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March 11, 2021

The Reinventionist mindset with Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

The Reinventionist mindset with Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva, Founder & Chief Reinvention Officer at Reinvention Academy and author of the book, How to Thrive in Chaos. Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva shares how reinvention can help individuals and organizations thrive in constant change. 

Some highlights:

  • How Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva’s origins influenced her to set up a company called We Exist Reinvention Agency
  • Why reinvention is important for the survival of organizations
  • Learning how to live with uncertainty and volatility
  • Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva explains the Titanic Syndrome and its relevance to leadership
  • Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva’s advice on how to reinvent during a crisis
  • Understanding the nature of chaos and turning chaos into the greatest business advantage

Also mentioned in this episode:

Bruce Lipton, a developmental biologist and author of The Biology of Belief

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, Built to Last and How the Mighty Fall

Henry Mintzberg, author of Rebalancing Society and Bed Time Stories for Managers 

Book Resources:

Elastic: The Power of Flexible Thinking by Leonard Mlodinow

No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Erin Meyer and Reed Hastings

Other Resources:

Reinvention Society Facebook Group

Connect with Nadya Zhexembayeva:

Nadya Zhexembayeva on LinkedIn

Nadya Zhexembayeva on Twitter: @NadyaZhexembay

Nadya Zhexembayeva on Instagram:  @chief_reinvention_officer

Nadya Zhexembayeva on Facebook

Reinvention Academy Official Website

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:


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



Mahan Tavakoli:
Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Nadya Zhexembayeva. Nadya is a business owner, educator, speaker, who's been known to be the re-invention guru and the queen of reinvention because of her leadership and thinking on reinvention, making the Titanic syndrome famous. And now with her most recent book, How to Thrive in Chaos. 

So it is critical for us as leaders and for our organizations to constantly reinvent, Nadya is the person to tell us how to do that. I really was excited to have a conversation with her and can't wait to share it with you. 

Feel free to keep your comments coming, mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There's a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com. You can leave me a voice message there. And for those of you enjoying the podcast on Apple, don't forget to rate and review when you get a chance. That way more people will get to find and enjoy and benefit from these podcasts. 

Now, here is my conversation with Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva.

Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva, welcome to the Partnering Leadership podcast.

Nadya Zhexembayeva: 
I am so honored to be here, Mahan. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
I am so thrilled having read your book, The Chief Reinvention Officer Handbook, listened to your Ted talk, many of your podcasts interviews, I just could take hours to share your brilliance.

Now we're going to take a little bit and then urge the listeners to find out more about you later on. Now you also have a magnificent personal story that I wanted to start out with.

 How your upbringing impacted the kind of person you've become?

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
It's a very deep question. And it took me many decades to get ready to answer that question. Partially because I was born in the Soviet Union and specifically in the part of the Soviet Union where most of the concentration camps were, which is Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world with one of the smallest populations in the world, because in the late 1920s, early 1930s of the last century, 40% of our population was murdered due to an artificial Soviet government generated famine. And that history is what shaped me without me even knowing. It was not safe to discuss that history until I was a full-blown adult.

So a lot of things in my life made sense, backtracking it then processing, it was my parents, but I didn't know most of it for a long, long time. I come from a family of dissidents. So on both sides of my family, we have enemies of the state, which means my great-grandparents were vocal enough to stand up to the policies and they were executed.

And when I look back at their life, my grandfather grew up as a son of the enemy of the state. That meant he was not allowed to enter or work in any major city of the Soviet Union. He was a journalist. He wrote publicly his opinions. He was arrested, tortured many times, and killed himself in the seventies. And looking at his life,  I have his last name because of his life. I was offered to change my last name many times because I moved to the US in the nineties. And my last name was the worst thing you can imagine for an English speaker. And every time I'm asked to change his name, I'm kind of rooted in his brilliance and then his strength because he lived his whole life, an entire life in extreme pain. But the extreme faith that it was not for nothing. And it realized in me, in my daughter and her children, because his sacrifice suddenly came about in this amazing life that I have the luxury of living a life of ideas and a life of amazing, amazing opportunities. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
And you have done a great deal with those opportunities in giving back with respect to how people can lead their own reinvention and organizations can lead with reinvention, but it's taking a little bit longer with your personal journey.

You have a story about an experience you had getting on an airplane in Frankfurt, which I think is relevant for our listeners to hear. 

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
Oh, I had so many of those stories. So my last name is difficult. I'm not white, so I don't look white. And when my daughter was still very little, Borat, the first movie just came out. And I would fly to different countries because of my work in reinvention. I work with many different companies around the world. And this time I was bringing my daughter to see my parents. And flying back to the US, we were waiting for our plane to the US, and we had a group of what looked like consultants. It's a very typical group, with very particular gestures and behaviors. And they started asking me questions.

