What You See Shapes How You Change

Last week, I introduced a new series of thinking – Passion Management that captures the spirit of the times in which we work, compete, and lead. Passion Management is a facilitated guide for leaders and change agents in all walks of life who aspire to fix what’s wrong with their organisations, to launch new initiatives with the best chance to succeed, and to rethink the logic of leadership itself as they work to rally their colleagues around an agenda for transformation. In other words, it is a manifesto for change and a manual for achieving it – at a moment when change is the name of the game.

What you see shapes how you change. Or, to use a term that’s become popular in creativity circles, the best leaders demonstrate a capacity for vuja dé. We’ve all experienced déjà vu—looking at an unfamiliar situation and feeling like you’ve seen it before. Groundhog Day. Vuja dé is the flip side of that—looking at a familiar situation (an industry you’ve worked in for decades, products you’ve worked on for years) as if you’ve never seen it before, and, with that fresh perspective, developing a distinctive point of view on the future. 

Vuja de may be a strange term, but it has become a strangely popular term among some of the most engaged workplaces. Tom Kelley, General Manager of IDEO, the legendary Silicon Valley design firm, uses vuja dé to describe the habits of mind of his most creative people. Kelley says he was introduced to vuja dé by Stanford University’s Bob Sutton, a truly original thinker whose terrific book Weird Ideas That Work, describes a set of offbeat practices to sustain innovation. 

Whoever coined the term, what matters is how leaders apply the vuja dé mindset to the challenge of making big change in tough times. And that’s where the unlikely twist comes in. The virtue of vuja dé is that it reframes how organisations make sense of their situations and build for the future. But that’s different from a wholesale disavowal of the past. Sometimes, the very act of rediscovering and reinterpreting the past creates the clarity and confidence necessary to create a distinctive game plan for the future. 

The persona that comes to mind in relation to vuja dé is that of an anthropologist. When they go out into the field anthropologists observe with fresh eyes. Adopting a Zen like “beginners mind” is easier said than done, of course. But doing so makes a world of difference in gathering fresh observations. Margaret Mead is a familiar example of the archetypal anthropologist, studying cultures of the South Pacific in a series of books that challenged stereotypes about the imaginations of children and the limitations of so-called primitive societies. Mead believed you had to be there, you had to observe firsthand. “The way to do fieldwork, is never to come up for air until it is all over.”

The cutting-edge advertisers at TBWA Worldwide have learned to develop “fresh eyes” to look for disruptive ideas about what comes next. As marketing specialists, TBWA has designed memorable campaigns for some of the most glamorous brandsof the last few decades, from Absolut to Adidas to Apple. As creative strategists, TBWA has invented a blueprint for organizational renewal it calls “Disruption Days”—wide-open, free-wheeling, yet highly structured examinations of the assumptions, practices, and behaviors that stand in the way of progress for a brand, a company, or an industry. 

TBWA chairman Jean-Marie Dru, the figure most closely associated with the agency’s disruption model, is adamant about the deep-seated changes it is designed to provoke. The process “is at once a method, a way of thinking, and a state of mind,” he writes in Disruption: Overturning Conventions And Shaking Up The Marketplace, the first of four excellent books on the subject. “It is a matter of questioning the way things are, of breaking with what has been done or seen before, of rejecting the conventional.” 

TBWA has conducted more than 1,500 Disruption Days around the world and the methodology has improved and evolved over the years. But certain techniques remain central to the process. For example, TBWA has developed a list of 60 what-if questions to guide strategic rethinking. What if we stop focusing on the traditional competitors and focus instead on the source of business (often indirect competition)? What if we reconsider using strategies usually considered taboo for this category? What if, instead of differentiating the brand we redefine the category experience? What if we reverse the logic of things? The specific questions, of course, are less important than the spirit, which is to challenge conventional wisdom.

TBWA also uses what it calls the “CEO Hat” exercise to encourage organizations with tunnel visionto develop a new line of sight. Participants search for out-of-the-box answers to big strategic questions by reaching into boxes filled with hats, shirts, and other paraphernalia from breakthrough organizations such as Apple, Virgin, Target, Southwest Airlines—and then adopt the mindset of those free-thinking companies as they think about the questions with their clients. “We define possible strategies for companies through the eyes and values and under the leadership of a different CEO,”explains Laurie Coots, TBWA’s chief marketing officer. “The sheer act of being free to think like somebody else gives you permission to generate ideas that you might not get to otherwise.” Even if it is legendary CEO of Southwest Airlines Herb Kelleher, who famously settled a disagreement with his competitor via arm wrestle – “Malice in Dallas”.

Next week we will extend the notion of vuja dé by introducing a concept that What If has categorized as “Freshness” – the continual search for different experiences that jolt you into making new and unique connections. 

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