Leadership In The Age Of Complexity


Most executives in India want their technology investments to achieve too much, too soon - which results in losing sight of why their companies undertook the complex journey of disruption, in the first place. Technology is viewed as a tactical short intermission, rather than the long-term value generator, that it is. This attitude exists because, a lot of leaders are still using the irrelevant learnings and teachings passed down from the industrial economy.

Principles passed down from the industrial economy are inapplicable today, because businesses are functioning in a Knowledge Economy. We are living in an age of creativity that calls for a new paradigm of leadership. The kind of leadership that creates long term value and invests in employee and stakeholder engagement, one that builds a learning organization, which is lean and innovates quickly. And, most importantly, a leadership that creates a successive management pipeline that will ably respond to current and future business challenges.

How have the rules changed?

The world is witnessing a radical recasting of the business and technology dynamic. The World Economic Forum is calling this the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where technology is at the core of every business.

In India, many business leaders express their frustrations over the several simultaneous factors that are changing the nature of their business. One is the Perfect Storm made up of multiple variables (relevant to the subcontinent) like the macroeconomic environment, customer expectation, emerging competitors, public perception, regulatory impact, shareholder angst, talent expectations and emerging tech that’s smashing into businesses.

Second is that digitization is sprouting a new kind of competitor, given the prevalence of low entry barriers for new businesses. These digital native businesses leverage the ‘plug and play’ approach with their access to on-demand digital assets and elastic infrastructure. Third, unlike ever before, new businesses are hyper-focused and lean in their setup which ensures that they legitimately compete with well established enterprises. The former can also scale rapidly, at low costs and architect highly personalized experiences for their wide network of customers.

In this scenario, legacy business leaders are on a back foot because they still harbor a factory mindset when it comes to the adoption of digital technologies. They tend to choose economies of scale over continuous innovation.

Robert Safian, editor and managing director of Fast Company coined the term, Generation Flux to  explain how, the velocity of change in our economy has made chaos the defining characteristic of modern business. With chaos comes uncertainty and that makes it difficult for leaders and executives, like yourself to answer core questions regarding the businesses you lead. Some of these questions are:

●        What technology bets should I be investing in?

●        What will give me a competitive advantage?

●        What skills are needed to win in the new world order?

●        How do I weigh potentially risky decisions vs. the decision’s potential opportunity?

Beware of the Anti-pattern

Before I share the new leadership paradigm with you, I think we should spend a little while on what I call the Anti-patterns. This behaviour is counter intuitive to the company’s digital future because they negatively shape the promise of technology.

The wait and watch strategy - Many Indian business leaders might acknowledge the promise of digital, while not wholeheartedly investing in it.

Skill gap check - A lot of the leaders tend to assign today’s digital challenges to long standing team members, who come armed with several years of experience but not the requisite set of digital-ready skills.

Organizational creativity - Leaders should move away from top-down broadcast to a networked world of small teams that value original thought.

Innovation governance - While it’s encouraging to see the rise of in-house innovation labs, startup accelerator initiatives and interesting industry connect programs, few leaders have been able to make these efforts a part of mainstream business.

Commitment to agility - Leaders need to commit to the agile approach of self-organizing teams, iterative development, continuous integration and evolutionary architectures.

Automation vs. re-imagining - Many leaders push the digitization agenda only to a limited extent, which is indicative of a fragmented digital strategy that has a specific shelf life, and is bound to fail. An example of fragmented digital strategy is the race/trend of every Indian business to get itself a mobile app. It stems from leaders who do not understand the potential of

having a comprehensive Digital Platform Strategy.

The New Leadership Paradigm

I have put down a model for what I call, Fluid Leadership. It’s draws from my 18 years of experience, and from a first of its kind report by ThoughtWorks. ‘The Next Big Disruption: Courageous Executives’ that reveals what sets top business leaders apart from their competition.

One of the most fundamental characteristics of today’s successful leader is embracing instability. This means she or he is ready to recalibrate everything they know, along the way. Another important nature of fluidity is to know the ‘one size fits all’ paradigm does not exist, even within the same domain. For most, simply because of the pace at which business need to adapt, fluidity is more of a learnt skill and constant application, validation and improvement are needed to excel at it.

I have listed a few foundational skills that are important for a fluid leader -

Value creators - When leaders engage and collaborate across business, government and the broader stakeholder ecosystem, they employ balanced motivations to create maximum value.

T-shaped - Fluid leaders exhibit skills beyond their primary domain. They invest in acquiring new skills and keep themselves abreast of everything from geopolitical landscapes to global economic trends to humanities and demographics, apart from being significantly invested in technical advancements.

Contextually aware - Leaders should understand the differences within and between sectors - of language, culture and key performance indicators.

Relentless networker - According to an HBR article, effective leaders learn to employ networks for strategic purposes. And fluid leaders are nothing, if not effective. They cultivate relationships across sectors, draw from them while advancing their ambitious agenda of technology-led innovation.

Focus on essentials - Fluid leaders choose their battles, and relentlessly pursue the principle of doing less. They have enviable clarity of purpose and the perseverance of going the distance. For everything else they create and nurture, independent and empowered teams.

Bold futurists - One of the more striking characteristics of fluid leaders is their genuinely optimistic nature, about the future of mankind and the role of technology in said future. Such leaders pursue technological investment from the perspective of possibilities, rather than risks.

What I have shared are broad strokes, because there still does not exist a single template for successful leadership, in the new age of flux and chaos. The only right move is for leaders to adopt, adapt and acquire new skills that are relevant to the new business dynamic.

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