Without trust, there is no progress: The insight that defined my work life.

Roughly a decade ago, I had an epiphany. While studying design thinking at d-school, I took a research assistant role for side income. My professional life up to that day had been a collection of right-brain entrepreneurial endeavours. Academically, I contrasted this with a business degree and honours programme in marketing research – primarily because my parents insisted it was a better option than interior design or hospitality. In many ways, they remained right. Nowadays, I deeply treasure my knack for combining right and left brain thinking. Most innovation originates at this intersection. But at the time, the two worlds had only just begun to connect. Once I discovered design thinking, I realised it was about unearthing creativity and using it for business.

What I didn’t yet appreciate was that design thinking required building creative confidence and inspiring it in others. But that research assistant job changed everything for me. On the surface, the job description looked pretty mundane at first. It revolved around organising an event on digital trust management. It didn’t stand out to me, but I needed the cash and was open to learn something new. Little did I know that it would lead me to a profound insight that shaped my life’s work and purpose. It eventually made me understand that trust is not just about risks to manage, but about opportunities to create the future. I realised that trust was both something to be managed in a left-brain fashion, and a driving force of creation that could turn right-brain ideas into thriving businesses. But I am getting ahead of myself.

A couple weeks into the job, I started getting a grasp of the new world I was entering. The discipline of trust management looks at how the social dynamics of trust drives decisions, e.g. to purchase something online. This is where I began to understand that trust had the power of influencing decision-making: A lack of it would prevent a purchase we are intent on making. It dawned on me that trust had to be connected to value creation in some form. After all, if it had the power to determine whether or not we would buy something, it would surely be a variable for businesses to manage. Equally, if trust determined whether or not we were likely to do something, it could surely inspire us to start new things (like businesses), learn new skills and improve the state of the world. Lack of trust, on the flip side, would be able to dissuade us from doing so. Moreover, the degree of trust present might predict how enthusiastically the world would jump onto the bandwagon whenever someone attempted something new. I was on the cusp of developing a powerful and novel theory of innovation (one widely accepted nowadays.) It’s one of the primary reasons I get booked to speak on global stages and travel 300 days in a year. I am taking you to the origin of the discovery, which brightened my days as a research assistant.

Soon, the real insight hit: If trust was a gatekeeper to decisions and behaviours, it would have to be the ultimate gateway for facilitating human progress. Since anybody trying to innovate faces the challenge of changing the way things are today, surely trust moderated this innovation process. I started researching the strategic significance of trust in business and its impact on innovation initiatives. You may have guessed that there wasn’t much to be found on the subject. Most academic literature I discovered focused on describing the value of trust in society or the economy in abstract terms. Some went down a rabbit hole trying to define the concept of trust in multiple-paragraph explanations which were hard to generalise. All of it made sense, but lacked a clear and concise model for application.

Design thinking probably owes its global hype to the simple framework it provides for user focused design. I liked the practicality of it and decided to work on demystifying the role of trust in creating value and inspiring change. Years later my epiphany materialised in a book, The Trust Economy. For the past years, I have used it as a platform to show that designing and managing for trust is the most important thing a business can do. As of 2019, my team has built that compelling argument into a sophisticated scientific-grade model aggregating a great deal of academic research and making it practically applicable. We are piloting it with organisations at the moment. With a short internal survey, we map trust dynamics across an employee group. Our formula assigns this a score and shows frictions and trust gaps. Many research studies have pointed out before us that trust is the most significant characteristic of high-performing workplaces. It’s important to contextualise this. Companies need the right kind of internal and external trust dynamics. They need to work fluidly amongst themselves and with external stakeholders. By diving deep in qualifying and quantifying trust, we help our clients understand the value of trust as clearly as never before.

We make this point tangible with a proprietary formula for computing trust scores. Better still, we correlate these with relevant KPIs that the organisation is already tracking. We then help clients eliminate trust gaps and optimise trust dynamics inside the organisation, which eliminates frictions and streamlines decision-making and behaviour. Shared trust drives up alignment and magnetises an organisation to deliver significantly more value from existing resources. In fact, we believe optimising for trust directly impacts KPIs companies already track, such that we see a universal performance uplift. We created a clean dashboard to track this effect over time. Our solution allows for remeasuring trust dynamics at regular intervals. The beauty of this approach is that it drives unprecedented alignment on a people and KPI level. Most organisations are used to dealing with competing priorities and wrestling with different work and communication styles. Conflicting targets between teams and divisions stand in the way of effective improvement, and stall transformation for the better.

The classic example is the struggle between compliance and innovation teams. I experienced it first-hand over the half-decade I spent driving digital innovation within financial services. Compliance teams are in charge of protecting the current business, innovation teams focus on finding future revenue sources in new business models and value propositions. While the two functions are technically supposed to work towards the same objective (i.e. commercial interests of the company), this doesn’t happen in reality. I realised this is because the teams basically trust two fundamentally different things. Compliance trusts the status quo and very much distrusts the unknown, whereas innovation trusts in unexplored potential and distrusts the long-term viability of what’s already there. This is one of the many problems we look to solve with our organisational trust engine, for the same reason I wrote my book: To educate about the pivotal role of trust in the business world, and provide a simple and effective way to leverage it and achieve the right kind of progress.

Philipp Kristian’s book, The Trust Economy, made waves globally as a fresh new perspective on the digital innovation economy. He keynotes client events around the world explaining the role of trust in innovation, and what this has to do with the digital economy. 2019 he inaugurated OxytocinGroup™, a venture portfolio embodying the purpose of creating more trusted choices and building a happier, healthier and wealthier economy. Email him directly at [email protected]

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