“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” Wayne Gretzky
Leading During Disruptive times
If you have operated as if your business and industry were immune to disruptive forces, as other leaders have done, I assume the global Covid-19 pandemic has given you a change of heart. Leaders must be vigilant about preparing their organizations to weather the effects of seemingly unknown and volatile circumstances that may present themselves in the external environment. The global pandemic has been a real-world example of the unpredictability of disruptive forces: they may emerge as weak signals then grow gradually; or they strike without warning, creating widespread destruction and devastation in their wake. Leaders must view disruption as a learning opportunity for themselves and their teams.
As you reflect on the pandemic and the prospect of future disruptive forces, seek to better understand what you should do to help your organization develop and sustain its capacity for transformational change. Despite its challenges, recognize and appreciate the important lessons this once-in-a-century pandemic has taught us. The leadership lessons gleaned from this crisis will equip you to navigate potential future disruptive events – such as new technologies, changing customer demographics or preferences, or competitive paradigms.
Below are a few attributes I urge leaders to keep in mind to excel in a disruptive environment.
Be Courageous and Bold.
Some leaders took bold actions during the pandemic; in some cases, they had to transform their business at breakneck speeds to ensure their survival. For many, the degree and pace of change they experienced have been unprecedented. Leaders who are ill-prepared or unwilling to rise to meet the moment with courage and boldness are usually swallowed up by the intensity of change. You must ensure that your organization is resilient enough to weather the effects of the disruptive event. Commit yourself to face the challenge head-on and, whenever possible, look for ways to convert this seemingly negative event into an opportunity. There are lots of examples from the pandemic of industries and companies that have thrived despite the pandemic, such as grocery stores, retailers, virtual meeting platforms, and telehealth services. Imagine the experience of disruption as your car spinning out of control on an icy road. Under these circumstances we know the best way to navigate out of the skid: it is not to panic, slam on the brakes, and frantically turn the steering wheel in the opposite direction of the skid. Instead, it’s important to stay calm, lightly tap the brakes, and turn the steering wheel and tires in the same direction as the skid. Leaders must apply this same principle in response to an external shock or disruptive event. Push forward boldly in the direction of the event and look for opportunities that allow you to leverage your organization’s strengths and capabilities.
Equally important are people in your organisation, often junior in the hierarchy, whose unique perspectives and important insights about customers and consumers would infuse the conversation with fresh thinking. Positionally and politically, it is unpopular to include these people in rarefied, strategy discussions. This is an artificial constraint. Break down the castle walls and find ways to co-create your strategy to expand your perspectives. At a minimum, find a way to make sure your customer has a seat (or a proxy) at the planning table.
Hyper-mobilize the organization (teams and individuals).
Oftentimes leaders fail to realize their full potential because they suffer from a common flaw: they assume they must be the smartest person in the room and have all the answers. This way of thinking is wrongheaded. The best leaders understand that it is not humanly possible for one person to have all the answers. They seek knowledge and ideas from others across their organization. They know that many of the best ideas are hidden in plain sight, sitting untapped in the minds of frontline workers just waiting to be unleashed. Moreover, disruptive leaders are not afraid to reach down into the organization to communicate what the problem or challenge is and invite ideas for solutions from all corners of the organization.
Manage the organization’s short- and long-term needs.
Disruptive leaders are skilled at addressing the short-term, immediate crisis while positioning the organization for sustainable, long-term success. They rely on a detailed, well-thought-out plan for navigating through the eye of the disruptive event. Stabilizing the organization so that it is no longer at risk of further declines in revenues or earnings. The leadership team develops a plan with input from a cross-functional team of employees. As opposed to a traditional top-down planning exercise limited to the most senior leadership team and board, this approach recognizes their diverse perspectives as vital to injecting fresh thinking into the planning process.
Use a consistent decision-making framework.
One of the leadership tools I encourage clients emphatically to develop is a framework for making strategic decisions. Ideally, you would have this framework in place before the disruptive event. But if you are like most operators and have not already done so, then invest the time to create one. This will help you and your team govern your decisions and actions in response to the disruptive event. The framework will provide you and your team with a clear agenda and list of priorities, which will help align and keep the leadership team on the same page. Also, a framework is an effective tool for communicating organizational priorities to employees regardless of where they work. Use it to be as transparent as possible about the organization’s most pressing issues and the strategic initiatives to address them, and how employees can help. You may not have all the answers. But it is important that the leadership is aligned around a common decision-making framework, and actively working to get the situation under control.
To thrive in times of disruption, organizations need leaders who are nimble. You need to adapt to the rapidly changing dynamics of the external environment and encourage and reward this attribute in your employees. As you implement your plans, be mindful of the realities of the marketplace and emerging challenges; some of your ideas will work flawlessly while others may not work as well as you planned. Be open-minded and willing to learn as you implement. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge when something isn’t working and change course as you get feedback that challenges your original assumptions. Remember, even the best plans are made to be adjusted. You have the freedom to test and modify your plans to address the realities of the market. It is incumbent upon you to use this flexibility to continuously adapt and move your organization forward.
At Insurgence, we are experts in bringing together strategy and innovation to help our clients discover new sources of value in an increasingly unstable environment. We literally wrote the book on this topic. Our expertise in guiding our clients to confront deeply embedded assumptions and challenge existing orthodoxies will help you get beyond your existing, self-imposed boundaries to discover new territory for growth and value creation, however, defined. In so doing, our experts will help you transform your “offsite” into a pivotal milestone for your business.