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Impressions from Silicon Valley (Part II): Future-fit leadership

Two weeks ago I spent four days in Silicon Valley & San Francisco. I took part in the 'Work in progress' inspiration tour of Nexxworks.

I enjoyed it so much that I would like to share some of my insights.

In this second part*, I would like to talk about future-fit leadership. This is the kind of leadership that we need in order to survive in turbulent times and to deal with uncertainty and complexity.

*The first part was about the major HR trends that are currently hot in 'The Bay Area' and that will undoubtedly have an impact in the near future

The Cynefin framework

Who's heard about the cynefine framework?

The Leader’s Framework for Decision Making that sorts the issues that leaders are facing into five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect. Four of these—clear, complicated, complex, and chaotic—require leaders to diagnose situations and to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth—disorder—applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant.

This framework has been mentioned several times during our tour because it makes clear that the principles of leadership that we know well are specially designed for dealing with complicated and obvious situations, but that in order to make leadership future-fit it is especially important to deal with complex and chaotic situations.

However, this seems far from obvious.

In the figure below you can see that only 15% of the leaders surveyed in this study have developed a level of leadership (starting from level 5 - redefiner ) that is able to deal with complex and chaotic situations.

Most situations and decisions in organizations are complex because some major change—a shift in management, digital transformation, a merger or acquisition—introduces unpredictability and instability. In this domain, we can understand why things happen only in retrospect. Instructive patterns, however, can emerge if the leader conducts experiments that are safe to fail. That is why, instead of attempting to impose a course of action, leaders must patiently allow the path forward to reveal itself. They need to explore first, then sense, and then respond instead of sensing, analyzing and responding like we are used to do in complicated situations. For example you need to activily engage with your customers to explore their needs activily before you can sense en respond, it’s no more the other way around where just analyzed the info the customers gave you.

Dealing with chaos is even more challenging. In the chaotic domain, a leader’s immediate job is not to discover patterns but to solve the pain. A leader must first act to establish order, then sense where stability is present and from where it is absent, and then respond by working to transform the situation from chaos to complexity, where the identification of emerging patterns can both help prevent future crises and detect new opportunities.

Turn on the heat

Yet the chaotic domain is nearly always the best place for leaders to drive innovation. People are more open to novelty in these situations than they would be in other contexts.

This is why we need a burning platform =heat) if you really want to transform your organization.

There is one excellent technique is to manage chaos and innovation in parallel: The minute you encounter a crisis, appoint a reliable manager or crisis management team to resolve the issue. At the same time, pick out a separate team and focus its members on the opportunities for doing things differently. If you wait until the crisis is over, the chance will be gone.

What kind of leaders do we need to overcome the future leadership gap?

To be able to survive the future leadership gap we need leaders that:

  • develop capabilities instead of capacity - they need to be able to make the glass bigger for the organization instead of filling the glass to the top
  • are open to diversity and alternative perspectives
  • who often question themselves, their identity and the world around them
  • are able to deal with different perspectives at the same time and prioritize them in order to create mutual benefits
  • are able to understand the dynamics between people and the system they are working in
  • are powerful connectors that are able to generate social transformations
  • are able to stay serene in the eye of a storm

The art of teamwork

What we can learn from the army?

Did you know the 3rd biggest cause of death in the US? And why?

These are errors in medical procedures due to human errors usually caused by poor communication in the team.

Another environment where poor communication can lead to tragedies is for example in aviation and the army.

That's why we can learn a lot from them.

The most important thing to remember is that it is incredibly important that everyone's role in the team is 100% clear and that everyone should dare and be able to admit that he has made a mistake. Regular debriefs seem to be a useful tool.

The foundations for teamwork appear to lie in how teams plan, how they communicate, how they decide and how they debrief.

Making clear agreements about this should be the beginning of any team formation.

Another crucial element is psychological safety. In order to create this, it is important that a leader has the courage to be vulnerable and therefore sets a good example.

What can we learn from Google?

What we learned from Google, in particular, is how you can grow as a company without losing your 'soul'.

The soul of Google is mainly reflected in the focus on the user and in ‘10X thinking mindset’.

This means they always look for big innovation opportunities, which they call 'Moon shots' and which they reach through interim 'Roof shots'.

Innovation is their engine and this is reflected in a number of areas:

  • People are rewarded on the basis of team performance
  • There is no fixed org. chart, people are hired to fill in different roles but no longer to fill in a job.
  • The people have clear roles and corresponding responsibilities and always have a clear picture of their piece in the whole puzzle.
  • The teams are cross-functional and cooperation across teams is strongly stimulated.

The most important success factors for teams (based on Google research) turn out to be:

  • Psychological safety
  • Dependability
  • Structure & clarity
  • Meaning
  • Impact

Organizations as living systems

Just as one simple change in an ecosystem, such as reintroducing wolves, can lead to a waterfall of changes - see video 'How wolves can change rivers?' - so can small changes in a company also lead to major effects.

For example, during the presentation by Max Shkud (Microsoft), the comparison was made between leading organizational change and how an acupuncturist works.

An acupuncturist uses his needles to activate those nerve pathways that can help the patient in a targeted manner.

Change management, therefore, requires system thinking and the approach of an organization as a living organism. This is something that we at Human Reef have been advocating for quite some time.

We also support the idea that performance management fits within talent development and that talent development fits in a living organization.

That’s exactly how our ‘People & Organization’ approach works and how our ‘People & Organization’ platform supports organization transformations to more agility.

Inspired by the presentations of Brian Rivera (AGLX), Carl Sanders Edwards (Adeption), Adam Leonard (Google) & Max Shkud (Microsoft)
Source: A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making - David J. Snowden en Mary E. Boone