Changing circumstances can call for a change in approach… Success comes down to sharing the leadership responsibilities to ensure everyone creates the conditions of success for those around them.
During the summer of 2002, in the run-up to President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the US military staged the most elaborate and expensive war games ever. These games involved pitching their own Blue forces against enemy Red forces in a simulated environment. The plan was that the superior US forces would quickly overcome their weaker opponent. The problem was that Lt Gen Paul Van Riper, brought out of retirement to lead the Red (enemy) forces, had different ideas.
The vastly superior US armada consisted of the standard carrier battle group with its full supporting cast of ships and planes. Van Riper had at his disposal a much weaker flotilla of smaller vessels, many of them civilian craft, and numerous assets typical of a developing nation.
But Van Riper made the most of weakness. Instead of trying to compete directly with Blue forces, he used ingenious low-tech alternatives. He used couriers instead of radios to maintain secrecy. He also employed novel tactics such as coded signals broadcast from the minarets of mosques during the Muslim call to prayer. He used small pleasure boats packed with explosives to get close to, and sink, key vessels of the US fleet. At every turn, the wily Van Riper did the unexpected.
To build leadership at all levels means everyone needs to see their role as creating the conditions of success for themselves and others
The result, if it had been real, would have been the biggest US naval disaster since Pearl Harbor. The simulation controllers had to refloat the fleet, start again and countermand Van Riper’s orders to achieve their stated objective.
VUCA: the ‘New Normal’
What the US military had been given the opportunity to see was that their world was changing. Wars would no longer be fought on their terms but by agile, smart, committed insurgents. Much that had worked up to that point was not suited to this new future.
The same applies to all of us, whatever business we are in. Things are moving ‘at the speed of the internet’ and that, according to research by consulting firm BCG, is getting faster. There is turbulence ahead, but not as we know it:
- It’s more frequent
- It’s more intense
- It’s more persistent
The optical market, after decades of reasonable stability, has seen the rise of retail optometry, changes in reimbursement and the enormous impact of the internet, among other shifts, in just 10 years. If you look at the research findings here, we can only expect changes like these to be more frequent, even bigger in their impact and persistent – they will not go away.
This new business environment can be summarised by the term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous), which was subsequently coined by the US military. As my friends who have actually fought an armed insurgency remind me, this analogy goes only so far: no one will get killed. However, they do also see the similarities: the rulebook does not work anymore.
VUCA is the ‘new normal’. Organisations need the agility to meet the rapidly changing needs of customers. That all sounds a) like corporate jargon and b) hard. The good news? The way to thrive in this environment is pragmatic, it shares the load with others and it makes work more fun.
This new challenge requires a new kind of leadership. For over 150 years now we have been hampered by a belief in what is called the ‘great man’ theory of leadership. This theory, expounded by Carlyle in 1840 is that successful leaders were, well, great men, having all the ideas and everyone else following. The VUCA environment means that traditional hierarchies must give way to distributed leadership where clear higher intent focuses execution, empowers individuals and unleashes innovation.
On the other hand, if you simply tell everyone they are leaders and to get on with it, you have chaos. Even leaders need a structure, or leadership architecture to operate in. This architecture is made up of two simple ideas that anyone can use immediately.
Align a Leadership Mindset
To unite people, everyone should have an aligned answer to the following questions:
- Where are you going and why? Knowing this is the most powerful way to start to align people in the VUCA world. In the fog, knowing your destination is crucial.
- Where are you now? A shared understanding of this as it changes will keep the group together.
- What next? Always taking the next step towards the goal will mean you will get there.
This is the most simple piece of leadership DNA. Yet it can unite effort and give meaning to everyone’s work.
Create the Conditions for Success
To build leadership at all levels means everyone needs to see their role as creating the conditions of success for themselves and others. Too often people focus on their own role, sometimes ‘getting people to do things’ but rarely taking time to ensure those things are done well. The conditions for success are:
- Clarity – does everyone know what the group is trying to achieve and why? Is everyone clear about how that will be done, what their role is and how success is measured? It’s basic stuff and rarely totally overlooked, however often goals and plans are sufficiently vague so that while you all think you know where you are heading, there is enough difference of opinion to end up in different places, wondering where your mates are.
- Climate – what environment do people need to achieve those goals? This includes the hard stuff: resources, systems, processes etc and crucially the soft stuff as well: culture and stakeholder relationships.
- Competence – what skills and behaviours will people need to build the climate and achieve the goal?
Enjoy the Ride
The American Management Consultant, Peter Drucker said, “Most of what people call management is actually stopping people from getting things done”. Leadership can achieve the opposite effect. By using the simple ideas presented here, leaders (that’s all of us) can align their teams and unlock the potential in the people around us to succeed, whatever the VUCA environment throws at us.
We may not always have the fun of loading imaginary pleasure craft with high explosives and sinking imaginary aircraft carriers… but we can still enjoy the ride, even as the waves get higher and closer together. And they will.
Dan Hammond is a Director of LIW, a global leadership consulting firm and has extensive experience in the optometric profession having worked previously as the Managing Director of CIBA Vision Australia and New Zealand and prior to this, Director of Lenses for the UK market at CIBA Vision.
The Shifting Ground
When I was CEO of Ciba Vision in Australia in 2005, some of you will remember that we had to recall a relatively new product, O2OPTIX. When I heard the news, I had no idea what to do: there was no way this was going to have a positive impact on my numbers for the year and every way it would erode the work my team had done to build a relationship with our customers. The ground had shifted.
So I went back to my compass and asked myself, where are we going? As a leadership team, we had committed to being the best we could be for our customers. The question therefore changed from “how do we minimise the impact of this?” to “what would our customers want us to do?” The answer (apart from “don’t have recalls”) was they would want us to maintain supply of a lens that was at least equivalent so they would not inconvenience or lose their own customers – their patients.
That is what we did. We took a hit to the bottom line but maintained as much as possible of that more elusive asset – a trusting partnership.
The most memorable thing about that time was how everyone knew what to do. We maintained focus on the goal, reviewed progress and then did what was needed as the situation changed.