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April 29, 2021

How to lead yourself and your organization to become Undisruptable with Aidan McCullen | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

How to lead yourself and your organization to become Undisruptable with Aidan McCullen | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Aidan McCullen, the host and founder of The Innovation Show and author of the book Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life.Aidan shares examples on how organizations and individuals can embrace reinvention in order to become undisruptable. 

Some highlights:

● Aidan McCullen talks about the reason why most change initiatives fail.

● The transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly and lessons for leaders.

● How Amazon reinvented a failed product and transformed it into a killer product.

● Aidan McCullen shares how seeing life as cyclical rather than linear helps us with a reinvention mindset.


Also mentioned in this episode:

● Rita McGrath author of The end of competitive advantageand Seeing around corners

● Scott D. Anthony author of The Little Black Book Of Innovation: How it works, How to do itand co-author of Eat, Sleep, Innovate: How to Make Creativity an Everyday Habit Inside Your Organization 

● Daniel Z. Lieberman author of The Molecule of More

● Robert Sapolsky author of Behave


Buy Aidan McCullen’s Book: 

 Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life        


Connect with Aidan McCullen:

 Aidan McCullen @ theinnovationshow.io

Aidan McCullen LinkedIn


Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:



More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 




Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to partnering leadership. I am really excited this week to be welcoming Aidan McCullen. He's the host and founder of "The Innovation Show", one of my most favorite podcasts. And he recently released a book "Undisruptable: A mindset of permanent reinvention for individuals, organizations, and life".

It is an outstanding book with great stories, great analogies. So we can learn as individuals, how to embrace permanent disruption and reinvention and do so in leading our teams too. 

Now I love hearing from you. Keep your comments coming, mahan@mahantavakoli.com, there's a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. You can leave voice messages for me there. 

Don't forget to follow the podcast on your platform of choice. That way you will be first notified of episode releases. And finally, those of you that enjoy these conversations on Apple, leave a rating and review when you get a chance. That will help more people find these conversations and benefit from them.

Now, here is my conversation with Aidan McCullen.

Aidan McCullen. Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am thrilled to have you in this conversation with me. 


Aidan McCullen: 

It's a pleasure to be with you Mahan. It's a real pleasure. Nice to join you from across the waters. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

I have to tell you, your book, which we'll spend some time talking about "Undisruptable"  is magnificent, full of great analogies stories on how we as individuals and organizations can become undisruptable.

In addition to that, your "Innovation Show" podcast is one of my most favorite podcasts. Part because you read the books and that's not necessarily always the case with podcast series, but you ask brilliant questions and share great content too. So that's why I could talk to you for hours. We won't do that at this point. 

Would love to know a little bit first though, Aiden, whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person you've become. 

Aidan McCullen: 

Well, I actually grew up in a remote part of Ireland in a place called Meath, which is outside the city of Dublin, which is our capital. And  until about eight years old was quite the wonderer of a kid.

So I was never really that keen on doing what everybody else did. So I always sought out things different, a little bit different to do, and it was often my own doing Lego or imagining or whatever it might be. That was never seen as a bad thing by my parents, like nobody ever called that out as a thing, even. So I just continued that way. 

But I kind of always hovered on the edges like, for example, the taste in music or in stuff I watched, even in the candy bars I ate, I always eat those ones that people go, "Oh, you liked them?"  So it was always kind of this edge behaviorist type character.

But always one central thing is I always see other people as human as in, I love this concept of spaceship earth and that there's no passenger only crew that we're all on this Odyssey together. And yeah, so just try and do the best by other people. And I didn't always think like that way, but it's certainly been infused into me somewhere along the way.


Mahan Tavakoli: 

It's interesting Aidan, you're also a great observer of the world around you, which shows also in your writing. I imagine that must have had its benefits growing up, but maybe challenges in the formal educational system that doesn't promote that kind of outside the box, thinking, viewing the world and seeing patterns that are disruptive to the standard teachings.


Aidan McCullen: 

Yeah, it's funny. I'm a late reader as well Mahan, I didn't start really reading until I was coming towards the end of my professional sports career. I didn't really start reading properly then because I felt often the reading that was prescribed for us didn't sit with me. It was, it was mostly fiction.

