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Oct. 27, 2020

Pandemic aftermath and making better decisions for the future with Trond Arne Undheim | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

Pandemic aftermath and making better decisions for the future with Trond Arne Undheim | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Trond Arne Undheim, Author of Leadership From Below, Disruptive Games and Pandemic Aftermath, shares his views and ideas on leadership, the pandemic and future of work.

Some highlights

The fundamentals of leadership

Trond Undheim’s perspective on being a futurist

Five possible post- pandemic scenarios

Trond Undheim explains why technology cannot compete with face to face 

How Trond Undheim manages the noise in the knowledge environment

Also mentioned in this episode:

Future Tech by Trond Arne Undheim

Pandemic Aftermath by Trond Arne Undheim

Connect with Trond:

Trond Undheim Official Website

Futurized Podcast



Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:


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



Mahan Tavakoli

Welcome to the  Partnering Leadership Podcast. I'm really excited this week to welcome as my guest, Trond Arne Undheim. He's a futurist, a speaker and entrepreneur .He's CEO and co founder of Yegii, which is a search engine for industry professionals. He holds a PhD on future of work and artificial intelligence and cognition.

He's written many books, including Leadership from below, and Disruption Games. And most recently on Pandemic Aftermath. We had a wide ranging conversation from leadership and most effective practices in leadership, potential scenarios post-pandemic and obviously the potential of the future of work.

I really enjoyed the conversation with Trond and I'm sure you will too. And learn from his insights as you work to lead your  organizations through the many changes ahead. If you enjoy this episode, please share it with a friend. Make sure to rate, most especially if you listen to it on Apple and feel free to connect with me on partneringleadership.com or access the podcast and the 15 plus apps it's carried on accessing through partnering leadership.com.

Now here's my conversation with Trond Arne Undheim.

Mahan Tavakoli  

Trond Arne Undheim, welcome to Partnering Leadership Podcast.

Trond Undheim 

I'm thrilled to be here Mahan.

Mahan Tavakoli 

I'm really excited because I've been following a lot of your work, but before we get into some of the writing and thinking that you've been doing. I’d love to know a little bit about your upbringing, and how it has influenced who you've become.

Trond Undheim  

Well, I mean, I grew up in a small town in Norway. We were far away from America and far away from the world. When I grew up, it felt really far. But progressively as I did grow up and sort of came somehow emerged out of the 80s, we weren't that far away. So yeah, I mean, I grew up in a Scandinavian small town, small ish town. It was not small for Norway, but it was small for the world, I guess. And the first years of my life, was somewhat contained there, although I had parents who were, you know, on the academic side of things, and they took me to the US early on, so I actually learned to speak English in America when I was between one and two years old. And since then, I think I've been back to the United States every 5, 10 years. 

So I early on had this international upbringing, which led me to, like most Norwegians actually, seek influence outside of Norway very early on, and I spent time in my studies and things, studying in various countries in Europe, and, and nowadays, living in the US, didn't seem so far fetched. So yeah, from what I like to say, a small fishing village in Norway, but I don't know really how true that is.

Mahan Tavakoli   

Well, obviously, that has contributed to you, who you have become, and you've had wonderful experiences all throughout, including at MIT Sloan. I was wondering what you would consider to have been a defining experience in your own leadership journey?

Trond Undheim  

Yes, I think there's not one, but there are a couple of them. I would say, one of them definitely would be, basically everything that I have started has been much more valuable than things that I have joined. So, and I've done that several times, right, started things from scratch. But if there was one thing that really changed the way I looked at leadership more on a professional level, it was at the EU, when I was asked to take over a small project that was about sharing experience across Europe, in E-government and other related areas. And I think the way it was introduced to me was, here's the failing project,  see what you can do with it. And I just decided, the idea here was really good, and we were somehow able to turn that thing around and we had 100,000 users when I was done with it. And the thing that was so striking about it is that it taught me, what then actually went into my first book leadership from below, it taught me something about, it's not really the position of authority you start from, it is the way that you can get people to join your cause, and have them embody the vision that you have, and also obviously, on the way start to get incentive to get involved. And this platform grew like many platforms do. Suddenly, when the incentive increased, then the established leadership started to notice, and they wanted to be part of it, and, I said, yes, and welcome on board. Even though the week before they had said, this is tragic, this is horrible. 

