The Power of Passion

“Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.”

Georg Hegel

Last week I spoke at an event for Information Technology Management for Business (ITMB) students and the subject of my talk was how they could find their Passion (professionally speaking). By their Passion I meant work that they would feel gave their professional life meaning – work that would energize, enthuse and inspire them to both great efforts and great achievements. I tried to illustrate this by means of the pension-passion trade-off – that if they found their passion, they would not want to retire; more importantly, they wouldn’t spend their career looking forward to the day they could start drawing their pension. (But given they had not yet started working, I am not sure this was the most effective analogy.)

A subject such as Passion is slightly off-topic for this blog. But given the talk seemed to strike a chord with a few people (including representatives from other sponsoring employers as well as students) and that what I write here is a reflection of my passion, I thought it worth describing the central idea.

To illustrate where people would find their passion I borrowed and adapted slightly the Hedgehog Concept, as identified by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. In this Collins drew a distinction between hedgehogs and foxes – foxes being cunning and able to do a number of things well while hedgehogs, by contrast, can only do one thing well: curl up into a spiky ball. But his point was that in a confrontation between the two, the fox would never win because the hedgehog could make itself impregnable. Collins argued that successful businesses do one thing very well and have the courage to say no to opportunities that don’t fit their Hedgehog Concept, which he defined as where three circles intersect.

To avoid confusion, I didn’t say what his three circles were. But my adaptation proposed that the students (indeed everyone) would find their passion where the following three categories overlap: what you believe to be important, what you enjoy doing and what you can be best in your world at.

Figure 1: The Locus of Passion

 

If we take these in turn, the importance of what you enjoy doing should be pretty self-evident given how much time is spent at work. This is linked to the second area – what you can be best in your world at – because we also tend to enjoy things that we are good at. This category also reflects that we tend to judge ourselves in relative rather than absolute terms, with our world being the comparator set we want to judge ourselves against. Ultimately how we define this is down to ambition; and the more ambitious the definition, the longer it will take to achieve (hence the importance of the word ‘can’).

In the final category – what you believe to be important – the emphasis is very much on the ‘you’; it doesn’t matter what other people think. Pretty much any job can be rationalized in terms of its contribution to society. But when people rationalize, they do so for defensive reasons – typically to justify a pay cheque. But by ‘believe to be important’ I mean something that you would argue as being important even if you had no financial interest.

The first step to finding your passion is simply asking the three questions above, the inability to answer any or all of them

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providing the focus for contemplation and curiosity. Also false dawns are to be expected, so the point I made to the ITMB students was that the sooner you start searching, the quicker you will find your true passion. I also emphasized that they should expect their passion to evolve over time and that they could reasonably aspire to do more than one thing with their professional life.

I ended the talk by using this framework to describe my passion – helping companies create value for their customers. For me this is important because it is the key to profitable organic growth. But despite this, businesses are often not very good at it. (As individuals we are egocentric and that is often compounded in corporate settings by groupthink with the result that the first instinct of a management team is to create value for the business forgetting that growth requires they first do so for their customers.) In terms of my enjoyment, it is work that I always find it interesting and usually exciting. And I am slowly carving out a position in the community of customer management practitioners where I can be distinct – in particular bridging between business and customer strategy. (With regard to the latter point, I cited the Stakeholder Scorecard and Customer Advantage articles published in the journal of the Strategic Planning Society –and available on this web site – as some evidence for this.) I also highlighted that underpinning my professional passion are a number of interests – behavioural science and psychology, economics, creativity, design thinking and the decline of rationalism. And that these are where I focus my learning effort as part of trying to be the best in my world.

I finished by describing how my belief in the importance of organic growth had yielded an overlapping passion – one for challenging the prevailing assumptions of strategy, marketing and management science. There are now more business schools and business school professors; more MBA students and business school alumni; more consultants and ex-consultants who have crossed over to the corporate sector. But despite this and the buoyant economic conditions leading up to 2007, large businesses struggled to generate organic growth – what CEOs had described as their biggest challenge – choosing to focus on squeezing out the additional cost savings enabled by the internet (e.g. offshoring to low cost locations) and consolidating acquisitions (for which they overpaid) to drive growth in profits.

Einstein argued “problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which they were created.” I think that this is true for the challenge of organic or revenue-led growth – that traditional approaches to management research and management education, together with how they are manifested in the practice of both strategy and marketing are as much part of the problem of organic growth as part of the solution. (Though they are pretty good for generating productivity-driven cost savings).

That said, I am not so one-eyed as to intractably believe that I am right and everyone who disagrees is wrong. But I certainly believe that the validity of the pre-suppositions underpinning much standard thinking are worthy of debate. My goal is simply to stimulate such a debate so flawed assumptions can be uncovered and then removed so genuinely fresh thinking can arise – a related but more ambitious passion than helping customers create value for their customers. To achieve that I must first articulate why I believe these pre-suppositions are flawed and explain how I think these prevailing approaches should be changed. That is what I am seeking to achieve with this blog.

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About Jack Springman

I am a consultant with experience in business strategy and customer strategy development, customer management and customer service transformation.