I recently had the opportunity to go fly fishing on the McCloud River in Northern California. In order to reach the best fishing holes, I had to wade through some treacherous spots where the water was flowing swiftly and it was impossible for me to see where I was stepping. The river was lined with mossy boulders that were uneven and slippery. I often found myself not knowing which way to go in order to avoid being swept away by the current.
Most business leaders experience a similar whitewater phenomenon every day. We are currently operating in an era of disruption, marked by constant change, unpredictability, and doubt. Cisco’s Global Center for Business Transformation recently released a study after surveying 941 business leaders from around the world, representing in 12 different industries. According to the results, four of today’s top 10 market share leaders in their category will be displaced by digital disruption in the next five years. This is an ‘equal opportunity threat’ which will impact not only to big companies, but to industries of all sizes. In this environment, what sufficed as best business practices 10 years ago -- or even 5 years ago -- no longer applies. Fast moving waters, indeed.
The concept of Disruptive Innovation has become very popular in recent years. Many theorists and thought leaders have adopted the term to describe their approach to management. The term refers to the dynamic that occurs when a product or service takes root at the bottom of the market, and then moves relentlessly upward, eventually displacing established competitors. But the theorist who coined the term, Clayton Christensen, is concerned that the phrase is now being used too loosely to describe any breakthrough that changes an industry’s competitive patterns. In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Christensen states, “different types of innovation require different strategic approaches.” He cautions against getting sloppy with labels or failing to integrate insights; fearing managers may use the wrong tools for their context, greatly reducing their chances of success.
In this volatile climate, business leaders need the right tools to navigate successfully. In my fly fishing experience, I relied on an ash walking stick, which gave me an extra point of connection to the ground. This ‘extra point of contact’ tool enabled me to venture out further to discover new and harder-to-reach fishing holes. Before taking each step, I used the stick to probe what was in front me, both to validate what I was taking in through my senses, and to help provide additional information about what lay under the surface. This process became invaluable to my split-second assessment of my next move being one of safety or danger.
The ash walking stick gave me confidence to venture further out into the river, without getting swept away with the current. The right tool for navigating a disruptive business environment is continuous feedback from employees. By constantly listening to people, surfacing actionable insights, and taking action on those insights, leaders can create alignment and translate that feedback into effective action. This can help an organization build trust and accommodate tremendous change. According to Cisco and IMD’s recent “Digital Vortex” report, in an effort to battle digital disruptors, many companies have focused their business transformation efforts on IT and business processes. Too often, however, they neglect their greatest asset: their people.
The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) asserts that rapid organizational change is one of the most significant leadership development challenges facing businesses of tomorrow. Like Cisco and IMD, they’ve found that many organizations have mastered the operational or structural side of change, but have merely skimmed the surface in terms of the people side of change. CCL recommends implementing Change Leadership; focusing on the phases of change and the emotions associated with those changes, to help people cope with constant shift and gain desired results from a new direction, system, or initiative. Change Leadership requires leaders, and the organization as a whole, to address beliefs and mindsets that will develop the practices and behaviors that help people adapt to change.
Great leaders understand that times of change offer an unparalleled opportunity to grow and thrive. It’s the aspirational motive that ‘bigger fish may be just a little further out’ of our comfort zone. The best way to approach change is to tap into the organization’s most valuable asset – its people. By proactively seeking out the collective wisdom of the people who understand the dynamics of the business best, the organization can become more agile, innovative, and engaged than ever before. When you have the right tools and mindset, you will be more effective, even in fast-moving waters.