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Interview by Adelaide Barbier, September 2020
Francis Cholle, you are an international business consultant and best-selling author. Your signature is helping companies adapt, innovate and succeed in a rather unconventional way.
You have spent the past 15 years advising C-suite leadership around the globe — across various industries and companies of all sizes — on how to implement your high-performing methodology to revolutionize their business performance. This methodology was developed through science and practice, and explained in the three books you’ve published.
I’ve seen you in action and can attest to how you question traditional thinking and offer the world a pragmatic model to see business in a radical and fresh new light. Yet it all happens naturally, with ease and empathy. I’m delighted that you would share your knowledge, experience and techniques here.
 You can find all references visiting: www.francischolle.com
Definition of the Concepts and Principles
You just published a book called SQUIRCLE. What is SQUIRCLE?
SQUIRCLE is a science-based model designed to enhance the way we think. In a more and more complex world, we need to rely on a deeper intelligence to make good decisions. SQUIRCLE recognizes the importance of our rational minds (SQUARE) while honoring the natural insights from our intuition (CIRCLE). Understanding how to enable a synergy between both leads to a life-changing mindset that will create success with teams, clients’ problem solving or complex decision making. It is designed for business and all aspects of life.
10 years ago, you wrote The Intuitive Compass. What is the link to SQUIRCLE?
The Intuitive Compass® is a model I developed offering a new business method for executive decision making, which proved to be very efficient with top management and resulted in consistently striking results. I now want to offer a new, simplified, and easily actionable version of this framework for their teams and beyond. SQUIRCLE is a scalable model that can have a wider use among businesses but also outside, in schools and even at home. That’s also why I created SQUIRCLE ACADEMY. My vision was to create a community of users who can access all the resources they need to start their SQUIRCLE journey. I still use the Intuitive Compass model in my practice with businesses, to advise CEOs and their executive teams in order to help rebalance their relationship to reason and instinct in their decision-making processes.
For us to understand SQUIRCLE better, would you mind defining reason and instinct?
Reason is our ability to think, understand and form judgments by a process of logic, based on deduction and induction. Instinct is understood as the innate ability to adapt and stay alive. Intuitive Intelligence is defined as the synergy between reason and instinct, made possible by intuition which bridges the two.
Intuition is the ability to notice and understand information that our logical mind cannot access or make sense of, because this information is not explicit. Intuition is like a search engine that goes beneath and beyond where the logical mind operates. It is a cognitive process that not only captures unusual signals but can also understand some of them immediately without conscious reasoning. Gut feelings are considered here as the outcome of this intuitive cognitive process.
When reason becomes dominant, it destroys intuition to the point of depriving us of our essential instinctive skills of adaptation, invention and complex problem-solving (visualize a CIRCLE trapped in a SQUARE).
Today, from our education system to our work environment, it is clear that rational logic dominates our ways of thinking. This is probably one of our biggest cognitive biases; however, I rarely see it mentioned in business and managerial literature.
This is why I created the SQUIRCLE™ (SQUARE + CIRCLE) model. It allows us to overcome this false opposition between reason and instinct, and therefore free the CIRCLE (instinct and intuition) of the confinement of the SQUARE (reason).
Since we live in a very rational world, does this mean we are all SQUARE?
The answer to your question is ”No.” We are not all SQUARE. The proportion of people with a SQUARE thinking preference compared to those with a CIRCLE preference varies from 80% Square/20% Circle to 66/34% based on our own SQUIRCLE test statistics. These are relatively recent but also based on a previous proprietary assignment we still use today, along with another pre-existing assignment that has been in existence over decades and used by millions of respondents and that look at similar psychometrics.
What attributes do you assign to the SQUARE versus the CIRCLE?
We are all educated to develop a SQUARE approach to life. That is, to think logically and rely on rationality and facts in order to make good decisions. But there is more to us than what can be understood through logic. Emotions, inspirations, intuitions, and sensations all live beyond logic. These not only make us uniquely human, but they enable our creativity and agility, and directly connect us to our bodies as well as to nature within us.
