Certain companies continually deliver more value to the market. They do so with greater speed and ease than their rivals, even when they lack the classic elements of strategic advantage: locked-in customers, dependent suppliers and barriers that keep competitors at bay. Absent such structural advantages, you would expect parity. There are, however, still those companies that regularly outscore the competition. Toyota, Intel, and Apple are among them, as are many lesser known but no less disproportionally successful ventures.
The source of uneven outcomes on otherwise level playing fields? Learning, at which the very best organizations excel. They are far faster and better at discovering what to do and how to do it, as well as at refreshing the set of problems to be solved and solutions to be delivered faster than the ecosystem can render their relevance obsolete.
For sure, learning is not simply training. Training involves accepted skills with an accepted application, and then using an accepted approach to deliver those skills to the organization. Learning, on the other hand, involves converting ignorance and a lack of capacity into knowledge, new skills and understanding. It requires recognizing what you do not know and finding new approaches to solve new problems. This, in turn, requires critical thinking and a willingness to challenge accepted practices, even when those practices are perceived as successful.
Challenge—even respectful challenge—is not a natural act. When something has worked well, complacency and inertia accumulate and interests get vested in sustaining what is familiar, even if it is not optimal. Challenging historical approaches goes along with challenging the emotions, status and prestige associated with those approaches. That is not typically welcome.
Doug Criscitello, Executive Director of MIT’s Center for Finance and Policy
From MIT Golub Center for Finance and Policy
As the keynote speaker at a recent conference of the International Consortium on Government Financial Management held in Washington DC, I had the opportunity to discuss with representatives from over 40 countries one of the primary challenges facing governments around the world – citizen engagement.
My remarks emphasized that recent populist movements should be a wake up call to everyone involved in government – including those in the budgeting and finance communities – on the need to turn citizen cynicism into engagement and buy-in.
The growing availability of technology and data should be enabling a highly informed citizenry (i.e., voters) armed with actionable information. Moving beyond tired factory-like mindsets where government financial staff spend their days grinding out reports, preparing audit remediation plans and manually executing budgets, a modern approach enables technology to drive iterative, customer-focused engagement and creates and marshals electronic resources.
Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center
At age four, we’re fueled with curiosity, asking thousands of questions to better grasp what’s going on around us. Already we are aware, at a very fundamental level, that questioning helps us feel our way around a situation and develop entirely new ways of engaging with the world.
It isn’t long, however, before we enter an educational system that rewards answers more than questions. Consider that the average child between six- to 18-years old asks only one question per one-hour class per month. Contrast that with the average teacher, who peppers kids with 300 to 600 questions a day and waits an average of one second for each reply, and you have a recipe for what I call the “Global Questioning Crisis.”
As adults, many leaders perpetuate this answer-centric culture, playing it safe as they get things done. But, based on my research and firsthand conversations with the most renowned leaders of our time, high-impact innovators know that they must question to disrupt, or risk being disrupted. As such, they sustain this critical skillset, not just by asking more questions, but by identifying the “hot” questions – ones that are provocative, emotional and downright uncomfortable – while also encouraging those around them to be passionate about the same. Finally, they actively pursue answers to these hot questions by leveraging several key discovery skills – observing, networking, experimenting, and associational thinking.
And it’s a wrap. The two major conventions are over and we now begin the long slog toward Election Day in November. As someone who studies both communication and leadership styles here at MIT, I think it is worth pausing and sifting through the sometimes overly loud and outsized rhetoric of the past two weeks to create a kind of scorecard.
The presidency is a job after all, an amazing and powerful one, but a job all the same. So, it seems like a good idea to dispassionately assess the leadership and communication skills of the two candidates—not unlike what we would do if this were a job opening in a major corporation.
Donald Trump has shown his ability to manipulate the media and his facility with social media. He keeps his name in the headlines day in and day out, most recently inviting Russia’s Vladimir Putin to hack Hilary Clinton’s e-mails. He also seems to have the facility to vacillate on positions without getting into a lot of trouble for doing that. While many would accuse Trump of flip-flopping, one could suggest that he has developed this as an art or a skill. He’s done a good job of positioning himself as an outsider at a time when people have a great deal of anger towards Washington.
We know that two-thirds of large scale transformation efforts fail. But that’s not a terribly helpful piece of information―unless we’re looking for confirmation that this is hard, really hard. What is useful is to understand what leaders can do to substantially increase the odds that their companies won’t be among the two-thirds of those that fail. From my research and work with companies around the world leading large-scale transformation initiatives, here are the four things I’ve found that virtually all successful change leaders do really well:
Recognize embedded tensions and paradoxes
Smart, capable, solid professionals most often perform well in their roles until they reach a level in their organizations at which they are confronted with a series of embedded tensions and paradoxes that make leading effectively much more complicated. The most common paradoxes leaders face when driving a transformation effort are:
Revitalization vs. Normalization. At the core of every change initiative is the desire to breathe new life into the organization―to revitalize ways of thinking, behaving and working. But one change initiative often morphs into many, and before long employees become “change weary.” Thus, we find ourselves in the conflicted situation of needing revitalization but desiring normalization.
Globalization vs. Simplification. Doing business today means doing business globally, but the complexities brought on by globalization are often in conflict with the need for organizations to make it simple for customers to do business with them. Leaders struggle with creating organizational responses that address the need to master globalization while offering customers and employees optimal simplification.
Innovation vs. Regulation. Many organizations, particularly in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, are saddled with trying to do business, let along innovate, under increasingly crushing regulatory environments. This is a stifling tax on a company’s capacity to find creative approaches to solving unmet customers’ needs. As such we struggle with the tension between the desire to boost innovation and the need to operate under increasing regulation.