So where do I've come from? And I said, Kazakhstan. And they said when they started clarifying, Pakistan, Afghanistan, all kinds of Agasthans they could imagine. And until I started naming certain things, and one of them said, "Borat." I said, "Yeah, it's not a real movie." And he looked at me and he said, "Kazakhstan, that's a real country?"

And that's very much the story of our existence, which is we chose to call our company, We Exist Reinvention Agency because so few seem to know that we exist. That we're still here. We're still walking on earth. So I'm honored that I have this story. I'm also very humbled by how long is the journey to get to the place where we live in the world of knowledge of each other, of acknowledgment of each other, of awareness of each other, of respect and honoring the histories of many, many cultures and many, many realities.

Mahan Tavakoli:
And those drives and those experiences and that heritage have helped you resonate and connect with large audiences, whether it's been through your Ted talks and through your writing. Focused, primarily on reinvention, you say the challenge we face isn't about trying to survive until things stabilize, but rather learning to thrive in constant change.

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
Oh, yes. So my professional background living in the Soviet Union, I was in my teenage years when the country collapsed and my first job was as an insurance agent, right after the collapse. I can not imagine how to even describe the reality where you wake up one day and there was no country. There's no police, there's no currency. And there is no ministry. Nothing is yet there. Our country was so unprepared for the collapse that it took us two years to develop its own currency. Even for almost three years, we were in the currency of another country. 

So I ended up going into research, trying to understand what makes something collapsed and what makes something sustain. That was my focus. My doctorate was on large systems survival. I specialize in the human systems. And the human system that pays the most to studied is business because the business has this drug I've to survive. For some reason, countries think they cannot collapse, which is not true. They can collapse very easily. But businesses are really, they have a selfish, vested interest in doing a lot of research.

So I had the luxury of doing research across many corporations, and here's what I discovered together with my team, that the average life cycle of a typical business model last century was about 75 years long. 75 years, you could do the same thing, same old, same old without changing a single thing. And generally speaking, be successful.

 This year we did our semi-annual, bi-annual every two years on global reinvention study and the average life cycle of a business this year is six years. Six years. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
That means you can barely scratch the surface and it's time to reinvent. And you can imagine that almost everything we do in business and in life, the way we educate our kids, the way we set up our relationship with money, for example, the standard debt-equity ratios. The way we look at skills and careers, the way we set up our operations and our businesses.

They all stem from that assumption that we have time, that we will live in long periods of stability. And then we will have a short period of transformation. And then we come back to stability. That is simply not responded to and reflected in the data anymore. Now the norm is not stable. 0

Mahan Tavakoli:
And that is really hard for us as individuals to both understand intellectually, but also internalize and be able to change ourselves and change the systems around us. 

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
It is, and it's not. So there are two things that are working simultaneously. In a short reaction in terms of our biology, our short term reaction to disruption is of course negative.

And it comes from our old lizard brain. The part of our anatomy that is designed to protect our survival and here, all of you remember your biology courses, the fight or flight syndrome, the automatic reaction to any threat is to kill the threat or to run away from the threat. So you have a new competitor, you have new regulation, you have a new boss, you have something going on in your personal life.

Your normal physiological reaction is to kill that new thing. Or to run away from that new thing and to kill maybe just resistance to change conscious or unconscious sabotage or just pretending it's not there. That's running away, just pretending that this is not happening or it just will pass.

And it's a fact that's bad news. Biologically, it's not something that we are super wired to enjoy change and the immediate reaction is almost always negative. Good news. For most of a normal human being that automatic response is very short-lived. It's about 90 seconds long from the moment adrenaline enters your bloodstream to the moment it starts clearing up from your kidneys.

It's about 90 seconds. So you are controlled by your body relatively short period of time. After those 90 seconds, you have a choice. You can say, I will choose to turn this into an opportunity. In the first 90 seconds, no choice. But after 90 seconds, we do have a choice. What do we do with that choice?

Most people I know, start the new cycle and the new cycle and the new cycle and stay in those 90 seconds for years. They can be angry about something that happened years ago. So the biology in the short run is not working for us. But in the long run, we are wired for change, especially we're wired for evolution.

So think about health, normal babies. You don't need to give a baby a bonus to change. You don't need to entice them or motivate them or do anything. Baby start walking and talking and try new things without enticement. So we are not so much in love with the revolution, but we are wired for evolution. And that's why so much of our work is not about disruptive innovation, but it's about creating a system of continuous reinvention that connects both past and the future and is more about evolution rather than a revolution.

Mahan Tavakoli:
That's beautifully put. And I know in talking about some of the mindset that it takes to embrace change, you use a beautiful analogy and specific evidence and examples from the Titanic, when you call the Titanic syndrome. 