SQUARE symbolizes the logical mind: deduction and induction, information and evaluation. It is rational, dependable, stable, predictable, and orderly. But it is limiting. This is why we have arts in order to stimulate our imagination, sports to engage our bodies and games to encourage learning and risk taking. Our feelings and hunches help us engage with the ambiguity and complexity of life. They provide the necessary level of subtlety in order to go beyond binary logic, to think deeply. Nobel Prize in physics Niels Bohr’s famous quote illustrates this point perfectly: “No, no. You’re not thinking, you’re just being logical.”
CIRCLE symbolizes instinct and intuition: emergence, fluidity, and unpredictability. It is non-linear, inclusive, and adaptive. Like nature it is complex and creative, holistic and infinite. This is why CIRCLE is so important in a time of increasing uncertainty and so necessary to shift from our exploitative relationship with nature to adopting a regenerative model. This is what every company has to integrate in its management culture (disruption) and business practices (CSR).
If the CIRCLE is natural—the nature within us—why have we lost the connection to the CIRCLE in our lives?
We have alienated the CIRCLE in our lives by misjudging science. As Pr. Matthias Stelzner, chair of the Surgery Department at the University of California at Los Angeles/VA, shared with me after reading SQUIRCLE, “We have progressively assigned science a role that it never claimed: to give us certitudes. The purpose of science is to produce knowledge.” It remains our responsibility to decide what to do with this knowledge. But it is so much more comfortable to implicitly believe that what’s rational is right and what’s not rational is wrong. That allows us to shy away from responsibilities and gives us the illusion of control over life’s and nature’s unpredictability.
The good news, though, is that this centuries-old bias is at odds with the latest scientific research, led by renowned scientists like Dr. Gerd Gigerenzer, Director of Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the University of Potsdam, or Director of the Center of Brain and Creativity at University of Southern California and neuroscientist, Pr. António Damásio. Dr. Gigerenzer researched the importance of heuristics for reliable decision making and better adaptation in an uncertain environment, while the work of Pr. Damásio explored the importance of emotions in our capacity to anticipate and perceive decisive nuances in complex situations.
How do we access our intuitive intelligence? How do we free the CIRCLE?
First let’s remember CIRCLE (intuition) is always on. If it’s not “freed” it’s because we simply don’t pay attention to it. Few actually do. Why? Because, faithful to a dominant SQUARE, most of us still expect intuition to tell us what’s right from what’s wrong. I keep reading article titles in respectable trade magazines such as, “Should you follow your intuition?” and “When to trust your intuition.” It is not the function of intuition to tell us what to do, unless we connect with a gut instinct in a situation of emergency. Intuition is more like a search engine that reaches places where logic cannot go. It brings back clues that enrich our perspectives and that don’t necessarily make sense; but it doesn’t mean that these clues are void of value. Therein lies our responsibility to decide what to do with this non-logical information.
“Freeing” the CIRCLE simply requires becoming aware of our bias for a dominant SQUARE to purposefully undo it, so that you can become receptive of your intuitive sense.
Can you give us examples of practice to learn how to “free” our CIRCLE?
There are ways to do this. They are really simple but not always easy to execute. It takes a lot of practice and letting go. Let’s take the example of mountain climbing. Business schools like Wharton bring their students into mountaineering expeditions. It provides an environment where you have to take reasonable decisions in a very emotional context, and mitigate performance optimization and risk management. To reach peak performance requires hyper focus and physical relaxation, all at once. You operate in a place where the unexpected can happen any given moment. At a sensory level, you need to be very alert to pick up subtle cues from the changes in the mountain wall, the temperature, and the weather or your own equipment. Breathing is an essential tool to stay in the moment and avoid any potentially fatal distraction. (There is a whole science to the art of breathing. You can find useful book references on SQUIRCLEACADEMY.com under “Science” in the menu.)