So it is this old adage that they ignore you until they embrace you. And that's really the truism about leadership that I think really has stuck with me, but there are many other small things. I think, fundamentally, we learn to become leaders in our own families. So it is what you learn early on. I mean, I am a freudian that way, right? I think that, early experiences is really, that's the backbone of who you are, and then you work through like 20 years of education either to unlearn what you learned, or to relearn the stuff that you should have learned in the first 10. And I feel very lucky to have grown up in a family, there were a lot of things going on there that I did learn. 

Painfully the stuff I didn't learn has indeed taken me 20 years to try to either learn or unlearn. But when you ask about leadership, yes, there's one professional experience and then the other I would just simply attribute to the home environment and the stuff that you learn in and around the house, the conversations you have with your peers are in the house and definitely with the parents who, basically, set all the expectations needed to either become a leader or become a good follower, which I think those are two of the same coin. 

I am really, very convinced that leadership without followership doesn't make any sense. And I think in my notion of leadership, you should lead as absolutely little as you can, because leadership is to exercise violence over other people. Authority is violence. So followership is the default mode that you should have, even as a leader, not because of some sort of servant attitude, which is a whole other story. But because it actually is the most pragmatically fruitful way to get anything done. If you have to force your will through, you have lost, right? You certainly, you're on the back heel, and you have to work your way back in. And I know that you must sympathize with some of this right from your Carnegie days here.

Mahan Tavakoli  

Absolutely. Now, I'm curious, when you look in the landscape of leaders that we have, maybe we can stick to business leaders more than political leaders. Do you see leaders embracing the kind of leadership that you advocate?

Trond Undheim  

Yes, I think business leaders all over generally, I would say in this decade have started to embrace a lot of good things about leadership. I see a lot of good leadership when I look around, I actually think leadership is in a good decade, I think that generally, people seem to have taken onboard many of these more humanistic elements of leadership. I don't think we are in a bad state at all, and I don't know if I want to sort of single out a leader. 

The trouble with that, and I've noticed this and I think I've sort of criticized it in my books as well, once you start putting leaders on a pedestal, inadvertently what happens, is it like some sort of scandal. I remember in my book I wrote about Ghosn from Nissan, and of course two years after there was this big scandal with him. So it's really dangerous to kind of nominate, I think, examples of leadership that will outlast a decade. But generally, I think I'm optimistic about business leadership, I think there are many, especially interested in technology leaders. And I would say in the internet generation tech companies, there are many good leaders who let others lead when they can, who do have at least a channel of listening in their ear. But those are the kinds of leaders that I believe, together with visionary decisions, because you cannot get around. A leadership is not just listening to others, you also have to have a vision, but the combination of those two, I see it all around.

Mahan Tavakoli 

Now, Trond, and in addition to your leadership insights, you're also known as a futurist. So define what a futurist is and what you do to be a futurist.

Trond Undheim  

So a futurist is a completely illegitimate title that anybody could appropriate. There are future societies and things that could endorse you in some way, but basically, anybody who wants can call themselves a futurist, which is why I never really felt the need to do it. Until I decide, everything I'm doing is about the future. And I'm pretty serious about it, and I think I have something to contribute. 

So I started saying to myself, I wonder why I have been reacting to the term so much. And I think partly because of my academic background, because in academia, a futurist doesn't really mean very much. To me, however, engaging with the future is, I think one of the more important things you can do these days. I don't think we won't have a future without it. And there's nothing mysterious to me about being a good futurist. What you perhaps need to avoid is to say too much about the future with utter confidence. I think the best futurists, sure you're being asked to predict things and you can throw out some things into the discussion. 

