Interview with Salim Ismail - Highlights from 2019 and plans for 2020

Today’s blog is linked to the Podcast “Exponential Organisations” and is a loose transcript of the interview I had with Salim Ismail. It won’t be a word-for-word transcript of the interview but will rather be me highlighting some key things that Salim said during the interview. I hope you enjoy it.


Introducing Salim


Salim is a futurist and best-selling author of "Exponential Organizations" and "Exponential Transformation" and has been building disruptive digital companies as a serial entrepreneur since the early 2000s.


Salim is Founding Executive Director of Singularity University and Co-founder and Chairman of OpenExO, a global transformation ecosystem that connects world-class professionals with organizations, institutions and people who want to build a better future through cutting-edge ideas and actionable methodologies.


What have been the highlights of 2019?


“For me I would classify 2019 as a major transactional turning point. What I mean by that is the book “Exponential Organizations” is in its fifth year since being published and sees no signs of slowing down and I will have to yield to the pressure of doing a second edition. I think what has happened is that we have transitioned from a book and a community to a full-fledged ecosystem with tool sets. We are now in the ridiculously bizarre position of having access to a community, tool sets, ecosystem and credibility, and so the combination has to make us just go for it. You get this type of synergy in one spot very rarely and we are just going with this opportunity.".


What have been two or three highlights from 2019?


Access to heads of state

“The biggest highlight for sure is Majoritas (www.majoritas.com) which is our Romanian global political consulting firm that has over the last few years, unknown to us, been using the book to advise heads of state. We found out that the number of heads of state turned out to be dozens. We have spent most of the year ratifying this because it sounds completely impossible but it turns out to be true. I have now gone and met the heads of state in six countries this year. We have just met the mayor of Manila and the education minister of Thailand and so the levels of access we have is amazing. It turns out that they have been using the book as guideposts for how they manager their relative worlds.”


Growth of OpenExO

“The second highlight would be that in June when we opened up the OpenExO community. We had been carefully growing to 650 people and now we at almost 3,000 members. The speed of this has been quite ridiculous and has also come with its challenges on how we manage this. When we have seen the amount of work that needs to be done we have realised that we have been structured in the wrong way and so we have made the decision to dissolve ourselves into the community rather than run a company with roles and responsibilities and job descriptions in a traditional sense. The platform is now robust enough that we can actually do that. What we are doing now is dissolving most of the full-time roles of the company and we will run everything as an opportunity on the platform. I think it will take 3 months, or so, for us to get this working because it is a very different style. In a normal company we would say that we need help with something and so hire a marketing support person but now we will do project-based opportunities on the platform and let people bid for the work. We can run the entire ecosystem within the community. One of the things we did in the community, which was very hard, was to actually run the ExO Sprints almost entirely in the community and so managing quality control is very tricky and it has taken almost a full two years to do but we have done it. Now that we have done it we have set ourselves up to really scale.”


Huge opportunities

“Almost everything we do should be granualised into a set of opportunities on OpenExO and this will take some time and co-ordination and learning. For example we are in discussion with three countries at minister level on how to transform education in those countries. If one of those comes through then it will take an army of people. Right now we have about ten opportunities like that ,and I am actually petrified on how to support them, so we better get good at this and grow the community. We made the choice in Q3 or Q4 this year to focus heavily on training and certification side of the business to make sure we had enough people that are qualified to work on these opportunities.”.


What are your plans for 2020?


Governance of OpenExO

“The first order of business for 2020 will to learn how to run ourselves in this decentralised model in the way I just described. We will try and do most of our work in and through the community. Then put in governance so that the community governs the ecosystem. Right now we are centralised and as we were building the platform we needed to be centralised so that we could put the right capabilities into the platform. Now that we have succeeded and it is robust enough to stand on its own, now how do we run the governance of the ecosystem in the community itself. We will do the work of dissolving into the community and the governance of it in Q1 and Q2.”


Second edition of “Exponential Organizations”

“In parallel to this is to create the second edition of “Exponential Organizations”. Five years is to long within an exponential world to not have an update. We started the process earlier in the year and asked who was interested in participating we received 40 responses. That is a lot of people and how do we filter this down. So we will probably just pick a curator per chapter who can then manage the editing and the updates for that chapter. We need to add a chapter on exponential governance and a chapter on the future of the economy which is unclear right now.”.


Portfolio of breakthrough ideas

“The second half of the year is to actually enact a lot of the breakthroughs and getting them into place. What we are doing is putting together a portfolio of breakthrough ideas and we want to help them get into the world. An example of this is Wellways (https://www.wellways.org/). Wellways uses sensors on woman’s breasts and can measure a very detailed temperature measurement and it turns out to be 80% better at detecting breast cancer than a mammogram and costs considerably less. If we can get this out to the world we can help get rid of breast cancer because early detection is 99% of the battle. We are putting together a portfolio of 30 to 40 breakthrough ideas and then putting a pilot together with mayors of various cities and asking them to pick which ideas they want and we will start to help them to implement it.


ExO Cities

We have a piece of our world called ExO Cities. We have ExO Works that helps companies transform and we are starting something similar called ExO Cities that will work with mayors of cities to transform their cities. An example of this is Bangkok where we will get people together and help them to identify what initiatives will be important for that city. We will then give them the tools, e.g. ExO Sprints etc, to implement these strategies.”


Salim, what keeps you going? What drives you?


Transforming civilization.

“My Massive Tranformative Purpose is to transform civilization. It is quite a tall order obviously and I often have impostor syndrome saying who am I to be making a claim like that. I had a conversation with Tony Robbins a few years ago and he took me aside and said to me that there was a group of people in the world that knew the world was really changing – the TED crowd, then there is a subset of these people who know how deep and broad this situation really is – the Singularity University crowd, and then he said that there was a handful of people that actually know what to do about it. Tony said that he put me on that list and he said that if I had an inclination of acting on what you know then I must just go for it. That has not left me in terms of call to action and I find that I have some kind of instinct after 8 years of SU sessions and 5 years at corporates doing transformational work and public sector work, that we as a community actually know how and where the world is transforming. This is because we understand the technology better than most and we have the tool sets to make a difference. We have a vibrant community that wants to make a difference.".


Transforming to the new economy

“We have tons of amazing people in the community that are out in the world doing amazing work but they are stuck making money in the old economy. Let’s find a business model and an incentive structure to have people work on the transformation. We are now at the 99th step of 100 in understanding what the new business model would look like and so we have launched the economy, we have the community, we have the tool sets and it is all coming together. We have done 20 corporate sprints, 6 in the public sector and now we need to really go for it.”




Thank you Salim for being my guest in this blog and podcast. To listen to the full interview, subscribe to the podcast here “Exponential Organisations” on iTunes or listen on www.ideastorm.co.za.


I hope you have enjoyed and found this blog valuable. If you would like to talk about any of these concepts further, then let’s chat. You can book me online using Calendly at https://calendly.com/ideastorm, contact me through my website at www.ideastorm.co.za or email me directly lance@ideastorm.co.za.

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