Similarly, the most important and most difficult pose in yoga is Shavasana or corpse pose. It is the time when your neurovegetative system can integrate all the stimuli and adjustments accumulated through the class. You reap the fruit of all your efforts. But in order to be most efficient, you have to do nothing. Absolutely nothing, like a motionless dead body. Hence the name of this yoga pose, when being most passive means the highest return (health) on investment (your time and effort).
At work, in the office, or at home, you can take a few minutes to pay attention to the movements of your diaphragm and practice cardiac coherence advocated by French physician, neuroscientist, author, and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Dr. David Servan-Schreiber. It consists in inhaling for five seconds, then exhaling for the same amount of time (for a 10-second respiratory cycle). Biofeedback devices make it possible to observe on-screen how this deep, regular breathing slows and stabilizes the heartbeat. This way we can reduce stress, improve concentration, and enhance creativity and productivity while spending less energy. Athletes have been using this method for decades and the greatest American universities have been researching and implementing it in their curriculum. (MIT created a dedicated chair called the Presencing Institute and delivers a worldwide online class using these principles.) But for this method to work, it is critical to let go of any strategy and outcome.
Let go? What do you mean exactly?
A sports medicine doctor who worked with France’s boxing national team for four years and Tour de France cyclists for 12 years, Jean-Jacques Menuet, writes in his professional blog, “Letting go is to relieve psychological tensions and stress that pollute pleasure but also performance. This problem concerns the athlete, but also the executive in a company.” And to add, “We have everything to gain from working on this notion of ‘letting go;’ more pleasure, more performance, better management of emotions, and above all, more intuition. That is to say that the best tactics, the best choice (…), better strategy will be put in place without control, rather thanks to the ‘unconscious mind’ than to the ‘conscious mind.’” Menuet goes on to explain that in cycling, a sprinter who trusts everything that his computer memory has accumulated as information will be able to make decisions spontaneously rather than self-consciously staying focused on the information displayed on the computer screen. “When this happens, it feels like magic!” wrote Menuet. The reason it feels like magic is because it eludes our logical mind. This added performance is the outcome of a complex process that we don’t need to fully understand in order to fully engage. To do this, we rely on a non-explicit intelligence which operates differently than logic and is only accessible when we let go of mental control.
How do you implement this methodology inside companies with which you work?
Companies facing a complex problem often fail to solve it with conventional tools. In such cases, leaders need to change their mindset and approach their way of doing business with a new way of being (“façon d’être”). That’s when using SQUIRCLE is game changing.
Here, it is useful to distinguish between “complication” and “complexity.” In his book, Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux explains it very well through two examples.
First, he talks about a Boeing aircraft, which he describes as a complicated system; although there are tens of thousands of components to it, they come together following a linear logic. If you were to pull out any single piece and give it to an engineer, they would be able to tell you whether the missing piece has an impact on the functioning of the aircraft, and if yes, which one.
Second, Laloux gives the example of a plate of spaghetti as a complex system. It contains only a dozen ingredients, but if you pull on a single noodle, no computer — not even the most powerful one in the world — will be able to predict exactly what will happen.
What companies face in our VUCA (Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous) world is a ceaseless succession of complex problems and they need to develop a new skillset to adapt and succeed. And maybe this will sound strange, but it all starts with the SQUIRCLE game, a “serious game.”
A serious game? You start your business practice with a game. Why?
To get to the mindset of letting go and allowing a new form of intelligence to emerge (the CIRCLE), being playful is essential.
As Einstein would say, “Play is the highest form of research.” Play is magical and profound. It’s essential to our growth and development when we are children but it’s also a key factor in creativity and agility in the workplace. I have used play to help people be more creative, deal with emotions and regain enthusiasm when their company was going through difficult times.
I propose a game which demonstrates through experience our innate ability to adapt and solve complex problems. This game makes it possible to reach a state of “flow.” In other words, a state in which one disconnects from the conscious by the simple pleasure of being in the moment. From then on emerges a form of rhythm shared by all.
