November 18, 2013
Drucker Forum

The TED of all Leadership Management Conferences – A Review of the Drucker Forum 2013

gpdflogoOnce in a while, you get inspired by events in your life that seem to be a precursor to real societal change. A hopeful change. A needed change. An evolutionary change.

The Drucker Forum 2013 edition that was recently held in Vienna, Austria –14 and 15, November — was one of those moments for me.

Over the course of two action packed days and nights, I left feeling not only inspired but personally validated — we might even suggest vindicated — that there is sufficient wind in our change sails to affect the desperately needed improvements in leadership and management practices that engulf our organizations across the globe.

Think of the following words as but a snapshot of the intellectual neurons that fired throughout the glorious Federation of Austrian Industries building that housed the event in central Vienna.

gpdfcoverThe conference theme was entitled “Managing Complexity” yet I don’t think it did justice to the presentations, banter and discussions that transpired. It might have been coined “Inspiring a Sense of Purpose”. We can thank Charles Handy for that. He helped kick off the conference with a cutting observation that set the tone for almost all interactions thereafter. He remarked early on in his keynote, “People, profit and passion. They’re all important but so too is the order.” (And he wasn’t referring to profit being number one) Needless to say, he had me at hello. He also made a sharp observation about helicopter parenting suggesting it doesn’t work at home, so don’t expect it to work in the organization. It inhibits trust and the center will ultimately fight back. Not only did he accept a copy of Flat Army from me, he signed a copy of his book Beyond Certainty for me as well. “Purpose before profit,” as Handy told us, is akin to my own personal mantra of “we’re not here to see through each other; we’re here to see each other through.”

What an absolute thrill for someone like me to be inspired, yet again, by this Thinkers 50 Hall of Fame member. You shouldn’t be surprised then that the word “purpose” was recanted over and over again during the conference. It also had personal relevance to me as the follow-up book to Flat Army (It’s Work Not Jail) contains considerable weight towards the concept of a ‘career with purpose’. In the end, I gave Charles a big hug on behalf of civilization. I believe he used the word “nutter” to describe me.

johnhagelAnother highlight was finally getting to meet John Hagel and to hear him rip into the inane way we treat organizational culture and workplace design. I’ve been an admirer of his groundbreaking work for years — read anything he and/or his Deloitte Center for the Edge colleagues have written — so to shake his hand was a bit like my Dad meeting John Lennon. To hear him provocatively cut through the malaise that is today’s organization in his 15 minute soliloquy, channeling the audience to remember “organizational complexity isn’t going away, in fact it’s increasing in a linear world full of non-linear needs and actions” was sublime. John further argued that our organizations are institutions, made for the purpose of institutional innovation not modern-day innovation and that they operate today (as they have done for decades) as models of uber efficiency. He doesn’t believe there is room for innovation in today’s organizational model — no room for tinkering he says — thus we need to redesign the work environment to create what he calls “scalable learning”.

John summoned inspiration from Bill Joy who once said, “No matter how many smart people in your organization, there are a lot more outside of it.” If only 11% of employees are passionate about their work, ‘scalable learning’ can instill this sense of passion to drive innovation and creativity. It can drive risk taking. He wants us to shift from scalable institutional efficiency to scalable learning. In other words, the reprehensible way in which organizations are currently designed (and I argue leadership is leading) exacerbates this innovation malaise. The current design of the organization, therefore, is causing an unnatural complexity in an age that needs stimulation and simplicity. John stuck around the entire conference as well, taking in all of the sessions proving he is a genuine lifelong scalable learner and not some hoity toity American strategist.

tammyericksonTammy Erickson offered a sage piece of advice when she said, “So much of what we do today, what we learn, is based on discovery.” She went on to suggest leaders should help employees “build networks, providing a paradigm for questioning” and “to get people out of the classroom” further advocating that leaders should be providing time and guidance to let everyone connect and to network. It gave credence to the earlier points brought up by Handy and Hagel. I gave Tammy a copy of Flat Army letting her know employee engagement at TELUS now sat at 83%, up considerably from the time we brought her in to speak to TELUS leaders in 2009. Needless to say she was delighted to know of the improvement. I mentioned to her the talk reminded me of Chapter 7 — The Participative Leader Framework — where leaders must demonstrate CARE (continuous, authentic, reciprocal and educating) in an aim to build networks and knowledge. She smiled and said she looked forward to reviewing the book. A for awesome.