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
So when we started doing heavy research, and by that time I already worked with a lot of companies so a lot of my clients were saying, “Okay, not only we need help surviving this particular disruption, but we want to increase our chances of preventing it in the future. Yes, some things like COVID-19, you cannot prevent, but you can prevent the complete disaster response to disruption. So what can we do?

And we started researching companies that are doing well with adaptation and pivoting and flexibility and reinvention. And companies that are not doing very well with this constant disruption in this new world of volatility, uncertainty. And when we looked at the patterns, I remember the wonderful lecture. One time, I was in a lecture of my fellow professor Juan Serrano, who uses the movie Titanic to build parallels between the movie and the corporate experience. So I started doing my own research and my team started bringing up historical documents and we were shocked. Looking at that data, looking at the evidence, you cannot believe a more perfect story that captures what's happening with businesses, but also with individual careers today. So a few things like Titanic had binoculars in stock, but they were locked up. Why were they locked up? Technically speaking, they were locked up because the person who was in charge of binoculars was fired at the first stop. So this is very typical of a corporate world where we fire somebody who has tacit knowledge and we don't even recognize it. We let go of a person. We think they don't bring value and they have a breadth of tacit knowledge and connection that is crucial. Why didn't they break the cupboard? It was not safe, you could break it. Well, there was a lot of arrogance. There was a lot of assumption that we're big enough, that we are too big to fail, that we're too unsinkable to go down.

Things like the moment of the collision, a wonderful person who was at the wheel were at, first officer Murdoch, 39 years old, very known in the industry for one thing. His ability to prevent collisions. This time, he did exactly what worked for him in the past exactly to the tee. He was completely correct, disciplined, engaged, dedicated, but the conditions were different and the boat was different. The reality was different. 

Now, some of the scientists are arguing that if he was just allowed to let the ship go straight into the iceberg and not turn it, it would be damaged, but it would not sink. So this is again what I see in business and in life, we are so attached to past success. We're so sure that if we did something in the past, we know the way, and I'm the first one to admit, I suffer from it. I have a young team. They're not afraid. They don't care. They're 20, they're in their 20s. So when I hear them propose something and I'm like, “Guys, I've been there, I've done that. I know what I'm doing.” They're like, “Ooh, that smells like titanic syndrome.”

We all do that. But in the era of rapid change, what worked for us two years ago could be exactly what kills us today. So we have to learn how to let go of those things. So Titanic syndrome is a corporate or individual disease where we bring about our own downfall when we are unable to recognize and adapt to change due to our own arrogance or due to our own attachment to past success. And we see that in particularly in 2020, in the past year was an incredibly difficult year to show who is sick and who is able to treat themselves and get out of Titanic syndrome. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
Now, with respect to what just we went through back in 2020 that your points about Titanic syndrome are very relevant for the need for organizations to constantly reinvent. To restate another favorite business person of mine, Andy Grove said, “Only the paranoid survive.” So you have to overcome that arrogance and be constantly paranoid but a lot of the business leaders that I'm interacting with now in essence, say the ship has hit the iceberg. 

So how would you reinvent as the organization is facing a crisis partly brought on because of the external environment?

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
So there are a few things that we recommend heavily, and I will make sure to provide you with some links to the exercises. It’s just a free worksheet that you can use in your own company. But, we do a few things. 

Number one. You cannot work on the intellectual solution to the problem before you solve the emotional solution to the problem. And I don't say it because of some kumbaya voodoo stuff. It's very biology driven. So the moment your body is in fear of stress, you hit the iceberg, you see the reduction in sales, or you see costs going through the roof. You are really in trouble, financial or otherwise, there is naturally a lot of fear. People are afraid of what will happen to my job? What will happen to my mortgage? Your employees are not in the best state, not because they are unprofessional or uncaring because biologically, this is what our body is designed to do. 

So the moment we experience stress, our body literally redistributes the supply of blood away from things like our brain into our muscles, because for thousands of years, our survival did not depend on our brain. It depended on our ability to kill or run. So our blood, literally, this is research, so what our blood does, our vessels in our brain shrink, we are not able to think. Our ears redistribute information, this is called in science, auditory exclusion, we are not able to hear anything that is not directly helpful to our survival. So you're sitting in the meeting, you're telling your team something, they're physically unable to hear not because they're bad people, but because their body is in what is called the amygdala hijacks. Parts of their brain, this portion called amygdala is literally hijacking them. 

So number one is to do some exercises to deal with fear and we offer a very, very simple one. So I listed them all, organized them into three buckets. What do we control? What do we influence? What we don't control and then concentrate an action. And the simple steps have helped literally thousands of companies this year. We've done a lot of volunteer work in 2020. We run reinvention summits. We're on all kinds of events to help businesses because it was very painfully obvious that they may not survive. And this exercise, we have testimony after testimony, it's a free worksheet, three pages, it saved tons of companies.

