Henry Ford is reported to have said, “Why is it that every time I hire a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” This thinking is a reflection of how work was managed in a manufacturing era, where the repetitive nature of tasks required people to think as little as possible. The purpose of a team during these times was to manage the execution of a repeatable process as efficiently as possible. Leaders relied on authority, hierarchy, incentives, rewards and punishments to keep teams productive. History has shown that this approach was successful and worked well in a manufacturing era, however times have subsequently changed.
Leading successfully in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world demands rapid learning. As Jack Welch observed “an organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.”
Learning under conditions of uncertainty is a topic addressed in the book “Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work” by Liz Wiseman which describes a study that explored how experienced versus inexperienced people learn and tackle problems.
Wiseman’s research provides fascinating insights into how leaders can improve their learning in a VUCA world.
Recent leadership research has revealed a disturbing trend, the quality of leaders is barely improving. This is the conclusion of two independent research studies. The World Economic Forum (WEF) report titled “Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015” (pdf) and Development Dimensions International (DDI) report titled “Global Leadership Forecast 2014 | 2015”.
“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.” – Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne, 1926
Bump, bump, bump! Does this sound like your days, weeks, months and maybe even years? Are you acting purposefully? Are you taking timeout to think? Or do you find yourself too busy?
The biggest challenge of leading in VUCA times is the huge amount of demand placed on a leaders time. Unless you’re careful you’ll find yourself with little time for thinking and reflection. The result? You postpone dealing with critical strategic concerns. Or, in the worst case, your strategic issues go unresolved.
Fish don’t know they’re in water. Fish are surrounded by water at all times. They’re used to living in water, it’s all they know, so it becomes impossible for them to see it! To get fish to see the water you’d need to help them step outside their environment. Only then would they be able to look from the outside-in and see the water.
It’s the same for leaders. We cannot see the environment or the context in which we lead. When leaders fail to recognise the context in which they’re leading bad things happen. We apply outdated leadership practices. We blindly repeat the ideas and practices that lead to yesterday’s success.
The result? Leadership failure!
It’s becoming more and more difficult to apply yesterday’s leadership practices to today’s problems. Why? Because the context has shifted. We now live in a VUCA world and this changes everything!