Preparing Cognitive Athletes to Tackle Disruption



Hello everyone. Thank you for being here today and joining our podcast, we're going to be exploring a topic of preparing cognitive athletes to tackle disruption. We are joined here today by Ade McCormack. Ade McCormack is a former technologist and project leader who today is focused on empowering organizations and individuals to thrive in the after-COVID age.

He is the founder of the Disruption Readiness Institute, which is a learning program to help people and organizations thrive in the digital age. Ade has worked with some of the world's best known brands and in over 40 countries. He has lectured on digital leadership at MIT Sloan School of Management, is the author of six books on digital and disruption, and wrote for The Financial Times on the theme of digital leadership for over a decade.

You know, just to tie it into PMI, for the past two years, PMI has been talking quite a bit about the gymnastic organization, and these organizations are those who are highly adaptive and innovative, that are best capable to survive disruptions. So that's what we're here to talk about today so we're going to explore that here with Ade McCormack. So welcome, Ade.


Delighted to be here, thank you, Joe.


So let's get started. Want to start by just baselining and creating an understanding around your concept of the cognitive athlete. By the way, I love that analogy. I love sports analogies and the athlete analogy in this case. Can you describe for our audience what do you mean by cognitive athlete?


Sure, sure. Well, I guess, the industrial era had us as, if you like, cogs in the machine. We were… our job was to turn up to work and enact the process as per the operations manual, and that approach is still quite alive in many organizations today. But for organizations to thrive in what is an increasingly unknowable future they're going to have to be very innovative and innovative very high velocity.

And as a result, they're going to need to call on their people in a way that they haven't before. No amount of technology can innovate per se, so we need humans in that respect. Now most of us were recruited for our lack of innovation, or lack of creativity, because if we attempted to do so in an industrial era organization, we'd have a stern conversation with HR.

However, if we're going to have a turn our workforce into innovators, we need to think in terms of their cognitive capabilities, as opposed to their ability to follow the manual. So I’ve come up with this idea of the cognitive athlete, and these are individuals who are highly motivated to do a good job because in the process of doing a good job, they are self actualized as humans and the natural consequence of this is that, you know, athletes need coaches so leaders then go on to become, if you like, cognitive coaches.


That’s a very interesting topic, or concept actually. You've talked here, you're talking about athletes and, you know, performance goals of athletes. We've all learned, you know, if the goals are too challenging the athletes may stretch their muscles, or they might burn out, right? Like it's just too hard to get to. And if the goals are not challenging enough, they may not be as prepared for the challenge, they may come up short. So, how should organizational leaders that are listening today, think about the implications of this reality with their teams?


Well, I think we're used to the idea or the notion that workers are going to be exploited fully by the… by the management. That's, you know, the industrial-era idea, or, you know, the galley slaves will get whipped too hard, to the point where they can't row anymore. In this, if you like, post-industrial model, the issue is the athlete doing too much, because they're so excited about discovering their true potential, but they actually the coach to rein them. And for the coach to rein them in the coach has to have a sufficient level of intimacy, if you like, with the athlete to recognize when there are signs, if you like, of over exertion.

And how do you get to this sort of level of intimacy? Well, of course, you need to build trust in the organization, trust between leaders, trust between their people as well. Because, you know, if, in many organizations, if the boss says, right, we're going to record how many keystrokes you've had today, the extent to which you've walked around, perhaps even your sleep patterns, many let’s say old-school people would regard that as an incursion into their privacy. Whereas if it was positioned in the context of performance optimization, and there was a, if you like, an environment of trust that I'm all for finding out what I need to do to self actualize and perform better as a human.


So that's interesting so, you know, measuring different things, sleep patterns. But yes, all that stuff actually comes to play right in terms of our ability to perform day to day. You've also used the words dichotomy of productivity, which you say is getting the most out of people, versus creativity, getting people to give their best thinking and capability. Why do you think some organizations, strongly value their productivity, and what forces might push these organizations to move more towards valuing creativity?


Sure, sure, I suppose, I mean, productivity is extremely important, you know. It's all about the output, the shipping, the getting things to market and so on, so we can't deny that. So it boils down to whether bosses want to get the best out of their people, or the most out of their people. Now, if you see people as simply expendable components that you can acquire from procurement or that extension of procurement that's perhaps called the HR function, then you don't really care about their well being, you're just simply focused in squeezing what you can out of them.

And of course you know the classic project-manager Gantt Chart approach whereby the individual is simply a resource to be exploited, and as we moved into a world where projects were becoming more agile… So you would have high-intensity projects, where the individual finishes that then moves on to another high-intensity project. And the second project manager doesn't really care about what the individual went through on previous projects, and that of course leads to burnout.


Indeed, so what do the organizations lose by not at least acknowledging this the difference between productivity and the creativity, and the value of such?