Number one, deal with emotion. The moment you deal with emotion. You create a sheet of kind of a blank slate to start now working with it rational part. And the rational part again, we are brought up in education where we need to know the answer before we act. So a typical business is a lot of debates, a lot of Excel spreadsheets, a lot of calculations, make sure you have the right path, choose one path and go for it. That's wonderful in the 20th century, that is the standard for long cycles. In the long cycles, yes, you have the luxury to develop the perfect solution. Yes, you have the luxury of just milking the same idea to death. 

Not anymore. So this century, we use more of a lean-agile approach and lot of it you can read a lean start-up, wonderful book. You can watch podcasts or watch videos on agile and scrum. But the basic idea is the following, run small tests, do small steps and test them out and use real live data to decide, is this the right way or not?

Let me give you an example from my life. So I have an online education organization called reinvention Academy. In the reinvention Academy, we do not produce a single product before we sell it. We first sell the product. That's our test. Then we'll produce the product. So it takes us a very low cost to create the landing page and start offering.

If the customer says, yes, we deliver, we develop and deliver the product. If the customers don't vote with their wallet, the few that buy it, get their money back with our free gift. And we say, thank you very much. This is not happening. That's it. So there are many ways you can test. You can test it with real customers.

You can test it internally, but running it in short sprints of small tests and not being upset. If the test is showing a negative result, it's still a good test. The hypothesis is not supported. Great thing. You just saved yourself thousands of dollars or Yen, whatever else by not running a dead-end product.

So the second thing that happens, create a wave of experiments and use real-life data rather than intellectual debates to decide which route is the right route. So those would be the two things that I would say primarily start there. And then of course there are many, many other things, but I don't want to take too much of your time.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Absolutely brilliant Nadya. And what I would urge all leaders to do is to rewind and relisten to these last seven minutes over and over again, and ask themselves, how are we implementing these minimum viable products testing in our organizations. It is not just in small Silicon Valley startups. So what you just mentioned is what every organization can embrace if they start thinking about business differently.

So absolutely brilliant.

Nadya Zhexembayeva: 
And you can start small, right? So you can start a new format of a meeting. We used to have two-hour meetings, and now we want to have a minimum viable product. Our idea is 30 minutes meetings. Let's run them a few times, do small tasks, move on. So it's also for your Internal Products. I put it in quotation marks, but we have things like meetings, emails, reports, and all kinds of internal products that also can be reinvented to save time, to save money. And you don't need to have a perfect solution as long as it's somewhat viable. It's already alright.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Yes. And partly the viability is determined based on the uptake and the success of it.

Rather than pre-analysis with data, trying to take a year to determine whether this would work or not. You see if it works in a market. 

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
Again, you have to come back to the basics and the basics is all of those long-term tests, the idea that you can use the past reports to forecast the future all comes from long cycles. When you lived in long cycles, yes, your past year report is a good, pretty decent forecast for your future. In short cycles, your past year’s report could be completely irrelevant for the next year. So we have to learn how to be more in anticipatory learning rather than in experiential learning. We had a long year of experiential learning.

It's important to base on your past experience, but we also need to start using a lot more of an anticipatory learning method. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
So you also seal a bunch of different things that I'm going to highlight that have been running in my head for me, trying to understand the concepts around one of them. You say chaos does not equal randomness. I love that. Can you explain what that is?

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
Yes, of course. So I am a lover of science. I come from research. I absolutely love my life as a scientist and I am a not serious scientist. So in the eyes of a serious scientist and that's, of course, it's mathematicians and physicists, then chemists and biologists. I'm like this lethal, not serious social scientist, but I love love love my friends in the heart scientists. And they are the ones who taught me the most about chaos because mathematics is the first field that studies science. And of course, after that physics, biology, chemistry has a lot of contribution to the study of chaos.

I love the definition of wonderful geneticists, Lipton, Dr. Lipton who uses this analogy of chaos, where he says, imagine yourself in the busy train station, like the New York grand central, this beautiful place. And you're looking down at what's happening at a busy day, not the COVID-19 kind of grand station, but a normal day. The normal day, people moving in all directions, somebody is taking wedding pictures in the center, somebody screaming at their child and so on.

So it looks random because every direction is kind of crossing paths. There's no one direction. So for many people, this would be a definition of chaos randomness. The reality of chaos happens, it’s not that it's an absence of order. It's an absence of one order. So in the normal train station, every single moving person is moving in order and is not moving randomly. They have a purpose, they have a direction, they have a logical and rational reason for doing what they're doing. Some people are coming off the train. Some people are moving towards their train. Some people are doing so, I don't know what else they're doing there, but it's not random. It's purposeful in direction. Full of direction. 