And I like to understand. Facts and not, not necessarily history, but how things worked and, and particularly in nature. And that fascination probably came as a kid. Cause I was that kind of kid who would be like picking up the butterfly and looking at it, or, you know, examining what are the ants doing and getting them on my hands and knees and looking at that.

So , that was always with me. But here was the thing for me. I was able to function at a heard perspective so I could fit in. And that was very lucky.  I wasn't even aware of that. So I could be that person should I need to be. And you know, we talk about this and leadership on innovation that you need to be a chameleon or a split brain type personality so you can communicate to one crowd who may be fearful of change, but also communicate that those who are driving it and make either of them feel isolated or ostracized or alienated in any way. I think that's really important.

And  writing the book, as well as a transformational journey for me, and I went through my own transformation, because anything I put in there, I wanted to make sure that I could back it up by actually, did I really think that, did I really, is it me thinking that, you know, so that was a very much at the heart of it as well.


Mahan Tavakoli: 

Yeah, and it's fantastic because again, you talk about it being a mindset of permanent reinvention that's needed for individuals, organizations and you say you can't change business models until you change the mental models. What do you mean by that Aidan? 


Aidan McCullen: 

Here's an example, Mahan. When people come to run change initiatives and organizations, or implement them, often it comes from a leadership decision, may be a board decision, maybe it's a restructure, whatever it might be. 

And they expect people just to follow the strategy of change. And what we forget that is, even on a personal level, people find it very difficult to change. So for the same reason 75% of digital transformations fail, over 80% of New Years resolutions fail, that reason is that we can't change what people do until we change how they think.

And what I mean by this idea of business models for mental models is, there was this amazing study that came out that showed that people who had debilitating harsh issues, cardiac arrests, et cetera, and were told to change their lifestyle when they were given that decision only 9% could actually make the change required that would prevent their own personal death or recurrence of a severe heart issue.

So that's on an individual level  for that person. And then we expect an organization, which is just a collective of individuals to change because we tell them to, and this is what I mean that, same way you  influenced them to change induce them, you draw it out of them, that change is required in order to save their lives, to change their way.

We have to do that within organizations because the status quo by its very nature is going to resist change. And the status quo is the majority of a legacy existing organization. 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

And one of the things I love about your book and your perspective, Aidan, is that you look at the human aspect of change.

 A lot of change systems HBR studies, and everything else, and articles have been written based on a framework of change that primarily is much more organizational rather than human driven. And as you point out with the cardiovascular disease facts also, it's the people that need to be able to change as individuals. And those groups of individuals become part of that organizational change.

Now, you also mentioned, I love this quote by Maya Angelou. You say we delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty and use that analogy as a great way of describing change process, the caterpillar into the butterfly. 


Aidan McCullen: 

Yeah, it's a beautiful one. And going back to my roots, if you will, the idea of looking at the butterfly in the field or whatever it was, it probably got implanted there somewhere but, you know the way you always see this picture or the image of the butterfly on transformation or metamorphosis or a digital transformation, you often see it on those articles you mentioned or on books, et cetera. But I got interested to know why, but deeper at a cellular level because there's always hints in nature. Because nature tells the truth because it's about survival and evolution. That means that we tend to think of ourselves as superior to nature when actually nature has survived a lot longer than we have today. 

So there's always little clues in there. There's patterns in what seems like chaos to us. But one of the most beautiful stories is this Caterpillar into a butterfly.

So there's a few little lessons in here that I'll draw out. The very first is. That the first act of the Caterpillar as it emerges from its shell is to consume some of its shell. So it uses its former self as fuel for the next. And this is a recurring theme throughout the book, but what happens next is what's called incremental change.

So the Caterpillar goes on an eating spree, eating several times, its body weight over several days. And as it gets bigger, it discards its skin  like a snake, et cetera, because it's an exoskeleton because it grows it. And that is quite similar to what we see in organizations.

What we call innovation, which is incremental change, which is just an iPhone six to an iPhone seven. It's the Gillette blades five to a six to a seven. And you keep just using the existing processes and procedures and capabilities to add on a little bit better of what you were doing before.

But the real change, as you identified from the Maya Angelou quote, is a transformative one and it's painful and it involves warfare deep within the cells of the caterpillar. And what happens is deep within the Caterpillar there's packets of cells known as imaginal cells, which actually come from the word imagination and they come online at a specific point in the life cycle of the caterpillar.