Neuroscience has proven that play connects us with the deeper layers of our brain that are only accessible in this way, or even through meditation, sleep and dreams, or psychotropic drugs. Even if the game requires some logical thinking, it allows us to realize the power of undoing the dominance of rational thinking. When we play, we are less in “self-control.” We are more open, more inspired and more willing to take risks.
Kary Mullis, 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry answered an interview saying “I wasn’t working, I was playing. I was letting things take shape before my eyes, and deep down I knew I was about to find something that was going to be Nobel Prize winning… and that’s what happened.”
The National Institute for Play defines play as “a state of being that is intensely pleasurable. It energizes and enlivens us. It eases our burdens, renews a natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities. (…) Scientists — neuroscientists, developmental biologists, psychologists… — have recently begun viewing play as a profound biological process.”
What is the SQUIRCLE game? And what is its purpose?
The SQUIRCLE Game (described in chapter 6 of SQUIRCLE book) mirrors very faithfully what business is about today. The objective of the game is to help executives develop a new skillset to adapt and succeed in a VUCA (Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous) environment.
In a few words, during the SQUIRCLE Game, a group of people recite the alphabet. But not just any way. The group must recreate the alphabet, from A to Z, with their eyes closed, one letter at a time, following the alphabetic order, but with random participation from each member of the group. Participants do not have the right to agree on a prior roadmap. No one knows who is going to speak. If two people speak at the same time or if the usual order of the alphabet is not respected, it is necessary to start again from the beginning.
The group is thus faced with a complex situation, for which there is no preconceived solution and no possible intellectual strategy. A logical mind is not able to resolve this situation. And at the same time, the members of the group must keep their logic since it is necessary to respect the order of the alphabet, but show instinct to adapt. It is a way of recreating a time and a space in which people function by being connected to each other, universally, without worrying about differences of opinion or emotions, to achieve a form of unanimity.
The objective is to demonstrate to the participants that in the face of complexity we must not necessarily go through operating modes. Strategic, logical thinking is not only not enough, but allowing it to dominate bans us from having access to our natural capacity for solving complex problems.
Simply put, regardless of their backgrounds, when SQUIRCLE Game participants give up the urge to win, they get in touch with their intuition and tune into more subtle perceptions necessary for creative adaptation. Paradoxically, they win the game.
You deployed this “game” in several companies with teams that I imagine had never been exposed to this form of their own intelligence before. What is the success rate of this game experiment?
Without exception, the group ends up getting there. I have facilitated the SQUIRCLE Game in hundreds of groups across five continents, a variety of industries and sizes of companies, non-profit organizations, conferences with mixed audiences, graduate programs, and high schools. I have never seen participants not able to eventually complete the game successfully.
Out of all the groups with which I have worked, only one so far was able to complete the SQUIRCLE Game in one go the very first time they tried. It was in Tokyo. All participants were Japanese. Eager to understand, at the end I asked participants how they felt during the game and how they explained their success. Two factors emerged: social discretion is paramount in Japanese society, and it is best demonstrated through silence. Japanese people value silence highly as a fundamental form of nonverbal communication and associate it with truthfulness. For them, even more than language, silence conveys information, emotions, and rich and ambiguous subtleties, which in turn forces attentive listening and makes space for another type of interpersonal communication. In my many years of doing business in Japan, I often had meetings where the CEO would listen quietly while his team members talked about the details of a transaction or even things totally unrelated to business. In the West, it’s usually the opposite: the lower you are in the hierarchy, the less you are expected to talk in meetings, and for the sake of efficiency, small talk is rather limited because we value the intellect over the senses.
What the SQUIRCLE Game makes explicit in less than 20 minutes is the following. For the human mind to overcome a complex challenge like this serious game, thinking linearly is not operative. The act of exhaustively mapping out all scenarios, comparing them and choosing the optimum path simply is not possible. The context changes constantly and depends on multiple people who all act interdependently. And even if it were possible, it would require computing too much data at once. As a point of reference, computers had to study 30 million scenarios to win over world champions of Go Game, which involves only two players. But the more important point here is that this is not how the human mind works in complex situations. When time is limited, information is unreliable, and the future is uncertain, our minds use heuristics to adapt to circumstances, make decisions and solve problems.