What would be random? If I stood up on a balcony, took a megaphone, and started screaming, fire, fire, then we would see real random. Then we will see the absence of an order, but chaos is not an absence of order. Chaos is the presence of more than one order. And I'll just repeat it again because this is such a business opportunity. Chaos is not an absence of order. Chaos is the presence of more than one order. And what do I mean by opportunity here? We are so used to live in a world of one order. Either it's gasoline cars or electric cars, either it's offline meetings or online meetings, either it's one way or another, that time has passed.

So now, if you understand what you see around yourself as a chaos and therefore you step back and you freeze. Others in the business see a huge opportunity and they seize multiple orders. They don't wait. They're just looking for patterns of multiple orders. 

So for example, one of my dear friends and students and clients company you know, heDrea, they're working in the field of automotive industry, automotive, parts, and they're similarly dangerously developing their portfolio in electric diesel last little remaining diesel, but they're also working in a few completely different ways. Mobility will be done. In parallel, it's not an absence of order. It's the presence of more than one or there. So those who understand this nature of chaos are an advantage right now because they are able to see opportunities before anybody else can. They're not frozen. They're not scared. They're turning chaos into the greatest business advantage. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
That is one of the things, as I mentioned, as I look more, I see more chaos and understand that what I assumed was randomness is chaos. And it's an opportunity for leaders in organizations to take advantage of.

Now, when you talk about reinvention, one of the challenges a lot of leaders have is when you're reinventing, you do need to let go of some of the old, but how do you determine what to keep as you go through reinvention? 

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
It's a very, very important question. Most of the time, we assume that the hardest part of reinvention is deciding what to change. And that's usually obvious, you change what's not working. So we obsess about change management. It's all about change and I'm wearing a t-shirt that says change right now. So yes, it changes the name of the cane, but the magnificence of reinvention is that equally so, you need to understand what you are keeping and continuing to manage is as important as change management.

So here I applied the school of thought in the field of positive or strengths-based change. And in a particular school of thought, Appreciative Inquiry. Being a student of a preschool in Korea. I've seen it work thousands of years and times, even before that term existed. You can see in the old, old historical books where that worked.

So the essence of appreciative inquiry is to use data from your peak experiences. And many people confuse positivity with appreciation. Positivity is when I only look at what's good at my company. So. I have bad sales and I look at good teamwork or I have a bad productivity yield and I celebrate an excellent social media campaign.

That is not what we're talking about. Absolutely not. What the appreciative  inquiry and all of the strength-based changes is focusing on, if you have bad sales, the answer to your bad sales is not looking somewhere else. It's looking at the historical and current and around you peaks of sales experience. 

So for example, you had a bad two weeks of sales, but on Tuesdays and Saturdays, for some reason, you are above average for all other days. Stop and analyze with a lot of diligence what was going on those days? And it's a very simple idea, but I work with the banking industry, for example, and I talk with the CEO of a bank and he's like, “Yeah, I have a daily report on the worst-performing branches, never in my career did I ask for a report on the best-performing branch. Never, I don’t even know why they perform well. 

So we concentrate on what's not working. The answer to what's not working is most of the time in the peak experiences. So if you have a productivity reduction, analyze your peak moments of productivity in the same period of time and see what have we done to make it a systemic issue? To turn it into part of our systemal habit of standard operating procedures. And that's where we figure out what to keep. 

We do in-depth audits of within a sphere, whatever we are reinvesting in the product portfolio. We do a lot of in-depth audits on peak performance and peak experience, instead of beating on things that are not working, we concentrate on things that are peak right now. And then we decide, how do we turn that into more of a scalable opportunity? 

Mahan Tavakoli:
And that sets the organization up for true reinvention. 

Now I love you say, “From built to last”, a great book by Jim Collins, we need to become built to reinvent. And you use a different organization, including Dadfar Strada as an example of that.

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
Yeah. I absolutely love every book by Jim Collins. Not only this one but good to great. And many others, he’s a giant. His books were and continue to be relevant for their context. The reality we face right now is that if we are to reinvent every two, three years, or more often if the cycles are so short, the premises of what we call a good business, a good professionally run company have to change.

Our assumptions around money, stocks, take just-in-time inventory. Just-in-time inventory is a great concept for stable, predictable life. When you are in turbulence and uncertainty, having a just-in-time inventory may mean that you will have no inventory for weeks and you will not be able to produce anything because it's disrupted and it cannot arrive.

Many assumptions around debt to equity, have a lot of debt, make sure that you are risking the bank's money, not your money. Great idea for stable times. In the turbulent time, cash is key. So a lot of assumptions around our business fundamentals have to change and I really, truly believe that reinvention is just getting started.