And what happens next is they start to resonate at a frequency that are so different than so alien from the immune system of the caterpillar that they are rejected. So they're often attacked, seen as the predator, seen as some type of external threat, when they're actually part of the same ongoing permanent reinvention of this animal.

And what I say is that is exactly what happens in change initiatives within an organization. The existing corporate immune system attacks these imaginal cells, these catalysts, these change makers who want to make change within the organization. But in nature, what happens is the imaginal cells, the catalyst communicated at the same frequency, connect and overpower the immune system.

And then the induced, the caterpillar to go and become a chrysalis, which is part of the lifecycle and deep within that chrysalis in the cocoon, and the cocoon is the hardened skin of the caterpillar. So that's painful, right? It melts down into this soupy fuel, and the soupy fuel becomes the fuel for the future becoming, which is the butterfly, and that is the life cycle.

And there's a final point that I might leave you with later on when we talk about the letting go part, perhaps Mahan, but up until then it's been warfare. And what I propose is that warfare is a trademark of any meaningful change. That you're going to meet resistance, you're going to meet obstacles, going to meet setbacks.

And instead of seeing them like we do as millstones that drag us down, we can reframe them as milestones of progress. Because if I don't reach that point of resistance, then maybe I'm not just pushing far enough. So I need to push a little bit further until I hit it and I go, "ah, there we go. Now I'm making progress. Now this change is more transformational". And then you translate that into organizations and leadership and leaders can start spotting that and go, "who are the resistors and why, who are the imaginal cells in my organizations and how can I help them and protect them because they're going to be consumed and attacked by the corporate immune system. So they need help. And I need to harness that energy that they're emitting." 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that is for the insightful leaders, Aidan, that they can assess it that way. Part of what I see with a lot of organizations is that the leaders, as you also touch on in the book that have had success and that's part of the reason they have become leaders in the organization, that's success by itself becomes reason in their minds for that incremental change, going from the six to the seven, rather than embracing the transformative change. 


Aidan McCullen: 

Yeah. And like you identified, we all do that in our careers as well, where we have a pathway of how to get to the top or get to the top of the career ladder or the organizational ladder in some way, or the organization in the marketplace. We're number one why should we care about competitors, opportunities, or threats? We're making progress. 

And the old way of organizations being run. Why is that? Because you could hold on to competitive advantage. Once you had a head start, it was very difficult for people to catch up, but now cheap access to VC money, globalization, cloud computing, mobile telephony, all these things, connectivity, make it possible for a couple of kids in our garage to set up a business and become a competitor overnight and you're going, "where did they come from?"

 And this is one of the reasons I talk about the permanent re-invention aspect of this is that, when we get to a point of success, like you identified, we actually start to look for information that confirms what we already know, the idea of the confirmation bias, but looking at that even, when you find information you know, and they track your brain activity with FMRI scanners, the part of your brain responsible for reward lights up. So your brain treats it like a cocaine hit. It's like," yes, you found information you already know you're great!" And you're like, "yeah, I am great." 

And then we tend to surround ourselves with those people who confirm what we already know, known as sycophants  and the origin of that word is beautiful. It comes from an old Greek term in the marketplace.

Sycophants were offerers of figs. Those people who would offer you figs. And the concept was, oftentimes marketplace vendors would offer out free vents and go, "you're looking great today Mahan, what are you wearing? Oh, that's lovely collar on you. And I would be telling you all these flattery's, et cetera, in order to get you to take an action, and sycophants do that in organizations in order to make the leader feel good about themselves.

And I propose that that is the exact recipe. Try some fig in there, in that recipe for decline. Because, we need to be on a look at all the time for both opportunities and threats. And that means people who are going to tell you the truth. That means those catalysts, those imaginal cells within your organizations, that you need to harness their energy and their gainsaying because they're what are called gainsayers. Gainsayers are the opposite to naysayers. Naysayers are people who say no. And don't tell you why. They're just always throwing obstacles in your way. But a gainsayer is, "no, I see threats here. And let me tell you why, and let me tell you what we can do about it". 

But oftentimes they don't even get a chance to get there because they suffer what's known as the mum factor, shooting the messenger, where it's like, let's keep mum about this and just sweep it under the carpet that there's a huge trash coming. And that's a big chunk of knowledge for people to get their head around.

