People + Strategy Journal

Winter 2021


People + Strategy posed a question: Who led the transformation of your organization: the C-suite or COVID-19?

By Laura Morgan Roberts, Barry O’Neill, Niko Canner and Tami Rosen

​Dropping Old Models to Do Better 

laura morgan robertsLaura Morgan Roberts, Ph.D., is the Co-Founder and CEO of The Alignment Quest Enterprise, LLC, and a Professor of Practice at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. She can be reached at

In times of disruption, leaders push their organizations to adapt, shift and get up to speed at breakneck pace. This means pursuing new learning paths to gain competencies and expertise required to address the increasing demands of stakeholders—market, community, consumers, environment, technology and of course, employees. But does this enthusiastic drive toward hyper-learning overlook the need to first pause, critically reflect and unlearn some past practices that haven’t or won’t serve your interests at present or in the future?  

Now, more than ever, senior executives, and especially talent, HR and learning leads, must promote transformational learning. In the words of Jack Mezirow, this is the process of transforming “…problematic frames of reference—sets of fixed assumptions and expertise (habits of mind, meaning perspectives, mindsets)—to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflecting and emotionally able to change.”1 Drawing from Mezirow’s framework, the first stage in transformational learning is a disorienting dilemma, which contextual events and interactions cause us to pause and reexamine our assumptions regarding the ways things can, should and do work in our organizations and worlds. Surely, confronting the wicked problems of a global pandemic and racial injustice poses a series of disorienting dilemmas for how to best engage, support, develop, equip, protect and inspire employees.  

Yet, as our contributors remind us, this is a prime opportunity to phase out (or abandon altogether) the routines and systems that undermine agility, inclusion and sustainability. As an example, organizational theorist Karl Weick’s classic case study of the Mann Gulch disaster revealed that the firefighters who survived this travesty were those who literally dropped their tools, doing the opposite of what you’d have expected them to do. Metaphorically, this moment in history will require many of us to do the same. In the words of the literary genius Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” 

1 Mezirow, J. (2003). Transformative Learning as Discourse. Journal of Transformative Education, 1(1), 58–63.

People + Strategy posed a question to practitioners and researchers. Here are their responses to:
Who led the transformation of your organization: the C-suite or COVID-19?

The Entrepreneurial Spirit of the New Normal

style=Barry O’Neill is Partner at Value Create Inc. and Chairman of Touch Press. He can be reached through LinkedIn.

At the start of 2020, having exited my previous games venture of 10+ years, I found myself taking some time out in Japan, thinking about the next big thing, thinking about getting back on the entrepreneurial grind. Cue COVID-19. Prior to that, I’d been in constant motion since at least 1999, clocking as much as a half million kilometers a year. Motion equaled productivity. That I could have breakfast in Tokyo, lunch in Shanghai, and dinner in New York was not a marvel, just a particularly productive day. 

A proposition was put to me before I returned to Europe: Could I help a company embrace the entrepreneurial spirit?

Entrepreneurs make lousy employees. I’d learned this twice prior in ill-conceived “intrapreneur” positions, both of which had ended in acrimony, chaos and unemployment/renewed entrepreneurship.

Theoretically, intrapreneurship makes a lot of sense for corporations and ambitious employees. The corporation gets the benefit of the entrepreneurial spirit, drive and disruption. The intrapreneur gets a low-risk shot at building a disruptive business, without the headaches of fundraising. Executed well, intrapreneurship should have the dynamic and drive of a startup, paired with the deep pockets of a corporation. Except, more often the result is the bureaucracy of a corporation and the skinny pockets of a startup. 

Entrepreneurship is a creative process embarked upon to by clueless, fearless individuals—a process of alchemy, artistry and resourcefulness. Success is ultimately achieved via countless micro-failures and A/B tests. My favorite quote about entrepreneurship, is not about entrepreneurship at all, but from Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe and Everything, “There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”

In time with the tiniest, slimmest chance that an entrepreneur flies and creates a business that is wildly successful, one that outlasts him or her; that corporation will eventually turn into a slow, process driven behemoth, not unlike the one that you are possibly employed by right now.

For all the desire to be dynamic, lean and startup-like, such corporations generally cannot abandon or forgo systems, processes and internal rules. It’s the lack of these constraints that enable startups to “move fast and break things,” and to achieve their creative best.

An intrapreneur quickly becomes disillusioned and recalcitrant, mired in the processes and legacies of the parent company, which in turn, becomes frustrated with the intrapreneur’s inability to deliver on their pitch. Worst case, it’s a slow death, the corporate equivalent of a zombie start-up. An unmotivated, bored intrapreneur, but one drawing enough comfort from a corporate salary to not bother to call it a day and move on. A corporation afraid to lose face and back out of a transformative initiative, but unwilling to double down and provide the freedom and resources for success. It ends in tears, but that’s quickly forgotten by reorganization time, when some bright spark thinks, “What if create an internal start-up?” Rinse and repeat.

“Who led the digital transformation of your company? CEO, CTO or COVID-19?” COVID-19 has presented an opportunity for intrapreneurial disruption, and smart corporations are starting to understand this. Internal disruption is a necessity even, with traditional value chains untethered, with instant adoption of new technologies and once unassailable business models assailed. Intrapreneurs, to be successful, need to have a carte blanche for chaos and creativity. They will budget, plan, hire and fire out of process. They will look for forgiveness, not permission. Actually, they probably won’t look for forgiveness at all.