But basically, the way I practice futurism, I just look at the things that matter, and I track that people in science and in business and everywhere, that have important things going on, and then you just look at all of those things together, developments and important science and technology fields, social dynamics. I have a whole framework. I have a book actually out on how I think one should do futurism called “Future Tech”. 

And I think, once you have collected the essence of what various sorts of fractions are doing. And whether it's on science, on the social dynamic side, on the business side, or indeed in the political and regulatory domain. That, plus sort of right, what's happening on the environmental side, in our intersections between humans and the physical environment around us, which we're starting to make drastic incursions into. Once you have tapped, what the activity is in all those five different spheres, and then you just sort of let the clock run, and you just imagine, you put a little bit of imagination into each of those, and you dial up the volume a little bit, that's future thinking. 

Now, the other trick of the futurist sleeve is that the best of us at least have stopped predicting and started saying, here are scenarios. And the good thing with that is not only do you get yourself three or four or five outs, so five chances. But you actually don't claim that any of them are going to pan out, you just stretch people's imagination, and you start thinking in terms of possible futures. And that's really much more fruitful than, trying to predict something with certainty. Of which there is no certainty, because there is no certainty anywhere, Mahan, no one can claim so.

Mahan Tavakoli  

And Trond, you do a fabulous job of that in your book, “Pandemic Aftermath”, which is a 400 page plus book you wrote in May, as soon as the pandemic was hitting here in the US most especially.

Trond Undheim  

I wrote it in February, basically. And it was February and March, and it was published on the first of May, I think.

Mahan Tavakoli  

So, obviously there was the pandemic, but what got you to want to write this book, and how were you able to put out a book that quickly?

Trond Undheim  

I just looked around, and I saw that this was going to go down in a major way, and I thought, this is interesting. It kind of collects a lot of strands of thought that I have had, and I realized the kinds of things going on were not super easy to see, for the traditional experts. If you were a public health expert, it was very easy to underestimate. In fact, 90% of that community completely underestimated it, it looked like an innocuous regional situation. 

And if you were on the technology side, I think people just thought, look, we're in the biggest boom market in decades, and we're just going to kind of plow through this, and there's going to be opportunities everywhere, nothing's going to shake us. 

On a political side. I think the political dynamics right now are getting fairly ingrained, and it's a system that is looking mostly inward. So on that side as well, I think the long term isn’t required to look at this, just wasn't there. So I just decided, you know what, I'm not a medical professional, I am not going to go volunteer, I want to stay away from the spires. What can I do while I'm in here in my attic, and I can read books, and I can summarize this. I did take on a little bit too much, though. I mean, it was like 17 hour days for, I think 40 days until I got it done.

Mahan Tavakoli  

Well it is absolutely a fabulous book where you go through five key scenarios. And you actually put in a workbook element where people can think through the scenarios by themselves. But I wanna ask you, if you don't mind briefly mentioning each one of the scenarios.

Trond Undheim   

Yes. So the first one is borderless worlds. And I'm imagining now, a decade, which we have already begun, where you could say, anything to do with science becomes the leading principle. And whatever happens, science leads the way. The interesting thing with that scenario is that it also because of that, becomes borderless. It is science first. But because of science, it becomes borderless. Because science will tell you that there is no practical reason why you would organize. 

There are other governance levels that matter and you have to have local response. But the overall principle for this pandemic, in this scenario, is a completely borderless worldwide governance structure, and basically an implementation force that reacts to things wherever they are in the world. And science and scientists in this scenario become the leaders of the New World. So that's kind of scenario one. 

The striking thing when I wrote it was it's actually not a paradise. It's easy when you write these scenarios, just think of things either as a dystopia or a paradise. And borderless world if you read it, because I kind of narrated these scenarios and put real live people in them, it's not perfect to live in, you know, a little bit depending. But it was interesting to me that if you maximize science, the end result, you still have to watch out. There are a lot of ethical problems for instance, with maximizing the survival of the species in a scientific sense. There are some priorities that become much lower on the food chain, because the survival of the species and survival of science and reason becomes the main principle. 