Because one thing that's missing a lot in innovation is that it's an emotional journey. It's an emotional transformation. The idea of the caterpillar becoming the butterfly is painful as hell.  It's a reinvention. It's a recalibration. It's a restructuring of DNA. And in a way, that's what happens in organizations. The DNA may be the mechanics of the organization, like you said that a lot of the digital transformation work or transformation work in general is the toolkit. It's the mechanics. And what's really important is the humanics, the human aspect of transformation, because it's the people who make the strategies take place and take root and take hold. And oftentimes they're the ones who are neglected the most.


Mahan Tavakoli: 

That's the case. And in addition to that Aidan, transformation, there isn't something that a group of leaders can sit around in a room and decide what that transformation will be and guide their organization through the transformation. As you say, it also requires a lot of experimentation and therefore willingness for failure. 

You give a great example of Bezos who is celebrated for the success of Amazon, has had significant failures accepting those failures along the way. And you give the example of Amazon fire as one of those. 


Aidan McCullen: 

Yeah. Beautiful example. And it's worth realizing as well that  the learning method we have of these things have a huge impact.

So what I mean by that is, there's two very, very different ways we can learn. We can learn by what's called the "cars of learning", which is Mahan, you tell me something, you're my teacher, you're my professor in college. You tell me something, I read it and I kind of go," okay, I have it theoretically." And that happens through a part of the brain. It's called the hippocampus. 

And there's then what's called procedural learning, which is learning that happens through experience. So scar tissue, and what that happens through is a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which is responsible for habit formation. And I think this is really important because if you think about Bezos' the story, he totally reinvented himself. He was a wall street hedge manager, fund manager. He understood finance. And he jumped into an entirely new world that wasn't even formed yet. So the ecosystem didn't exist. The internet at the time was dial-up. It was slow. People couldn't trust other vendors on the engine that there was people being robbed all the time, ripped off, and he entered into that world with  a vision of what would come. 

And he encountered massive setback, failure, obstacle after obstacle, but he overcame them. So he was born into that kind of chaos. So that's worth remembering when you think about Jeff Bezos, because that's often overlooked because we see him as the finished product of fait accompli, when he's actually been through a huge amount of personal setbacks.

So then let's use this example of using the book of the fire phone. So many of our listeners won't remember the fire phone because it didn't really even make it to market. So at the time it was entering into competition with the iPhone, was that already the app store was out. The, we had that Samsung was a newcomer on the field and people hadn't experienced that before that blew the socks off lots of people. 

But Amazon had invested in the fire phone to the tune of $170 million. And the product manager that was in charge of that was a guy called Ian Freed. And Freed had what was called job mobility. Aptly named him Freed because he was free to roam between these two different projects. Now in his world, I'm sure it was like, "I was overwhelmed because I had a lot of work to do". But because he had this oversight beyond one silo or will be beyond one product. He could see across swim lines in the organization. 

And what he was working on in the fire phone was not in the other phones, which was voice control. Now the other product he was working on was a smart speaker. And when the fire phone spectacularly failed, from the ashes of the fire, they used what capabilities were left over. And I called this "return on capability" that not every jump to a new curve, or not are you vision or attempt at anything as an individual or as an organization is going to yield financial results sometimes the financial results will be negative.  But they do yield capabilities. 

And in this instance, because Freed was working on that phone, he lifted the voice control technology and put it into the speaker.  They now had Alexa. And Alexa was the name of the voice controlled AI.

And because they weren't  trying to catch up on the iPhone on the Blackberry, who was trying to make a comeback at the time, et cetera,  they were able to redeploy energies somewhere else using those capabilities and it gave them a massive headstart. It gave them a killer product on how to touch point with their customers, where they could get instantaneous feedback, and that is absolute gold. And we tend to overlook that messy bit in the middle that that success came from an apparent failure, but it was the mindset of Ian Freed, Jeff Bezos, who he was reporting to at the time.

And the organization as a whole to go. "Hmm. That's interesting." And be actually noticing the opportunity for that and then backing the people for that, because this happens in organizations all the time. People uncover amazing capabilities, but they go into a drawer somewhere and they become a filed report that gets dusty and thrown away and shredded in time. And that's the great shame that happens in innovation. 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

In most organizations, Aiden, Freed would have been let go, because what he was championing failed while this failure of the fire phone helped Amazon, definitely, as you say, go into voice technology, and succeed. So that is representative of the kind of culture it takes with experimentation to go through transformation.

