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The Imperfectionists: Winning In Uncertain Times With Imperfect Solutions With Charles Conn, Board Chair Of Patagonia

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The pandemic has heightened the level of uncertainty we face in the world today. Disruptions and changes have become bigger challenges to tackle, producing even more complicated problems. In imperfect times such as these, we need to look not for perfect solutions, but imperfect ones. In this episode, Corinna Bellizi interviews Charles Conn, a cross-section leader, conservationist, entrepreneur, co-founder of Monograph Capital, and Board Chair of Patagonia. Charles brings insights on problem-solving in uncertain times from his book, The Imperfectionists: Strategic Mindsets for Uncertain Times—a sequel to his Amazon bestseller, Bulletproof Problem Solving. He offers six reinforcing strategic mindsets that can address this high-change environment, propelling organizations forward despite being in the eye of the storm. If you wish to know how to orient yourself to be successful given the swirling competitive environment and fast technological change, then don’t miss this episode!


About Charles Conn

CMBB 144 | ImperfectionistCharles Conn is a cross-section leader, conservationist, and entrepreneur. He is co-founder of Monograph Capital, a life sciences venture firm in London and San Francisco, and was previously CEO of the Rhodes Trust in Oxford. He is the Board Chair of Patagonia and sits on The Nature Conservancy European Council. He was founding CEO of Ticketmaster-Citysearch and was a partner at McKinsey & Company. He is the author of two books: Bulletproof Problem Solving and The Imperfectionists: Strategic Mindsets for Uncertain Times.


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Additional Resources Mentioned

The Imperfectionists: Strategic Mindsets for Uncertain Times


Show Notes

01:38 – Becoming A Cross-Sectional Leader – What brought you to this moment as a cross-sectional leader? 

03:42 Audacious Mission – the idea here is to be guided by a very strong, um, we call it audacious mission

05:28 Six Mutually Reinforcing Mindsets – let’s talk about this a bit more because you do define in the book six mutually reinforcing mindsets

09:31 – Strategic Mindset: Curiosity – So our view is, you know, let’s, let’s talk about the mindsets that the starting point is, you actually need to be curious

14:02 – Strategic Mindset: Dragonfly Eye – Now, your next, um, step is really talking about a dragonfly eye

21:29 – Strategic Mindset: Imperfection – Now, I wanted to take a moment before we shift to the next question

25:29 – Strategic Mindset: Occurrent Behavior – let’s dig into this next step, because you, you have developed an interesting

29:49 Strategic Mindset: Collective Wisdom – So let’s dig a little bit deeper into this collective intelligence piece, which acknowledging you’re not the smartest person in the room

32:49 Strategic Mindset: Show And Tell – Now, as far as the last step here, practicing the show and tell Yeah. I mean, we’ve mentioned practice a bit throughout

38:59 Regenerative Organic Movement – the other I wanted to speak to is the regenerative organic movement, because I think this came as a surprise me


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The Imperfectionists: Winning In Uncertain Times With Imperfect Solutions With Charles Conn, Board Chair Of Patagonia

We live in imperfect times, times in which we’ve sacrificed so much of our natural world for modern convenience and where we are starting to see the negative impacts of that approach. We live in uncertain political times in which the right is pitted against the left and vice versa. In times like these, we need imperfect solutions too. Leaders or those that are aspiring to be leaders, how do we personally band together and create lasting positive change? How do we improve our impact however imperfectly? Joining me for this exploration is Charles Conn.

He is a cross-sectional leader, conservationist and entrepreneur. He is the Cofounder of Monograph Capital, a life scientist venture firm in London and San Francisco and was previously CEO of the Rhodes Trust in Oxford. He is the board chair of Patagonia and sits on the Nature Conservancy European Council. He was the founding CEO of Ticketmaster City Search and was a partner at McKinsey & Company. He’s got a plethora of experience from which to divine. He’s also the author of two books, Bulletproof Problem Solving and The Imperfectionists: Strategic Mindsets for Uncertain Times. This is published in April and May 2023, depending on where in the world you are by Wiley Press.

Charles Conn, thank you so much for joining me. Welcome to the show.

Thanks, Corinna. It’s great to be here.

Let’s start this conversation with your inspiration. What brought you to this moment where you have become a cross-sectional leader and also a conservationist at the same time?

