Thanks to exponential advances in technology and communications tools, we're all being hit with more changes faster than ever and the commercial world continues to evolve at a blistering clip. But in this age of ongoing disruption, what is disruptive change, and what are the qualities great leaders must possess if they want to thrive? Ironically, even for experienced leaders, the answers are often counter-intuitive.
For example: As my team and I often explain in training workshops, one of the most successful qualities of a great leader in eras of ongoing upheaval is learning when to step back and let others take the lead more frequently. Likewise, in an age of disruption, great leaders also have to get comfortable with taking more risks, not fewer, from an operating standpoint—measured experimentation being the surest way to find success in uncertain times. Nonetheless, a few simple shifts in thinking and strategy are often all it takes to help put yourself and your organization back on the fast-track to success, no matter how volatile the marketplace is that you're facing.
Lesson #1: Train Yourself to Rethink Innovation
Innovation doesn't mean having to constantly come up with cutting-edge strategies and game-changing scientific or technological breakthroughs. More commonly than not for modern businesses, it's a process of iteration vs. invention—applying simple shifts in business or communications strategy that better position ventures to succeed. For example, one major financial institution my team works with routinely holds 48-hour design sprints where it invites employees from every department to collaborate and come up with cutting-edge product prototypes in a single weekend. Studies repeatedly show that clients are the single best, most reliable source where innovative new ideas come from, and everyday frontline workers (those closest to them) are among your organization's most informed information sources. As a result, it pays to make leadership a concept that scales, and to give workers more opportunities to help surface new ideas and deploy new strategies based on client insights. One of the best qualities of a great leader in an age of disruption is knowing when it's best to step aside and let others take charge. Great ideas shouldn't just flow from the top down in today's enterprise, but also be given chances to bubble from the bottom on up.
Lesson #2: Find Smart Ways to Operate at Scale
It's no secret that the more resources and insights you have when attacking a problem, the more rapidly you can solve any business challenge. That's why consumer giants, B2B leaders and government agencies alike are increasingly leveraging the concept of open innovation—inviting input and ideas from outside sources, including everyday citizens—as a means of accelerating and scaling growth efforts. Bearing this in mind, it's not just important to empower employees to speak up and assume leadership roles more frequently. It's also crucial to routinely crowdsource feedback from your community, and put platforms and programs in place (e.g. online forums, message boards, etc.) that allow staffers to speedily surface breaking trends and insights. The more rapidly your teams can ingest this input, use it to launch more informed ventures and leverage market feedback to enhance working concepts, the more consistently successful your business can be.
Lesson #3: Radically Shorten Time to Market
What is disruptive change if not a quick and sudden shock to the system? Accordingly, it pays to remember: Most enterprises can go from idea to execution in as little as 30 days when launching new products, services or solutions. With organizations of every size facing more competition than ever, from a strategic standpoint, it's also vital to make rapid deployment and learning core tenets of your business plan. Keeping this in mind, it pays to train your staff that flexibility and agility are key to future-proofing at every turn. Similarly, it's also important to remind them the ability to learn rapidly—and to quickly translate what they learn into actionable business strategy—is vital to building and maintaining competitive advantage. To help speed new initiatives along, get people comfortable with the concept of designing minimum viable products (MVPs): Going to market as affordably and speedily as possible with working concepts (even if not fully finished or realized) that can be tested and steadily improved upon.
A few simple shifts in thinking and strategy are often all it takes to help put yourself and your organization back on the fast-track to success, no matter how volatile the marketplace is that you're facing.
Lesson #4: Don't Hesitate to Make Decisions
Uncertainty is the only thing that's certain in business today. Similarly, we're all being asked to make more important decisions faster and more frequently than ever, even as the marketplace continues to shift around us more rapidly. Therefore, it's important for leaders to continue moving forward and making firm decisions at every turn, even in the absence of perfect information. Happily, the strategy of utilizing strong, but weakly-held opinions presents a simple methodology that anyone can apply to make smarter decisions when faced with unpredictability. Put simply: Do your research and homework as best you're able, and make decisions based on the optimal information available to you at any given time. However, you've also got to remain flexible and able to course-correct as new information is gained—in other words, not be so married to specific strategies or concepts that you can't shift stride in real-time as more insights surface. Utilize this approach, and you can constantly drive forward momentum, even when variables are hard to predict.
In short, the qualities of a great leader today run the gamut from cleverness and ingenuity to grit and resilience. But most of all, they include the willingness to stay flexible and remain open to fresh perspectives—essential traits to possess for anyone hoping to lead and succeed in times of great disruption. It's important to remember: While business leaders can't always predict the future, they can help better prepare their organizations to greet it by making a few simple shifts in planning and strategy—and not being afraid to revise their plans as more business intelligence is gained. The more you teach yourself and your staff to embrace principles such as open-mindedness and adaptability, the more effectively you'll be able to acclimate and adjust as scenarios evolve—and the more consistently you'll be able to stay ahead of the curve.
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