Skip to main content

The Sustainable MBA

PepsiCo.'s Manoj Fenelon on the value of questioning

Manoj Fenelon believes that our world is teeming with answers; his job is to help ask good questions that catalyze and channel collective imagination. 

Manoj has a great job title — he is the director of foresight and innovation at PepsiCo. He’s also a First Mover Fellow at the Aspen Institute. Fenelon believes that business — oriented purposefully — can be a net asset to society. He has a graduate degree in the study of emotion and has absorbed lessons from experiences across advertising, academia, market research, business strategy, insights and innovation.

The following Q&A is an edited excerpt from a Sustainable Business Fridays conversation held Sept. 4 by the Bard MBA in Sustainability program, based in New York City. The views expressed in these excerpts are Mr. Fenelon's alone. While they inspire and inform his work at PepsiCo, they should not be construed as the company’s official views on the topics covered.

Bard MBA: I’m going to start off by asking you, "What’s a good question?"

Manoj Fenelon: Let me answer by bracketing this question with two quotes. After all, we stand on the shoulders of giants who have come before us and said all sorts of profound things.

One is from Confucius: "The [person] who asks a question is a fool for a minute. The [person] who does not ask is a fool for life."

The other one is from Mark Twain: "It ain’t what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, it’s what we know for sure but just ain’t so."

I think those two quotes kind of capture this obsession of mine. One [obsession] is around this virtue of humility. I think it's much needed in this world. I see so much of progress being tied to very egocentric views around the world, what progress means, and for whom.

So I think asking good questions is a show of humility. And it turns out it’s a very rare skill. I'm often surprised when I'm hanging out with my friends and their children, just how good kids are at asking questions, and how much of that art has been lost in our adult lives.

And the second [obsession of mine] is around questioning assumptions, which is especially important in times of transitions like the world we live in now. I find that a lot of the paradigms on which the world runs today are outdated. There is a simmering recognition of that.

There are not enough people asking good questions or expressing their doubts. The conflicts that we have are rarely about the camps that express strong points of view. They tend to be the minorities on either side. And the critical audience that makes a difference with regard to what actions we take, are the people in the middle who haven’t decided. There are silent majorities on every topic.

Bard MBA: So then where does change come from?

Fenelon: Change comes from transforming the level of consciousness of people that operate within the system. This is not to say that we shouldn't focus on the policy realm or on science and technology, but I think the problem is if people aren't experiencing a change of heart, none of the other stuff is really going to matter.

I see enough evidence of that playing out in a lot of realms where change has been attempted, but for various reasons is unsuccessful. It keeps coming back to the level of consciousness of the people within the system attempting the change. The tensions that I run into are in dealing with people who are not at the same level of consciousness within the same system, within the same company, and often within the same department.

I think there is a view that's percolating throughout the business world that the "contract" between employees and the company needs to be renegotiated on a human level to be one of synchrony of purposes and aims. So it's almost like you’re not looking for a job right now. Instead you’re looking to join a movement. These movements don't necessarily have to be led by corporate actors but they can be. That’s the cusp of the interesting world that we’re entering. Will corporations be the champions of movements toward a better world and will they bring masses of people along?

Bard MBA: In what ways have you, PepsiCo and the business world tried to shift some of these paradigms into net assets for society?

Fenelon: When it comes to the millennials, I find lots of grounds for hope. I think the way they see work itself is very different and not subject to the same pressures because of where they are in their lives, although student debt might change that. Perhaps they find a certain degree of freedom in orienting themselves even though they are within the same institutions.

Secondly, I find hope in some of their informal ways of working. They are only informal right now because there is no new formal system to absorb the lessons. Part of my work is to try and formalize some of these things. Why shouldn't we have something like dating algorithms for people at work who want to find each other with similar passions and complementary capabilities to form teams that can go after some of these challenges in the new paradigm?

One such initiative, called Rally Team, was started by a guy who came from Microsoft. He describes it as "eHarmony for work." This software platform breaks a challenge down into its constituent projects and tasks and the skills required for them; it also creates a registry of what people are passionate about. Once you have these two data sets you can very easily write an algorithm to match them up.

I would like to insert a brief plug here for a program a small group of friends (including myself) helped create at PepsiCo called PepsiCorps It's patterned after the Peace Corps, as you may have guessed, and it's a fascinating programming in that it works at so many levels. HR sees it as a leadership development program that could complement other approaches. The citizenship group at the company, which includes the foundation, sees it as a logical extension of the company's efforts to be a better citizen as a corporate entity.

Participants have gone to places like Ghana, rural Brazil, a Native American reservation just outside of Albuquerque, and India. The aim is to work on projects around clean water, sustainable agriculture and nutrition. What we hope is that these people are going to come back with new perspectives.

We in the company like to ask what will these people do in the company for the rest of their careers now that they’ve had this experience? That's been a fascinating question for me. I think more mechanisms and platforms like this are much needed. I think people are hungry for change, for transformation, but it's not like you can go back to school to do this, you know? Lots of people are struggling with the business-as-usual mindset so companies would do well to create avenues and mechanisms to channel this flowering of consciousness to better the world.

People discount the fact that there are billions of people working towards social change; we just haven’t found each other. Here’s a strength and a weakness. A strength in that there are so many of us, but we could also be better at finding each other and working alongside. I will leave you all with that thought.

More on this topic