The basis of competition has changed dramatically over time. The digital revolution of the 21st century has changed the rules of competition in a massive way, requiring flexibility and adaptability. Simply put, too many new things are being introduced, things are changing too fast, and things have become too interdependent for the top-down approach to work any longer. The foundation of business—competition—has changed. So must our leadership.
In the VUCA age of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, a leader’s job is to respond constructively to negative complexity outside the organizational boundaries and increase positive complexity inside. Negative complexity abounds in the business environment of the post-digital era. Many leaders feel paralyzed by the increasing speed, interdependence, variety of input and density of interaction in the environment, which renders decision-making overwhelming. Managers lose confidence in their ability to make fast decisions with limited information.
I call leaders who become effective in VUCA environments “quantum leaders.” These trailblazers harness negative complexity. These days, their job descriptions read like this:
- Increase the variety of input by generating diversity of thought, tapping into the power of the wisdom of the crowd and crowdsourcing.
- Amplify the level of interdependence by forging more cohesive teams and choreographing an ecosystem of tightly linked complementary products and services
- Accelerate speed by removing friction in communication and minimizing the destructive influence of politics.
- Intensify the density of interactions by housing employees in crowded, open spaces
Here are some specific actions in a job description of a quantum CEO:
Self-replicator. As a leader, you need to enable your organization to self-replicate. Developing next-generation leaders who can form their own teams in a self-similar fashion and replicate the same formulas increases the internal complexity of the organization. With higher internal complexity comes more strategic options and better chances for survival.
Culture curator. The best way to self-replicate is through organizational culture. Setting the right tone and cultivating a culture that prepares the primordial soup to catalyze radical innovation is critical. Consistently communicate through actions, words, and stories how you want your culture to be.
Meaning maker. Data without context is meaningless, which leads to GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) decisions. Understanding the context improves the effectiveness of learning and helps us attribute correct meaning to incoming data. Make meaning for others so they walk away with correct ways of interpreting the signals from the environment. Assign correct meaning so they can unleash the power of beliefs, make effective decisions, and execute for results. For example, if you’re CEO of a rental car company, help the organization understand the implications of blockchain, which enables peer-to-peer trading.
Exercise the power of belief. On an organizational level, quantum leaders can tap into the extraordinary power of belief, not only for themselves, but for the teams they lead.
In a study of 84 hotel housekeepers, professors Alia Crum from Stanford University and Ellen Langer from Harvard University told a group of housekeepers that the work they do is good exercise and satisfies the Surgeon General’s daily recommendations for exercise. Another group of housekeepers wasn’t given this information. At the end of a four-week experiment, the two groups were compared. The treatment group showed significantly decreased weight, blood pressures, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index, whereas the control group showed no difference. Simply being told that their work was good exercise was enough to produce a significant physical change. Both the treatment group and control group did the exactly same thing as before; the only thing that changed is the belief that cleaning hotel rooms is good exercise rather than drudgery.
Utilize simple rules. Agents in a complex system (employees in your business) interact with and get feedback from the environment. It is an important part of a quantum leader’s job to select the right simple rules, mobilize the organization around them, monitor results and change them or introduce new ones when necessary (sparingly). Due to the autocatalytic nature of the simple rules, a small change in local interactions leads to a disproportionate global change
Today, the greatest challenge CEOs of traditional companies face is to gracefully transition from the hierarchy-based organization of the industrial era to one fit for survival in the post-digital era. These quantum leaders must develop counterintuitive and unconventional competencies that are absolutely required to survive in this VUCA age. These new job descriptions are essential aspects of the new leadership competencies required to respond effectively to the changing business environment.
Sunnie Giles. Forbes.
Dr. Sunnie Giles is the author of ‘The New Science of Radical Innovation’ and founder of ‘Quantum Leadership Group’, helping organisations catalyze radical innovation by harnessing complexity.