World Web Forum 2017

The end of the alpha male

Probably the greatest challenge in times of transformation is not new technologies but instead old, encrusted ways in which people think: By their very nature, they tend to see change as a threat rather than an opportunity. Although you can’t simply order people to adopt a new way of thinking, a cultural shift will achieve the same result. Managers should adopt an exemplary function here.

Text: Michael Lieberherr,

On the first day of the World Web Forum 2017, the speakers presented the soft factors essential to a successful transformation before an audience of over 1000 visitors. With a C-level contingent of almost 90 percent, this helpful advice fell on fertile ground. So model followed model. Long-standing visitors to the Forum could not help noticing that the event has developed into a leadership circle with topics conforming to established practice. Although the World Web Forum is becoming ever more extensive and diverse in scope, it’s also losing its slightly subversive, avant-garde edge. Perhaps the reason for this is the fact that digitisation has finally made it onto the agenda discussed in management boardrooms.

Lazy and narcissistic

It’s clear to behavioural psychologist Herminia Ibarra von Insead why we fail to adapt to new circumstances: When it comes to their networks, “humans are usually lazy and narcissistic”. All too often, people don’t want to step outside their comfort zones, preferring instead to keep like-minded company. Yet the quality of a network cannot be measured in terms of size but rather its ability to incorporate new ideas. Greater diversity leads to better results. A closed network has a similar effect to the filter bubble in a search engine. Another factor subverting individual adaptiveness: Whoever has been preoccupied with the same thing for too long runs the risk of falling into a competence trap. Because the better you are at your job, the more you potentially have to lose by learning something new. By and large, it’s our strengths rather than our weaknesses that stand in the way of transformation.

That humans remain an archaic organism despite digitisation is demonstrated by Mariann Goodwell of The Burning Man. Thousands of people retreat to the desert of Nevada for a week where they live out the utopia of an equal society free of conservative conventions. Together they set about building a common goal: a wooden sculpture several metres in height that is set ablaze at the end. She too emphasises how soft factors such as a sense of belonging and working together for a common goal come into play here. The non-profit organisation meanwhile achieves turnover of 40 million dollars. What on earth would the hippie movement of the late sixties say to that?

World Web Forum in flux

Over 1000 visitors congregated at this year’s World Web Forum in Zurich. As a first, it was held at the Stage One in Oerlikon: Large, bright and with lounges offering ample scope. The edgy and subversive trends characterising previous years have been pushed onto the sidelines. Evolution or pressure to conform? Today almost 90 percent of participants are representatives of senior management levels. The Forum’s gentrification cannot be overlooked – the rebels, nerds and alternative-thinkers are increasingly giving way to individuals dressed in suits and ties.


1/6 Herminia Ibarra von Insead, Verhaltenspsychologin

2/6 Marian Goodell, The Burning Man

3/6 Jeff Eggers, langjähriger Berater von Barack Obama

4/6 Michael Wade, IMD Business School Lausanne

5/6 Ed Catmull, Mitbegründer von Pixar

6/6 Sir Tim Berners-Lee, geistiger Vater des World Wide Webs

1/6 Herminia Ibarra von Insead, Verhaltenspsychologin

Heroic leaders on a false mission

Jeff Eggers, ex-Navy Seal and long-standing advisor to Barack Obama, reflected on leadership and people’s tendency to follow strong, almost heroic leader figures in times of upheaval. Taking examples from his time spent actively as a Navy Seal, he illustrated why personal responsibility in teams counts for more than a hierarchical leadership structure. During an attack in Afghanistan, his commando unit nearly lost two soldiers – only the right decisions taken in a democratically led rescue team averted a disaster. The parallels to last year’s keynote speaker David Marquez are striking. A submarine commanding officer in the US Army – he too pleaded for more personal responsibility and control.  

Michael Wade of IMD Business School Lausanne sounded the same note. Nowadays, successful managers regard themselves more as coaches for responsible and independent members of staff. Today’s managers need to be modest and accept that others in the team know more than they do. They should also be able to change their opinions. Especially important: A good boss sets out a vision and shows the general direction to be taken. They leave planning the details up to their employees. They are also always willing to listen: Asking questions and listening to answers – the contrast to conventional management models could not be more apparent. A lot of work is needed at the top before employees adapt to the measures.

