The Phoenix Encounter Method For Leaders

“All businesses sooner or later face the need to reconstruct their future,” explain the authors of the new book, The Phoenix Encounter Method. “They will need to destroy part or all of the incumbent business model in order to build their breakthrough, future-ready organization.”

Therefore, this book shares a new method of leadership thinking – the Phoenix Encounter – relevant to all organizations in today’s ever-changing environment. Readers will learn how to proactively bridge the gap between perceiving a threat and doing something about it.

Written by three INSEAD professors (Ian C. Woodward, V. “Paddy” Padmanabhan, Sameer Hasija) and Rum Charan, you’ll learn the steps needed to create a wider range of options to:

  • Defend your organization
  • Fortify its core business
  • Build specific renewal initiatives

The steps are grounded in transformation that includes these three elements:

The Phoenix Attitude: a set of mindsets, habits, and behaviors that allows a leader to embrace disruption as a path to organizational renewal.

Proactive Scanning: an intense and anticipatory curiosity that is always on the lookout for new ideas, trends, insights, threats and opportunities. Scanning while learning to think and inquire new ways to better recognize future threats and opportunities. This combines scanning with perceptual acuity and strategic inquiry.

Completely Opposite Viewpoint Debates: a form of strategic conversation that requires leaders to engage with diverse viewpoints, sometimes unwelcome ideas, and a wider range of radically different options before setting a strategic agenda.

As you read the book, you’ll also benefit from the book’s specific exercises, checklists and reflection questions to challenge your thinking and encourage growth and success. Be prepared to transform your attitude, mindset and habits to break against the status quo. The authors also ask that you hold an intense desire for renewal and change.

Phoenix Attitude Leaders are:

  • Dreamers and doers
  • Decisive with agility
  • Self-aware with humility
  • Confident to overcome fears and unleash change drivers
  • Courageous to bust through bias, blockers, and bureaucracy

This week, the authors shared these additional insights with me: 

Question: How can leaders embrace the Phoenix Attitude?  

Authors: By cultivating a set of personal attributes—mindsets, habits and behaviors—that allows them to embrace disruption as the pathway to renewal and transformation. Practicing the Phoenix Attitude enables leaders over time to see, think, and act very differently from the ways they were before. 

Our field research shows that 80% of executives fall into one or more of the following four segments of strategic leadership thinking: the complacent, the arrogant, the cautious and the overwhelmed. These types find handling or imagining disruption very difficult because they are stuck in the old legacy traps of thinking and action that were encouraged and rewarded in their organizations. The unfortunate reality for these leaders is that they need to turn their mindsets and behaviors away from confirmation seeking and towards contradiction seeking.  

This is the hallmark of the fifth category of leaders we have seen in our research whom we call the dreamers and the doers. They are neither overzealous imagineers nor obsessive micromanagers. They are willing to envision a future where change is a constant and they know they don’t have all the answers. They are explorers and navigators who are forward thinking, find uncertainty stimulating and outside viewpoints exciting.  These are the leaders with the Phoenix Attitude. 

Question: What are the new rules for succeeding in today’s unpredictable world of business? 

Authors: Many of the new rules for succeeding in today’s fast-paced, unpredictable world of business are captured in the frameworks and tools of the Phoenix Encounter Method: the completely opposite viewpoints debate; proactive scanning, radical ideation, separation imperative, combinatorial innovation, embedding and dreamer-and-doer leadership.   

While the book takes readers through all of these, we would like to highlight the importance of the “Completely Opposite Viewpoints Debate”. It is about orchestrating a new kind of strategic debate that starts with a very simple but extremely uncomfortable question, “what could somebody, somewhere in the world do to put together what it would take to kill our business.” 

As Shigetaka Komori, CEO Fujifilm who took it to all-time highs in 2020 unlike its perennial rival Kodak who filed for bankruptcy, observed, “If the goal was simple survival, many things could be done...but I wanted Fujifilm to be a leading player in the 21st century”. His words when he assumed the CEO job in 2000 to his staff was, “In our present situation, we are Toyota if cars were to disappear. We have no choice but to confront it, and confront it head on.” Or as Jeff Bezos directed Steve Kessel (then head of its traditional media business - books, music, DVDs), “Your job is to kill your own business. I want you to proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job.” In short, one of the essential new rules is to get people with diverse viewpoints and ideas, to work through the Phoenix Encounter Method to generate a much wider set of options for future innovation, transformation, and change by imagining burning the business to the ground, and then conceiving ideas to rise Phoenix like from those ashes.  

Question: What’s the first step any leader could take to start applying your advice tomorrow? 

Authors: As a first step, we encourage leaders to step into a Completely Opposite Viewpoints Debate - just try to get a group together and experience an Encounter for themselves.  Get their team to experience Radical Ideation and scanning.  Confront the blinkers of the past; and reimagine a Phoenix-like future. 

In the book, we walk readers through what we call “the Phoenix Encounter Method journey.” To give interested readers a flavor of this we sketch below the steps in the journey of one of our Encounter participants, Amy Kreutzer, the CEO designate of a successful healthcare business.   

Amy had walked into the Phoenix Encounter with mixed feelings - what value will an exercise premised on destruction bring to me? Yet once she experienced working through the method and the debates with her team colleagues, she understood the urgency of transformation - herself and her organization. It made her redo her key strategic priorities, strengths, weaknesses and develop a totally new blueprint for renewal and transformation. 

Finally, the authors recommend that as a leader you have to consciously work to create an environment, structure, and systems where Doers and Dreamers can coexist and leverage one another’s talents and complements.

Thank you to the book’s publisher for sending me an advance copy of the book.


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