If we had an era of the great depression and the 20th great recession in 2008, 2011, I think this past year is the beginning of the year of great reinvention and great reinvention is not the project. It's a system. It's building a system where you're perpetually regulated your renewal on a continuous basis.

Landforce for example uses a format where they reinvent on a regular basis to a very structured process. They call it the 24 idea process. They do throughout the year, many, many times. So for 24 hours, the whole company stops. And actively reinvent something. One area of their work. It could be the product, customer experience, particular issues around sales.

So marketing the first time they did it, they were concentrating specifically on products. And at the time when they started, the typical time for the patent was 24 months. On average, it took them 24 months to get to the patent. After this process, their first patent was filed in a hundred days. So you can imagine what huge savings and what a huge advantage it is to speed up like that.

So having a process in place will allow you to address any issue. Right now, most companies have a disruption and they start from scratch. So it's digital disruption. They have a from-scratch digital strategy. It's a productivity disruption. They start from scratch productivity projects, whatever else disruption, they start from scratch.

You don't have to start from scratch. You can have the same instrument and play jazz, rap, classic music on it. Same with reinvention. When you have a system, when you have a process, you can address a new disruption that was literally the same process. You can play any music on that instrument. So that's why I talk about reinvention as a system, not as a project.

Mahan Tavakoli:
It has to be a system and part of the culture of the organization on an ongoing way, rather than it happening as a result of an external crisis or internal crisis. 

Now, another one of those things that it's somewhat poetic but really important that I've been thinking a lot about, you say to hold on, let go.

And you use the fact that Kodak and Nokia, all these examples that people think lost out because of technology didn't lose out because of technology. 

So to hold on, let go. What do you mean by that? 

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
Of course, my heritage is speaking here. I come from a nomadic culture. A nomadic culture means that you don't have a stable settlement that you move with, whether you move with its seasons and nomadic culture means that you're forced to constantly reevaluate.

What do I let go of this year? What do I let go of this particular movement. So summer camp was over, we moved to winter lands without her. What do we leave behind? Because we cannot carry everything with us. And that of course informs a lot of decisions of how to live in a volatile world because nature is volatile.So nomadic culture is very comfortable with volatility. 

When we look at the companies that have not succeeded in reinventing in the last 10, 15 years. And Kodak and Nokia of course, some of those examples, but by far not the only ones. Actually the absolute majority of companies do not reinvent and do not survive out of their original fortune 500 lists. 88% of companies have already disappeared. So most of us do not survive. What's common? They get too attached and they don't let go on time. So Kodak, most people I asked when we used to do big speeches and there were thousands of people in the room and I stand on the stage and ask them what killed Kodak? They say digital photography and I ask what killed Nokia? They say smartphones. The reality is Kodak invented digital photography, it was their own baby. And Nokia had a huge portfolio of smartphones at the time of their decline, rapid, rapid collapse and near bankruptcy. The problem is they were too attached to the status quo and they were not letting it go on time.

So the only way to hold on with the speed of change is more of an organic way of managing, which is letting go of products that no longer serve you. Being honest around that. The question I ask a lot of boards and the hardest question I asked the board is, is there anything we'll pretend not to know as we're sitting here today? Is there something we're pretending not to know? Because it's so tempting to think just a little bit more. I don't need to change this. Just a little bit more and that attachment that grip on the product portfolio or team member that, you know, doesn't fit anymore. And I mean, it was a lot of love because I too have to face, honestly, with myself.

Sometimes I have to fire myself from the project and say, I'm not the best fit anymore. I am from a different generation, I'm a different mindset. So this idea is the only way we can truly survive. The only way we can truly thrive is by letting go of things that bring us down that are not performing, that no longer serve, that is a difficult pill to swallow.

Any one of us, whoever killed our own product, it's like killing your own childhood. I don't want to compare to that. Thankfully, it didn't have to experience that, but it's painful as heck. The first time I had to kill my product, Oh my God. We had people on the team who were crying. It's just the product. We just discontinued a product, but we have to learn how to let go of things that are bringing us down. And unfortunately, many companies are not doing it on time. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

Yes. And I know as listening to you, a lot of leaders nod and agree when they see it with others, but don't necessarily see it with their organizations.

Nadya Zhexembayeva:

True for me, there are a couple of times where I definitely waited too long. As long as you admit when that happened and you remember the price. Because the reality is I thought I was doing something good. I thought I was saving jobs or I was supporting my team or whatever else. I actually weakened everyone in the process. Because as a result, we have a non-performing product. We have less resources to invest in the good stuff. We're doing worse in the world. We're doing worse for people. We're developing helplessness and hopelessness. So it's a lie that I did something noble and I have to learn how to be honest about it. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
Nadya, one other frustration that I'm hearing from a lot of leaders right now is because of the uncertainty, they are wondering if strategic plans have a place. 