So it's not a transformation from the beginning, knowing what the end product will be. It's a transformation through a lot of experimentation. Now, part of the experimentation takes you to scary places. You quote Mary Curie, saying nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood and I love your analogy of the dragons on the map that were drawn on old maps.


Aidan McCullen: 

Yeah. I love this idea of an old map, and there was always be like dragons and you think there were sea monsters, et cetera. So they had a meaning and the saying is here be dragons. And you often will see it, in old pirate movies, et cetera. 

And what the pirates were talking about and the cartographers, those who created the maps were talking about was, "We really don't know what the heck's going on in here. This is unexplored, unchartered land or territory. We haven't ever sailed there. A couple of people reported seeing a few dragons or monsters when they were there. That's all we know. "

So it was a way of communicating. "Yeah. You're on your own. If you go there, I'm not daring to map out territory." And what I say is that's the same for this world of rapid change that we're charged on foreseen digital lens, virtual worlds, because when you're in a virtual world, it's limitless.  The power of your imagination is the limit.

So this is why imagination becomes such important skill. And then  as you talked about there with Ian Freed the ability to back somebody who backs their own imagination, and then to celebrate that and go "well done! You did it amazing." That's really, really important because it sends a signal out to the organization on to future developers or project managers to go. "That's the place I want to work, where they're going to back me and not shame me when I make a mistake."

 So. The idea of embracing the unknown is really, really important, and that's, again, coming back to the idea of permanent re-invention, there's no longer a safe haven here. If you think about the idea of being on the waters on uncharted lands, there's no safe harbor anymore. And I don't mean not in a safe way. I mean, psychologically safe. I mean, this is in a way that there's no secure destination that go, "yes, I've made it now. Now I'll just button down the hatches", that doesn't exist anymore.




Mahan Tavakoli: 

 So it sounds like Aidan transformation needs to become part of the DNA of the organization on an ongoing basis. 


Aidan McCullen: 

Yeah. And like the idea of the caterpillar and the butterfly, it started off as an inkling, as an urge deep within. That reprogrammed, essentially the organism on the organism became a new evolved organism.

And that's part of nature that happens in every aspect of nature. We miss this stuff. For example, I wrote recently about this idea, it's not in the book, but idea of plants at wintertime. So outside my window, I have a patch of hydrangeas, the beautiful plants, beautiful flower. And in the winter they go brown and one day, a neighbor commented that, "Oh, I needed to get rid of them, they were dead." Firstly, I was like, kind of going "is he joking?" and then I was like, kind of going how dare he, and then I went to actually have an empathy and go," he must not have a clue here." Thus , you need to leave what apparently is a withered bloom, you need to leave that on the plant because it's protecting an immersion future.

So if you actually look at this and you look at the withered bloom, around springtime, you'll see little boards coming. And if you prematurely remove the withered bloom, you expose the emergent bloom to harsh conditions of winter, and it can kill the future growth of the plant.

And I thought about that. Well, that's actually the same in any endeavor where we tend to dismiss something that didn't work out like the fire phone as a disaster, when it could have actually been the start of something new and nature consistently does this. When leaves fall from trees in the winter time, they fall in, they become foliage for the roots below, and energy is redirected into the roots where they're going to be needed to increase the cycle.

So these cycles of constant iteration and invention happen all the time, even on our bodies. We're losing cells at a massive rate of millions every second. They're being replaced all the time. Our skin changes in several years, et cetera. There's life cycles for every different organ in our bodies.

They become something new, but because of our intelligence or our thinking that we're intelligent, we missed that this is the case for us as well. And this is why, like the caterpillar, we have those inklings deep within. We sense sometimes it's time for a change, but we drown them out with Netflix binges or alcohol or whatever substances tickles your fancy and that's the unfortunate thing that we sometimes suppress, a calling deep within , that word vocation, actually comes from the word voice, which is a calling. And I often think that that's what's happening within us and we ignore it. And that's a great shame because that always leads to regret later in life.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Yeah, we have that as individuals and we need to embrace it. You give a couple of great examples, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and how he has gone through that process. Now with respect to leaders that I deal with Aidan, in most instances, they nod and when they hear examples of the Kodaks of the world and Nokias of the world, they understand that, yes, maybe they should have seen the opportunity and shifted. But as they are succeeding, there is a blindness that comes with that success. You say, we become crystallizing our approach, protective of what we have achieved. So how then do you advise leaders to create the kind of environment in their teams, in their organizations, not just for themselves as individuals to be willing to let go when they are the Nokias of the world and they're on top of the world to be willing to let go enough to transform? 