As you mentioned in the introduction, my co-author and I have written a previous book called Bulletproof Problem Solving, where we focused on the tools for solving complicated problems, how to take them apart, prioritize them and crack them. What we found as we were heading into the pandemic was there’s such a level of uncertainty in the world that we thought it was important to address because we were seeing in both the nonprofit organizations that we work with, conservation organizations mostly and the businesses that we work with is like a paralysis.

When you think about this incredible overlay of artificial intelligence, automation, robotics and programmable biology cut across with war and pandemic, many people, including people at the very tops of conservation organizations and businesses, seem frozen. The tools that we were taught in business school for how to develop strategies don’t work very well when you’re in this high-change environment.

Many folks were saying, “I’m going to pause here and wait until we return to equilibrium.” We’re not coming back to equilibrium. This level of change is with us. Folks were doing impetuous and foolish things making acquisitions or starting big programs that they couldn’t afford. We are hoping to chart a middle path here where you use the best information you can gather and get started. That’s why we call it imperfectionism, not waiting for all the ducks to be in a row or some moment of perfect strategic clarity.

It sounds like you’re also alluding to a problem that we face in an era when it seems like data is available for everything. We can run into what I would term analysis paralysis, where there’s so much information available that it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. With the overall approach that you’re putting into this book, do you think it helps to address that specifically?

CMBB 144 | Imperfectionist
The Imperfectionists: Strategic Mindsets for Uncertain Times

Very much so. The idea here is to be guided by a very strong audacious mission so where you want to go and use the set of tools that we discuss in the book to create a very clear set of priorities for how to move your organization forward.

It’s reminding me of a few works that I’ve read in the long distant past from Good To Great, helping to focus on a mission and being clear on what that mission is. I am also reminded of some conversations I had with my former leader when I was building the business of Nordic Naturals, Joar Opheim. He would often say we can be aware of what our competitors are doing and it’s important to feed that information to our team but if we’re constantly reacting, we’re not charting a course.

We need to go ahead and define what it is that we are doing and then commit and drive forward with that. When you have your mission alignment clear and the path is laid well that it can inform your decisions in such a way that you’re not constantly feeling like you’re in scramble mode or the data is overwhelming because then, you’ve defined what you need to be looking at. Some of this other stuff may be interesting but not drive your decision-making at the same time.

In a business like Patagonia, it’s been incredibly important to have the strategic clarity of someone like Yvon Chouinard who has set a very clear horizon for us to aim for. That’s the what. Every day, people in the business need to decide, “How do you make that happen? What this book is about? How do you develop that sense of what to do next and how to get started?”

Let’s talk about this a bit more because you do define in the book six mutually reinforcing mindsets from embracing ambiguity, which is probably one of the hardest things to do all the way to practicing storytelling at every level. Tell me more about this. How did you get to these six?

We spent a lot of time thinking about it and we looked for examples. There are more than 50 examples in the book of both companies and nonprofits researched over the course of about a decade. We looked for examples where people had learned to take their organizations forward despite the fact that they were in the eye of the storm. That’s what guided us. What are the mindsets that those folks used to steer forward almost universally? That’s how we came up with the six. Why don’t I take a couple of them and talk about what we mean? I’ll stop for a second and we can regroup and talk about the other.

I want to stop the ballot box specifically because social media is off and on people’s minds. You detail in an early chart in the book on page six, the swift rise of TikTok versus Snapchat or Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Everyone is aware of who these companies are. Why don’t you start with technology and then we can dive into not-for-profit?

We live in this world where compared to our parent’s generation, things are accelerating at a pace that hasn’t been seen before. You could argue that during the whole post-war period when we had economic expansion and Ozzie and Harriet lived in our homes. That’s the anomaly. What we have now is a pace of technology change, which means something for both businesses and nonprofits. Let’s take businesses for a second. We don’t even know what industry boundaries are. Many years ago, if you were in the steel business or retail business, you knew what that meant.

[bctt tweet=”We live in this world where, compared to our parent’s generation, things are accelerating at a pace that just really hasn’t been seen before.” username=””]

Now, when you’re in a business, the disruptor or attacker of your business is likely to come from outside your traditional competitor set than inside. You may not even know who they are. The example you mentioned is a wonderful one. We’re all familiar that social media has been moving more towards short-form video content. You have players like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram but the dominant player, which is TikTok, wasn’t even known a few years ago.

It was mostly dismissed in the beginning by executives like myself. It’s like, “That’s for the young,” but we’re wrong.