What would you recommend with respect to planning in a world of this speed at this level of uncertainty? 

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
One of my favorite topics. Of course, there's a theoretical background because I had the luxury to study and to work and teach together with a giant and strategy field, Henry Mintzberg. I am partial. I'm not neutral, but there are two schools of strategy in the world, the deliberate strategy and you all know of course the classics of a deliberate strategy. And then we have the emergent strategy, which is Henry Mintzberg’s work. And the idea is deliberate strategy, you set the plan once and you march through it, no matter what discipline is, the name of the game.

Emergent strategy is all about being flexible and adjusting to the flow. And the first time we got the request to help with that was a very large corporate client in the old traditional extractive industry, mining, and metals set up their first corporate venture capital fund, specifically to focus on digital innovation.

And you can imagine a traditional mining business with every kind of plan you can imagine. And also with a lot of almost military-like discipline, because when you are working in mining, there's a lot of safety issues. So you can literally kill people if you're not disciplined. So they had this army culture, army processes, very structured and then came teenagers in shorts and slippers writing code and their digital business and they simply didn't know how to deal with it. So they ask us, are there any tools we can use and we can't find anything. We could present them the theory, but apply tools, we couldn't find anything. So working with about 500 people, we invented a tool. I think it's version 11 right now. It's called stellar canvas.

And it's a very simple planning tool, implementation tool that allows you to create flexible limits. So the plans that we have now, you have to plan, there's no way not to plan, but instead of attaching yourself to the absolute numbers. So for example, our goal is market share of 10, or our goal is yield of 15 or a BDA of 39.

Instead of that, you create ranges and also you create limits within which your teams have flexibility to act. So you don't micromanage them and you don't need to get an approval for every pivot. So the tool is very, very simple. We now run it in many countries. People in super different industries have applied this tool and we will make sure all of your listeners can download it for free.

You don't need to pay for it. It's part of the 85 page free book preview. It's the last tool in the free book preview you get with the tool, a set of questions that your team goes through, and it's been remarkable, remarkable story, to see how our community around the world just grabbed this tool so I would love to hear your feedback on how that tool is working for you as well.

Mahan Tavakoli:
 And your site is full of those magnificent tools. Before we get to it, I would love to know, are there any other books or resources that you find yourself recommending to leaders at this time when they're looking to reinvent themselves and their teams and organizations?

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
Absolutely. So this year in particular was wonderful for our field of reinvention for the profession of reinvention.

So if you're thinking about yourself or understanding yourself better, I highly recommend a new book called Elastic. It's about the way our brain is structured, understanding the elastic parts of our brain and not so elastic parts of our brain, which will help relate not only to your team, but also to your business partners, to suppliers, to your customers and so on.

If you think about the corporate culture, of course, the wonderful book by the CEO of Netflix and Netflix and the culture of reinvention. And imagine my surprise, where after five years of working on reinvention publishing speaking, I see some giants now embracing this term and this philosophy, not innovation specifically, but the reinvention of Netflix in the culture of reinvention, a wonderful book that came out in the fall.

I do suggest that you also find the community that would allow you to speak about these issues and compare notes and so on. We have a community on Facebook. It's a free private Facebook group called reinvention society, but you can find any other community. I think being in community with others, trying to go through this adaptation is a big, big resource for all of us.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Nadya, since you mentioned Reed Hastings book, and it's a fabulous book. I do want to ask you one more question because he is a big advocate of a meritocratic environment. And if you had talked to me 15 years ago, I was a big advocate of meritocracy the past couple of years. I've read a lot about how meritocratic systems put certain people at disadvantages in organizations.

So we'd love to know your thoughts on how to approach meritocracy and organization in a way that is more inclusive than how it's been approached in the past. 

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
Well, for me, the problem with meritocracy is who decides what is of merit and what is of not. I'll give you an example in the 19th century, in the 20th century, even in this century, even though it's decreasing, the highest level of merit was IQ, the greatest IQ is the greatest merit. We, since then, have done enough research and I come from the school of case Western reserve university, where most of academic research on emotional intelligence was done by the wonderful Dr. Richard Boyatzis. He has proven it without shade of a doubt that emotional intelligence is of greater merit if we compare in the long run of financial success. So we suddenly just say, okay, forget about IQ as a merit, let's focus on EQ as a merit. And we are now looking at PQ political intelligence, VQ, vision, and intelligence. We're looking at reinventions as an intelligence who decides what is of merit. So for me, the issue with meritocracies also what has happened right now around artificial intelligence. You remember there was a huge scandal in Google where a scientist has proven that you actually embed bias into artificial intelligence, that you can make a robot, an artificial intellect biased, and prejudice, and they will decide on merit and on the criteria that is maybe not as inclusive and as organic. 

