Unlearning in America

According to astronauts, the experience of seeing the Earth from space is a profound experience. From a distance, national boundaries vanish. Differences disappear. Everything becomes interconnected. We are a pale blue dot, tiny and fragile, suspended in space.  

Today I have my own version of what's called the “Overview effect.” It is the morning after the Presidential election and I’m on a flight from Boston to San Francisco.  The world woke to one of the great surprises in political history. Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States.  

My fear is that electing Trump is like handing a teenager the keys to a Ferrari for a drive on the Autobahn on a rainy night. Not enough experience. Too much power. Hazardous conditions. And no speed limits.    

But as I look down over states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska, I realize they aren’t red or blue.  In fact, they are mostly brown and green. You can’t tell where one state stops and the next begins. I am brought back to my own purpose and the work of Shift Thinking.  

My original plan for this newsletter was to focus on my two recent articles in Harvard Business Review. The first is about “How to Create an Exponential Mindset.” In brief, I argue that there are two mindsets for change:  one incremental and linear, and one discontinuous and exponential. Apply an incremental mindset to an exponential process, and you will squander its potential. Apply an exponential mindset to an incremental process and you will be perpetually frustrated. You have to align the mindset to the process in order to set goals, measure progress, and enable growth.  

The other article is called “The Problem with Learning is Unlearning.” My premise is that in times of disruption and exponential change, our mental models become outdated. It’s not enough to learn new things, i.e. add new knowledge to existing models. We have to make the shift to a new model altogether. Like driving on the opposite side of the road, it’s often harder to let go of the old mental habit compared to learning the new one.  

As I look down on the farmland of America, I realize these two concepts help illuminate the events of the past 24 hours. 

First, the 2016 election is an extension of what we’ve seen in business into the political sphere, namely the triumph of the exponential over the incremental. The defining quality of an exponential process is an accelerating rate of change.  The success of Donald Trump’s campaign was consistently underestimated by experts and opponents.  And the result of the election is clearly discontinuous with what anyone expected.  

More broadly, the election itself can be seen as an explicit choice by the electorate of the exponential over the incremental. Hillary Clinton was promising to “improve and enhance” while Trump was promising to “rip and replace.” A couple months ago, I heard a Trump supporter say that she felt America had been hijacked by the establishment, and that Trump was the right person to rush the cockpit and take back control of the plane. It didn’t matter if he could actually fly the plane, or whether she liked him as a person. What mattered was that he was going to replace the old with the new, whatever that might be. 

Time will tell if Trump can learn how to fly the plane. Clearly a lot of people are concerned. The website for Canadian immigration crashed on election night. But while some may move to Canada, the rest of us need to find a way to move forward together. It’s not going to happen by doing things the way we used to.  

We’ve all got some unlearning to do.


P.S. For your own Overview effect, follow the Daily Overview on Instagram.

Upside Down and Inside Out


If anything proves that the world has changed, it’s the current presidential campaign. What used to work is no longer effective. And what shouldn’t work suddenly does. We are operating in what The Economist has called a post-truth world. The campaign seems to prove Marshall McLuhan’s prediction that electronic media would move us from a written to oral culture. In so doing, truth would become more subjective and our relationships would become more tribal. This month’s newsletter covers four of my recent articles, each related to new kinds of relationships and the ways in which we need to rethink the tried and true. 

The first article, “From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: The Transformation of Business,” appeared on Techonomy.

(If you aren’t familiar with Techonomy, I encourage you to do so. David Kirkpatrick and his team create remarkable conversations and community at the intersection of technology, business and society).

In this article I describe how the digital shift in communication from one-to-many (Gutenberg) to many-to-many (Zuckerberg) forces us to rethink the very nature of our relationships. In the public sphere, this affects government and citizens, politicians and voters. In business, we need to change how we relate to both customers and employees.

