Leading In Sustained Chaos
No matter which industry one is in, the business outlook will tend to say “turbulence ahead”! The only thing industry leaders can be sure of is, what works today, will not necessarily work tomorrow. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity and change are usually the only constants in business today. It’s what is called an environment of sustained chaos and change.
The key challenge for leaders is to navigate through the chaos to get their teams and organisations to the desired check point, keeping in mind there is no guarantee the check points or goals won’t change. It is, in fact, safer to assume they are moving targets. Adding rapidly changing technology to the equation only amplifies the frequency of change compared to anything we’ve dealt with to date. So, not only do leaders have to come to terms with the mind-boggling concept of exponential growth, but also figure out how to use it to plan better.
A classic example heard in business schools is how Kodak missed the digital camera wave despite being its inventor. At that time, Kodak felt the resolution was very poor and decided to scrap the product, not taking into account the exponential growth of technology. This is a mistake leaders today cannot afford to make.
To understand the concept of exponential growth, it might help to understand one of the founding principles of technology, Moore’s law. Simply put, it says that for the same price microprocessor performance will double every 12-18 months. If Moore’s law could be applied to cars, a Rolls-Royce would give half a million miles per gallon#, and it would be cheaper to buy a new one than to pay to park the one you have. Obviously, the impact exponential growth can have on business is huge. Leaders do not have the option anymore of not factoring it in.
The other major tectonic shift is data explosion. In 2011, we created 1.8 zettabytes*. One zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes; that’s a 1 with 21 zeros following it. 1.8 zettabytes equals 450 billion DVDs or 113 billion fully loaded iPads*. By 2015 there will be over 15 billion connected devices and approximately 2 trillion intelligent systems in use.
According to former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, every two days, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. Think of what this means from a CEO’s perspective. It’s a transformational opportunity to build a much deeper understanding of your customers. Every tweet, every Facebook post, every like, every comment helps you understand how your consumer is responding to your brand and products. But the challenge is to manage all this data and make sense of it. The ability to understand and use big data to offer customised and high value added services is becoming the most lethal competitive advantage a company can have.
The last major shift is the need for on-going innovation. Consumer lifestyle and behaviour are changing daily with constantly evolving values, cultures, aspirations, likes, dislikes and insecurities. This means business leaders have to continuously stay engaged with consumers to understand trends. There is no room for complacency, and the worst mistake a leader can make is to assume that just because something is successful today, it will work tomorrow as well.
The only way leaders can stay relevant is by having the vision, courage and conviction to see what doesn’t exist and going after it. You have to use all the tools at your disposal, especially consumer analytics, to stay engaged and be able to understand trends quickly. Leaders also require the guts to deal with failure. When you are in an environment where you need to constantly think out of the box and innovate, you can’t succeed all the time. Failure will be part of the game, and leaders have to learn how to use it to their advantage. How do you learn from it and get even better? How do you motivate teams to move forward with even higher conviction than before? How do you unlearn the traditional belief that failure is bad or the end of the road?
So what does this mean for leaders? I feel there is a higher urgency today than ever before to unlearn what we knew and embrace change and new skills. Today, flexibility is imperative for success. With “long term planning” losing relevance, you have to learn to review plans and progress frequently and be able to course correct as needed. Thinking on your feet is a must. And you need to be confident about using data and your gut feel to find answers to complex problems never faced before. The speed of change requires very quick decision making, and very often one doesn’t have the luxury of going through a lot of data. Gut feel or intuition becomes extremely important, as does the ability to see things that may not exist today, spot changes early, anticipate what comes next, and lead strategies to leverage the change as an opportunity.
Today’s leaders also have to take off the blinkers they have worn traditionally and embrace the best talent, no matter what shape, size, age or gender it comes in. People are critical to success more than ever and competitive edge will be defined by the ability to find, hire and retain the best people. The best people for the job and an environment where everyone has the opportunity to be their best contributes towards the organisation’s success.
Another much needed skill is authenticity. With rapidly changing business environments, employees are likely to be nervous and in higher need of reassurance and clarity than before. Today a leader has to create that clarity above all, and it has to be reinforced not just in communication but also day-to-day behaviour. More of than not, employees form opinions based on how leaders behave with their peers and subordinates, rather than just big presentations and speeches. It’s the small things that matter more. To build trust and confidence with their teams, leaders have to be genuine and believe in what they preach. Only then will they be able to lead with example and build a sense of purpose for the teams.
Leaders today need to lead cross functional teams, and often without direct reporting structures. Collaboration is important and you have to know how to create an environment that encourages people to come together, bound by a common goal that inspires them to give their best. The ability to reach out, inspire and collaborate across business groups and geographies is a must-have talent.
Today, leadership has less and less to do with designation, and is more about who you are. I believe it’s really about being the best version of you. So the question we need to ask is what brings out the best in us? And be prepared to let go of what doesn’t work anymore, embrace the opportunity to learn, and reinvent ourselves. This is the gift of leadership, and my advice would be to cherish it rather than fight it.
* Projections pulled together by CenturyLink
# Intel estimates
The article was originally published in DNA.