It came from nowhere, this example of a business, which overseas origins. It used artificial intelligence rather than hand curation to serve up which of the videos you were going to see and was enormously compelling and infectious for the people who used it. It’s a great example of a business that came in and disrupted incredibly powerful and sophisticated players. That’s the world we’re living in. Given that that’s the world we’re living in, how do you deal with that? Look at the super competitors that exist.

If we’re sticking with the business for a second, Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft. Whatever business you’re in, they think it’s their business. Amazon started as a business, which is selling books. Now it’s a business that does consumer financial services, producer financial services and cloud computing. It’s the biggest player in the world in cloud computing and then it’s doing healthcare. That’s the kind of world we live in, whether you’re in a not-for-profit or a for-profit business. How do you orient yourself to be successful given that swirling competitive environment and fast technology change?

How? That’s the question. That’s six mutually reinforcing mindsets.

Our view is that let’s talk about the mindsets. The starting point is you need to be curious. That sounds enormously simple and obvious but it’s surprising to people in every type of organization like the giant banks or consulting firms or the biggest nonprofits, the Nature Conservancies of the world or the Conservation International. It’s very easy to think that you know everything about your business and to stop asking that childlike question.

Our favorite example here is many people are familiar with the Polaroid instant camera. Most people don’t know where that came from. Edwin Land, who was this prolific inventor, was walking around Santa Fe, New Mexico with his daughter on a holiday. He took a picture with his standard film camera at the time of something. His daughter next to him, Jennifer Land, said, “Daddy, can I see the picture?” He started to explain, “No, honey. That took an image of an emulsion that’s a chemical film. That needs to go to a lab.” He stopped himself and thought, “Why can’t we see the picture?”

This child had asked this question based on a curiosity that sparked his imagination. Believe it or not, by the end of the day, I’m not sure he was at an interesting lunch companion, he had figured out how to do the chemistry of photography. By that evening, he’d been meeting with his patent attorney about how to turn that into a new product. That level of curiosity where you’re asking the question why like a child is brilliant.

Isn’t that also how we have defined what’s at the root of genius and why 4-year-olds will be off the charts with regard to an IQ test and then by the time they’re 6, a lot of that is gone?

It’s awful the way our education system and frankly our parenting approaches squash creativity and curiosity. By the time you’re twenty, you’ve lost a lot of that childlike approach to things with an openness of mind. It’s probably no accident that great scientific discoveries of all ages have almost always been made by people in their teens and twenties. Einstein did the equivalent of six Nobel prizes worth of work before he was 30. It’s because there’s an openness that we sometimes lose as adults. We can remember to do that again. I guess that’s what we’re encouraging people to do.

I was even interviewed on another podcast on the entire subject of curiosity because it’s something I spend a lot of time talking about. It’s one of the only ways that we can effectively talk across the aisle to somebody who disagrees with us. If we come from a rigid standpoint, what happens when we meet another rigid standpoint? You guys butt heads. That’s all there is.

If you ask a question that is genuinely curious as opposed to one of those planting questions that’s almost like you’re creating another fallacy in your conversation, then you can have a meaningful conversation with someone who might disagree with you and get to some mutual ground where at least even if you still disagree, you understand one another’s point of view a little better. That’s at the root of attacking any real challenge that we might confront.

It seems, at least to me, that we’re getting less skilled at that by not practicing it as much. When we talk about the rise of social media, you’re not facing someone from person to person. It’s a lot easier to make a nasty comment to a social post than it is to confront somebody directly and say, “I disagree with you and here’s why,” as opposed to saying, “Why do you even think that in the first place? What brought you there? Help me understand your point of view a little bit better.”

I love the word you used, which is practice. If there are values or virtues that we want to see in our lives, the way to start is to put them into practice. You did it a second ago. Instead of making a statement, you put a question mark on the end of it. You ask it as a question. You offer it up to the people you’re in dialogue with so that you can co-discover or co-explore something because you’re indicating openness by asking those questions why, what, how and when, rather than making declarations. When we’re making strategic decisions, it’s particularly important that we have this fundamental openness to ask questions.

[bctt tweet=”If there are values or virtues that we want to see in our lives, the way to start is to put them into practice.” username=””]

Your next step is talking about a dragonfly eye view of the world to see through multiple lenses. I thought it was very interesting that you chose a dragonfly because a dragonfly is also a symbol associated with reaching your highest self. Where a butterfly is known for transformation and reaching that highest self-perspective. Was that intentional?