Aidan McCullen: 

So there's a couple of different approaches on this Mahan. One is that, if my business is in a declining industry, I can still manage that for profits, for return on what I've put into it. I can still kind of use the golden goose until it dies, or I can kill it by overusing it if it's still trawling off a profit right. 

So there's nothing wrong with managing and exploiting the declining company. But, it depends on what you want from your leaders. And I think this is often overlooked.  You get into a role like a CEO of an organization. That's great package. There's also some type of parachute  packets because you're kind of protected from failure a little bit then. 

But, very few leaders see that as a role that they're going to create something for the next one. It's like, I'm going to create a button that are hand on to the next leader, because there's no benefit in that for them they're benefited in is short-term gains to get return on investment and bonuses based on decisions that were made maybe before I even got here.

And that's one thing. So rewards and incentives have a huge impact on behavior. I'm interested in companies like 3M and some companies use a method where they talk to the leaders and they go, "you're going to be measured on what innovations you came up with in the last three years that you brought to market."

That's a very different incentive. Now that often leads to what I call lipstick on a pig where you get kind of fake innovation or innovation theater, where people are just mistaking activity for progress. Now that's okay because it's the idea back to what I talked about about procedural learning.

Because if I learn through experience of actually bringing a product, even if it's lipstick on a pig,  . through the marketplace, talking to customers, vetting it, trying it out. I'm learning in a very, very different way. And if you think about the word crystallize, it  de-crystallizes me, it melts the kind of hardened pathways of learning that I have, and it actually makes me more liquid and flexible in my thinking.

And then I'll spot something actually that could be a killer product. But I've only done that because I've done the groundwork. It's like, I often think about the idea of running a marathon. You're not going to go out and just run the marathon. It can be in bits the next day. You won't finish it. Maybe, maybe you will maybe you'd be lucky, but you need to be building that muscle over a long period of time, the capability, the heart rate, all those things.

And we don't do that with innovation. And this is where we miss understanding it declaratively with procedurally, which is actually the scar tissue of both failure and success, where I know what it's like. I know how to spot things. I know how to think my way through a proposition or an idea, and actually vetted before I even bring it to market. 

Because nobody has time to consider that declaratively. Like they have no time to actually go, "okay. Tell me what it is again." They won't get it. They just don't learn that way. And I think that's a huge consideration that needs to be taken on board. And then there's little things. I was only thinking this today. Like one of the things I do, or like I have a fascination with nature, but I often take a course that has nothing to do with anything I'm doing and in their lives, some metaphor or analogy usually.

But an example was today, I was looking at a documentary on birds, and how birds, just how they communicate and you know, what messenger pigeons do?  How do they learn how to bring the message back home, all those kinds of things that are really interesting. Cause they spark different thoughts and then you kind of go, Oh, I never told him that's kind of like this.

And I think that's where your mental models start to add up. And then what I think the big thing missing often Mahan is, when they compound and you have a load of new lenses, it saves your cognitive energy because you can easily put something into its model and kind of go, Oh,  that's just an S curve and there it is on its life cycle. I understand that. 

That means that I don't have this kind of energy being wasted, trying to get it. And what I hope is that we grabbed that energy and redeploy it somewhere else where it is useful that I can use it, even if it's to spend more time with my family or be present when I'm at home. And I'm not wondering about some thing that didn't work at at work, whatever it is that you use it for the better, good of you so you have a better life. 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

And what you talked about with respect to mental models. Aidan is exactly why I love the book and I recommend it to all of my clients because it gives a mental models and provides a common language for people to sort of understand the challenges as they're tackling also beautiful analogies that can be helpful in understanding complex problems around us. Now, one of the analogies  you pick a lot from nature and I've learned both in terms of transformation from you and different aspects of nature. You use the immortal jellyfish as an example for that ongoing re-invention. 