I guess if you're focused on just squeezing your people for maximum effect, then you are presiding over an industrial era organization, and your time is coming to an end anyway because industrial era your organizations are primarily focused on efficiency. And efficiency, and the factory model in general, requires a kind of, if you like, synthetic certainty in the macro environment.

You need to know that an investment in a factory is going to be justified by the demand for the goods in that factory being a sufficient duration to justify that demand. So, the factory model is no longer fit for purpose. So we're moving into this world now where innovation is everything. That's the differentiator in terms of, you know, attracting the attention of the market and keeping the attention of the market. So, it is all about creativity.

Creativity is the engine that keeps organizations in the infinite game, so to speak, and people are key to that.


We found that in PMIs research, and what we tell the marketplace and what we've heard from organizations, is that an innovative mindset is a key component about the power skills that you need to really execute successful projects. So it's very consistent what we see on our end.

Certainly as someone who's come up from the project world, and the technology field, you've mentioned that PMs of the future should think of themselves as cognitive coaches. What does it really mean to be a cognitive coach?


Well, I guess it means to think of the people in your team as humans who have a life beyond the project, so to speak. So the things that might be going on in their wider lives for example, might be having a negative impact on their cognitive capacity.

We all have a certain amount of cognitive bandwidth, so to speak, but if a lot of that bandwidth is being consumed in having to travel across town for two or three or four hours a day because, you know, you have to be in the office at a certain time. Or the individual is having trouble at home, perhaps an elderly relative is not well. If the project manager simply sees the individual as a resource and doesn't take into account the wider factors bearing down on the individual, then they're going to see that team members become more and more unproductive, so to speak.

So to become a cognitive coach, so to speak, is fundamentally to care about the people in your team.


It takes more time to do that, right? It's not just the factory approach as you mentioned, you really need to invest time and energy to build the trust, in order to be able to understand what's going on around individuals on the team and to care for them to get the most out of them and then therefore for the project itself.

So, you know Center Stage has featured guests like Larry Prusak, and Larry was keen on saying that organizational knowledge is an asset, you know, key asset. And it's actually least recognized and managed within organizations in his experience. You also talk about the need for organizations to shift from a focus on profit to more of a focus on growing the assets themselves, particularly the digital and knowledge capital assets. What are the implications of this shift?


Well, I guess, focusing on profits is very much like failing the famous Stanford marshmallow test. You want it now. You're not prepared to wait for the second marshmallow, so to speak.

Building assets, if you like, enables you to build a buffer against the unknowable future. Focusing on assets allows you to take more risks and ultimately to acquire and retain the best people. So I'm very much in favor of encouraging organizations to focus on asset growth, and on asset management in general. The money will flow from those assets.

Focusing on profits keeps you in a short-term mindset. And the problem with that is that, of course, the main exchanges around the world encourage us to focus on the next quarter, the next half year, and so on. And of course, what chief executive is going to invest heavily today in order to make his or her successor look good in the future?

So, there's a bit of rewiring to be done at all levels. But what we need to do is think in terms of assets because assets keep you in the game.


Let me ask you what your feelings are on actually the measurement of these assets, right? You mentioned… in the question itself I asked about digital or knowledge capital, very difficult to measure. Do you have anything to say about that, because the ability to measure will really help get to the outcome that you're talking about


Sure, it is absolutely very difficult to measure. And to some extent that's probably why human capital management, which kind of peaked in the 90s, went fast, because it didn't move away from the concept stage. But at some point we need to get these intangible assets onto the balance sheets, so we do need to come up with some sort of measuring mechanism.

The best I've come up with is to not so much measure the knowledge that you have, or the cognitive capital that you have, but the quality of the processes associated with those assets.

That's much more tangible. There of course isn't an international standard to do that. But I think that is a way of establishing an organization's, at least its tendency towards successful human capital management, or data capital management.


So let's talk about failure and learning as it relates to building these digital assets and knowledge assets. You've researched the amount of money tech companies invest in projects that fail in their quest to find that next big thing. So I have some questions around this concept of failure and learning. First, what is failure velocity, and how does an organization determine, you know, what the right level of failure velocity is for them?


Well I think the first thing to consider is that the industrial-era factory model is based on efficiency, and failure is a dirty word. So that's one of the big problems that we have with many organizations is that they are very, very uncomfortable with the notion of failure. Things like Lean, Six Sigma, quality circles, Business Process Engineering, etc., all attest to that.

But what the big tech players are doing is they are constantly experimenting and discovering what the market wants, how the market responds to what it's offering, and, you know, that fundamentally starts off with the minimum viable product. But companies like Amazon are continuously testing, you know, their fulfillment centers have to optimize them. Facebook has thousands of experiments going at any given time, constantly testing, you know, different ways of delivering things to people, and so on.

