Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. Governments are scrambling to mitigate the effects of the outbreak, and business leaders are rushing to protect their people, their customers, and their companies. For the next few weeks, we’ll be drawing on our deep knowledge base about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, to offer you insights and advice about how to keep a steady hand on the wheel during the crisis, and how to guide your organization in its transition back to normalcy once the crisis winds down.
We have been studying complexity and helping leaders navigate it for nearly 20 years. While this crisis is absolutely unprecedented, all complex challenges – including this one – are best managed when you understand specific underlying characteristics they all exhibit, and tried-and-true ways to approach them. Today: The importance of engaging and aligning all the right people at this defining moment.
As the coronavirus presents new challenges for organizations, most leaders are dealing with too many unknowns as they make rapid, high-quality decisions. At the best of times, leaders already lack adequate knowledge, expertise, and experience to tackle complex, multi-dimensional challenges on their own. Now, when so much is going on and all of it is changing so quickly, they can’t possibly know enough.
Systems science explains why. The Law of Requisite Variety states that: “Only variety destroys variety.” In the context of the current crisis, this means that only a group of people with the right mix of job functions, geographies, business units, hierarchical levels, backgrounds, expertise, authority, and stake can collectively match the complexity of what’s going on around them. So, in order to confront the complexity of the current crisis, leaders must assemble a high-variety team of people from in and around their organization to accomplish three things.
1. Tap your front-line employees to learn what you don’t know
Your workforce is tuned in to what’s happening on the front lines and knows much of what your leadership team doesn’t know. They’re in touch with your customers and prospects, living in your various markets and reading the local news, dealing with your partners, and talking to each other. Some of them remember similar times, what was done, what worked, and what failed. Some of them come from other industries. Some used to be customers or competitors. Some are Millennials and some are near retirement. They have the data, information and knowledge to inform smart decisions. Unite them with your leadership team.
2. Get them aligned on a co-created plan
Once you have tapped into your workforce’s intelligence, you must mobilize and motivate them to do what’s got to be done. This is particularly important and difficult right now as the coronavirus disrupts day-to-day working patterns. Have them work together with you to get a handle on where the biggest challenges and opportunities lie, to ideate on what could be done, and then to agree on what will be done.
3. Keep them focused, aligned and energized to work on the right tasks
Circumstances are difficult right now. They’re distracted and off their game, likely concerned about their jobs, their parents, and their family, and feeling disconnected and isolated. They likely can’t work on the same things in the same way that they had been a few days or weeks ago. They need new clarity on what to work on and what the expectations are in terms of timelines and deliverables.
You can accomplish all three of these objectives by engaging a broad mix of your people in decision-making. Not necessarily in the next few days, while things are still chaotic and command-and-control is what’s called for, but as soon as the situation settles into a steady, albeit temporary, new normal.
WHO TO ENGAGE
Our previous column suggests that you engage people by asking them an important question like:
“As the coronavirus takes its toll on business as usual, what must we all do to stay motivated and connected, to maintain relationships with customers and add value, to maximize existing revenue while finding new revenue opportunities, and to make advances on strategic imperatives that might otherwise languish?”
If you have thousands, or tens of thousands of people in your workforce, you clearly can’t engage them all at once in answering that question. Instead, assemble a group of people that has as much variety as you can fit in as small a group as possible. For most organizations, 15-40 people is sufficient.
Include a mix of business units and geographies, functional teams and project teams, front-liners, head-office, and all levels of the hierarchy. It should include a mix of demographics, tenure, and attitudes, and it must be loaded with internal influencers - the people whose lead others will follow. It might even include some external voices.
HOW TO ENGAGE
In normal circumstances, you would bring these people together face-to-face. Today, you’ll have to find other ways to engage them.
THE KEY IS REQUISITE VARIETY
No matter how you decide to go about engagement, you should start thinking now about key questions to ask and which requisite variety groups will answer those questions. By seeking out those perspectives, you will:
Original article was posted in Forbes on March 23, 2020
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