It’s a fascinating creature and we don’t even understand that well. What we do know is they have these giant compound eyes that have more than 3,000 lenses and 3 different lens types. We know that they perceive color in ways that we can only begin to imagine. There are some scientific tests on how they perceive color. Let’s use that as an analogy because we don’t know exactly how they see. They see their brains in a way that’s very different from ours.

We love this idea that they’re seeing things through these multiple lenses rather than the fixed lens. When you’re in your nonprofit or your company, it’s very typical that you see it through only that lens. You can stop when you’re developing strategic direction and ask, “I wonder what it looks like from the perspective of our suppliers, our customers or potential customer in a different space, a potential entrant, competitor or if we were to continue with a nonprofit angle.”

Let’s say we were looking at fisheries off California. When you’re a conservationist, you might only see it through the lens of conservation. What would it do for your solution set if you also looked at it through the eyes or lens of a commercial fisherman or a resource manager for California or a national fisheries agency? When you look at it through those different perspectives, the solution sets become much broader. Let’s continue with the fisheries example.

The Nature Conservancy back in the ‘90s and early 2000 realized that there was a huge problem with the groundfish fishery off the Coast of California. We were catching both species that were in abundance and incredibly endangered using a bottom trolling technology that also damaged their habitats. You could ask, “Shouldn’t we ban that?” Many people along that coast are also dependent on that for their livelihoods and many consumers are dependent on that as food. What this amazing team at The Nature Conservancy did is it looked at it through all those lenses.

Rather than doing bans at work with science, resource management agencies and fishers to figure out what areas should be protected areas where there was no fishing, they came up with new technologies for fishing that didn’t damage the habitat. Most importantly, they looked at the actual economics of the fishers and realized that instead of using what’s called derby fishing, where everyone rushes out to catch fish during short opening periods, they used a catch shares approach. You were entitled to catch a certain number of fish.

You could do that anytime and only if you didn’t have a bycatch of these endangered species. By creating that system and using licensing banks for these fish catches, all of a sudden it changed the whole dynamic of a fishery from an aggressive competitive one where there was lots of damage to or lots of risk of danger and risk of loss of habitat diversity and species diversity to one that works well and achieves higher prices for the fish that are caught. That is looking at things from multiple perspectives. It’s brilliant.

Is this the case study you referred to as the fish base case study?

No. That’s a different one.

I want to dig more into this one first. I come from the world of fish oil. You might not have known that before we got started here. I spent a decade working in a fish oil manufacturer with Nordic Naturals. I have since made a full pivot to working only with algae because, frankly, we’re on a global scale taking more than we should. Even though there are good protections in certain places, it’s a challenge for local fishermen to feel like they get a fair share in that overall tonnage. You have massive corporations coming in, getting the big deals and the big buys and that squeezes out the little guy, which poses a unique ethical issue. Thankfully, it seems like the Nature Conservancy works to help attack but hasn’t solved it on a global scale.

Let’s be real. We’ve got a lot of challenges in the world of fishing. I perhaps know a little bit more about this than most. I also did have the wonderful opportunity to interview the author, Steve Hawley, of Cracked about dams in the Pacific Northwest and what they’ve done to the fishing world. I want to know, as we talk about this a little bit more, what that negotiation table was like with those fishermen and how an active role could perhaps have been taken where they were involved at the table. I’m curious.

It does involve a very different shift and to your earlier point, probably 90% of the existing fisheries in the world are unsustainable. That’s partly because everything is done on an adversarial basis. Conservationists against natural resource managers and the government against commercial fishers. Often, there are other people too, like first nations tribes who believe that they have some historic stake in these creatures and the fishery as well as recreational fishers who think that they have some stake. You have all these different parties. I’ve spent 25 years working on salmon conservation in the Northeast and the Northwest.

CMBB 144 | Imperfectionist
Imperfectionist: Probably 90% of the existing fisheries in the world are unsustainable. That’s partly because everything is done on an adversarial basis.

In that confrontational adversarial approach, you tend to get low-quality outcomes that don’t meet anybody’s needs or expectations, partly because you haven’t reconceived the nature of this discussion at all. What happened with this group and Steve Hawley was involved along with people like Chuck Cook from the Nature Conservancy, is they put down their swords for a second and said, “We’re in trouble here. We’re about to lose our livelihoods, the species, the business and the whole nine yards in this incredibly important set of fisheries.”