Can you detail what you mean by “heuristics”?
In contrast to logic and probability, heuristics are processes that partially ignore information and enable fast decisions. The classical idea about heuristics is two-fold:
- i) Because of their cognitive limitations, humans are unable to perform rational computation.
- ii) When people can optimize, they often rely on heuristics in order to save effort at the price of sacrificing accuracy.
This translates into the idea that the less information, computation, or time that one uses, the less accurate one’s judgments will be. This accuracy-effort trade-off is believed to be one of the few general laws of the mind.
However, their in-depth research concludes quite differently from this classical view. Their results show that less effort can, in fact, lead to better or worse accuracy, depending on the environment in which a heuristic is used. In a simple well-defined microcosm, in which all relevant alternatives, consequences, and probability distribution are known, and no surprises are allowed, computation and optimization models work. But in an uncertain world, heuristics can be more accurate than methods that use more information and computation, including optimization methods.
Actually attempting secured deduction through fact gathering and computing is not only ineffective in the SQUIRCLE Game, it is also disabling participants from fully accessing a deeper intelligence. By definition, the logical mind tends to exclude anything ambiguous by nature based on the binary measuring system with which it works (true or false, higher or lower, thicker or thinner, etc.). In doing so, it literally shuts down our capacity for noticing non-binary information and all subtleties that come with it. To illustrate this point, what comes to mind are classical computers and quantum computers. The first group manipulates ones and zeroes to crunch through operations, but quantum computers use quantum bits or qubits. Just like classical computers, quantum computers use ones and zeros, but qubits have a third state called “superposition” that allows them to represent a one or a zero at the same time. If you stick to classical machine computation you ban superposition and other quantum mechanical phenomena like entanglement.
On the other hand, in the SQUIRCLE Game, once participants give up a domineering command control mode and shift away from binary thinking, they immediately regain access to their natural ability for creative adaptation.
Is there some scientific research available on this topic?
I have not conducted a scientific experiment to observe what’s happening in the brains of participants, although I seriously thought of it; but it is too costly given the exorbitant price of this type of brain imagery equipment. However, in chapter six of my SQUIRCLE book I mention the research of neuroscientists Alejandro Perez and Manuel Carreiras published in 2013. They showed the spontaneous neuronal synchronization that occurs between brains when people who had never met before, engage in a conversation. They explained that this natural interbrain communion happens beyond language.
All the more interested in this research, I found out that eventually all groups systematically succeed at the SQUIRCLE Game once they have been advised to — individually and collectively — surrender control over the process and give up their attachment to the outcomes.
This is exactly what happened to Philipp, the Unilever executive and experienced marathon runner that I mention in chapter 1 of my SQUIRCLE book. Philipp accepted to follow his coach who advised him to let go of his goal and focus on the process. He never looked at his watch and observed his breathing throughout the entire race. He reached his best time ever, although he had trained the least for that race.
Why is SQUIRCLE so essential for businesses?
Using a game and letting go of strategy and outcomes remains a very foreign concept among business audiences. But it shows that when people give up the traditional agenda of willful linear efficiency, when they stop resisting confusion and chaos, they start being much more receptive to their environment. They connect with new part of themselves and can far more easily adapt to change.
This is exactly why I designed SQUIRCLE. The model shows an actionable path for people to give up the dominance of the SQUARE over the CIRCLE because it compromises our ability to thrive in a VUCA world. When we relinquish control over the process by letting go of strategy and outcomes, a deeper intelligence emerges at an individual and group level, thereby making actionable solutions clear. This deeper intelligence, called intuitive intelligence, guides the group of participants through the complexity of the challenge all the way to its resolution.
 The National Institute for Play is a non-profit public benefit corporation committed to bringing the unrealized knowledge, practices, and benefits of play into public life. It was founded and is led today by Dr Stuart Brown, who trained in general and internal medicine, psychiatry, and clinical research.