The fragility of ideas

Visitors expecting a perfect American pitch from Ed Catmull, one of Pixar’s founders, were disappointed. Nevertheless, he presented for everyone listening attentively probably the most convincing arguments behind the importance of culture. “The principle can be explained in four minutes – but it took four years before everyone understood”, states Catmull. He’s talking about the “fragility of ideas” and the need to protect them. People have to feel good about themselves so they can articulate their ideas. Pixar has established so-called “Brain Trusts”: Groups that value creative ideas in an unbiased environment without preconceptions. Catmull also argued the case for making mistakes. It’s notable that he does not follow the mainstream but instead draws a distinction: There are mistakes and there are mistakes. Those you need for the learning process – and those that are potentially dangerous and need to be avoided. Steve Jobs, a cofounder of Pixar, was a master of turning a defeat into a victory. By going against the accepted thought of the time, he became more emphatic over the course of his life and was able to win over people with the best storytelling. Empathy is one of those words many in a management role struggle to cope with.

Ed Catmull painted a vivid picture of the history behind the cultural transformation of Disney. After The Lion King, the company entered a barren phase devoid of blockbusters. Once Disney had taken over Pixar, they worked together on the culture, giving everyone involved the confidence that articulating your ideas is a good thing. As a result, Disney was able to tap into its old sources of success once again – with exactly the same people who had previously felt blocked for many years: “The talents are there, you simply have to let them blossom”, continues Catmull.

The intellectual father of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, impressively demonstrated what it means when employees can unleash their talents: His superiors had long lost track of what they were working on. The result: The invention of the WWW at CERN. Berners-Lee on his epoch-making invention: “I was driven by frustration in information management. I had to gather the data differently at each computer.” Hyperlinks were already available on CD-ROMs, why not transfer the same principle to networked computers? The principle is wonderfully simple. He soon encountered people enthusiastic for his idea all over the world. It was the spirit of collaboration beyond boundaries and borders that motivated everyone. Berners-Lee also confesses: “We were naive. We thought the world would become a better place through networking, that somehow people would understand one another better.” The Internet has led to some wonderful things – take Wikipedia for instance – but it also has its negative dark side. In the current development, the silos of closed platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn in particular run contrary to the idea of a free web as envisaged by the WWW founder.

In summary, it is apparent that wish and reality do not always coincide. For employees and managers alike, KPIs, clear targets and established processes represent simpler and more convenient orientation points than working on a corporate culture or you yourself. Yet the many examples illustrated by the speakers impressively demonstrate what potential can be unleashed in the right culture – especially in times of radical change. And culture is essentially a top-down phenomenon.

Experts live on Stage at Swisscom

Jeff Eggers, keynote speaker at the WWF, former Navy Seal and long-standing advisor to Barack Obama, opened the new series of events “Experts live on Stage" on the Swisscom Business Campus in Zurich. He pleaded for managers with emotional intelligence, who are modest and who frequently leave their teams to decide for themselves. Leaders with empathy could establish networks more effectively, allowing them to communicate better and ultimately shine as a source of inspiration.  

What did those attending think of the new series “Experts live on Stage" in an informal context?

Bettina Kurth, Swiss Life HR Manger Switzerland

“I’m going to take a lot of food for thought home with me. Jeff Egger’s speech shook me up, but in a positive way. It was a valuable opportunity to meet experts and participants interested in the same subjects as myself.”

Cornelia Albert, Zürich Versicherung, Project Manager

“I value the contact and dialogue with like-minded individuals. I’m going to take a number of things from the workshop: At certain points you need to apply positive feedback to organisations, at other points negative feedback is what’s required. I’ve learnt from Jeff Eggers that reorganisation is a sign that something prior to this has gone wrong."

Thomas Grolp, Walter Meier AG, Head of Intranet and Internet

"I was really impressed that even a luminary like Jeff Eggers describes how a leader does not have to be a hero, but should establish democratic structures in the team instead. I like the interactive format: The combination of speaker, workshop and subsequent discussion with the expert.”

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