They were so close to a situation where the entire fishery would’ve been shut down so people were willing to put their swords down and step away from their long-held positions. That allowed them to consider different gear types of protected areas so that young fish would have a place to grow without any chance of being caught. To look at a catch shares approach rather than a catch-all-I-can during a short opening approach, those elements together allowed everyone to take a step further, which is they trusted that the other parties were in it for them, not only themselves.

That’s what led to a remarkable chance for a solution. This isn’t the only place that this has occurred. The Nobel Prize-winning economist, Elinor Ostrom, who’s sadly gone, wrote about these natural resource problems and communities so beautifully over the course of 30 or 40 years in her career. When you have the right conditions, including not very little threat from the entrance, you can create community solutions where you get better conservation outcomes and better outcomes for fishers.

I wanted to take a moment before we shift to the next question to revisit a quote that you put in your onboarding document for this episode from Yvon Chouinard. That is simply, “The world changes too fast for complicated corporate strategies to make sense. The competition beats you to market by the time you have what worked out. The best way is to take small steps and learn by doing.” That was Yvon Chouinard. What do you think we can learn from this? How do we put it into practice?

[bctt tweet=”‘The world changes too fast for complicated corporate strategies to make sense. The competition beats you to market by the time you have it worked out. The best way is to take small steps and learn by doing.’ – Yvonne Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia” username=””]

What you read is at the very heart of what imperfectionism is about, which is rather than trying to work in the way we used to develop strategies, which is assuming structure and looking at the conduct of the players and trying to divine what they were likely to do, depending on what we did, this approach that you heard in Yvon’s quote is an experimentalist approach.

As long as the steps that I’m making are relatively low-cost and reversible, I should be willing to experiment. Step forward, see how it feels and see the results that I get. If I like it, take another step forward. If I don’t, take a step back. This is the philosophy that’s behind Patagonia. As an outdoor gear company, it’s at the very heart of what we do.

We make something up in our minds. We build a prototype, go out into the field and see if it works. If it works, we try and perfect it. If it doesn’t work, we go back to the drawing board. What Yvon said is, “If you try and solve all that in advance on paper or someone has already beat you to it, you’ll probably get it wrong anyway.” This is at the very heart of the overarching philosophy behind the book. We can talk about the other mindsets.

However, curiosity, seeing things through multiple perspectives, gathering new data, which is the next one we haven’t spoken about yet, tapping into sources of intelligence outside of your organization and getting other people to follow what you believe through good storytelling taken together are an imperfection approach developing strategy, which is an approach that gives you the courage to get started rather than to wait for some moment of perfection that’s never going to get there.

This leads me to think about my approach to leadership, which has always been to take it like you’re making a cake. You’ve got all the ingredients, throw them into a bowl and mix them up. You’ve got essentially everything that you know you need to make it work more or less but as it stands, you know you have to put it in the oven and let it perhaps rise in the oven at the right temperature before you get it to that stage where it’s going through the final step. That’s when you do all this testing.

That’s how I’ve approached it. I’ve also talked about it like Jell-O. You make the Jell-O but it’s got to take some time to set. Before it’s set, you’ve got to do some stress tests so to speak. Was I right? Was I wrong? Share it with your customers, get their feedback and start to think about the whole problem that you’re working to address in this half-big state as opposed to, “I’ve solved it. Here it is. It’s a baked cake. It’s frosted and ready to be eaten.”

When you think about it, as organizations get bigger, they often move away from that approach that you described. They demand perfection, ex-anti-perfection and punish people who are working at the front lines when something goes wrong. That’s entirely the wrong impulse. As long as people are making experiments at the front line that is a relatively modest investment that can be reversed.

If you don’t like it, take a step back. We should be encouraging experimentation at the front line because people up at the very top of an organization aren’t close enough to the real problems and opportunities that exist down at the coalface, where people are encountering potential customers. In the case of nonprofits, the actors that I described, are resource harvesters and regulators.

Let’s dig into this next step because you have developed an interesting term I hadn’t seen before, which was pursuing a current behavior.

The current behavior is this idea of what’s happening rather than what you predicted. We love it because when you’re trained as a management consultant, which both co-author and I were trained in, you’re trained to go out and immediately get the existing data sets. You then do an analysis of those data sets and predict what’s going to happen.

That all sounds great but all those existing data sets were collected in the past. The likelihood that they’re going to lead to the ultimate insights in a world that’s changing quickly is low. It seems obvious but that’s what everybody does. Instead, what we encourage you to do is do your experiment. In the online world, it’s relatively easy to do. You can design one interface and another interface and test them on half of your audiences or you can try one offer.