Scenario two is sort of interesting, by the way, and I think some of it is actually happening right now, two worlds apart. I think of a world that is splitting in two, not in the typical way, perhaps a splitting in two because we think about the haves and the have nots, but this is a very extreme, not the 1% splitting apart, but the 0.01%, the billionaires essentially splitting apart from the rest. 

The reason being that in a true pandemic scenario where this pandemic starts to really indiscriminately kill people, and where a vaccine perhaps doesn't work as intended. It's not enough anymore to be in a gated community, right? That just doesn't cut it. So what's the next level? We have thought for many years that the next level is to buy a cave or like a luxury compound in New Zealand or something. But the thing is, you can't do that alone. 

So what I'm imagining is that the billionaires chart a real estate firm would build in an entire new world where you have a $300 million buy in. Essentially a timeshare world, but you have to control the contagion within that world, so you know, you obviously have COVID tests before you enter and you can't really exit. And then they run the world as sort of absentee landlords. 

The funny thing with that scenario is that I worked really hard at trying to figure out whether this would be a dystopian scenario. And the strange thing is this, all the rest of us will probably be fine in this scenario. And the inside of these billionaire compounds, as attractive and full of fancy cars that I made them, it's intrinsically boring. It was actually almost impossible to make these paradise type worlds exciting. And I put them on tropical islands, they have choices between winter and summer homes, but it's just boring Mahan, It's really boring, so it's hard to imagine that. In fact, I worry for billionaires, I really really worry. I mean, short term, it looks fantastic. But long term, if you really want to isolate yourself, which seems to be kind of the only rational thing to do if you have the money, It's just not a fun place to be.

Mahan Tavakoli  

Trond, as I was reading it, I was thinking of it almost like a sanitized prison, self imprisonment to a certain extent.

Trond Undheim  

Exactly. It's the self imprisonment, which is the irony here, because you are willingly putting yourself apart from all that is fun in the world, so that's scenario two. But I do think it gives some time for pause, because I think in smaller or in a small or large degree, this is, of course, already happening. 

Scenario three is a nation state renewal. And many will say, okay, maybe that is the likely scenario where the most obvious level of control in the world today for the last 250 years has been the nation state. You know, it's a nice principle. We have organized democracies around this, it makes a lot of sense. And you could think this is really the time and day of democracies to really assert themselves. Here, we have full control over what's happening. So I took that to the extreme. 

The challenge, of course, if you do that, things like global trade will, of course, suffer. Because and you know, and I think this is part of the discussion now. The more you say, we are self contained, we are going to run our own market, we're not going to care, we want to have no supply chains that are global, we want to produce everything, because we know best. The challenge is, of course, that if you're a small state, if you're a small, open economy like in Norway, this is a disaster. But even if you're a fairly large state, like the United States, the market isn't big enough to grow. So it might seem like a paradise the first two years. But you forecast that 10 years into the future with drastic shutdown of global regulation and trade. And good luck living in this scenario too. 

Scenario four is Hobbesian chaos. It sounds slightly scary for those who have read about the state of nature, which hubs imagines as a pretty brutal place, where physical force and power you know, become the only principles, Mahan, that you can rely on. But the reason why I think that this is worth at least considering is that criminal networks have had a field day with the pandemic. Any authoritarian tendencies at a sub state level really has enjoyed this quite a lot. Because the more problems you have with maintaining law and order, the easier it is to split out and start creating havoc, and even gaining territory. So what I imagine here is just simply a cascading effect of a lot of things happening at the same time. This has nothing to do with the pandemic, per se, it is the lack of a support structure for everything else. 

So imagine massive amounts of hurricanes in the US, climate catastrophes. In Africa, you have all these locusts. The Middle East, maybe there's drought. And you forecast these things in California right now, I think this is easy to sort of just imagine. But if the entire place becomes a desert within the next few years, radically different situations. People start moving out, GDP goes down, Silicon Valley disappears and spreads out into other parts of the globe. These are the things that I have taken to the extreme in these hubs and chaos. 