 For more details, check out the work of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, which research led to the scientific publication “Heuristics, The Foundation of Adaptive Behaviors” (Oxford University press, 2011)
SQUIRCLE in Action: Examples of Business Practice
What are the difficulties you observe in companies nowadays and how do you intervene?
For companies to be successful in a VUCA world, they need a culture of intrapreneurship where intuitive intelligence is key to successfully experiment; just like research scientists who operate in their lab at the frontier of what they know for sure works and what they assume could possibly work. This assumption cannot be formulated shrewdly without some level of intuitiveness. In his biography, Steve Jobs insisted on the power of intuition and described its impact on his work at the helm of Apple. “Intuition is a very powerful thing,” he told writer Walter Isaacson, “more powerful than intellect.” One of France’s most significant mathematicians and a philosopher of science, Henri Poincaré said, “It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover.”
When the SQUARE (logic) becomes dominant it belittles the CIRCLE (intuition) and deprives us of essential adaptive and problem-solving skills.
This is probably one of our biggest cognitive biases, yet I rarely see it discussed in the workplace.
This bias sits at the core of my advisory work with CEOs. I meet strong, driven leaders with exceptional analytical skills, strategic capacities and often clear intuitive abilities. Yet in their organizations, complex problems and team collaboration are approached in a SQUARE dominant way more often than not. Once a CEO recognizes this and its side effects on their business, their mindset shifts and in turn, this impacts their organizations. This is the decisive factor that allowed billion-dollar companies to succeed at reinventing themselves and overcome daunting business challenges, when recommendations of even the best strategic management consulting firms had not been enough to bring forth the level of transformation needed by our clients.
Becoming aware of the dominance of the SQUARE is the pivotal process that naturally unleashes an untapped innate potential in everyone. That is key to adapting and thriving in disruption. That is key to understanding more deeply post COVID consumers whose choices are shifting towards purposeful dollar spend and engaging employees whose preferred places to work are more and more corporations that operate responsibly.
Can you give us an example of a company operating from a “free CIRCLE” perspective? What does it look like?
I remember interviewing a senior executive at one of the largest global pharmaceutical companies. He was running the portfolio of all over-the-counter drugs. Because it was the least strategic and least profitable part of the company’s portfolio, his bosses were not paying much attention to his way of driving the business. So he and his team felt a certain independence and developed a real autonomy. Unlike the rest of the offices, they painted theirs in bright colors, had a new logo designed, worked different flexible hours to accommodate all personal situations. They spontaneously created a new work culture.
Over four consecutive years, they grew their top line by 40% although the global president admitted that they had repeatedly made mistakes in elaborating their strategy. Yet what made them successful was their ability to systematically pivot quickly. The pressure they felt coming from the C-suite was low, they became rather autonomous thinkers and created their own culture. That’s how the global president explained their success in spite of the repeated strategic misjudgments. This speaks to Peter Drucker’s famous conviction that “culture eats strategy at breakfast.” In my 15 years of management consulting I have repeatedly seen culture save groups or on the contrary dangerously compromise success.
So if culture is key to the success of a company in an instable environment, how do you change it? How do you concretely help organizations transform themselves and gain in agility?
Over the years, I have worked with a number of companies that had to reinvent their business models due to disruption by pure digital players, in industries like sports and entertainment or media, for instance. In my experience it is rarely wise to try to change the culture of an organization head-on, but there are ways to influence it.
To do so, our approach is very pragmatic. The work starts with a proprietary assessment that I developed. It evaluates how an individual, a team, or a whole organization is positioned to deliver on their strategy and reach their goals, as well as innovate and adapt in a fast-changing environment of unknown and uncertainty.
In the same vein as the seminal work of MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Edgar Schein on Culture and Leadership, our assessment analyzes the way executives make decisions through 17 parameters. The outcome enables people to focus on their strengths and be wary of their blind spots, the shadow side of their strengths. It makes diversity actionable and encourages organizations to value outliers, leverage untapped resources, and seize overlooked opportunities in their work culture. It awakens an innate human potential — deep human thinking — that looks at problems with a renewed perspective that doesn’t shy away from complexity. When we avoid complexity, we oversimplify. Sometimes it is necessary but at best this leads to incremental change and more often than not to status quo. It is only when we embrace complexity that we can access the deeper solutions needed to address the challenges of today’s disruptive environment.
