Adapting your leadership style to turbulent times

This article was written by Roger Perry for the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, and first published here.

With the increased perception of living in turbulent times, there is a sense of nervousness, even dread, around many industries at present. Yet turbulent times are not new, and organisational design practitioners now have solid, well-tested, advice to give to leaders. It is advice on how to create adaptive organisations. However, to give you these insights I am first going to take you on a quick tour through chaos theory and NASA’s unmanned space program, before ending up at a workable approach to leading through turbulence.

According to chaos theory, a world with increasing interconnectedness makes for a higher probability of disruptive ripple effects. Such interconnections can theoretically mean that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazonian rain forest can create a typhoon elsewhere. In the world of business, think of how the failures in one market affected so many other sectors during the GFC.

Fortunately for us, chaos theory also gives us a way to address this problem. The theory shows that simple rules can create complex outcomes. For example, NASA are designing maintenance robots that can adapt to a myriad of problems on a distant space probe by adhering to, then building upon, a set of simple rules. This phenomenon works incredibly well for us as leaders. It means that we can help our organisations become more adaptive, not by building complexity, but by allowing it to emerge from a suitable set of simple rules.

Well, just how do we do that? Organisational theorists could be said to have two pieces of broad advice for adaptive leaders. Firstly, be very clear about your mission. We all think that we do this already. We have a mission statement in the annual report or on the wall. Well, it turns out to be terrifyingly easy to get the mission wrong. Take horse-drawn buggy manufacturers at the turn of the 20th century. They had a mission to design a more comfortable and efficient buggy. Of course, it turned out that this was the wrong mission altogether, which led to buggy-manufacturer extinction as the automobile took over.
Secondly, we should lead in a way that adheres to the chaos theory insights on simple rules. In management terms this is often called Mission Command (inspired by experts such as McKinney Rogers and Stephen Bungay). The proposition is this:

  • Make sure that everyone is clear about the organisation’s mission, and their role in this context
  • Set up a very few simple rules (for example, “always understand the customer’s emotional as well as practical needs”)
  • Create guidelines that help make good decisions (such as, “get multiple perspectives on difficult problems”)
  • Teach people how to use the guidelines in making decisions
  • Finally, encourage experimentation to unleash innovation (but in a way that manages risk)

This approach has been tested and found to work in a vast array of complex and challenging contexts. For example, fire-brigades, hospitals, disaster recovery teams, and military units. It frees up leadership time, encourages innovation, and manages risk through experimentation. Critically it has been found to make front-line teams much more intelligently responsive. This has meant that lives have been saved. In California local fire crew chiefs used to wait for instructions from higher command. They now make their own decisions within boundaries and can operate when telecommunications are down. This saves lives. So, if the old-ways of leading are not working for you in turbulent times, then maybe it’s time to adopt the lessons of chaos theory. Be clear on mission and use simple rules to manage complexity.