Bob Morris Interview: Sunnie Giles on radical innovation
Sunnie Giles is a new generation expert on radical innovation who takes the mystery out of what radical innovation is and how to consistently produce it. By combining her unique expertise in advanced neuroscience, complex systems approach, quantum mechanics and business, she has produced a breakthrough program called Quantum Leadership. Her methodology has helped hundreds of leaders create a culture of radical innovation that establishes a new platform upon which the rest of the industry to build incremental innovations. Her book, The New Science of Radical Innovation: The Six Competencies Leaders Need to Win in a Complex World, was published by BenBella Books (April 2018).
She observes, “The business environment has changed dramatically, similarly to how the Industrial Revolution changed feudal society, which I call the Digital Revolution. This sea of change demands new leadership competencies in order to be successful, as well as the old skills that made you a successful leader – vision, charisma, technical competencies, and efficiency maximization. We are now in the world of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), which requires speed, decentralization, flexibility, and learning from trial and error, which prepares leaders to catalyze radical innovation.”
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Before discussing your recently published book, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
I would say it was my PhD program at Brigham Young University, Daniel Siegel and many other authors on emotional intelligence.
The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
Daniel Siegel. He is a child psychiatrist by training and his quest to understand how relationships form and reform human brain made a huge impact on my thinking. Steven Johnson, Jonathan Rosenberg/ Eric Schmidt, Jim Whitehurst, Reed Hastings, and Clay Christensen also helped me clarified my thinking on how innovation happens.
Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
It was my first major opportunity to make an impression on the big boss at a Fortune 500 company I was working for. I had joined the company after my MBA and after a strategy consulting job with a large international consulting company. My boss’s boss, VP of Marketing, had gorgeous flowing blond hair down to her waist, with an irresistibly inviting French accent, and had a larger-than-life persona. It was rumored that she had a PhD in Nuclear Physics. She was sometimes sighted coming to work in her black leather jacket and pants on her Harley. I sent her my deck prior to the conference call. She was in a different state and my colleagues and I sat around the large conference table with speaker phones. I put together a brand strategy after talking to myriads of internal marketing, sales, customer support, and product development and based on what I thought was a pretty thorough analysis. Three pages into the deck, I heard her voice in a French accent coming through the grey tripedal conference phone,
“You know, Sunnie, I have more knowledge under my big toe nail than you have in the brain of yours.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Tears spontaneously sprang out from my eyes while my brain was still trying to figure out what had happened and how to respond. Then, the Director of Product Development quickly muted the phone and said, “Oh, we forgot to warn you. That’s her standard line. She says that to everyone, so don’t even worry about it.” Another shock.
A few weeks later, I got to meet her assistant. The assistant told me she couldn’t believe how so many grown men would go into the boss’s office and come out crying. And I began to wonder why she was still allowed to work at IBM. She was untouchable because she delivered results every quarter. But at what cost? She was a tyrant ruling with terror and had the entire organization scurrying in fear like cockroaches on a light switch. That’s when I started thinking about what good leadership meant and how to achieve. Then when I read literature on systems theory, I realized it wasn’t just about results, and the team. It was also about adapting to the environment. I began to see the thin thread that cut across quantum mechanics, complex adaptive systems, neuroscience and business and knew I had to write a book.
To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
After the first semester in college in Korea, my parents didn’t have enough money to support me through college. I also realized my university diploma wouldn’t give me too much of an opportunity because of the glass ceiling in Korea (circumstances are very different now). I wanted to go to America to study – just a pipe dream, my mom said. How could we afford such a feat when I had no money to pay for college at home? So I got a job working full time as a telephone operator at the Seoul Hilton hotel.
After working 18 months, I saved $1,200. With that money, I paid the first semester tuition at Brigham Young University, bought a one-way ticket to the US and paid a deposit for a dorm room. I was left with $70 in my pocket. Cold reality set in – that wasn’t enough money to buy an airplane ticket back home. Live or die, I had to make it in America. But how? I had no idea how to pay my rent next month, let alone my next semester tuition.
So I got up at 4 am to scrub toilets on campus to make living expenses (I was not a US citizen at that time and couldn’t get a job off campus). It was the most difficult yet rewarding experience in my life. At the end of the day, I graduated with honors and no student loans.
What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?
Having worked as an executive coach, now I know that people rarely derail because of a lack of technical expertise but because of an inability to forge a consensus of support when attempting to mobilize the organization. If I had known this, I would have spent a lot more time building relationships in my earlier career.
Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.
I would say Sabrina (1995) with Harrison Ford. It shows how systems theory works in people’s relationships, with the concepts of induction, homeostasis, accommodation and emergence.
Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:
“Learn from the people Plan with the people Begin with what they have Build on what they know Of the best leaders When the task is accomplished The people will remark We have done it ourselves.”
All organizational change gets implemented at the personal level. Programs, initiatives or products don’t achieve things, but people do. We have been treating people as mechanical input to a mass production process, vestiges of the industrial thinking. We focused too much on the output we produce but we are not human doings but human beings. We need to unleash the human side of humans now.
From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what [begin italics] not [end italics] to do.”
Yes, of course, deselection is a strategic choice. This is why Michelangelo said “David was always there in the marble. I just removed everything that was not David.” Strategy is always about making trade offs. The strategic choice you make must produce more value than the opportunity cost. Radical innovation gets you there.
From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
Absolutely. Learning is a paragon of the human species. Any organism that doesn’t change as fast as the environment becomes extinct and learning is at the heart of this type of adaptive change. Feedback at work as well as consequences you give to children must be about learning, not punishments and rewards.
From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”
Of course! radical innovation is serendipitous, which starts with a question “I wonder…,” questioning the status quo, the conventionally accepted wisdom. Innovation is by definition different from the traditional way of doing business.
From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”
Although innovation stems from self-organization and iterative improvement through trial and error, which could be chaotic, we have to execute each iteration.
Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
In the VUCA era, effectiveness trumps efficiency: doing the right things (creating an environment conducive to radical innovation) is more important than doing things right (driving cost out, eliminating variances, or improving efficiency). What good does it do to spend years trying to eliminate variances in the manufacturing process to produce defect-free products 99.99966 percent of the time—the goal of Six Sigma, vestiges of the industrial era—if a competitor in someone’s garage totally changes the rules of the game overnight, rendering your product obsolete?
Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be engaged in one-on-one conversation for an extended weekend?
Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?
Any organizational change initiative gets implemented at the individual level who bring in a unique set of prior life experiences, which could hinder change if their life experiences were formed by fear-based reactions. Hence it becomes a prerequisite for any leader to do the self-management work necessary to become aware of and regulate their thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?
A culture that allows self-organization, risk taking and learning by trial and error, minimal supervision, with deep connection among team members, one that encourages learning, completely transparent and authentic communication, where love can thrive.
Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?
Employee engagement is an important issue organizations are just becoming aware of. It is because organizations have been treating employees as human doings, not human beings, with a view that they are an input in a mass production line. To maximize the output of each employee, squeeze the most out of them. But that approach has resulted in this lack of employee engagement and cynicism and sabotage.
We need to introduce more of human element in the workplace, not less. Legal department has been systematically eliminating emotions in the workplace but emotions are what connection is made up of. Without connection, we cannot have the resilience required to continue experimenting and learning by trial and error, which is an essential ingredient for innovation.
In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?
Let them self-organize, provide safety, facilitate connection, and help them learn – practice the Quantum Leadership principles.
Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?
Balancing the demands of the tidal change for the Quantum Organization with the inertia of the industrial era while gracefully transitioning from one to the other: that will be the greatest challenge for any CEO.
Editor's note: This article was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.