The Case For A More Human Leadership Model

Bruno Guicardi is President of CI&T, the digital solutions partner driving lean digital transformation for the world’s biggest brands.

Best-selling author Gary Hamel recently shared some stats that represent a startling reality: “Only one in five employees believe their opinions matter at work … and one in 11 say they can influence important decisions.”

Much has been said about employee empowerment and a work environment that’s more inclusive, but the discussion tends to center on talent attraction and retention as if this was only an HR issue. My provocation in this article is that we should look at empowerment in the workplace as our best bet to tackle the ever-increasing unpredictability in the business environment and to thrive as a business.

The 20th-century formula to solving problems in which companies analyzed the situation, broke it down and came up with a detailed plan doesn’t work anymore. In the digital space, my field of expertise, we get a front-row seat. The cycle from idea to market in traditional companies takes between two and five years. As you can imagine, when these products finally get to market, they are already outdated.

The Problem Deep Down

Unfortunately, the root cause of the problem is hard to solve because it is deeply ingrained in the current corporate culture: Leaders are expected to know the answers to all problems. The trouble is that although this approach works well for knowable problems, it is unfit for unknowable ones where we are facing unknown unknowns.

Most of the relevant problems today are of the unknowable kind. Due to a roster of new factors such as a fast change in consumer behavior, fragmentation and globalization, these problems have many variables and many dependencies among these variables that, in practice, make them unknowable. You may hear some of your peers and your management consulting partners claim these problems are knowable in theory. But as Benjamin Brewster is credited with saying, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, while in practice, there is.”

The Leap Forward

The biggest shift we see thriving in the digital space, which can be a lighthouse for other contexts, is favoring action over analysis. This changes the game from gaining knowledge of the problem beforehand to gaining knowledge as we go. Here is exactly where employee empowerment fits and a new type of leadership enters. In our experience, a better approach has been to assign teams to specific business challenges and empower them to take action fast, learn with customer feedback, pivot, rinse and repeat.

However, in order to have empowered teams, we need empowering leaders. The rite of passage for leaders is to acknowledge the high uncertainty of the business environment and that they don’t know exactly what to do — and that’s not only OK; it’s what’s expected. In digital, if leaders were to rule under a command-and-control model, they would need to deeply know business, customer behavior and technology. As you can imagine, it is very rare to find someone whose skills span three different disciplines. The metamorphosis from a know-all leader to one who develops the team’s collective intelligence is a humbling experience but also a liberating one, and it creates a less asymmetrical and more human relationship between leader and team where there’s space for creativity, trust and true collaboration.

A New Book Of Knowledge For Leadership

Along with the leader’s personal transformation, other conditions need to be in place to achieve a more humane work environment. Below are some of the most important ones.

• Cross-functional teams. It is critical that teams are multidisciplinary and made up of people with all the required skills to run from idea to implementation. In our studies, we’ve found that, on average, only 25% of the total lead time of a typical digital initiative is work being done, and that 75% of the time, work is just sitting and waiting for approvals, reviews and handoffs. Putting everyone together can drastically speed up the process. It also gradually promotes a more holistic understanding of the overarching business challenge, which in turn helps increase substantially the quality of the ideas and contributions from team members.

• Outcome over output. If you’re now defining the “projects” you are going to do next year and your respective scorecard, what type of autonomy do you really have to adjust course when needed? Establishing higher-level goals and scorecards is essential to bringing the uncertainty of the external world inward to our teams. Having outcome-based goals (get 1 million new subscribers) instead of output-based (deliver the new engagement platform) shared across all team members creates the freedom for real adaptation to happen. It also provides the team with real autonomy to use creativity and problem-solving.

• Act your way into a new way of thinking instead of thinking your way into a new way of acting. Training and change management are necessary but far from enough to change mindsets. The most important tactic to make these changes take root is to design new processes that will give the opportunity to exercise the new expected behaviors. For example, take Amazon’s “working backward” process for product development; it is the way Amazon makes sure its employees are practicing customer centricity every day instead of asking people to be customer-centric.

• Strip out your ideas to their very core. So much for the “fail fast and celebrate failure” spiel. To make failure almost painless, what many successful organizations do is strip out their ideas of all the fluff and test them so quickly and cheaply that if they fail, it it unnoticeable. Because their teams have outcome-based goals, they have total autonomy to implement as many ideas as they come up with — as long as it fits within their budgets.

This new execution discipline is in its infancy, and there is still a lot to be learned and developed, but it is also exciting. The business playbook as we know it will cease to exist. Instead, the new playbook for our new reality is being written chapter by chapter as we speak, and “being human” is one of the first sections.

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