The second article, “Build your Brand as Relationship,” explores how this change affects the concept of brand and the relationship a company has with its stakeholders. I argue that brand relationships in a one-to-many world are transactional and asymmetrical. The relationship is provider/consumer. In a many-to-many world, brand relationships need to be more collaborative and reciprocal. Brands such as Airbnb, Lyft, Nest and Virgin America illustrate this shift.

Letting Go Without Losing Control” explores the employee relationship. In a many-to-many world, the networked dimension of an organization becomes as important as the hierarchy. But this poses a problem for managers and leaders. In a hierarchy, autonomy is sacrificed for alignment. In a network, alignment tends to be sacrificed for autonomy. Is there a way to have both? In the article, I draw on lessons from biology and the military to create a new model of governance and culture based on decision principles.

Finally, my most recent article, “What if You Could Learn Design from Apple?” is about flipping the corporate university inside out. Companies need to build relationships with customers that go beyond the transaction. This strategy blends marketing and learning, so that you not only sell the bait, but also teach them to fish. Disney, Ritz-Carlton and Zappos have already embraced this model. I’ve personally been involved in efforts to engage senior executives in the tech sector, and one can imagine it in many other areas as well, whether design from Apple, sustainability from Patagonia, or digital marketing from Adobe.

In all of these areas, whether marketing or learning, strategy or culture, business or politics, our world is turning upside down and inside out. But in the midst of all these changes, some things stay the same. As humans, we still have a desire to find meaning, purpose, and connection. But we need to fulfill these needs in new ways.

As always, I welcome your ideas and opportunities on how to put Shift Thinking into practice. I’m particularly enjoying my work designing strategic narratives, and finally have a book concept I’m really excited about. More on that in the next newsletter.

Keep shifting!


Mark Bonchek
Chief Epiphany Officer

P.S.  If you have run out of shows to binge, I encourage you to watch the movie Network. It may be from 1976, but it is still the most penetrating commentary on modern society you will find. Plus you get to see Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, William Holden, Ned Beatty and Robert Duvall in a Paddy Chayefsky script directed by Sidney Lumet.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  Look for it on YouTube or Amazon.

Do you have the right mindset for your digital strategy?

In my latest post on Harvard Business Review, I argue that you need an exponential mindset to succeed at a digital initiative, but the expectations of incremental progress can sabotage the strategy before it has a chance to take hold. 

I first saw this in my workshops. We would be about a third of the way through the day, and the client executive would start to squirm. It didn’t matter if I was building a strategic narrative, designing a brand orbit, or creating cultural doctrine. They would say something that translated to “So when are we going to get something done?”

The premise of my work is that a shift in thinking must precede a shift in doing. And that if you take the time to update and align people’s mental models, you can move with remarkable speed and cohesion. At the end of each workshop, the same clients would inevitably remark that they couldn’t believe how much we got done in such a short period of time.

That’s when the epiphany came. I realized that I was operating on an exponential curve and they were thinking linearly. I knew that most of the results would happen in a short amount of time at the end of the day, once we had everything in place.  Meanwhile, with an incremental or linear mindset, people assumed that if X% of the time had passed, we should be X% of the way towards our destination.

At the next workshop, I drew the following diagram right up front, and warned everyone that somewhere in the middle they would start to get nervous that we weren’t making enough progress. I assured them to relax and trust the process.  Once again it proved my premise. With this new mental model, we were able to not only move quickly, but be more relaxed as we went.


After the workshop, I realized that this gap between the incremental and exponential applied in all sorts of areas, particularly in digital initiatives where you are building a network effect. The HBR article outlines the ways in which the two mindsets interact, and the ways in which the incremental mindset can pull you off your growth strategy. 

I look forward to hearing how these two mindsets show up in your work, and how to keep an exponential mindset in the midst of an incremental culture.


May Day or Mayday?

Last month’s newsletter announced the launch of Shift Thinking and where it came from.  This month we’ll talk about where we are going.

Sunday was May 1, or May Day.  It seems ironic that May Day is a festival to celebrate new opportunities while “Mayday” is the international signal for distress. Yet this duality captures the times we live in.  A time of both distress and opportunity. Success today comes from dealing with dualities and transcending tradeoffs.  A shift from OR to AND.  