So, there's a strong correlation between innovation and failure. So the question is how much are you failing and I think that the fundamental question particularly for old-school organizations is, are they failing fast enough, you know? Is their failure velocity high enough for the new way of working, so to speak. Organizations that don't have any experiments on the go, that have no record of failing - and by failing I fundamentally mean learning - that would be a sell signal to me.


So let me ask you then, the context of project management. Can you talk about the tension between this failure velocity and traditional project management, and how do you see project management evolving to embrace failure as part of the projects?


It's a really tricky one because generally the project manager is assigned some sort of budget at the start of the project. And therefore, it's in his or her interest to stay within that, and that's not going to be possible if there's a kind of casual failure approach/philosophy, within the group. And this is probably stemmed a lot from the transition from time and materials-based projects to fixed-price projects where the client or the buyer wants to minimize the downside in terms of commissioning this project.

What I would recommend, in effect, is that you avoid, and this is counterintuitive, you avoid winning mega-ticket projects or you avoid taking on such projects. Or if you do, you make sure that they are very, very thinly sliced, so that you can ship on a very, very regular basis and you can deviate in whatever direction the client or the market requires you to do so. Locking yourself into an end goal is, particularly on big projects, is very, very risky.

And I know, you know, the defense industry has, you know, and the space industry, they work on projects where the project duration is decades. Now whether they keep doing that or not, I don't know. But you know, obviously, certain thing, you cannot fiddle around with, you know, like building nuclear reactor or fighter aircraft and so on. So they'll probably stick with a variant of the waterfall model approach.

But by and large, we should be taking a more agile, user-centric, if you like, market-driven approach to what we're developing.


Indeed, we definitely see that at PMI. I would say that the closer to the physical world, in terms of your projects being in the physical world, you see more waterfall.

So, let me ask you some questions about career advice, essentially, for some of the listeners here. In your course on disruption, you have a segment that addresses career seasons. You propose that mastery is less about skills and more about traits. So what do you mean by that distinction?


Well I think, and this may sound very contrarian, we're entering a post-skills world. That's not to say skills are no longer needed. Of course skills are needed, skills are needed to do the job, but we don't know what job is to be done, you know? We can get employed today for a particular skills profile that we have, but the chances are the employer is going to require something different in six months or a year or three years’ time.

And if you're locked into a particular set of skills, you run the risk of becoming, if you like, economically obsolete. So I'm encouraging people to focus on traits, traits such as learnability, adaptability, of course, being very sensitive to the market, you know, as a living organism.

Out on the savanna, if your senses aren't very good, you could become lunch very quickly. So perhaps some of us who've been project managers working within organizations, hermetically sealed, perhaps, from the realities of the commercial world… and I know that, you know, a lot of project managers are very much in the thick of it commercially… but some of us who are perhaps just inward looking, we need to turn our eyes outwards, because we need to keep track of what's happening in the world and how we need to pivot our skill sets, so to speak, in the light of that.

And I think, to be able to do that, you need to be able to acquire… you need to have certain traits, which of course can be developed. And as well as the traits I’ve mentioned, you know, characteristics such as resilience, what’s a better way to express this… self promotion, you know, “Brand Me” or “Me, Inc,” as it were - very, very important because your next gig will likely come about based on how well you perform during this gig.

And that's the whole thing about entering the gig economy, it's all about your brand, so to speak. And of course, project managers, in what I would regard as proper projects, are commercially very expert. So that's not an issue, but if you're a project manager who essentially isn't constrained by resources, I would get your head around how to operate in the commercial environment, because as you negotiate each gig, you need to make sure that you don't give away all your value.


Indeed. So, your distinction between skills and traits, in PMI language we would call the traits that you described as power skills. So the power skills that are needed, they're very much in line with what you said.

So, you know, there are many people in the audience that are listening right now, they're, you know, seeking new job opportunities, or new career paths as a job candidate. How should they emphasize their traits during the hiring process?


Well I guess by the stories they can tell in respect of their experiences. And traditionally when we've gone to interview, we've laid out our “look at my qualifications, look at the brand logos that I've worked for,” and so on.

But I think we're getting into a world now where displaying our humanity, and even with that our vulnerabilities, and our beyond-the-workplace experiences, will resonate more with the potential employer. They might have some sort of life circumstance that displays my ability to adapt and so on. That's probably more powerful than some example of that took place within the kind of paternalistic conditions of a major organization.


So let's say - you've actually mentioned gig economy just previous to that - for younger professionals or experienced professionals who are listening, what advice would you offer them to help them succeed as, you know, quote, unquote open talent


Sure, and I don't think gig work is going to be a choice as time moves on, because employers themselves usually think in terms of talent pipeline. And they have some understanding of what the requirements are going to be over the next six months or a year, and hopefully they've spoken to their senior leadership team in respect of, you know, what's the strategy.