Here are fish oil capsules in 3 jars with 1 free and here’s one you come up with a different structure. In the real world, outside online, it can sometimes be hard to conduct those experiments but we encourage people to do them. At Patagonia, we do tons of product testing. Even giant businesses, which have hugely expensive components, like SpaceX, they take an experimentalist approach. With their launch, which is probably an environmental disaster, they spent hundreds of millions of dollars and had an unplanned disassembly. That was their term.

Even in advance of that, they knew what they were going to learn and therefore, it was worth going ahead with a launch because there were many things that they were experimenting with in the design of that particular rocket. Whether you like Elon Musk and the idea of SpaceX or not, it’s impressive to see that. Compared to NASA, they’re doing 3 or 4 times more launches per year and they’ve lowered the cost of sending a kilogram into space by 95%.

I have my issues with Elon Musk. I also interviewed EOS Data Analytics’ CMO about their work and learned that their work got one of the satellite constellations into the air. It’s like, “Six in one hand and half dozen in the other, we’re putting technological solutions to climate change into the stratosphere with the help of SpaceX.” I can be critical of Elon Musk all day long and I’m happy to do but there are certain things about what they’re doing that you can’t deny are working pretty well. I don’t disagree here. I also wanted to, for a moment, get your viewpoint on the type of experimentation that even in the direct-to-consumer marketing space, people can undertake through a tool like Amazon Turk for example.

There are a lot more platforms for doing experimentation than has ever existed before.

What are a few of your favorites? I only know about Amazon Turk for this thing outside of doing market research that’s a little bit more traditional from a marketing perspective.

I’ll come to it in a minute when we talk about collective intelligence but like I crowdsourcing platforms like Kaggle. You can put it out there and get different groups testing different types of solutions for which you pay a relatively modest amount. AB testing or ABC testing is something that you can do on your own without having a platform if you have an online space for doing that. There are also natural experiments. Sometimes it’s unethical, for example, in the medical world to do a test where one group gets something and the other group doesn’t. You can look for natural tests.

For example, during the pandemic, you had two very similar countries, Sweden and Norway. Their sister company countries. They speak almost the same language. In the pandemic, one of them pursued one set of policies about how to deal with an unknown pathogen and the other pursuit a very different one and they got different outcomes. That’s a good example of a natural experiment. We could look back at an X post and say, “Norway did these things that seemed to work well. Sweden did these things that seemed to work less well and vice versa.” Both of them did some things that worked.

Let’s dig a little bit deeper into this collective intelligence piece, which acknowledges you’re not the smartest person in the room.

It’s not easy for some of us to do but I love this quote, which came from Bill Joy, who’s the Founder of Sun Microsystems and who’s one of the parents of UNIX. He used open-source development of software to generate this idea. He said, “Smartest people probably aren’t in your company. They’re probably working for someone else’s company. How do you get them to labor in your garden, even if they’re not your employees?” An obvious answer is open source. UNIX was developed by groups of people starting at Berkeley. It started at AT&T and then developed further at Berkeley. It became something that wasn’t owned by anybody and was developed by university and company computer scientists. It is at the heart of the operating systems of both Apple and Microsoft.

That was developed as a collaborative project. That’s a way of getting people working to solve complex problems who don’t necessarily work for your nonprofit or company. I mentioned Kaggle. I love this idea. The Nature Conservancy was trying to solve another fisheries problem, which was the interception of endangered tuna fish on the high seas. You got fishing boats out there in the middle of the ocean, bombing around and trying to catch both tuna that are not endangered. In their nets or lines, catching tuna that are endangered. How could you solve this complex conservation problem?

In The Nature Conservancy, there’s full of clever people but it’s not their natural experience base to have a bunch of people who are good at computer vision and machine learning. They put this problem to a Kaggle competition with a $150,000 prize and they got more than 3,000 entries from people who developed machine learning algorithms based on onboard cameras on these fishing fleets that would identify according to the shape of a fin or a gill plate which fish you could keep and which fish should be returned carefully to the ocean. That’s brilliant. This is a capability they didn’t have internally that led to a major conservation innovation, which is being trialed aboard ships off the Indonesian fleet and which we hope will soon sweep its way through offshore fisheries in general.

This is like facial recognition software for fish. This is a fish-based case study. I assumed it was some marketing thing where people were taking pictures of themselves with a fish base or something like that.