The funny thing is that I actually found some hope in there. The people living in these hubs and chaos are not as distraught and destroyed as I thought they would be. So again, when you look at it in a decade cycle, there's a lot of hope in the most disastrous scenario I could build, I found some of the more ethically, high strong fibered people. So that was really surprising to me.

Mahan Tavakoli  

Yeah, as I was reading it, I found hope in the fact that the next scenario was Status Quo, because I was rooting for that.

Trond Undheim  

Well, that too. Status Quo is kind of the one I don't discuss as much because right now, these days, I like to say that that's off the table, which is, I guess, a little bit of rhetoric, but I really react to this term, the new normal. I don't think we will return to anything that's going to be called normal anytime soon, and by the time we do, we won't remember what normal was. So that's my view on that. 

But on the other hand, whenever you have a big crisis is to think about what will change and what will not change. So the reason the status quo is in there is to realize that in every big shift, some things will actually either go back to normal, or they will actually never change. So it's really important to realize that you may not be able to nominate all of the 10 things that will remain the same. But some will, and you have to prepare for a world where some things are the same. And notably, those are things that are subject to human habits. 

Human habits are some of the hardest to change. So technology may be different, let's say the whole internet infrastructure falls apart. Let's say you don't have the resources anymore to do any kind of space race or nanotech, or anything super ambitious. But some of the things that have to do with the habits that hold humans together, those things are much harder to get rid of, and we'll have to deal with them, and even after, massive disaster.

Mahan Tavakoli  

Now Trond, part of what I was reflecting as I was reading these wonderfully laid out scenarios, is the difficulty that a lot of leaders have in assessing the future for their organizations also, where you can go through different scenarios. What I found myself mentally doing is trying to gravitate towards the status quo, and discount the other scenarios that are you so beautifully painted. 

So what can we do as thinkers and as leaders to really be able to reflect on the different scenarios and plan effectively, rather than try to gravitate back to status quo thinking?

Trond Undheim  

Well, I think the first is you have to do the exercises, right? So true scenario thinking is about imagination. You really have to leave a little bit of your rational brain behind, and if you don't do that, I mean, it's a little bit like playing Legos with your kids. If you are not able to throw out what you're working on at work or the fact that you may have to make dinner in 30 minutes, you're not going to be able to immerse yourself in play. And futurism takes that suspension of disbelief. You basically have to enter into an alternate universe a little bit. Sometimes you need help to do that. 

This is why we sometimes enjoy Hollywood like it takes a lot. It takes CGI and it takes millions of dollars in technology for us to just have those two hours away from reality. Thinking as well Mahan, we need to become more conscious about transporting ourselves to a different conceptual realm where new things become possible, and then live that for enough time and have it be real. That doesn't mean you know, then you go out of it and you're like, Okay, you know, what does this mean? But you have to, you have to embrace it deeply enough, you have to do the exercises, you have to think about all angles, you have to take it seriously. Without doing that, you're not entering into the logic, you might as well just put the book down and go on with your life.

Mahan Tavakoli  

Trond the beautiful thing that you have done in this book, and I saw, there's a quote that's attributed to Albert Einstein, “Man's mind, once stretched to new dimensions never goes back to its original.” What I found is, as I was reading the scenarios, and reflecting on them, I am now starting to see even the news that I am consuming differently, I'm starting to see potentials differently. I think part of what you're trying to do in the book is to also stretch our thinking, which I absolutely love.

Trond Undheim 

Well, I'm glad you are embracing it Mahan. I feel like this stuff was more explosive than I realized. I think that the mainstream media really has never gone here. And there was a time where I thought, some of the thinking I put into the book would almost be characterized by some people as like conspiracy thinking, and it's really sad to see that even now, six months after, when we are actually, arguably, deeply in some of these scenarios. 

With almost a million people around the world perished, I mean, can you imagine, we are in the middle of a much more serious crisis than most people were willing to imagine in February. And yet, the discussions we're having on the public stage are no more ambitious than they were in February. So we're not reaching through, I'm not reaching through, no one is, getting through the sound barrier.

