By Gloria Lombardi

“When setting out a mission to innovate, grow and change, it is imperative to start with a purpose.”

Jonathan MacDonald is the author of ‘28 Thoughts on Digital Revolution‘, a collection of ideas that he developed between 2006 and 2014 with regards to the digital transformation we are currently experiencing. He is also the founder of ‘Thought Expansion Network‘ (TEN) and a world-renowned speaker of the potential of technology and the new realities of business influenced by relentless change. Pretty impressive for someone whose start in life was not exactly a bed of roses; he was given up at birth.

I caught up with him to discuss some of the thoughts he addresses throughout his work: social media, change, data privacy, noise and leadership in the digital world.

Social media and beyond

“The world of social media opportunities is a minor part of what is actually happening in society and business.”

MacDonald talks about the increased power that people have to create, edit, publish and share content, which means “whatever an organisation delivers into the public domain can be instantly adjusted and promoted.”

This removes the traditional levels of control and predictability that companies once had over how people would behave.

Yet, it is not just about communications. “This affects the entire value chain…every single aspect of doing business.”

A major point to consider is that social media can be under-exploited due to misinterpretations, including looking at it purely through a fixed lens of marketing communications campaigns.

“It is tempting for companies to start with a channel perspective, asking themselves ‘What can we do with an app to promote our brand in this campaign?’, ‘What platform can we build so people engage with us?’ However, this is a rather limited perspective.”

To MacDonald, the new landscape is one of “earned media”, which relies upon a language of passion and belief. “In simple terms – what people care about and what matters to their lives.”

Hence, companies should invest considerable amount of resources in building trust. “They stand for something we can believe in, and truly mean it in everything they do, rather than just everything they say.”

He cites LEGO as an example. For them, releasing new product lines is the tip of an iceberg that run through a wider strategy of direct citizen involvement and experimentation in crowdsourcing.


Change is a theme very close to MacDonald’s heart. After several years of working within and alongside many organisations, large and small, he has become fully aware that the current and future business environment is anything but stable and predictable.

“Over my entire career I have faced negative reactions to change. Change is the enemy of the competent as it re-defines the safe place within which they dwell. Ultimately, it makes them scared as what they think they know is being challenged. However, change is persistent and unrelenting in the face of those who resist it.”

Hence, his desire to help companies deal with it and be innovative in “an agile and relevant way.” He suggests businesses focusing on five tangible elements.

People: Identify those who are most comfortable with uncertainty in senior enough positions so as not to suffocate the chances that could be taken. “It’s unfortunately suboptimal if only junior staff have this characteristic.”

Purpose: Be extraordinarily clear on what your purpose and vision is, so that every single person inside and outside the organisation knows the mission you are undertaking. Plus, regularly check how well the purpose is understood. This requires monitoring and being involved in conversations.

Finance: Separate innovative, unproven activities in the balance sheet. This should help to evaluate “the risk of not moving forward with the costs of the funding of exploration.”

Facilitation: Facilitate those who are positively proactive in trying to push things forward whilst enabling them to initiate flexible projects that do not have a defined outcome. “Remember not to link their activity to an expected outcome, however tempting.”

Learning: Learn from all outcomes regardless of what you may have once perceived as ‘success’. “Feed this into iterative projects for constant adjustment at the speed of change.”

The privacy dilemma

“If you are thinking of innovating in the social network space my advice would be to differentiate around the issue of privacy.”

MacDonald has something to say about who owns our data and the access to private information in the digital age. He is clear that we are living in a new world where trust can only come from respecting those areas.

“I believe citizens should be in control of their own private information. It is a basic human right and is central to our identity.” He calls it the ‘privacy dilemma‘, one of the main differentiators of the winning tools, platforms and channels in the future.

The challenge for him is how to change the behaviour of those “eagerly looking and paying for more and more personal information.”

He is also concerned about companies who run practices that are ethically questionable. For example, “when people enter into environments where their data is held and used, that information should be upfront, enabling them to have the freedom of choice – not hidden within a cluster of terms and conditions or un-readable screens.”

Noise and decision-making

For MacDonald another important aspect to consider today is the volume of noise coming from connected technology, which “is competing for our attention making decisions progressively harder.

“I am convinced that as things progress, there will be an increasing need to ‘de-noise’. This is the activity of filtering meaning out of distractions.”

He likes to refer to Sydney Finkelstein of Tuck School of Business and author of ‘Think Again – Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions’. The professor looks at three factors to good decision-making:

  • Open-mindedness: decision makers should be more open to new ideas and not afraid to look outside their comfort zones.
  • Own up to mistakes: being brave enough to admit when something goes wrong.
  • Awareness and acceptance of change: in the author’s words “good leaders will get multiple sources of information and get honest feedback to make sure they are not missing or ignoring something that should be obvious.”

MacDonald believes the third point is the most problematic. “The reality is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to perceive information effectively as there’s so much information to process. However, paradoxically, we need to access more information to ensure we are aware of what is happening around us.”

He is convinced that the antidote to this situation lies in companies and individuals developing filters. “Filters will be used as solutions to the most paradoxical problems, the toughest decisions and the hardest philosophical dilemmas.”

It is within

MacDonald is a person with a mission and he topped off our interview with an inspiring piece of advice on how to harness internal courage:

“The popular quote ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ is essentially a summary of the need to feel comfortable with the feeling of insecurity. This is not to say that feeling insecure is good. This is to say that feeling at ease with a lower level of security often opens the door to higher achievement.

“From being given up at birth to experiencing times of hardship, loss and constraint, I am living testament to the fact that anything you commit to and focus on is achievable.

“Whilst the others wait to receive what they think they deserve, you have the absolute power to go out and get what it is you believe in. It is within.”


This article originally appeared on simply-communicate