This is one of these cases where a difficult strategic problem and an incredibly uncertain and fast-changing environment are solved not by the people who happen to be working for the Nature Conservancy by with this $150,000 prize that elicited all these amazing technological solutions. It’s a wonderful example.

CMBB 144 | Imperfectionist
Imperfectionist: This is just one of these cases where a really difficult strategic problem in an incredibly uncertain and fast-changing environment is solved not by the people who happen to be working for the Nature Conservancy, but with this $150,000 prize that elicited all these amazing technological solutions.

As far as the last step here, practicing the show and tell, we’ve mentioned practice a bit throughout this. Becoming a good storyteller is hard for some people. How can they flex this muscle and get stronger in this way?

It’s super important. We live in this world of incredible richness, diversity and change and yet most of the time we present things in the most boring possible format of PowerPoint. I suppose if PowerPoint didn’t exist, you’d invent it but surely, we can do better than that. In a world where the very concept of truth has been questioned and you started that right at the beginning of the show talking about that, people don’t trust each other. Therefore, showing people data tables and saying, “I’ve got the answer,” usually isn’t enough to convince people to want to follow your strategic ideas. This final step of being an imperfectionist is to develop those capabilities.

We encourage people to remember that following or supporting someone’s ideas is not made between your ears. They’re also made in your heart. When we tell stories, we need to remember where people are coming from, from their values perspective, not just from their analytic perspectives. To construct stories that speak both to what you’ve found, that’s the data and truth, in a way that speaks to people’s needs and values. That doesn’t mean showing ugly PowerPoint. It may mean getting people involved physically using prompts. There’s another favorite example from conservation. This one is from Australia.

There was a conservation organization that was trying to encourage a big philanthropic organization to donate money to create oyster reefs and other shellfish reefs and estuaries. All this runoff that comes from agriculture is full of nutrients that create huge amounts of problems in the ocean. You can filter all that stuff by shellfish. We could have shown a table that says shellfish filter nutrients and other toxins. Instead, this particular group took 17 beautiful 10-liter buckets and stacked them in a pyramid at the back of the room.

The philanthropic organization came in and the first thing they did is they noticed this pile of buckets. Their attention was immediately electric. That was this wonderful segue to the leader of the conservation organization saying, “Every single oyster filters 170 liters a day of these excess nutrients and toxins. Every oyster is seventeen buckets worth.” That got them engaged. By the time you knew it, the philanthropic organization had agreed to support this reef recreation project. That’s great storytelling.

That also poses a unique solution because while they might be able to do something at a water treatment plant like build algae into their filtration system, you don’t get the same thing with farm runoff from land and rivers. How do you handle that excess nutrient within the oceans once it reaches there? That’s exactly the thing that you need to tackle or you end up out of control algae blooms that end up suffocating fish and you have mass die-offs.

Nature-based solutions are almost always the best place to start. Sometimes, we do require technical solutions but this is a perfect example of what you said. You’re getting these incredible algal blooms and die-offs in estuaries and the lower reaches of rivers.

Estuaries are where all the baby fish essentially grow their space. They need that.

Imagine you’re a little salmon, Alvin, growing into a small and you’re traveling through the fresh water and you hit this estuary. You don’t even have the capability initially to process salt water, let alone survive in that environment. The estuary is that critical place for many creatures to make a transition. If you’re poisoning it with various forms of runoff, it includes pharmaceuticals that we urinate out and ends up in those same places.

I wanted to talk about a couple of other examples given your experience with Patagonia as well. One makes a lot of sense for Patagonia. They have championed open spaces in a way that is admirable and involved their users to share their experiences through this to amplify that message and even fund films that relate to this type of conservation to reach a broader audience through that type of effort. At the time it first started would’ve seemed like, “That’s a stretch. Isn’t that strange that Patagonia is becoming a filmmaker?” Do you have any comments specific to that and how it’s positively impacted both the view of Patagonia and its growth?

You’ve encapsulated that. We’ve always been a storytelling organization. Right from the very beginning, Yvon and Melinda, his wife, had this sense that if you’re going to be an iconoclastic business, a business that doesn’t do things the same as everybody else, you need to tell stories in a different way than product marketing. From the very beginning, that was encapsulated in the catalogs, which you probably remember from the past and when you were a kid. However, all those catalogs weren’t jacket after jacket with a price next to them. They were stories of people doing things out in nature.

