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. Since March, we’ve been talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, including the pandemic. Today we speak with Rosabeth Moss Kanter, author of Think Outside the Building: How Advanced Leaders Can Change the World One Smart Innovation at a Time. Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, specializing in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. Her strategic and practical insights guide leaders worldwide through teaching, writing, and direct consultation to major corporations, governments, and start-up ventures. She co-founded the Harvard University-wide Advanced Leadership Initiative and served as Founding Chair and Director from 2008-2018. She is the author or co-author of 20 books.
David Benjamin and David Komlos: Can you briefly describe what business leaders can learn by reading Think Outside the Building and what you’d express as the most important takeaway for them?
Rosabeth Moss Kanter: You have to broaden your perspective. Innovation is stifled when you stay stuck in current models and when you fail to see the wider world outside. You have to look more broadly than you think, open up horizons, and lead with purpose and meaning because that’s what motivates people. If you allow employees to look for the things they want to fix - that they want to see differently - you’ll get innovation, and that could represent your next wave of products and services.
Benjamin and Komlos: What is ‘advanced leadership’, and can you elaborate on your analogy that ‘advanced leadership is to leadership as Ginger Rogers is to Fred Astaire’?
Kanter: The term ‘advanced leadership’ refers to the additional skills necessary to address messy, complex systems problems, where you can’t yet see the direction you’re going and there are so many opportunities to fumble. As the old joke says, dancer Fred Astaire was a great leader, but it was his partner Ginger Rogers who needed advanced leadership skills because she had to do everything he did but backwards and in high heels. With more obstacles and less ability to see, you have to be really skillful. The best-advanced leaders try to imagine the future, finding new pathways and new opportunities, even when they can’t quite see them yet. And during times of change, it’s not just leading downward and having your people follow you like Ginger followed Fred; it’s charting new directions under uncertainty, complexity, and controversy.
Benjamin and Komlos: You say that advanced leadership looks beyond single organizations and heroic commanders to wider systems. Can you give us an example of that?
Kanter: I have long argued for alliances and partnerships that cross sectors and organizations. A partnership-orientation is essential when you’re working on problems that you don’t control by yourself - business working with government working with civil society - to solve big problems. A good example is P-TECH, IBM’s reinvention of high school. Public high school was invented in the 19th century, and it was four years and that was it; then you left and went on to something else. P-TECH blurred the boundaries between the 12 years of education and college, and created partnerships between secondary education, two-year colleges, and employers. There is a lot of evidence that involving employers, particularly for people going to two-year colleges, is good for everybody. It leads to jobs for those who graduate, and it ensures the workforce is more work-inclined and, in this case, technology-enabled. They were solving many problems, but it had to be in collaboration.
Why did IBM do it? They have had a focus on reinventing education since the time of Lou Gerstner, and they benefit directly from a trained tech workforce and providing opportunities to young, talented people from less-advantaged backgrounds. Through this effort, they also built partnerships and solidified relationships with hundreds of other companies, and that’s just good for business.
Benjamin and Komlos: What can advanced leaders aspire to do about wicked, systemic problems (like homelessness, health disparities, and climate change for example)?
Kanter: You don’t solve wicked problems all at once. What you do is open new pathways, create a new agenda, and show that there’s a new way of looking at problems that can lead to faster solutions. For example, with Covid-19, the problems of delivering public health are falling on many different players and require new solutions. Some solutions were already starting to arise before the pandemic, in some cases from business. CVS, for example, put MinuteClinics in their pharmacies. The pharmacies are in neighborhoods, you can go pick up your prescription and a few other items, and you can get fairly basic primary health care. Why do you have to go to a doctor’s office which might be very expensive and not close to you, or to a hospital that won’t see you if you’re uninsured? A MinuteClinic is a novel way to lower cost and increase access to care.
In the book, I talk about other examples like the couple that started Talent Beyond Boundaries, which connects employers with refugees that have the professional skills they need. MinuteClinics, Talent Beyond Boundaries - these are reinventions based on rethinking outside the silos, ‘outside the building’ - that serve as models and show a different way of looking at and thinking about big problems.
Benjamin and Komlos: What do leaders need to understand about narrative?
Kanter: Narrative is a big part of innovation. We always talk about vision, but it’s more than that. You have to tell a compelling story that connects the past, the present, and the future because innovation is a leap of faith that things can be different in the future. If you have a story about the past that says “It's inevitable that we are where we are today and therefore, nothing can ever change”, then you'll never get change.
Often companies have to look back at their own roots and tell a different story about who they really are so that they can move forward in the future. CVS, for example, started out as a retail pharmacy, but over time their emphasis became retail and they were making more money selling sugar water than doing things that were healthy. Then at one point they had a lot of courage and decided they were no longer going to sell tobacco products. They looked back at their history and said we started out in the health business and we want to return to being in the health business. They started making acquisitions that put them more squarely in the health business, they added clinics and pharmacy benefits managers and used the story of their past to position themselves to go somewhere else in the future.
The most compelling leaders get people to follow them, not just through a charismatic force of personality, but by knowing how to tell a good story.
Benjamin and Komlos: Can you talk about Kanter’s Law, its implications and what advanced leaders can do about it?
Kanter: Kanter’s Law says “Everything can seem a failure in the middle.”
If you are just copying somebody else, the way has been paved for you. If you're really the first, however, really original or really early, then you don't know what obstacles there are because you've never been down that road before. And when it comes to a new idea, people don't really know what you mean until they've experienced it.
For these reasons, the middle can be really difficult. If you stop at that point, then by definition, you fail; but if you keep going, you can often turn what you’re doing into a success. You must stick with your sense of purpose, but be flexible about the details - pivot and try things a little differently.
Benjamin and Komlos: The work of innovation seems like a constant heavy lift. Any parting thoughts on how advanced leaders can find what it takes to renew themselves for one heavy lift after another?
Kanter: Every entrepreneur is taking on a heavy lift, but they don’t think so. To them, it’s just the logical next step and they’ll figure out how to do it. They believe in their dream, they create partnerships and find allies who won’t let them stop. Innovation can be done one step at a time - get something new up and running with the potential to be enormously big and high-impact - but start small and build over time.
Original article posted on Forbes on March 8, 2021
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