Navigating Complexity and Uncertainty with Agility

Companies today exist in an era of accelerated change. Competitive lines are being redrawn at lightning speed as entire industries are disrupted seemingly overnight. In this environment, the old rules of strategy no longer apply. As business leaders, we need to embrace a whole new logic of competition if we want to future-proof our organizations.

A recent guest on the Outthinkers Podcast was Terence Mauri, founder of the management think tank Hack Future Lab. Terence studies how leaders can operate and thrive in uncertainty. He believes building a resilient future starts with challenging orthodoxy and having the courage to unlearn outdated mindsets.

In the episode, Terence shared a few key insights:

Practice unlearning.

As business models, processes, and our assumptions about how the world will behave erode more quickly, we must update ourselves more frequently as individuals and as companies. In companies today, one third of meetings are considered a complete waste of time, costing organizations $20M in lost productivity for every one thousand employees. Terence says leaders must challenge their own assumptions and exist in a state of “perpetual beta” – continuously learning and unlearning. Unlearning includes identifying the barriers that might be getting in the way of your strategic execution, including bureaucracy, complexity, or misalignment.

In practice, challenge outdated orthodoxy by sharing unlearning practices in action. Ask your teams, "What process have you cut out that was no longer working?" "What processes have you automated, updated, or replaced?" Create a culture of celebrating unlearning.

Strive for strategic certainty.

In one company survey Terence conducted, only one in four leaders could articulate a minimum of three of their organization’s strategic priorities. Strategic certainty is the ability to translate strategy rhetoric into milestones and actions. The number one barrier to agility is bureaucracy. Eliminate wasteful processes to optimize and fight complexity with simplicity. Leaders need to invest time and effort in context-setting, pace-setting, and direction-setting for their organization.

Offer trust and autonomy.

As the competitive lines between industries are being redrawn, competition is no longer company versus company, but culture versus culture and mindset versus mindset. Employees want autonomy and accountability over micromanagement and control. Most company cultures rely on conformity and get stuck in the status quo. Give people freedom, flexibility, and ownership to present new ideas. Trust can go a long way.

Forget traditional career ladders.

The second reason talented employees choose to leave, after salary, is a lack of internal growth opportunities. Traditional, linear career paths are being replaced by more fluid, horizontal hiring paths and work pixelization. As employees, embrace non-traditional career paths. As leaders, give employees opportunities to make horizontal moves that will build their skillsets.

Plan from the future.

In a complex, fluid, and non-linear environment, any business model is at risk. You need a strategy that can adapt and allow you to pivot from the future. Terence suggests three steps:

  1. Align on a point-of-view of the ideal future state. What trends are most likely to impact your business?
  2. Articulate how you will adapt the core business strategically. How will you harness trends as tailwinds?
  3. Activate at light speed. Refine and optimize processes to eliminate bureaucracy. Leaders are responsible for learning at the speed of customers and sharpening the organization’s purpose and value agenda.

Listen to the full interview here.

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