Author Bob Johansen: “I would love to fuel a movement toward full-spectrum thinking, to help people seek clarity by thinking beyond the boxes and categories”

I would love to fuel a movement toward full-spectrum thinking, to help people seek clarity by thinking beyond the boxes and categories that we so often use to make sense out of life and living. Full-spectrum thinking helps us understand the future in a tangible and energetic way. As part of my interview series on […]

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I would love to fuel a movement toward full-spectrum thinking, to help people seek clarity by thinking beyond the boxes and categories that we so often use to make sense out of life and living. Full-spectrum thinking helps us understand the future in a tangible and energetic way.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Johansen.

Bob is the author or co-author of twelve books, including a trilogy of books to explore the mindset, skills, and literacies that leaders will need to thrive in the next decade. His new book is called Full-Spectrum Thinking.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

When I was in graduate school, I was a research assistant for a conference on religion and the future. The top futurists from around the world were invited and I literally got to carry their bags and pick them up from the airport. I said to myself: “That’s what I want to do,” and roughly five years later I was on my way to Institute for the Future in what would come to be called Silicon Valley.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

In 2004, I got to spend an afternoon with Peter Drucker in his 94th year, about a year before he died in 2005. I was with AG Lafley, then the CEO of Procter & Gamble, to talk with the famous management guru about the future of work and the human resources function. I felt fortunate to have been invited and impressed by the fact that the CEO of one of the world’s best companies had flown across the country in his corporate jet to spend the afternoon with this remarkable 94-year-old.

He told us that, for the first half of your life, you should try many different kinds of work and make it a point to work with many different kinds of people — since you won’t yet know who you are or what you want to become. Try out a spectrum of possibilities, he taught us.

For the second half of life, Drucker said you should only work on things you are passionate about and only work with people with whom you love to work. Focus is good, he said, but don’t focus too early. Categories of work aren’t necessarily bad unless they lock you into a categorical cage.

By first “half of life,” since he was approaching 100 years of age at the time and still thinking strong, I took him to mean about 50 years. Now, more than 20 years later, I realize that Peter Drucker was encouraging us to have a full-spectrum mindset about work and life — especially at key milestones

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

Finding the time to write. I overcame it by looking for double-counts: writing a book and doing something else. For example, I work at a think tank so I combined writing research reports with writing books. When our kids were young and I was a little league coach, I wrote stories about little league baseball that eventually became stories in one of my books. My advice: look for double counts.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I had just finished my PhD and was teaching in a sociology department at a small liberal arts college when my first professional paper was accepted by the International Conference on Computer Communications. I had only applied because I had misunderstood the title of the conference.

My paper focused on people communicating with people through computer networks. The conference was about computers communicating with other computers.

Because of my lucky misunderstanding, I ended up at what turned out to be a historic gathering at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC where what we know as “The internet” today was introduced publicly. The panel on which I spoke was definitely suggesting that the ARPANET be used for things it was not intended to do. Time has shown that people communicating with people was even more important than the original purpose of computers communicating with computers.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’ve just finished a new book called Full-Spectrum Thinking: the ability to seek clarity across gradients of possibility — while resisting the temptations of certainty. In crisis times like we’re in today, our brains quest for certainty, but we need clarity. There is very little that is certain during a crisis. The future will reward clarity but punish certainty. Certainty is just too brittle to survive in a constantly-changing world that requires constant adaptation.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

We did a custom forecast for the CEO of Procter & Gamble just at the time that biotech was beginning to emerge. In our forecast, we highlighted how — looking ten years ahead — biotech would disrupt P&G’s businesses, especially hair care and detergents. When I presented the forecast to the top twelve leaders at P&G, the CEO looked around the room and asked who among the executives would have enough knowledge about biotech to make good business decisions. Nobody raised their hand.

Provoked by our forecast, P&G created a biotech reverse mentoring program that paired the top twelve executives with twelve young PhD biotech scientists. Each pair met once a month for a year and, after that year, P&G hired a new Chief Technology Officer from the outside (very unusual in those days) and developed a biotech strategy. Foresight to Insight to Action.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Develop your clarity, but moderate your certainty. Clarity means being very clear about the direction you want to go, but very flexible about how you will get there.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Think of yourself first as a writer, then everything else in your professional life.
  2. Expect to do many, many drafts of whatever you write. I don’t keep track of how many drafts I go through, but I estimate that over the twelve books I’ve written, every sentence has gone through at least five drafts and many sentences have gone through fifteen drafts.
  3. To have the stamina to write a book, you need to wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it. Keep a bedside journal and write immediately after you wake up.
  4. Combine writing and speaking whenever you can. Drafting key concepts in talks and PowerPoint is very useful before you actually write them. I can usually give a good speech about a new idea before I can write it out. Writing it out is much harder.
  5. Alternate writing between top-down and bottom-up. I like to start with the book title and outline, but I also write out all the ideas that come to me and collect them in no particular order. Then, as I’m writing, I create a cuttings section for sentences and words that don’t fit. Often, later in the writing process, those cuttings do fit.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Keeping a personal journal. Writing is a way of learning and — when it works — a form of channeling. I have benefitted greatly from regular journaling, even though I’m not nearly as disciplined as I would like.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

The writings of Joseph Campbell on mythology and world religions have always inspired me. Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One reminds me that there are still big differences among us. Fiction inspires me, beginning from Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy and more recently Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I also love to laugh through any story by Kurt Vonnegut. BJ Fogg’s new book Tiny Habits reminds us all about the importance of daily habits over time.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to fuel a movement toward full-spectrum thinking, to help people seek clarity by thinking beyond the boxes and categories that we so often use to make sense out of life and living. Full-spectrum thinking helps us understand the future in a tangible and energetic way.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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