It was a very natural transition once good videography became possible to enrich and deepen those stories by telling those stories first in photography and then in film. That’s how the company ended up in the film business. As you know, most of the films don’t have anything to do with Patagonia products at all. They’re about busting dams, conserving kelp forests and being in places where species eradication is happening so quickly.

The other I wanted to speak to is the regenerative organic movement. It certainly came as a surprise to me when suddenly Patagonia seemed to be championing regenerative or organic agriculture specifically since the company wasn’t using a ton of organic cotton or even regenerative organic cotton and since so much of that effort early on was about food. Can you talk about that at all?

You give full credit here to Yvon rather than strategy thinkers or corporate thinkers. What Yvon said one day is, “Apparel accounts for something like 7% of a contribution to climate change. Food contributes more than 20%. If you want to move the dial on climate change, you need to think about food systems.” Two-thirds of the surface of the Earth is given over to the growing food that we eat. This is nuts. We’ve got way too many people and we’ve taken up way too much of the surface of the Earth with food systems. That’s all have been at the expense of natural systems.

CMBB 144 | Imperfectionist
Imperfectionist: If you really want to move the dial on climate change, you need to think about food systems.

Yvon was the one who moved us into the first regen egg for fibers. That’s right. We wanted to go beyond organic into regenerative farming for cotton because even organic isn’t good enough. As you know, you need to move towards systems that are fully circular. It was only natural then that he began to think about the other food systems that we could begin to disrupt. Patagonia provisions exist for that reason. Still, at the early stages.

For the audience, I want to speak to a couple of episodes where you can go to learn more about regenerative organic certified and regenerative organic and agricultural practices. That was an interview with John Roulac, who also was the executive producer of a film specifically about regenerative agriculture. Also, I interface with the founders of Lotus Foods, Caryl Levine and Ken Lee. That specifically is some deep dive into a company that has taken it upon itself to produce regeneratively organic certified rice. Rice feeds so many people around the globe. That’s with Ken Lee and Caryl Levine. I had to say that because of those two episodes, anybody reading this who’s interested could go there, dive a little deeper and get to understand these issues a little bit more.

That’s super to hear.

Thank you so much, Charles Conn, for joining me. I’d love to ask you if you have any closing thoughts or if there was a question I haven’t asked that perhaps you wish I had, you could ask and answer that.

I’ll leave you with one thought about our wonderful dialogue. Even when the world is changing quickly, you can move forward. If you have the right audacious goal and you’re willing to be an experimentalist and imperfectionist, you can take those steps which help you gather information, build your understanding of the game being played and build your capabilities. Sometimes, give you key assets that can help you be successful.

Typically, that means involving parallel initiatives. Not only having one strategic thread but having multiple strategic threads and doubling down on the things that are working. This is an invitation to be courageous because only by being an imperfectionist can we work on all these great opportunities but the challenges that we face.

I have so appreciated the conversation too. I feel like I could keep you on here and we could go back and forth on a few of these things for a while longer. I feel like we’ve touched on so much and given people an opportunity to think a little bit differently about how they can approach the problems that they face. Thank you again.

It was a great pleasure. Thanks for having me, Corinna.

To learn more about Charles Conn and everything he’s doing with his work around this book, The Imperfectionists: Strategic Mindsets for Uncertain Times, you can simply go to They also have a page on LinkedIn. Please sign up for our newsletter. Subscribers receive a welcome gift, which is simply a five-step guide to help them get organized and inspire activism. It also serves as a great project management tool so you don’t necessarily have to have an activist stripe to go ahead and use it.

If you have feedback or you want to suggest a future show topic, send me an email or leave me a voicemail directly from the site. You can even click that microphone icon in the bottom right-hand corner and leave me a voicemail. Thank you, readers, now and always for being a part of this show and community because together, we can do so much more. We can care more, we can be better and we can create a more perfect future if we embrace a little imperfectionism. Thank you.

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  • Charles Conn

    is a cross-section leader, conservationist, and entrepreneur. He is co-founder of Monograph Capital, a life sciences venture firm in London and San Francisco, and was previously CEO of the Rhodes Trust in Oxford. He is the Board Chair of Patagonia and sits on The Nature Conservancy European Council. He was founding CEO of Ticketmaster-Citysearch and was a partner at McKinsey & Company. He is the author of two books: Bulletproof Problem Solving and The Imperfectionists: Strategic Mindsets for Uncertain Times.

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