How to lead effectively in the age of digital disruption

Silver figures running on white lines with leader figure on blue line in centre

Organizations today are struggling to stay responsive and effective in the face of constant change. Most are struggling just to catch up with, let alone get in front of, the accelerating turbulence that seems to infect every industry being impacted by ‘macro disruption’: A term that I have developed to describe the domino effect of digital disruption, particularly automation and its unsuspecting impact on wider industry and its workforce.

Business leaders are not only dealing with rapid change, most are dealing with a condition of increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity or (VUCA for short). Such conditions demand not just a behavioural adjustment in how leaders lead but a paradigm shift in how agility leaders think about organizations, their role within them, and the very nature of what constitutes effective leadership.

By default, rather than by design, organizations are slowly shifting from an approach based around problem solving and planning aimed at reducing uncertainty, to a mindset where progress is made by actively engaging with uncertainty, requiring higher levels of leadership agility. That is, the ability to take effective action in complex, rapidly changing conditions.

Critical success factors

Here are the top 10 critical success factors to lead effectively in a constantly changing dynamic:

  1. Always retain and communicate a clear vision against which decisions can be made, with agility to flex and respond appropriately to rapidly unfolding situations. It’s important for organizations to introduce change that is aligned with corporate strategy, and that the reasons behind the change and the vision for a better future are effectively communicated.
  2. Provide clear direction and consistent messaging against a background of continually shifting priorities, supported with the use of new virtual modes of communication where appropriate. The questions of why we work, how we work and what we do have never been more important.
  3. Anticipate potential risk threats to the organization and invest in the development of emergent rather than strategic plans. McKinsey research suggests realigning quickly is essential, even if the destination is uncertain. Agility thinking does not rely on past solutions and instead greater value is placed on new, temporary solutions, in response to such an unpredictable climate.
  4. Think big picture. Make decisions based as much on intuition as analysis. When followed up with action, regularly scheduled divergent big-picture thinking can bring new, better ideas to light, and give confidence that the granular tasks being undertaken are steps along the right path.
  5. Capitalize on complexity. If your portfolio demand management is working, then organizations should be confident that they have the right people, with the right skill sets and attitudes, in the right place and the right time. Place trust in the specialist expertise and judgement of those in the organization to deliver strategic intent and realize financial and quantifiable benefits. This will enable organizations to rapidly deal with any challenge.
  6. Be curious and seize the chance to innovate. Uncertain times bring opportunities for provocative thought. Certainly there are opportunities derived from simplification and complexity reduction, but the capacity to identify an opportunity in a complex environment, then to innovate to achieve a commercial advantage gives organizations a competitive edge.
  7. Encourage networks rather than hierarchies – as organizations reach new levels of interconnection and interdependency collaboration yields more than competition. What’s important is that collaboration relies on openness and knowledge sharing but also some level of focus and accountability on the part of the organization.
  8. Leverage diversity – as our networks of stakeholders increase in complexity and size, be sure to draw on the multiple points of view and experience. It involves creating opportunities through an organization so that the talents of all employees can be fully realized. Doing so will help organizations expect the unexpected.
  9. Never lose focus on employee engagement. Engaged employees are key to innovation and adapting to macro disruption. This is done by providing strategic direction, whilst allowing people the freedom they need to innovate new processes, products and services. For most organizations, employee culture and experience is an undeveloped asset, despite being such an important predictor of agility and productivity.
  10. Acclimatize to being disrupted. Resist the temptation to continue to use outdated, inadequate processes and behaviours. Take leaps of faith, innovate and enjoy the unknown. Focus on building resilient and agile organizations rather than trying to predict the future.

There is no escaping that disruption is all around us and it will challenge even the most staunch and experientially strong business leaders. The trends that are yet to reshape the world are unknown and that’s why leaders must adjust to a new reality. Leaders must learn how to tackle constant change in terms of strategy, behaviour and preparedness to embrace the disruption or else be doomed to fall victim to it. As such, imagine what’s possible, challenge the status quo and leverage curiosity to spur original, divergent ideas.

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