Effective leadership has always required a mastery of essential skills like planning and actively managing scope and performance. However, in today’s increasingly complex and volatile business environment, traditional management skills are no longer sufficient enough to deal with the constant change and fluctuation occurring within the marketplace.
To be successful in the current landscape, business leaders need to be nimble, instinctive, and creative. They need to stay focused on efficiency and execution while maintaining an adaptive mindset that allows for change and innovation. As Amy Whitaker, author of Art Thinking, explains in an interview with Yale Insights, this goes against the way many business leaders are wired, but that is why it is absolutely essential:
“It’s precisely the people who are really good at executing and managing who need time and space to think about what I call lighthouse questions—those are inquiries into challenging, potentially world-changing issues.”1
Being both efficient and flexible feels like an oxymoron to many project-based leaders—and rightfully so. This is no easy task. It’s a new world requiring new skills. Competition is fierce, complexity and uncertainty are growing, and success requires foresight and agility.
Today’s business leaders need to be able to do more than execute initiatives based on time, scope, and cost. They need to anticipate change, be open to adaptation, foster innovation, and learn from mistakes they make along the way.
There is no question that we are living in uncertain times. Political tensions, globalization, and lightning- speed technological advancements have made it immensely challenging for organizations to make confident, sound business decisions. This can be especially difficult at the project level, as leaders attempt to manage change and align their initiatives with strategies that may or may not shift.
While operating in a complex environment can certainly challenge the successful and timely execution of an initiative, the reality is that change is inevitable. As mathematician and author John Allen Paulos states, “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.”2
Similarly, business leaders who learn to expect and embrace change can actually turn uncertainty and ambiguity into opportunities for growth and innovation
When organizations are unprepared or operating in tunnel vision, change often creates chaos or resistance. This, of course, very rarely leads to success.
Take Blockbuster as an example. When Netflix founder Reed Hastings proposed a partnership to Blockbuster CEO John Antioco back in 2000, Hastings was immediately dismissed and ridiculed for suggesting that a brand as well-known as Blockbuster would change its model to team up with a newcomer. The rest is history: Blockbuster went bankrupt in 2010, and Netflix is now worth $61.6 billion.
According to Forbes contributor and business consultant Greg Satell, the problem in this scenario is not that Antioco or his team was incompetent. In fact, the reason is quite the opposite. “The irony is that Blockbuster failed because its leadership had built a well-oiled operational machine,” Satell notes. “It was a very tight network that could execute with extreme efficiency, but poorly suited to let in new information.”3
The lesson here is clear. Today’s organizations can’t be so married to their process or product that they don’t leave room for change or innovation. Otherwise, like Blockbuster, they could miss the move of the market and turn an opportunity for growth into failure.
The key is for business leaders to leave room for innovation in the midst of their process. They need to be able to provide vision while also allowing for new ideas. This is a tricky balance and starts with shifting mindsets from a “what” to “how” mentality. Instead of focusing on what you are doing, business leaders need to focus more on how they are doing it and how they could do it better. Innovation doesn’t have to be about revolution or disruption, but it should, at the very least, be about evolution.
Fostering this type of environment requires collaboration and effective communication within project teams as well as with stakeholders up and down the value chain. It also means creating a safe place for conversation, questions, and failure.
The benefits of adopting innovation as part of your strategy are numerous. When people are given permission to explore new ideas and contribute, they are more likely to buy into the task at hand. This creates engaged, empowered teams that may not only provide innovative ideas, but also may be more effective and agile. According to one Gallup study, employees who are engaged are 27% more likely to report “excellent” performance by their organization. The same study also found that engaged employees are 45% more likely to report high levels of adaptability in the presence of change.4
Making room for innovation and adaptability within project- based work also requires organizations and its leaders to take some risk and allow for missteps. While no one wants to willingly make mistakes, chances are they are going to happen and when they do, business leaders need to turn them into learning opportunities to adapt, improve, and innovate. In fact, we wouldn’t have penicillin, pacemakers, post-it notes, or potato chips if it weren’t for error.
For many companies, the days of simple engineering problems and linear, waterfall approaches to project- based work seem to falling by the wayside. There is just too much to consider in today’s complex business context, and leaders at all levels of an organization need to be equipped to handle change, adapt when needed, and innovate as much as possible. As laggards like Blockbuster have discovered, the last thing any organization wants is to allow its processes to get in the way of its success.