The Disruptive Futures Institute LLC is the publisher of the four-Volume collection: The Definitive Guide to Thriving on Disruption. The printed Guidebooks are available to order at bookstores (Amazon, Barnes & Noble…), while the eBooks are downloadable on Apple Books, Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble, Kobo…
Readers can stay connected with our work through the Disruptive Futures Institute in San Francisco, which is a Think Tank offering education, research and thought leadership on adapting to our increasingly complex and unpredictable world.
Disruptive Futures Institute social media links:
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/disrupt_futures/ (@disrupt_futures)
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/disrupt_futures (@disrupt_futures)
- Disruptive Futures Institute website: https://www.disruptivefutures.org/
- Guidebook website: https://www.thrivingondisruption.com
- YouTube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/c/DisruptiveFuturesInstitute
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Roger Spitz of Techistential: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.