A couple of other talks stood out for me as well, although that may be as a result of my Canadian passport. There’s nothing wrong with national nepotism when one is glowingly referring and referring to Roger Martin and Don Tapscott (numbers 3 and 4 on the 2013 version of the Thinkers 50 list) while being 8000 kilometers from home. After all, Canada is the reigning Gold Medal Olympic Champion for both women’s and men’s ice hockey and we’re slowly getting better at demonstrating pride in a more public way. Congratulations Roger and Don on your ranking.

rogermartinRoger’s take on complexity was spot on. He doesn’t believe the world is getting more complex, per se, rather our organizations are simply ill-equipped to handle the transformation away from deep-rooted silos. He called our somewhat pervasive organizational system of fiefdoms as “inter-domain complexity.” It’s this siloed nature of working and operating that is causing the complexity in the first place. He wants us to push for a meta-domain; the integration of knowledge across all domains thus removing the inhibitors of what I personally call ‘organizational stovepipes’. His aspiration is for future leaders to have the ability to be integrative thinkers and that it actually begins in academic circles. It reminded me of my TEDxTalk from a few years ago when I had the audience chanting, “tear down these walls”. Needless to say I was smitten by his overarching thesis.

Roger’s Toronto neighbour — the digital futurist and author of what seems like 100 books, Don Tapscott — took a slightly different approach to complexity. He believes complexity is reduced when multi-stakeholder networks are increased and improved upon. Don coins this “Global Solution Networks”. There are ten different types which include:

  • dontapscottKnowledge Networks (Wikipedia, TED Talks, Galaxy Zoo)
  • Operational Delivery Networks (Kiva)
  • Policy Networks (International Competition Network)
  • Advocacy Networks (Avaaz, Kony, Invisible Children)
  • Watchdog Networks (Sunlight Foundation)
  • Platforms (Ushahidi, Sojo)
  • Global Standards Networks (W3C, Global Footprint Network)
  • Governance Networks (ICANN)
  • Network Institutions (WEF)
  • Diasporas (

Concluding with video footage of starling birds filmed in England — who self form a vast ever-changing network when in the air to protect themselves from predators and the elements — Don emphasized that as we have shifted from feudalism to the printing press to capitalism to the internet to the age of networked intelligence, we can seek out less complex organizations through the power of the Don defined “Global Solution Networks”. He concluded with an absolutely brilliant anecdote, “The future is not something to be predicted. It is something to be achieved.”

WartzmanPHOTO2The final session of the Forum was entitled “What Would Drucker Say Now?”. To be frank, while reviewing the agenda in detail on the airplane odyssey between Vancouver and Vienna I thought this might be some strange form of worship with Drucker appearing as a shimmering larger than life sized hologram as audience members and panelists paid homage with chants in unison of “let’s increase the productivity of knowledge work and the knowledge workers”. Thankfully, I was proven wrong. The panel consisted of Rick Wartzman (of the California-based Drucker Institute) and Steve Denning (Washington-based author and Forbes columnist extraordinaire), moderated by Pierre Hessler (the Forum’s chair delegate and senior leader at Cap Gemini). Rick reminded us that Drucker felt the top-down structures in organizations would eventually perish in favour of self-forming teams. Drucker suggested this in … wait for it … 1954. For those paying attention and able to perform rudimentary math, that’s almost 60 years ago begging the question from yours truly, ‘what the hell happened?” Rick later amused the audience by regaling us of the answer Drucker provided a student who asked what it would take to become a better manager to which Drucker replied, “play violin”. Thank God my children are already on the right path.

stevedenningLeave it to Steve Denning though to bring home the underlying subliminal theme to the conference. Steve recalled it was Drucker in 1973 who said “if an organization’s mission is to target profit and not purpose, things will definitively end badly.” The purpose of the organization is to provide purpose for its employees; to provide value for the very people who inhabit the walls of its organizational mission. My only regret is I didn’t get the chance to shake Steve’s hand afterward.

Overall, the 5th Annual Drucker Forum was a wonderful gallop through brain candyland for me. My synapses were constantly firing whether through the affirmation of my way of organizational leadership thinking or through the growth of new ideas and knowledge. This review only skims the surface of speakers, discussions and ideas. The combination of academics, practitioners, authors and rock stars permitted the sessions to be highly relevant for a cerebral Canadian like me. No one keynote was more than 20 minutes, which further fuelled the amount of content that was at the ready. Audience participation through Q&A was prevalent across all sessions. The gala dinner on Thursday night was world-class and I had the fantastic good fortune of sitting next to Thierry Grange of the Grenoble School of Management where he and I gabbed about the state of the world for 60 minutes straight. (Apologies to those sitting next to us)

The networking time was superb, giving ample chance for conference attendees to mix and mingle. I had the chance to not only meet and chat with the likes of Lynda Gratton, Julia Kirby and David Hurst — who I had never met before — it gave me a chance to meet Twitterati folks like Kenneth Mikkelsen and Stelio Versera where our previous relationship respectively had solely been through 140 characters at a time.Richard_Straub_10

My hat is tipped to Drucker Forum chef de mission Richard Straub. He and the entire organizing team did a remarkable job. In 2013 I participated in over 30 separate conference and learning related events and none can match the vibe, talent and knowledge gain that transpired in Vienna. I’ll coin it “the TED of all leadership management conferences”.

See you next year.


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