Rick Wheatley: Opportunity focus is killing us - problems are the future!

14 May 2018

Xynteo's Rick Wheatley on sustainable business and new leadership models at TEDxLondonBusinessSchool. Our current growth model is failing, and in order to continue growing, businesses must start focusing on human challenges rather than opportunities. I believe that facing our new reality requires new and excellent leadership. The stability that has facilitated global progress and enabled extreme poverty to drop from 40 to 10 per cent in 40 years is under challenge: less than one per cent of the global population commands 46 per cent of the world's wealth, while 3.5 billion people own just 2.7 per cent; more than a third of the food produced in the world is wasted; and only around one per cent of all raw materials for production remain in use six months after the point of purchase. These challenges suggest that our current growth model is fragile and that we fail to deliver the stability societies need to flourish. Consequently, business leaders become important players in building economies that are fit for the 21st century. Of the 100 largest economic entities in the world, 67 are corporations, ie, only 33 are governments. We have the talent, capital, and the ideas, but our leaders are not focusing adequately on problems. Finding our way through this new reality – and building a more inclusive economic model – will require the best leadership the world has ever seen. My idea is that business leaders can lead the path towards a more sustainable growth model by rethinking how they generate value and begin focusing on problems instead of opportunities. In 2012, I had a conversation with the gentleman then leading Boeing Ventures, and asked him what shift he wanted to see in his leaders. He responded that he wanted his people to stop focusing on chasing opportunities and fighting for the biggest piece of the pie at the finish line. In contrast to opportunities, problems are not zero-sum and if you work on problems you are no longer dividing the pie but making it bigger. He wanted his people to begin thinking about the problems that affected many peoples' lives. As I found this statement intriguing, I suggested to my CEO that we banned the word `opportunity`. It was an uncomfortable idea, but slowly it caught on. Xynteo is focused on working on the 'intersection' – applying commercial muscle to human problems, to problems that affect many peoples' lives. I believe that this could be where the biggest potential for future growth ultimately lies. There are two barriers that businesses must overcome to start focusing on problems rather than opportunities. The first barrier is a reluctance to deviate from core business and core capabilities, as many companies think of themselves as a producer of a product – toothpaste, mobile phones and so on. But your value as a company comes only partly from your product. Most of your value is likely to be embodied in other assets – your brand, your relationship with the customer, your ability to innovate, and your culture. The second barrier is that large corporations tend to be so focused on the internal workings of their company and industry that they overlook how the external world is changing. Ignoring the external reality can make companies continue to invest in and protect products that are losing relevance and thereby missing the chance to apply that cash and human capital to problems their customers need to be solved. I would like to use oil and gas company Statoil as an example to illustrate a company starting to focus on challenges. As Statoil began discovering fewer oil and gas fields on the Norwegian continental shelf and societal forces pressured a move towards cleaner fuels, there was a shift in how its leadership thought about the business. It began exploring the emerging needs of society and how it could deploy itself to meet that need. Ultimately this resulted in a New Energy Solutions business unit that focuses on applying Statoil's capital and capabilities to low carbon energy. And this month, they plan to change their name from Statoil to Equinor. For a company with this history, the significance of taking the word 'oil' out of its name is difficult to overstate. Xynteo's Leadership Vanguard is another example that demonstrates the potential of problems. The Leadership Vanguard was launched five years ago in discussion with Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever. Polman was discouraged that too few companies were showing leadership on the sustainability agenda and wanted more allies. This resulted in an annual programme where six organisations – including Mastercard and the International Committee for the Red Cross – hand-pick senior leaders to join a collaborative, cross-company and industry initiative to innovate commercial solutions to human problems, pooling their companies' resources, capabilities, products and services. The Leadership Vanguard has created several initiatives, such as the recently launched reverse mentoring scheme Embark, where Syrian refugees mentor business leaders in Turkey. So, we have the talent, capital and the ideas we need, but our leaders are not focusing adequately on problems. I hope that business leaders will develop three things: a new interest in problems, a distrust of the opportunity word and an even deeper respect of how you use your talent.