Leaders working to solve the biggest, most important challenges in your organization, industry, or community can’t do it alone. The complexity of today’s realities, fueled by the speed and transparency of a digital world, far exceed any individual’s ability to synthesize and act. Whether finding talent in a tight job market, navigating a global expansion, creating new, more sustainable processes, or re-inventing the brand, it takes partnerships — internally and externally — to make it happen.
Leaders who don’t deal effectively with complexity and try to solve problems on their own face several short-term risks: increased costs, duplicate work, disconnected spending, disappointed customers, and dissatisfied employees. The long-term costs are even higher: missed opportunities, underleveraged investments, and impermeable knowledge silos across the organization — preventing leaders from connecting the dots on new directions for the industry. A classic example is when Sony’s leadership missed the boat with MP3 players, and the electronics giant lost its lead in the portable music market.
When senior leaders fail to act, it reinforces an organizational-wide belief that things won’t and can’t change, and builds a culture in which people resist change — the effort to achieve it doesn’t feel useful or productive if it’s unsupported by effective leadership. Then, complexity becomes a reason to not explore or solve important challenges. Surprisingly, even relatively young tech organizations too often rely on clunky, outdated systems, and avoid the work required to fix them. Leaders may be fully aware of this stuck culture, but are unable or unwilling to take action effectively — because it would require a coalition rather than an individual. Or they are reluctant to address the legacy complexity in a comprehensive way, as it would require a different form of leadership.
But that’s not the case with leaders who successfully break through complexity and find the most innovative solutions. They succeed by making four powerful mindset shifts that help them to move from awareness to action. Here’s how you can do it too:
- Know you can’t do it alone. Align other decision-makers and experts to help create the solution. This may create an identity problem — especially if you see yourself as the ‘large and in charge’ type of leader. You need to test your assumptions about how you feel when others come into your space. It may raise some defenses or concerns, but if you feel that way, move towards it and work through it rather than shutting down and avoiding engaging with other experts both in and outside of your organization.
- Share the love. View your peers as assets and allies, not as frenemies. Too often in business, leaders see colleagues as competitors for resources, attention, recognition, and positional power. Leaders who break through this traditional view are able to build and participate in powerful coalitions that actually get things done.
- Model the way for your people. Realize that you may have to change too. You need to think differently about your own job and what it could be if you move through transformation successfully. Consider what the outcome means to you – if nothing will change for you, you likely aren’t solving a problem that really matters. A leader has to be changeable first in order to drive change in the organization.
- Own what you can, influence everywhere else. Change the environment in ways you have control over. You can control how you lead, and you can change how you reward and recognize your people and peers. That begins to shift deeply-held beliefs that stand in the way of change across the whole organization. Some people won’t change. But you can be the shining example of what they should be – and others will notice.
Each of these mindsets will lead to a profound change in how your organization views and handles complex challenges. Letting go of autonomy and getting real about how you see your identity as a leader are the first steps. But as easy as it is to nod and agree with that, it’s much harder to actually take action. Remember that an individual decision maker who holds onto autonomy risks not seeing the whole board, and failing to build the necessary coalitions to successfully navigate complexity. Growth can only happen when leaders reach beyond their own office walls, come together to cut through complexity, and solve problems collectively.
Julie Williamson – co-author with Peter Sheahan of Matter: Move Beyond the Competition, Create More Value, and Become the Obvious Choice (BenBella, 2016).
Have you read?
# The Surprising Secret to Employee Happiness by Kimberly White.
# Looking for New Growth in All the Wrong Places by Ralph Welborn.
# Taming Your Leadership Lizard Brain by Leslie Peters.
# Overcoming Cultural Divides in the Workplace by Howard Ross.
# Master Communication Competency By Becoming a Samurai Listener by Cash Nickerson.