Your work at the MIT Leadership Center has given you some fascinating insights into the nature of organizational change. What are the key challenges faced by today’s leaders?
The number one question we are seeing at the Leadership Center is, ‘how should we approach going global?’ Leaders want to know how to set up operations around the world and get them up and running quickly, while keeping them coordinated with the rest of the organization. The challenge is to be innovative, to be entrepreneurial, to meet customer needs and to build on emerging technologies and trends, but maintain alignment across those efforts.
The nature of work has also shifted. People have gone from working on very clear, designated tasks, where they may be connected to a number of people in a laboratory or division, to being interconnected in a much larger way, both within and outside of their firm. We are seeing value chains expanding to include NGOs or even local farmers who provide raw materials to a supplier. This new outward focus means that workers have to expand their networks and be able to work across multiple boundaries.
You have stated that leadership is not solely the responsibility of the CEO, but can and should permeate all levels of an organization. Please explain.
At the MIT Leadership Center, we are big proponents of what we call ‘distributed leadership’, especially when it comes to large, decentralized or global organizations. These organizations are moving from traditional bureaucratic structures to flatter forms to cope with a more dynamic and complex world. Within these new structures, organizations find that they need to develop new leadership practices that rely less on the individual efficacy of a few ‘stars’ and more on the collective efficacy of networks of leaders – some formal and some informal – operating across organizational levels and often across organizational boundaries. As CISCO CEO John Chambers has pointed out, “We are seeing a massive shift from management by command-and-control to management by collaboration and teamwork. You could almost say this shift is as revolutionary as the assembly line.”
A concept that supports the model of distributed leadership is that of the ‘X-team’. Most current team training focuses on internal processes such as setting goals, allocating roles, and building trust and cohesion among members. But our data suggests that the best teams are externally oriented and make it part of their daily business to cross boundaries. These ‘X-teams’ are engaged with the world, talking to customers, learning about new technologies, figuring out what their competitors are doing, and developing ideas that suit a changing global landscape.
X-teams generate superior results because they frame their product or process within the larger priorities of the organization, and also within the needs of the outside world. They are able to create synergies and alignment within the firm and with key stakeholders. A successful X-team is also very agile, moving rapidly from planning to execution to exportation to quickly bring a product to market or to the rest of the organization.
Describe the role of ‘sensemaking’.
‘Sensemaking’ is the process by which people develop a deep understanding of the problem they are trying to solve, and it is essential to creating change. Sensemakers aim to understand the overall landscape of the initiative, how it is changing and where it is moving, so that when they make a decision, they do so with a profound awareness of the larger context. At renowned design form IDEO, they have all sorts of fun and interesting ways of sensemaking. When called upon to design an emergency room, for example, IDEO designers made a careful study of the key stakeholders, the most important of which is, of course, the patient. Early in the process of product development, they put a camera on a patient’s head and recorded the resulting footage for ten hours. Of course what they saw when they watched the video was mostly views of the ceiling. This key piece of research led to some genuinely innovative ideas on how to improve the medical experience within the emergency room.
Discuss the importance of building relationships in an era of networking.
We can’t overemphasize the importance of building relationships. Whatever else might have changed in the workplace, the way to get things done is still with and through other people. The most successful leaders are those who are able to build strong networks and effective relationships within their group and outside the organization.
The challenge in an era of teamwork is that you might not necessarily have formal authority over the people with whom you are working. Also, in a global world, the people that you are working with may be very different from you. Leaders thus need to learn how to get their point across in a way that takes into account cultural difference and how others prefer to work and communicate. They also need to check to make sure that others understand them and that they have truly understood what others have communicated.
What are some ways that managers can develop a vision for an organization that engages and inspires its stakeholders?
[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]