And that's kind of shocking, but I guess not more shocking than just realizing one of the things you didn't mention is I went through about 15 sort of pandemic scenario planning exercises that different governments. Mostly the US, or not the government, but different think tanks in the US and in the UK for the last 20 years. And even those scenarios don't go as far as I went, and I restrained myself. 

These, actually, these are extreme scenarios, but if you put them together and realize that I'm only saying that the truth will be somewhere in the middle of all these, they are all within the realm of possibility. I have not put in the extinction of humankind or any Hollywood like things in there. But these kinds of discussions are now not prevalent anywhere. And yet the world has changed forever. I find that almost unfathomable.

Mahan Tavakoli   

Absolutely, and it's one of those things that if eight months ago, people had reflected on the life we would be leading right now. Whoever would have built out this scenario would have been seen as outrageously crazy. So sometimes when you're reflecting on the potential scenarios, people tend to not want to go there with you. But again, part of what I appreciated both and I highly recommend the book for is it stretches your thinking. These are possible scenarios, but it helps you see the world that we're experiencing differently.

Trond Undheim  

Yeah, and I think that you're approaching it from the right attitude. It's not that I'm saying or anyone saying that this is all going down the tubes and everything is changing. That's not the point. But you have to become aware that there are certain elements of what you see you think is reality that are not reality. They are carefully constructed pieces. That once you shift them a little bit, the end structure that you're now building will look dramatically different.

The strange thing is, I actually think that some people have said to me, “Well, you didn't need to write the book because the pandemic happened, we have all been shaken up by this.” 

That is actually untrue. I think that even if you go through an experience like this, because it is your experience, you're going to make all kinds of sort of excuses why this will never happen in the same way again. So, and this is why all these pandemic exercises, always prepare for the past exercise. So whether you have gone through something tragic, and then make a lesson out of that, or you basically just ignore this and imagine some sort of pandemic x. Inadvertently what we imagine is something that we have seen before. And if you can't escape that logic, we will always be surprised by the future.

Mahan Tavakoli    

That is brilliant advice for leaders planning the future of their organizations also. And being that the listeners to the Partnering Leadership podcast are leaders of organizations, I can't let go of the fact that you also studied the future of work and have been thinking about the future of work quite a bit. We'd love to get some of your perspectives on where you think the future of work is headed.

Trond Undheim  

Yes, I have thought a lot about the future work. My PhD was about the future of work. And I said, well, this whole idea that we're going to be in this nomadic workplace where we're all going to be on different islands working, and we're not going to come into work and you know, virtual work will happen. This was big, back in the internet heydays. Everyone said, this is where we're heading, it's gonna happen really soon. And I kind of resisted that, and I did some research and figured out that people who said that didn't even practice it then. The leaders of the technologies that were heralding this new age, they were not even following their own advice. 

And now, many years later, as I'm reflecting on what's happening around COVID, this many of the same debates are happening. The same people are saying, now we're all going to be remote. Cities are dead, this has been proven. It's been proven we don't need to go into the office, we don't need to see our colleagues, and that's really striking, because I think the opposite will happen. 

This has paved the way for augmented reality applications, no doubt. I'm very excited about that. There will be new apps, way beyond Zoom, they will have capability form factors that are different than a cell phone, certainly different than a computer, and possibly different than even the new Oculus headset that just came out last week. There are new form factors that will come out in this decade, as a result of this pandemic. The future of work will be more virtual than it was before. 

But, human nature has not fundamentally changed overnight, we are not becoming virtual beings. And if we are, it's gonna take a while. So given that that's gonna take a while, don't sell your office buildings yet. If you've sold your office building, I mean, you bought into some hype there. 

And by the way, it is entirely possible that you can do an enormous amount more than you thought you could do remotely. I've been working remotely for the last 20 years. So I'm the last to sort of claim that you can't work remotely. But you lose something, I mean, I've worked for large IT companies, where I had more in common with my colleague from the biggest competitor, because prioritizing internal physical meetings wasn't even something we did back then. But what you lose is, of course, the loyalty to your own company and you lose the watercooler conversations, you lose a lot of things. 