Aidan McCullen: 

Yeah. And people think I made up the imortal jellyfish, it's actually a real, it's called turritopsis  dohrnii. And where that came from, I have to give them credit was my son Mahan because one day my son calls me and he goes, you got to see this daddy. He's only 10 at the time. And it was this creature. And I was like, "wow, is that reall?" He's like, "yeah," And the reason said it was like, dad, I've been meaning to tell you this because my, one of my main metaphors was the idea of the Phoenix that every 500 years willingly walks into the ashes burns itself up from the ashes, gathers what's useful.

And that's a great mental model. And he said to me, well, the problem with the Phoenix, one that you use is that it's a myth. This is, this is real. And I was like, beautiful. He nailed it. So, so I went into like I do went, understood it, read several articles, watch a few videos  and this is the beautiful serendipities that happen all the time.

I realized that. It follows the life cycle of the permanent re-invention lifecycle. I talk about where, when the creature, the jellyfish encounters, some type of environmental stress, like really cold water or predation or disease, it reverts to its younger state and it discards parts of its body that are no longer needed.

So it actually becomes like a childlike state again. So I love the idea. You talk in Zen on martial arts about beginner's mind. So you're always open to information, even if you've already learned that you're still listening and absorbing it as much as possible. So what this jellyfish does is a plunges back to the bottom of the ocean.

Again, turns into little tiny blobs of jellyfish called polyps, and it goes through its lifecycle again, until it encounters any kind of stress again, and then goes through this cycle. And what's really interesting is scientists have shown in the lab when it doesn't risk disease and predation by other animals.

It can theoretically do this forever and does it quite often. And I say, that's a beautiful model to think about us, that we have to go through these cycles and to do that means we don't see life as a linear left to right graph. We see it on cycles where I'm going to have those moments, like the fire fone, where I have a vision, it doesn't work out, but I need to look into the ashes into that part of the attempt and go, what did I learn?

And that may be, I tried a job. It didn't work out for me. But in doing so I realized actually I don't want to ever work for a boss like that. Again, I'm going to actually now decipher what questions to ask in my next attempt so I make a better decision. It could be, I thought I wanted to play the piano. I tried it really didn't like it, but now I'm playing the guitar and I'm much more happy. 

That's return on capability because it's, it's like the universe nudging you in the right direction, but you need to take action. It doesn't just happen for you. You need to be disciplined. You need to do the work. You need to have a mental model in which to frame it all.


Mahan Tavakoli: 

And in addition to doing it as an individual, obviously organizations need to also embrace this mindset and you use Fujifilm as an example of an organization that has been able to do that effectively.


Aidan McCullen: 

It's a beautiful example. And do you remember when we mentioned about the idea of the nobody's incentivized to pass the button, to leave the button in top order for the next person? It's kind of like coaches in sports where, are they going to invest massively in the Academy. If they're not measured on that, if they're only measured on results, they don't really have time.

So we need to have this kind of future focused orientation. Now what happened in a brief story, I'll make it as brief as possible for the Fujifilm story is, in the seventies, there was a silver crisis and silver were increased 10 fold in its price. Now, one of the core ingredients of film is silver.

"Was" right? And the two biggest competitors at the time are Fuji film and Kodak, number one, Fujifilm number two. And when the crisis happened, the Kodak CEO at the time, had a glimpse into the future, he realized how the environmental stress of the business environment was threatening and there was new players, like for example, Sony, have just released the digital camera.

You got a glimpse into that future. And he became almost paranoid about leaving the company in a great shape for that future. So we started to redeploy energies and capabilities across the organization so much so that after the aftermath Kodak, who was number one, went back to business as usual.

Like you said earlier on about the CEO who kind of goes, Oh, sure. What, what we'll be worrying about that for we're making money we're successful. Meanwhile, Fujifilm pulled back from that and go, "we need to look at digital" and across the States, for example, they had five thousand units inside a retail units across the States.

Kodak had something like a hundred. So it just shows you the difference in mentality. But what was really important was that CEO paved the way  for the next CEO, because the next CEO came in at the most perilous time, the most threatening waters for him as a jellyfish into the organization. And he had to go through the painful transition of the butterfly by letting people go closing factories.

And most importantly is what they did with their capabilities. Like what the fire phone using the voice and putting it into the speaker, they went, what capabilities are  we capable of?  What muscles have we built here? And what they found was one of the core ingredients of film, again, was collagen, another one is the anti-aging properties that film offers. 