I recently published an article on Harvard Business Review on “How to Build a Strategic Narrative.”  The article generated a lot of interest.  I’ve heard from companies ranging from dentists and educators to nonprofits and manufacturers.

They all have both distress and opportunities. They are trying to fend off competition and keep up with technological change. They all want to tell a new story that empowers employees and engages customers. They want May Day, not Mayday.  

Writing the article had me reflect on my own challenges and opportunities, and the need for my own narrative that says who I am and where I’m going.  So in the interest of “walking the talk,” here’s a first narrative for Shift Thinking. If you read the article, you will see many of the elements.

We all know that digital technology is creating profound disruption and accelerating change. Incremental improvements are no longer enough. We need exponential results.  

The landscape of business has changed, but we are still navigating with old mental maps.  Just as we update our operating systems to keep our computers current, so too must we update our mental operating systems to keep ourselves current.  

This process requires not only learning, but unlearning. To do new things, we need to think in new ways. It’s a simultaneous shift on many dimensions: push to pull; hierarchy to network; industry to ecosystem; audience to community; product to platform.     

The shared purpose of Shift Thinking is therefore to update our thinking for a digital age.  

In effect, Shift Thinking is in the epiphany business. We produce those “aha” moments that lead to a new way of seeing the world. With a new view, leaders and organizations naturally take more effective action. 

Our success is measured by the rate, reach and return on epiphany.  How rapidly can people unlearn old models and adopt new ones?  How widely is a new mindset adopted in the organization and how quickly does it spread?  What is the impact of a new mindset on profitable growth, customer value, and employee engagement?  

Shift Thinking creates environments, develops tools, and invents language. Our current tools include Shared Purpose, Strategic Narrative, Brand Orbits for customer engagement, Decision Doctrine for employee empowerment, and Catalyst Networks for transformational change. 

I welcome your thoughts on this narrative and how you are ensuring that next May Day is one of opportunity rather than distress.  You’ll find this newsletter on LinkedIn where you can add your comments.  


Mark Bonchek
Chief Epiphany Officer

Announcing Shift Thinking

For the last twenty years, I’ve been working with leaders and organizations on the frontier of the digital revolution. Two years ago I realized I had been going about it all wrong. There was a flaw in the system, invisible if you didn’t know where to look.  

Like many, I was trained in the school of best practice. I had adopted Peter Drucker’s maxim that leadership is “doing the right things” and management is “doing things right.”

My epiphany came when I realized that this only works in times of stability and incremental change. In times of disruption and transformation, the landscape itself changes. Our mental maps become outdated. You can’t just do new things. You also have to think in new ways.

I suddenly saw why so many digital strategies had failed. Companies had copied the best practices of those achieving exponential results:  platforms, networks, communities, ecosystems. But they copied the behavior without copying the underlying thinking.  

I realized that:

New Doing + Old Thinking = Old Results (Incremental and Predictable)

New Doing + New Thinking = New Results (Exponential and Transformative)

I also realized this meant I had to turn my business inside out. I had been using new ways of thinking to help companies figure out what to do. Instead, I needed to help them figure out how to think. And this meant not just helping leaders and teams learn, but also unlearn. I found a new name, Shift Thinking, and created a shared purpose of updating leaders’ thinking for a digital age.  

For the last two years I have been working with remarkable companies and developing a set of “power tools” that enable shifts in thinking about engagement, loyalty, leadership, and culture. I have written about some of these in my Harvard Business Review column and over the next six months I will be turning these principles and concepts into a book.

This week marks the launch of a new Shift Thinking website where you can read about my approach and learn about my work with leaders and organizations. If you’re interested in learning more, please contact Rita at rita@shift.to to set up a complimentary 30-minute consult.  

Thank you for your interest and support.  I look forward to the journey ahead.

Mark Bonchek
Chief Epiphany Officer
Shift Thinking