Spare a thought for the current generation of executives. In these frenetic times, leaders are constantly scanning markets, monitoring competitors and listening to customers, all with the healthy fear that a recent tech innovation or a well-capitalized start-up could blindside and rip a business model to shreds. The pace of competitive change is brutal and shows no sign of slowing down.
What’s clear is that competitive advantages are now short-lived. Excellence in customer experience or service innovation is now achieved in a matter of weeks rather than months. Leaders know they need to raise the corporate metabolism for innovation but the question is: how? Search around and you will find hundreds of leadership tools and frameworks but after reading them, they seem written for a different age. Business value increasingly accrues from data, algorithms, platforms and artificial intelligence as the physical and virtual fuse together. Leadership models need an update for the digital age.
My take is the leadership challenge isn’t intellectual. We all know what needs to be done. Our newly minted book from the Center for the Future of Work walks through what we call the work ahead with a solid plan. Presciently, the book is called What to Do When Machines Do Everything and the title nails it—what do YOU do when machines eat into knowledge work? How will YOU organize your unit/team/organization for innovation? What will automation and artificial intelligence do to YOUR work? The book offers a strong counter view to the doom and gloom that currently surrounds us; and it’s not a Pollyanna take on the future either. The book takes its cue from the golden ages that accompanied those other big, hairy economic shifts (canal-mania, the steam age and the coming of the railways). The challenge for the current class of leaders isn’t so much intellectual, but how to engage and lead people through the digital shift.
So the leadership challenge is about engaging the organization and ensuring it moves in step with the times. Employees will need to recognize the looming changes ahead and organizations need to build the mechanisms that speed up innovation, open-up creativity, free-up decision making, and rework how work works. Our recent study on the future of talent led us to state that command and control structures and long decision cycles would kill digital. We discovered that companies were beginning to co-locate smaller teams together (often apart from the mother ship) around a specific customer need, product or service. Leaders need to be open minded and experiment with new organizational models and how different leadership styles will reflect new sources of value and commercial relationships with partners, customers and of course, employees.
We are all dealing with more complex and diverse work roles than five or ten years ago. The real challenge is how to prepare your firm for the changes ahead and to figure out what role your company will play and what role leaders have to play to get there. I can twitter on about platforms, automation, innovation and agility as much as I like, but recognize it’s going to be culture that makes or break your company’s future.
P.S. You will hear a lot more from me about leadership as we travel through these uncertain, chaotic and thrilling times. Two key questions for established and challenging leaders is this: Is your organization reaching its full potential? And what role will do you believe your will company play as the Work Ahead moves into view? Please stay in touch as we explore both of these issues.