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January 2014

PopTech's Andrew Zolli: How To Remain Resilient In Times of Constant Disruption

By Christopher Durso, Executive Editor
build health. What you see is that the systems that are resilient are in some part of them always building long-term healthy capacity. In a community or an organization, that might be entrepreneurial capacity or creative capacity. A really important form of capacity is trust — the ability of people to trust one another. Social capital and people having invested relationships in one another are forms of capacity.


The second cluster of activity is sensing emerging disruption. Now, not every disruption can be listened for in advance, by definition. But here we ask, how do we instrument a company, an organization, a community, an industry, a society to listen for signals of change? It begs all these questions: How and what is a sensor? What is a signal? Who does the sensing? Who does the listening? What do you do with a signal of impending change if you get one? There is a big, complicated set of processes that go on around listening for change.

The third area is about responding to disruption. Usually this is where the resilience narrative really picks up for people, because we typically frame resilience in terms of response. The most important thing to say about it is that a resilient response to a disruption is one that is typically very improvisational. The responses tend to be what we call “adhocratic,” not bureaucratic; they're adhocracies and not bureaucracies. In an adhocracy, it's sort of like the musical equivalent of jazz. There's a lot of improvisation. There's a lot of collaboration. There's not as much planning. There are a lot of building tools as you need them. Organizations that are very bureaucratic and that don't have the ability to pivot and don't have a lot of trust inside their organizations — those are the things that actually dampen a resilient response.

Then the last cluster is what we call learning and transformation. This is another long and slow process where you have to think to yourself, okay, how do we change the system in such a way that we're not as vulnerable to this particular disruption in the future? What is the way in which we might transform the system? Or what key lessons do you take from it?

There are feedback loops all among and between each of these four clusters. They all connect to each other. They all influence one another in a dynamic way. A resilient enterprise, a resilient person, a resilient community, a resilient industry does all four of those things all the time, at the same time.

Has PopTech experienced any significant upheaval or disruption over the last year or two?

One of the things that we've seen is the commodification of conventions. There just seem to be a huge, gigantic volume of them. And in general, amplified by the Internet and all kinds of other things, there are just more ways for people to connect. In my experience, there're a lot of “metooism.” The events, if you put your thumb over the logo or the particular industry segment, sometimes you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between them. There's been a kind of market saturation.

One of the things that's interesting about that is, how could it be the case that we have market saturation with commoditized products in the conventions space — while we have the rise of the Internet and high-quality video on demand and screen sharing and social media, and all of these other ways for people to spread ideas and to connect with each other? That's weird, right? You shouldn't see both things happening at the same time. You should see no Internet and lots of convening. Or you'd expect just to have the Internet and virtually no convening. How can you end up with both?

The answer, I think, is that the digital makes the analog more important, because people are being more productive when they're not together, and because our individual reach through those technologies expands so dramatically. What becomes important is face time. What becomes important is intimacy, the intimacy of real face-to-face connection.

One of the big macro trends in the world — and this really surprised me — is that today 30 percent of the U.S. labor force is what we call “contingent labor.” That means they're not really employed by the company they work for. They're on contract. They're per-malancers and freelancers. And that number is expected to rise potentially as high as 50 percent in the next couple of decades. That means half the labor force is basically on their own. They're working for a company, but their relationship is not one that's a deep relationship. We're seeing the rise of gig culture, project culture.

What's interesting is that people are more connected in certain ways to each other through digital technology. But their relationship between themselves and the companies they work for has fundamentally changed. My dad worked for 35 years for the same company, for the electric company in Massachusetts, while my career has been managed in 10-year increments. I did one thing for 10 years, I did another thing for 10 years, and have moved along through the world like that.

If you look at Milliennials, they're managing on like a three-year cycle, if they're lucky enough to be employed. They're not going into a field or a job or whatever with the view that they're necessarily going to be there for all that long. Staying might even be worse. Getting employed and then sticking around in that company could actually be detrimental to their careers, because they're trying to collect as many of these short-cycle experiences. What I think is fascinating is, that drives the need for more authentic, real connections for people. It drives the need for people to meet. So that's good for the meetings business.

It seems that if meetings and conferences are done well, they can engender resilience in a community or an industry or a profession — by helping people build relationships and foster emotional connections, and facilitating interactions that are somewhat adhocratic and improvisational.

I think you're exactly right. The thing is, the difference between doing it well and doing it poorly can sometimes be a very narrow one. Done poorly, not only do they not help, but they can actually hinder those processes.

I certainly think events and purposeful, meaningful gatherings are essential. When you're trying to get people to do work together and to be together, having moments where people can get celebrated and shine a bright, happy light on their work — it's enormously motivating for people. People will do amazing things not for money, but for genuine recognition and appreciation, for meaningful recognition and appreciation. That's essential to community resilience, without a question and without a doubt in my mind. But inauthentic stuff does just the opposite. It's the worst.

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