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On why you might consider employing a Chief Context Officer

September 12, 2016

Hello Friends,

I’m hoping this newsletter finds you all really well, and doing really good stuff in your lives.

How good would that be?

If when asked how you’ve been, your response was a joyful “really good!” rather than just the default “I’ve been really busy”.

Ah, the paradox of modern life. Really busyness, but not always really goodness.

I’ve been equal parts really good and really busy of late. In my line of work, August and September is always crazy busy delivering keynotes and workshops—it’s something to do with the start of a new financial year down in Australia, and the realisation that the year is pretty much two thirds done —or, where I am right now, in North America*, working with a leading aerospace company, where the summer holidays are over and it’s time to get stuck into work again.

* Specifically, I’m in San Diego, and I’m staying right next to a US naval fighter base. Lots of F-18’s flying overhead. Like TopGun! So cool.

So lots of time for me spent on planes and in hotels away from home – a good thing the surf has been flat.

When I have crazy periods of busyness, I always have to be really careful to not lose track of the greater context within which I’m working. With pressing client deadlines, demands and expectations, it becomes very easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and get caught up in the minutiae and urgency of what must be delivered today, tomorrow, next week and next month.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here.

In fact, I know I’m not alone. Everywhere, everyone, is really busy*.

* I suspect that there are probably already about 100,000 blogs written on this topic of being too busy, but worry not: this isn’t one of them.

A good mate of mine (funnily enough, a time-poor CEO) recently sent me a link to this report by KPMG, which found that nearly nine out of 10 CEO’s surveyed from 1,300 global organisations lacked the time to think about really important, big picture stuff, such as strategy and innovation.

That’s pretty scary.

Nine out of 10 CEOs!

Important, clever folk, responsible for the organisations that provide society with the services that it needs to function smoothly, without the time to think! Important, clever folk, responsible (at least in part) for tackling the overwhelm of problems facing the world today, who simply don’t have the time to deal with the bigger picture because they are so mired in the short-term day-to-day requirements of running their organisation, reporting to their board and satisfying shareholders.

But of course, it’s not just CEOs that this is happening to. Losing an awareness of the greater context is something which all too often happens to almost all of us.

And so why, I wonder, do we so often get caught up in the detail and become seemingly unable to appreciate the bigger picture around us?

I’ve been pondering this an awful lot lately, and the conclusion I’ve come to is this.

I suspect that it’s because we people love to remain in control in control of things. We love to have a sense of ownership over our own situations, which in-turn makes us obsess about the stuff that we can control, especially the stuff which will have an immediate impact, as in right away. In other words, we love short feedback mechanisms*—but longer feedback loops, where there is a lag between our actions and the impact of our actions—err… not so much.

* It’s understandable, of course—especially in today’s world of rapid change, where both real and perceived time pressures provide a (often illusory) reward from short feedback mechanisms.

In the past, this wasn’t such a bad thing.

Because the context around us wasn’t changing with the rapidity that it does today, we could afford to only occasionally stick our heads above the parapet, check that everything was in order and as it should be, and then duck back down and re-immerse ourselves into our beaverish efforts of work (and control) again. An infrequent check-in was all we needed to do to calibrate our progress with the external world.

Take, for example, the traditional approach to writing a book. It’s not uncommon for an author to take a one or two year sabbatical, enabling the writer enough time to deeply immerse themselves in their topic, away from the day-to-day distractions of the outside world.

That might be fine for an author working on epic piece fiction set in the past, but if it’s a non-fiction work that aims to be forward facing and relevant into the future (such as a practical ‘how to’ business book or similar), then taking a year out to go deep is a risky proposition; risky in the sense that during the 365 day sabbatical, the world may change to such an extent that the author’s initial hypothesis or concept is no longer relevant.

When people ask me how long it took to write The Light and Fast Organisation, my response is 90 days, from blank page to edited manuscript. This genuinely startles most people. Don’t get me wrong: at times it totally sucked having to work under such extreme pressure, but that’s very much the alpinist way: to experience both joy and suffering, hand in hand. But ultimately, it’s a piece of work that I’m proud of, and which still has relevance a year after the manuscript was finished.

Although I very much wrote the book to sit in a future context, I find it remarkable how quickly that future context has already arrived. I expected that the future context for which I wrote the book would play out for at least three to five years, but now I’m not so sure. I wonder, by the time my second book is released, hopefully next year sometime, will my first book be yesterday’s news and irrelevant?*

* Which is why I get so angsty about the amount of absolute shite on the bookshelves in the business section of bookstores and online sites these days. Lame, unoriginal, superficial and outdated thinking reliant upon the author’s reputation garnered from years ago, but backed up by a marketing spend of millions of dollars. Sigh.

So… if the world is changing at a faster and faster rate, the question I think we all need to be asking ourselves today is how aware of the evolving bigger picture context are we?