So the future work is many things, but I don't think we really know it yet, and I think a lot of the hype is going to disappear, the moment these restrictions are gone. And what remains is, of course, the true things that were improved. And if we actually get some working virtual conferencing solutions that are pathbreaking and where new things start to happen online, that never happened in physical life, of course, those will be successful. 

But Mahan until that point, the types of encounters that we, I think all of us, miss and we know we miss it, and we may not even articulate how much we miss it the moment they become possible again. I mean, I don't miss traveling and being away from those I love and all that stuff I miss, don't miss the negatives, but I miss the positives.

Mahan Tavakoli   

And that is so beautifully put Trond there's so many interactions, it doesn't matter how well we try to do the meetings and structure conversations online. It cannot and has not, at this point, replicated some of those in person experiences. So it's great to hear your perspective that while some aspects of this will stay with us, it will not change forever to a virtual environment.

Trond Undheim   

Yes, I think togetherness. The moment we figure out and learn and understand more about what creates togetherness, and especially not just in a business context. You don't have just togetherness to feel good, you do it because it then gels you and unites you on common goals so that you can do things together. Unless we are able to recreate that in fundamental ways through online means, this was my thesis in 2002, and it's going to be the one today, we will not fundamentally be able to compete with face to face, or more likely, because it's worse than that. That's not even a fair comparison. It's not competing, with face to face. Face to face also has access to technology, so you gotta keep that in mind. It's not like if you and I go to a conference in DC right now, we have to shut off our iPhones, we will bring the technology with us. So you have the combination of being face to face with all the presencing technologies that you have at the same time. So the virtual technology has to compete, not just with face to face, but with itself.

Mahan Tavakoli   

Now Trond, I'm just wondering, I know you study polymaths. And obviously, you consume a lot of information yourself. So for leaders that I have conversations with, I'm a big advocate of growth mindset, ongoing learning. But there is so much noise out there. 

How do you focus on picking out more signal and less noise in the information that you consume?

Trond Undheim  

Well, it's a great question, and it's one that I spend almost all my waking hours thinking about. It's become an obsession of mine to reduce the noise in our knowledge environment. Because I do think that not just as experts, but truly as humankind, we need to collectively have more cognitive leaps, as I like to call it, than we traditionally do. And this is not just to make better political decisions, is not just to make better and better scientific discoveries. It is to make the just decisions, and it's to live better, and it's to be better human beings. And I don't think that is an expertise, it actually is something we need to collectively strive for. 

Now, how do you do it? I tried and I have tried with digital existing digital software, aided by this generation's AI, which basically is machine learning technology and some neural net enhancements here and there, to try to figure out what are the top publications across fields that you would have to track. And then have the machines do the hard job, and then sit there with the end result of just sifting through the top of the crop that the machine has prepared for me. I have some rudimentary systems that are running around bots that are searching the internet and that are generating some of this. 

But you know what I found lately, Mahan and I kind of take and sort of a retake of this whole debate. I think the ultimate solution there to get more signal than noise is much more ambitious is going to take a lot more than I initially thought. It's not as simple as just finding the 10,000 sources that matter. At some point, I thought, if I just could figure out which 10,000 pieces of information I need to juggle, then I would achieve wisdom. It's a little bit more difficult than that. 

And so I'm now exploring what we were talking about earlier, you know, augmented reality and how you learn in physical four or five, six dimensions. And I think that embodied learning, and creativity combined with what you read in a group setting, with a combination of machines, and obviously the smartest people. But also the morally best people that you can put together. 

So what that really means, I don't know yet, but the new prototypes that I'm trying to build, look very different from a computer program. They are probably, almost some of them will probably be live and counter spaces. With combinations of knowledge being brought in virtually. And a physical kind of playground where you meet the people with the highest probability to tell you something new. And there's a human component, and especially during COVID, I've thought a lot about this. I don't think you can think great thoughts without being stimulated by the right, not just minds, but by the right impressions overall.