But internal disruption can be a controlled explosion, set up for success and learning from the outset. Entrepreneurs do have limits (fundraising constraints, runway, bandwidth) and will reasonably expect some such limits in an intrapreneurial role. Set these, but do not force an intrapreneur to operate withing existing frameworks and processes, just because that’s the way things are done. Would your own corporation’s founder have been a success in such an environment?

I was asked to describe what I had to unlearn to manage business, get through the fog and cope with the new normal. I didn’t have to unlearn anything other than my internal entrepreneur’s impatience and the false notion that momentum equals progress. I learned that my assets were the journeys of entrepreneurship—both the creativity and the grind. These were things I just took for granted, learnings usually discarded in the contrails as I’d crisscrossed oceans and continents chasing a deal or an exit. I had to embrace the value of the journey, not the destination. This was my personal pivot.

My realization was that at a time of massive societal and economic change, this experience was gold, and could be applied with clients, to help them understand the chaos of the entrepreneur.

Every company needs to be a start-up now. Grinding away through the bureaucratic, systems-driven operational norms of pre-pandemic days, hoping things get back to normal “after the pandemic” is an invitation for failure. The world has changed, and the new normal won’t ever look like the old one did. Throw caution (and legacy) to the wind and take the chance, while you have it.

A Manifesto for Rebuilding

Niko Canner

Niko Canner is founder and CEO of Incandescent. He can be reached at

Tami Rosen is a senior HR executive that has led people teams at Fortune 100 companies as well as cutting-edge start-ups. She can be reached at

COVID-19 has showed us our fragility and called into question our assumptions. In distancing us, it has reminded us of the fundamental importance of human connections. 
As we have come to terms with our losses and confronted our fears, this time has reminded us that organizations are tools for human flourishing. This is the standard to which CHROs have the opportunity to elevate their enterprises during this time of rebuilding. Tami Rosen

Amidst the tactical fog of questions none of us can answer—such as the speed with which the pandemic will be brought under control and its lasting social and economic effects—we can steer by a constellation of six imperatives for innovation. 

  1. How can we build organizations in which leaders at all levels commit to big goals, knowing they have the safety and support to reach beyond their current grasp?
  2. How can we build organizations in which everyone experiences themselves as an essential worker, with the agency to make a positive, visible difference in the organization’s performance?
  3. How can we see beyond limiting assumptions about talent, unlocking the value of diversity and breaking through the barriers that come between talent and opportunity?
  4. How can we, in a world in which digital platforms create the universal university, harness the tools of learning to accelerate the rate of human growth?
  5. How can we bring as much rigor to relationship design as we do to product design—achieving breakthroughs in the quality of how people team and creating vibrant teams in a distributed environment?
  6. How can we focus as systematically on promoting human flourishing as we have on allocating compensation—building organizations that create the flexibility and the support to help people fulfill their aspirations across the multiple domains of their lives as they contribute to advancing the goals of the enterprise?
To steer by these stars requires unlearning a set of limiting beliefs. Atlassian, for instance, has always had at its core unleashing the potential of every team. Baked into the culture had been an assumption regarding the centrality of face-to-face collaboration. Experiencing an impressive surge of collaboration and inventiveness during COVID-19 turned that assumption into a hypothesis—and then revealed the hypothesis not to be true.

Uncovering that a belief is limiting creates the temptation simply to adopt the opposite belief. A tech company like Atlassian might simply have replaced the commitment to face-to-face, office-driven collaboration with the decision to adopt a distributed model. Perhaps that would have been an upgrade, but it would replace one partial truth with another. 

Yes, it is powerful to embrace the flexibility of a model that seeks talent everywhere, and that gives team members autonomy to work when and where they perform best. But those shifts are necessary and not sufficient. Atlassian invested in offices because the power of proximity achieved something real and important—feeding a personal, warm, close culture that celebrates “play as a team” as one of five core values. The leap Atlassian needed to make in order to shape what came to be called TEAM Anywhere—the stock ticker TEAM expressing Atlassian’s mission—was to recognize that along with the choice to adopt a distributed talent model came the imperative to reimagine teamwork. That journey is ongoing, and will require the creativity of thousands of people, sustained over months and years to come. Atlassian has always been a company that applies innovation to the tools and practices of how people work; now this strength needs to be unleashed in the context of distributed work.

Powerful change happens when we look beyond tactics, commit to a higher-level idea and then pursue that idea beyond the safety of what we know. This demands from HR leaders a shift from the mindset of applying proven best practices and mitigating risk to the mindset of experimentation and innovation.

Any senior HR leader has experienced counseling an up-and-comer who feels confronted with impossible demands. For instance, how can I deliver these stretch numbers and empower my team and be an enterprise leader? As developers of talent, we try to help this leader see how the “all-at-once-ness” that feels so overwhelming actually opens the door to a new way of seeing their role, enabling them to handle greater complexity and achieve far more. We build the leader’s courage to operate in a new way, unlearning habits that helped them reach a certain level, but now hold them back. 

In this perilous and important time, we as a profession have reached the same kind of watershed: we must channel the wisdom and confidence that we have each used to guide so many others, commit to what the world needs from us and leap.