It’s not easy being a business leader these days. The rules changed at the turn of the century. In the 1900s, a good plan, hard work and a winning smile were the ticket to success in business. The 21st century is a new deal. Consider the transformations in:
Information: More information was created in the last 12 months than in the previous history of civilization. College curricula, learning courses and nonfiction books are obsolete the day they’re published. Staying ahead has been replaced by finding the answer you need when you need it.
Volatility: Abnormal is the new normal. Highs are higher; lows are lower. Entire industries have vanished. Remember vinyl records? Typewriters? Kodak film? Local bookstores? Healthy newspapers?
Value: In 1980, 80 percent of the value of American corporations was tangible. Assets on the balance sheet — plants, equipment, cash — accounted for the bulk of shareholder investments. Twenty years later, that value had migrated to intangibles — know-how, relationships and secret sauce. Ideas have become more valuable than things.
Connections: International used to mean you had offices in Paris and Tokyo. Today, the quality of your deliverables depends on suppliers and partners spread around the globe. Everything’s connected to everything else. Success rides on relationships.
Unpredictability: Only fools make 10-year plans. Nothing’s certain in our complex world. Recent studies find you’d be equally successful throwing darts blindfolded. Embrace change.
Work: Simple work has been automated. Procedural work is being outsourced. The work that adds value is conceptual, and conceptual work involves solving novel problems and doing things that don’t appear in job descriptions. It’s perpetual improvisation. Success requires the ability to adapt in real time.
Speed: Fourteen years ago, Intel’s CEO compared his company to a car racing down the highway at 150 miles per hour. Intel knew there was a brick wall up ahead, but it dared not slow down.
Organizations must figure out how to change course in real time to survive. They need to be able to swerve when even the hint of a wall appears ahead.
Cars are machines. Turn the steering wheel to the left, and the car changes direction. Organizations are people. Turn the wheel and most organizations continue barreling down the road in a straight line. “Turn left! Turn left!” shouts the CEO. Nothing happens. That’s why the life-span of a Fortune 500 company has fallen below 50 years and the tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO below seven years. These organizations keep running into walls.
The ideal organization would behave more like fish. Recently, I watched schools of hundreds of sardines swimming in perfect synchronization in the giant kelp forest tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif.
I couldn’t discern a leader of the pack. There was no sardine CEO. Yet the school moved as one. Workers need to act like sardines, changing direction in concert when they sense there’s a hungry shark, or a brick wall, up ahead.
Instead of the schooling from the 19th and 20th centuries that sought to indoctrinate people with formulas that worked in the past, our new schools of workers need to know how to read the signals quickly, trust one another to turn in the right direction, share what the environment is telling them, and be ready to swerve when they sense that wall ahead.
Instead of building walls between departments and functions, flexible organizations tap into a shared flow of intelligence fed by every tributary where action takes place. People work in concert and continuously ping others in their environment in search of opportunities — and looming walls — and share their insights. Everyone’s empowered to influence the group, like a line worker at Toyota, or a sardine that senses an octopus nearby.
Organizations that mimic the military by barking orders down a chain of command, embracing a caste system of officers and staff and relying on strategy laid out far in advance of battle are doomed. Today’s victors knit together responsive networks where every worker has a voice. Their guerilla tactics win out over rigid, unyielding structures every time.
Jay Cross is CEO of Internet Time Group and a thought leader in informal learning and organizational performance. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.