So there's a reason why previous, by current Nobel Prize winners can be predicted by the mentors that they had. And if you want to predict a Nobel Prize winner, the best thing you can do is to go and study the group that's currently around a previous Nobel Prize winner. So there's something about being in the right company. But of course, in a Nobel Prize, it's simple, because you're studying physics, or you're studying some topic and science. 

But the kinds of thinking that I'm passionate about goes much, much wider. So it could be that you need insights about how to live a better life for you, who's the scientists there, there's not one scientist. So it becomes a lot more complicated. But I'm confident that as long as we strive for trying to reduce signal, that's a good thing. But I also think part of the noise is actually important. You cannot get to the signal, without wading through some of the noise. So I think that is the insight that I'm working on from this point on is, it's not about reducing the noise to zero. It's about the manageable level of noise, where you can still make insights. So I don't know if that gave you anything, but that's my current direction.

Mahan Tavakoli

I am both rooting for you and one of the things that I done to increase the signal and reduce the noise is find brilliant people like you to listen to your podcast, read your book.

Trond Undheim

Well, Mahan, that’s actually my cheating principle is of course, to start a podcast and try to identify the smartest people that have the most interesting to say. And that’s exactly what I have done also because as a shortcut and before I find this perfect system. In the meantime, I at least want to surround myself with people who are far smarter than I am. And it’s not just about the smart side, it’s actually more compassionate than I am, who are living life more intensely than I am. 

All of that. Those people. So it’s people with a soul, who know how to live. Those are the people that I’m seeking out on my podcast. And until we find a system, we should at least, try to surround ourselves with them. Like you do, as well Mahan, I think you curate people that you want to meet and that you put on your show as well. It’s a great thing.

Mahan Tavakoli

Absolutely. So Trond if our listeners want to find out more about you, listen to your podcast, your book, we will have links in the show notes. Where would you recommend for them to connect us with you?

Trond Undheim

Well, the absolute easiest will be my name which is a little complicated, but I do have the website so, trondundheim.com, is where I put everything. But if my name is too difficult, Future Tech is my next book and you can probably just google that. And Pandemic Aftermath, is the one about the pandemic that’s unique enough. Those could be the easiest way.

Mahan Tavakoli

Fantastic, we will connect to those and your wonderful podcast. Trond Arne Undheim, thank you so much for all the great wisdom you put out into the world and thank you so much for having this conversation on the Partnering Leadership podcast.

Trond Undheim

You are so welcome. And you're a very stimulating person to talk to Mahan, so I know why you’re starting a podcast.

Mahan Tavakoli

Thank you, Trond

Trond Undheim

Author of Leadership From Below, Disruptive Games and Pandemic Aftermath

Trond Arne Undheim is a futurist, podcaster, investor, author, speaker, entrepreneur and former director of MIT Startup Exchange, based outside of Boston. He has helped launch over 50 startups.

Trond is currently a venture partner at Antler, the global early-stage venture capital firm that invests in the defining technology companies of tomorrow. He also serves as the industry ecosystem evangelist at Tulip, the industrial operations growth startup. He is the CEO and co-founder of Yegii, a search engine for industry professionals, providing collective intelligence. Lastly, he is a nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council with a portfolio in artificial intelligence, future of work, data ethics, emerging technologies, and entrepreneurship.

Trond hosts the podcasts Futurized, thought leadership on our emerging future, and Augmented, the industry 4.0 podcast.

Trained as a social scientist with a career in technology and innovation, he is a former MIT Sloan School of Management Senior Lecturer, WPP and Oracle Executive and EU National Expert, he writes for Fortune and Cognoscenti, and has been featured in print media and television.

Trond Arne Undheim is the author of Pandemic Aftermath (2020), Disruption Games (2020), and Leadership From Below (2008). His next book, Future Tech (2021) comes out on March 3 in the UK and March 30 in the USA and rest of the world.

Trond Arne Undheim holds a PhD on the future of work and artificial intelligence and cognition from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and was a visiting research associate at UC Berkeley.