The answer to this question will come easier to some than it does to others than. Some people are naturally very good at synthesising the big picture, macro context, whilst others are stronger in the domain of seeing the detailed, micro content.

Although this is somewhat of a generalisation, it does seem to me that our traditional business approach has tended to favour those who are stronger at seeing things at the micro level of detail and content and process. This is not really all that surprising, given that traditional business approaches have focused on efficiency and productivity and measurement via metrics.

One way to get a semi-tangible read on natural strengths and weaknesses in this area is with the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument.

Generally speaking, I’m not a massive fan of diagnostics—tools such as Myers Briggs and DISC profiles and the like—because they tend to categorise* people into boxes. However, in the right context, and when taken with a grain of salt, diagnostics that allow for a continuum across multiple spectrums under different situations do I think have a rightful place.

* and categorisation is a very rigid, linear thing to do… and if you know much about my thinking, you’ll know that I am highly skeptical of traditional linear approaches. It’s a very fixed approach, and I fear it only serves to reinforce to people that they are what the diagnostic tells them they are, and that they can’t evolve and grow over time to be something different. (Check out the work of Carol Dweck if you want to explore the notion of fixed vs growth mindset further).

The HBDI tool is primarily used to shed light on people’s preferred thinking styles, and maps them across non-judgmental quadrats of analytical (blue), practical (green), relational (red) and contextual (yellow).

This is what my ‘profile’ looks like:


You can see that the diagnostic suggests that my strongest thinking style is big-picture contextual, and that my weakest is analytical. If you know much about me, and indeed if we’ve never met but you read any of my writing, I reckon you’d get a sense of this pretty quickly. You can also see the dashed line, which suggest when under pressure my dominance shifts to a relational element.

Across any given population, some people will be naturally strong in being able to understand the bigger-picture context, and strangely in-tune to subtle changes in that context, whereas others will be much stronger in working through the analytical and practical perspectives of a situation.

If you’re currently working in a senior leadership team, I think it’s absolutely crucial that you have someone who has a natural strength in the big-picture context*, to not only synthesise what’s going on in the world right now, but to be able to see** over the horizon, too.

* No, I’m not looking for a full-time job, but thanks for asking. But I might still be able to help you in this space, just not on a permanent basis! Enquire here.
** How would you do this? You could start by sensemaking, of course!

Which leads to my suggestion that you might want give consideration to creating a role for a ‘Chief Context Officer’.

Now I get that this idea might sound a bit lame and gimmicky at first, but think about it a little further. If so many CEO’s are so time poor, and with most other C suiote positions being focused on analytical and practical duties (think CFO, COO, CHRO etc), then perhaps it’s not such a bad idea afterall.

But before we get to what the role of the Chief Context Officer might look like, I want to further solidify the case for having one in the first case. I want to show you what can happen if you don’t read the bigger-picture context well.

There are countless examples of enterprise missing the big picture for want of obsession about the details.

The classic case is that of Iridium, who blew $6 billion and continued investing in satellite phone technology whilst mobile phone quickly eclipsed them (described by Air and Space Magazine here as “the greatest dog ever launched into space”).

The most recent example in Australia is Woolworths, the classic expedition style retailer that ploughed billions into a hardware chain in an effort to starve it’s main rival Coles, but forgot to consider that the main rival to its supermarket dominance were not it’s traditional foes, but instead newer rivals such as Aldi, and even Amazon (if you don’t believe me, watch this).

Or, outside of the business world, you could watch the Sherpa: Trouble on Everest documentary, which exposes the truth behind the nature of western interests in commercial Himalayan guiding.


Most of the time, when businesses fail to understand the changing nature of the world, the juicy stuff happens behind close doors*, and you rarely actually get to see the proponents actually play out the drama on the big screen, captured in beautiful yet tragic and haunting vision, as happens in this documentary.

* Yet that’s exactly what happens as commercial expedition operator Russ Brice massively misinterprets the changing context of educated Sherpas (some of whom are my good mates and who feature in this film).

So in short: we can’t afford to misread the context.

So what would the role of the Chief Context Officer look like?

Well, for starters, the Chief Context Officer won’t have readily identifiable KPI’s, meaning that it will be hard to immediately calculate the ROI on the work they do. The challenge will be to recognise that they will provide immense value, but in a relatively intangible, non-trackable* way.

* unless you consider ongoing relevance and solvency, over the next two decades, and then it’ll be very tangible.

The Chief Context Officer will instead be given a remit to go out into the world, away from the day-to-day grind of the business, and pick up both the obvious and not-so obvious trends and shifts in the global context, as they occur. The Chief Context Officer will be a sensemaker of all of the uncertainty and ambiguity and complexity in the world today, and tomorrow. In short, they will become a master of the zeitgeist.

So seriously, give it some thought.

What could a Chief Context Officer do for your business?

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