We designed a workshop for complex problem solving where participants are not afraid of getting lost in the process. Actually, after experiencing the SQUIRCLE Game they know in their hearts and minds that losing sight of any logical understanding of a situation is a sure sign of getting closer to a breakthrough idea. Eventually they look forward to that critical moment. By then you know you’re on a path to cultural evolution.
You mentioned an assessment you developed and use; can you give more info about it?
The SQUIRCLE test is based on a proven assessment I invented — The Intuitive Compass® — that helped 250,000 senior executives and students at some of the most successful companies and most prestigious business schools in the world. It gives respondents insights into their thinking preference for a SQUARE, a CIRCLE, or an EVEN approach to situations and decisions.
The purpose of the SQUIRCLE test is not to assign you to a specific profile or category. It is meant to foster self-reflection and promote open discussion with others. Whether your preference is for a SQUARE or a CIRCLE approach, we all need to recognize:
- The importance of CIRCLE in re-inventing our organizations, our modes of leadership and decision-making.
- The great contribution of SQUARE in analyzing, bringing facts and frameworks of reference, as long as it doesn’t become dominant, like an ideology that suppresses critical and creative thinking.
Based on a decade of empirical observations, we can say that by a large majority people favor a SQUARE approach. So it makes a big difference once people recognize their inclination and can better appreciate others’ difference or similarity. It’s not how many CIRCLE people you have in your organization that matters. It is how well you understand and support those with a CIRCLE preference. SQUIRCLE is really for everyone.
Could you share a case study?
Yes! The exemplary revival of Ralph Lauren Parfums. In 2010, the American brand was in strong decline (-25% growth). There was a great temptation to forcefully recover sales by focusing everything on commercial and promotional techniques at the risk of reducing margins and investment in product development. But the global president of the brand was able to unite his teams and consulting agencies around a radically innovative approach. Our collaboration and the transformation of his mindset allowed him, at a critical time, to reverse his perspective on the development of a collection of four fragrances for men called Big Pony. From a purely transactional approach, he moved on to an empathetic and archetypal understanding of his customers, and generated a product that met as much the needs of the time as those of the brand. Before the concept was even in the vernacular, he orchestrated the shaping of the brand’s raison d’être (reason for being), resulting in a double-digit capitalized annual growth rate (CAGR) in a single year and doubling the growth of the global market over five consecutive years.
Any other examples pulled from your own practice?
Here is another direct illustration regarding a billion-dollar US media company called Hachette Media. At a time when the media industry was upset by a plethora of new start-ups with disruptive offerings and revenue models, the CEO had to accept that he had no clarity about the future but that it shouldn’t hamper his ability to lead his direct reports, inspire his people, make decisions, and take action. One day, after an intense one-on-one session because a lack of clear vision of the future was unsettling to him, he eventually accepted that the “vision was the reinvention.” He also admitted that in spite of the constant pressure of the headquarters, the culture in the US division had to change from being financially driven with quarterly reports ruling their calendars to becoming more entrepreneurial and willing to experiment and take more risks, in the absence of a clear strategy and set roadmap. But this had to turn into a new, day-to-day reality, starting with the way his direct reports would rethink their business and adopt a new leadership mindset and behaviors. The holding had to invest in the digital transformation of their business, yet it was carrying costs that were now too high given the fact that a few important household name magazines like Metropolitan Home had to be closed for lack of advertising revenues due to decline in readership. At the same time, Elle magazine was doing remarkably well. That same year it had actually sold more advertising pages than Vogue magazine, a business milestone in the history of the iconic French magazine in its US incarnation.