And they were like, somebody came across with the idea, like what about makeup? Because makeup uses those in abundance.  Fujifilm in 2007  released a company called Astalift and Astalift has this beautiful line in it. They started this recalibration. People who worked in a lab one day were working in a beauty lab the next day. And that company's trowing off huge profits for the company. And, there's subtle tip to their  past, they say Astalift brings you photogenic beauty.

That's just, that's just one of their brilliant experiments Mahan. And they are in healthcare, they even have a COVID vaccine. So they've absolutely not only diversified their skillsets and their capabilities, but they've diversified business models and industries. So should a crisis come again, which it will, like that idea of there's always a crisis coming. They'll be ready and they'll be able to put their energy somewhere else. And they're always thinking in permanent reinvention sense of what's next to come. And that's the permanent re-invention mindset in practice. 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that's beautifully told your book is full of stories and examples like that.

Both for individuals as they look at transforming themselves, reinventing themselves and for leaders of organizations. Now I know you're also a voracious reader, Aidan, which is why I love listening to you reading your content. In addition to your book. You might have to pick from your babies, but from the books that you have read recently, what other books would you recommend for leaders as they're looking to transform themselves and help transform their organizations?


Aidan McCullen: 

So very subjective way, I suppose, the way you consume information. For me, just to say, I worked very hard to make the information accessible, imagery. I got an illustrator, great guy to put the illustrations in there to bring the images to life. But I do really like the writings of Rita McGrath, who has been a guest on the show a couple of times, and her book, "The end of competitive advantage" is fantastic.

And her latest book, "Seeing around corners" really highly recommend those. Other people, Scott D. Anthony is always a great guest on the show, but one that I have a particular fascination with and I really, really loved was about the human brain and human behavior. So one is a book called "The molecule of more" by Daniel Z. Lieberman, amazing story about how dopamine controls our behavior. And then the other one is "Behaved" by Robert Sapolsky, the Stanford professor, who's just an absolute pleasure to host and to talk to he's like a standup comedian who happens to be one of the most intelligent people I've ever met and his storytelling, on his demystifying of human behavior in his book, "Behaviors" has to be right up there right up the top. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Those are great recommendations. And each one of those offers, or at least twice or three time listens for me. I find myself listening to some of these conversations. Again, you do a great job in having the conversations with some brilliant people.

So we're else. Aiden, would you send people well to find out more about you, your book, your writing, your speaking all resources. 


Aidan McCullen: 

The best place is probably LinkedIn. LinkedIn is quite easily. I have a newsletter there. I communicate with people. There are quite a lot, theinnovationshow.io and the innovation show newsletter where you can be in with opportunities to win books that are featured on the show every week.

And yeah, they're the best places to get me and. Back out to you, Mahan, you did a great job with today's interview. It's a joy when somebody does the work and reads . So I know what it's like now for the authors on my show. So it's been a pleasure. 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

Absolutely Aidan. And I have to tell you I have learned so much from you over the past few years.

Your book is outstanding. Again, both with respect to content and with respect to how it frames the content. So it becomes memorable, which I think is just as important.

So in closing, I want to again, read a quote from your book where you say, "how do we navigate a world that is changing at breakneck speed as leaders and individuals? What can we do to minimize the impact of disruption on our careers, in our organizations, and our lives? The answer I propose lies with a mindset, a mindset of permanent dream invention."

Thank you, Aiden McAllen in showing us how we can embrace that mindset of permanent re-invention.

Aidan McCullen: An absolute pleasure. Mahan, thank you.


Aidan McCullen

Host and founder of The Innovation Show and author of the book Undisruptable

Aidan is a change consultant and works with organisations to improve how they collaborate and create the environment for change.

Aidan is the host and founder of the Global Innovation Show, which boasts Bill Gates as a listener and advocate and features on Irelands national broadcaster RTÉ and the only English-speaking show on Finland’s Business FM.

He developed and delivers a module on Emerging Technology Trends in Trinity College Business School, ranked 1st in Ireland and in the top 100 globally.

Aidan speaks globally on disruption and change for organisations such as Mastercard, Epic Games, Endemol Shine Group, Google, CBC Canada and VHI and in industries from Pharma to Fintech.

He reinvented himself after a 10-year career after rugby with over 100 caps for Leinster, Toulouse and London Irish and is a full Ireland Rugby International.

He worked in digital transformation, innovation delivery and now culture and leadership. This journey has led him to believe that you cannot change business models until you first change mental models.