So I love nature. I'm a big researcher and a student of biomimicry. I believe that the greatest lessons we can learn from nature, I still have not yet learned. And one of the things in nature is that nature with exceptions of human beings, there's nothing that is unnecessary. People get very offended when I say that, I mean purely as a scientist, outside of human beings, every other living being has a function, a mosquito has a function, a fly has a function. Every virus has a function. Everything is connected to everything else. You remove one item, you actually disturb an ecosystem and there is no merit that is greater or lesser or more or less. Elephant is no more important than a mosquito. We all saw this research that says that we are under threat because bees are collapsing and we don't even pay attention to bees. We pay attention to some other animals or other living beings.

So for me, meritocracy will make sense if we start thinking of it, not in terms of some arbitrarily designed criteria of merit, but we start thinking in terms of a living organism where diversity is collectively creating a merit, where the ecology and team is a diverse ecologically, vibrant environment in which different perspectives from different angles are creating a greater merit collectively than anyone individually.

So I'm, I'm very organically oriented in this sense, not mechanistically. And I think a lot of meritocracy work was about mechanics, which in the short-term may work, but in the long run, pretty dangerous. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
That is beautifully put, thank you for that perspective. Now we are going to put links to our show notes.

I know your website, you are a brilliant thought leader and on the cutting edge of thought leadership because you're providing so many resources for free to the audience. So where would you send the audience to connect with you? Find out more about your many wonderful resources. 

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
Well, the easiest way is our website.

That’s learn2reinvent.com. That 2 is a number, not a word. So learn2reinvent.com and you will see, we have resources there for different types. So if you are an entrepreneur, I would suggest you download our business model cards. We'll put together a collection of different business models that you can play with with your team and a more kind of interactive way.

The 85 page book preview, which has two different tools, including Titanic's syndrome test and the stellar strategy canvas is available for free. There are tons of other resources that I invite you to test out, and we will make sure that you have a link to the page as a whole. And also the book preview, because that book has been written by three Salvadoran people together with me.

And I admire every person who tested the tool who told me, correct. This one, no, I'm not comfortable with this location of this tool and this is not working. Let's revise it or let's add something here. So I would be honored to get your feedback as well. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
Well, Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva,  I have to tell you when I read some books, they add to my knowledge, reading your content has helped me see the world and think through things differently.

I really appreciate you joining this conversation on the partnering leadership podcast. 

Nadya Zhexembayeva:
What an honor to be here. Thank you so much.

Dr. Nadya ZhexembayevaProfile Photo

Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva

Founder & Chief Reinvention Officer at Reinvention Academy

Nadya helps people & organizations turn change & disruptions into an opportunity - and a source of real competitive advantage - again and again.

Called ‘The Reinvention Guru’ (In Ventures magazine) & ‘The Queen of Reinvention’ (TEDx Navasink), Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva is a business owner, educator, speaker & author -- specializing in reinvention.

As a consultant, Nadya has helped such organizations as The Coca-Cola Company, ERG, Kohler, L'Oreal, IBM, CISCO, Erste Bank, Henkel, Knauf Insulation & many others to reinvent their products, processes, & leadership practices.

As an educator, Nadya personally contributed to the development of more than 10,000 executives from over 60 countries & 20 industries. For nearly 10 years, Nadya taught courses in leadership, strategy & sustainability at IEDC- Bled School of Management, an executive education center based in the Slovene Alps, where she also served as the Coca-Cola Chaired Professor of Sustainable Development. In addition to IEDC, Nadya has been teaching in business schools around the world, including Case's Weatherhead School of Management (USA), IPADE Business School (Mexico), and CEDEP (France), where she also contributes to the Academic Committee of the school.

As a speaker, Nadya has shared her insights with audiences worldwide through keynotes, panel presentations, & workshops. She has delivered four TEDx talks in Austria, Slovenia, Romania & the US.

As an author, Nadya has written three books (“Embedded Sustainability: The Next Big Competitive Advantage” in 2011, “Overfished Ocean Strategy: Powering Up Innovation for a Resource-Deprived World” in 2014, and "Titanic Syndrome: Why Companies Fail and How to Reinvent Your Way Out of Any Business Disaster" in 2018) & contributed to six others. In an effort to reinvent corporate approaches to sustainability strategy, Nadya and her co-author Chris Laszlo coined the concept ‘embedded sustainability’, which was virtually non-existent when they started in 2009. Today, it produces 55 million Google search results & has become a staple for corporate sustainability efforts.