To help get all executive team members to agree to invest time or budget in the digital transformation of the business model was not an easy feat. The SQUIRCLE Game helped a lot. The SQUIRCLE Game acts as a harmonizer, just like an orchestra tunes their instruments to the A note that the first violin gives to all musicians. It might seem esoteric, but it works.
They practiced the SQUIRCLE Game on a regular basis each time their Executive Committee was meeting. SQUIRCLE Game enabled them to understand that in full uncertainty you don’t necessarily need a clear vision to reach your goal. They were able to accept the unexpected “vision as the reinvention,” even if it felt somewhat blurry to the SQUARE profiles. They saw that they didn’t need to agree on the path forward either, which appeased tensions and allowed a space for disagreement without brutal confrontation. At the same time, they experienced firsthand that it required a different type of leadership (more receptive and less opinionated, which is hard when dealing with a burning platform) and a different type of navigation: day by day evaluation, moment to moment vigilance, overall acceptance that not having the upper hand was not a problem in and of itself. But to not accept this uncertainty was either paralyzing or leading to willful force, which of course without fail produces misjudgments and exhaustion. This new approach to business trickled down throughout the organization. It triggered a sense of possibility and calculated risk. The company won 6th place on the App Store for a media digital solution invented in-house that people could download on their phone. The company regained profitability in less than a year. Soon after it was sold to Hearst as part of a global sale of all media activities decided by the shareholder and global CEO.
Two years later we got rehired by the former CEO of Hachette Media US who took on Lagardère Sports and Entertainment, EMEA. Due to digital channels, that division was also heavily disrupted. The financial state of the business was even steeper. The organization was also more complex due to multiple countries, sports and business models. Nevertheless, we got the same results. In less than a year, the business turned around with profitability, business growth, and financial risk brought back to green.
In a COVID and post COVID world, how do we regain nature and make it central to our lives?
This is the fundamental objective of SQUIRCLE: to reconnect us — through intuition and instinct — with the intelligence of nature in us. McKinsey Global Institute conducted extensive research about innovation. It showed that when pursuing innovation the focus should be equally — if not more — on people and culture as we process and structure.
Once professionals and individuals use a SQUIRCLE mindset to fluently tap into their natural abilities for complex problem solving and decision making in uncertainty, we will have made substantial progress. One decision at a time, we will surely move towards a more innovative and more sustainable future.
Did you start the SQUIRCLE ACADEMY in order to reach a wider audience (more people and culture)?
In addition to my SQUIRCLE book, I have launched the SQUIRCLE ACADEMY. Its purpose is to bring to as many companies as possible the same principles and techniques that The Human Company brings in our management consulting assignments, to help some of the most successful global companies transform and thrive in disruption.
At SQUIRCLEACADEMY.com executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and professionals can access:
– Original outcome-based e-learning courses
– Off-the-shelf workshops facilitated by our certified coaches to boost communication, collaboration, adaptation, and innovation
– Training programs (customized with and for their specific needs)
– Certification track to become a SQUIRCLE coach in their own company, or as independent agents working for our various clients or their own clients.
I believe in the power of purpose-driven community — everyone aspiring to a shared vision, making a difference in the world, upholding principles that maintain the integrity of it all, and moving us forward. This is why this certification program is one of our priorities at the SQUIRCLE ACADEMY.
Moved by the same spirit, we also created the KNOW BETTER WORLD FOUNDATION, targeting more specifically women, who still have to overcome in so many ways the invisible barriers.
In conclusion: Is there one last thing you would like to share?
During my 15-year practice, as I mentioned earlier, we have trained and worked with about 250,000 business students and executives. We’ve heard from many that it changed them beyond their professional life. I sincerely hope that we will be able to affect many more people with SQUIRCLE.
It is clearly possible for organizations to change and reinvent themselves; I’ve seen this happen even with large global businesses in free fall, due to broken business models, in disrupted industries and very tough economic environments. To make this possible, the work has to start at the top but then quickly this new way of thinking needs to cascade through the ranks to make the transformation process possible, efficient, and durable. That’s essentially the raison d’être of SQUIRCLE.