But as we move into this increasingly unknowable future, strategy goes out the window, so to speak, so situational awareness becomes key. Therefore, you will acquire your talent either because your own people are hyper adaptive, or you'll simply go out and find, you know, go into the open talent marketplace, so to speak.

The notion of the gig economy is very much associated with, you know, delivery drivers and taxi drivers and low-skilled people who are no doubt exploited by the business model. But essentially, when you hear gig, re-hear that as freelance or contractor. And the world is becoming much more fragmented in that respect.

You know there are Fortune 500 gig workers, CEOs who are on short-term contracts or two-year contracts and so on. That's extending the notion of a gig, so to speak, but it's a gig nonetheless. It's not that they're guaranteed to retire gracefully with the organization and so on. So gig working is popping up in all sorts of places.

So, again, in answer to your question, if you want to prepare yourself for a career, a gig career, so to speak, then I would prepare yourself for a high degree of precariousness. Because when you work for a big organization, you'll get paid to, to a large extent, through the highs and lows for the organization as its share price bounces up and down, and of course you'll get extremes like COVID, and then you may find yourself in the carpark with a box in your hand.

But in gig work you fundamentally are going to be in a precarious situation all the time. You know, you could be kicked out at any moment. There's no messy employment red tape to work through, you're out on the street and that's it.

But the bottom line is, if you are good at what you do, and perhaps you're even too good to be ignored, you will get pulled into the next gig very fast. McKinsey talked about the war for talent quite some time ago. That war for talent is becoming increasingly acute, and the definition of talent is not simply being somebody who has a degree or multi years of experience. These are the people that can do stuff that algorithms and robots can't do.

And most people are not prepared to compete with the algorithms and robots in that sense, because they're doing process work day in day out. So I encourage people to develop their creativity skills as a differentiator when it comes to a beauty grade when you're lining up against an algorithm and a robot.


It’s interesting, the good thing is that gig work is primarily project oriented, or you can make that case and, you know, at PMI we're certainly here to advocate and advance people in their careers around managing those projects, right, managing that hybrid project, that agile project, that traditional project, because that's part of the definition of being successful as a gig worker, right? So it's one of the skills that you need in addition to the specific thing that you're doing.


I know, I think, you know, when you think of gig work, you know, if you're… if you find yourself on TaskRabbit or Upwork or Fiverr or whatever website, you're not doing it properly. Because you are just being perceived as a resource and a resource that will be pushed into the lowest possible fee, if you like.

So you will end up having crappy clients. So that mustn’t be the aspiration, you want the best clients in the world, so that requires you to differentiate yourself, really work on your brand. I’m not saying you become Kim Kardashian, but you do have to think of how the external world perceives you.

And that requires putting in some work beyond simply, you know, work where you don't get paid, fundamentally.But no doubt the best promotion is doing great work.


Ironically that promotion that you're referring to is building an asset, as we discussed earlier in the conversation, yep.


Indeed, and some of those individual assets, brand assets of the individuals, that adds up to the overall brand asset for the organization.

And of course, we understand this very well when it comes to football or sports. You know, you have certain names within this team that has all sorts of brand-related implications. I think we'll start to see that a lot more within, if you like, more mainstream organizations as they seek to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.


That's interesting, to attract that talent, right?


Yes, yes, I remember sitting with… having dinner with a number of leaders in respective sports teams in various sports, and I asked them the question, “What would happen if some of your players have more Twitter followers than the club itself?” And their attitude was, well, we'll somehow or other stifle or curtail that.

What they don't realize – and this is happening in the extreme in sports and entertainment - is that the power axis is shifting from the employer to the employee. That's good news, but you have to actually reinvent yourself as this, if you like, 21st century talent.


Right, in order to accrue any of that, the benefit of that individual brand value. Ade McCormack, thank you so much for your time and, more importantly, your insights here today. Very invaluable for the listeners, the audience here today. I think we certainly learned about what a cognitive athlete is and how we can be a cognitive coach and, indeed, the importance of innovation as it relates to that. And, you know, the focus on building the asset rather than profit and how that really drives ultimate value in an organization. The importance of failing fast, right, whether it's in your day-to-day projects or at your product level, in an organization.

And then the mastery of key traits that you need to carry with you and nurture throughout your career. I think that was something that was very important in the last part of that conversation, giving advice to our audience about what is important for them to really drive value for themselves throughout their careers, whether it's with a company or, you know, the gig-type work environment.

So thank you again for your time. I just want to ask you though, before we cut out here, Ade, you know, where can our listeners learn more about you?


Oh, well, I've got a blog, and it's on my website,, all one word, and that over the years I've acquired about probably 500 blog posts, so if you want to take a deeper dive, that's the place to go.


And I've been there and I advise everybody to take a look. There's something there for everybody, for sure. Thank you, Ade.