Traditional, linear management structures are no longer fit-for-purpose. When we look to fast-scaling, disruptive start-ups, we see how their agility is dictated by empowered individuals and collaborative teams. Competitive edge no longer rests on the shoulders of management, but on the ecosystem of talent that sits beneath it. Here’s why.
It takes all skills to create a bigger picture – one that delivers the insight and the context to make decisions in real-time. But often this insight is twisted and skewed as it travels up the chain of command.
To be hyper-decisive, businesses need to make decisions on the edge. This means moving decision-making powers closer to the source of events and empowering individuals to act on instinct, rather than escalating to their superiors. Employees must have the autonomy to confront challenges, identify opportunities and take risks. In today’s fast-moving economy, a business that is fixated on hierarchy and red-tape will not be able to keep pace with the market in real-time.
But for this to work, companies must have confidence in the skills of their people. This means that in addition to making the right hires first time, businesses will need to constantly upskill, reskill and track skills growth to ensure they have the best people at the edges of the business, at all times.
Business leaders will also need to learn how to take a step back from making decisions to enabling them, including how to delegate and when. Moving ownership and accountability down the line will mean more action, and less time wasted in unproductive meetings with multiple decision makers. As well as freeing up senior management for more ‘mission critical’ business decisions, employees will be spurred on to act quickly, take responsibility and learn. Encouraging employees to fail fast and fail forward – to make a mistake and learn from it – will create a rapid, entrepreneurial and change-based culture from the top down. And this is important – because it’s not just about individual autonomy.
Giving individual workers free reign to create and implement solutions at the edge will encourage them to venture beyond the perimeters of their immediate network and to lean on the expertise of others. Over time, this will lead to organic ecosystems of cross-functional teams, where individual skillsets can be pooled and disbanded according to each specific mission.
This is positive, as research shows that ideas developed by teams with three or more members have a 156% greater appeal to customers than teams with only a couple of contributors. Diversity of thinking will lead to solutions that are more holistic, thought-through and can stand the test of time.
We can see how this works in the technology industry, with its Agile and DevOps software development methodology. Agile ways of working – which brings together networks of experts to work on programmes – are well known for their rapid learning, continuous development and fast decision cycles. Agile recognises that business requirements are constantly changing and by working cross-functionally and with iteration, results are well-rounded and aligned to the future.
According to McKinsey, more than one in five businesses cite introducing agile ways of working as a high-priority organisational change; and a similar proportion said the same of more cross-functional collaboration. And with good reason. Companies that launched an agile transformation pre-Covid-19 performed better and moved faster post-Covid-19 than those that didn’t, with telecom companies and banks that were agile before the crisis twice as fast at releasing new services responding to it.
Empowering individuals to make decisions on the edge by giving them the tools, networks, processes and culture to enact change is helpful, but creating fully autonomous teams is the real endgame for agility and lightning-speed operations.
Embracing diversity and shared values
Most organisations have a blend of different cultures, backgrounds, networks, behaviours and personality types. Allowing people to apply their diversity of thinking and experience to reach solutions is pivotal to agility. Organisations that embrace D&I are six times as likely to be innovative and agile, three times as likely to be high-performing, two times as likely to meet or exceed financial targets and eight times more likely to achieve business outcomes. You can read more on D&I in recruitment here.
Respecting differences and finding shared values is intrinsic to harmonising the different voices of your company without stifling them. As your people make decisions on the edge, they will take unique approaches to solving problems – but it’s important that everyone is still on the same page.
A good place to start is understanding your purpose and building this into the behaviour and culture of your employees. A shared vision sets up a framework for employees to self-organise and interpret how they use their skills, background and experiences to achieve a common goal. It also creates a safe psychological space for people to bring their thoughts and experiences to the table.
One way this can be achieved is by setting metrics that reward and recognise shared values, by allowing people to achieve these results in their own way. Another way is through unstructured, cross-discipline meet-ups that enable people to share different views and ways of coming to a solution.
Businesses will need to pay careful attention to this when hiring. Ensuring that your workforce is culturally-aligned will be important to keep everyone working in the same direction, but diversity is just as important. Meanwhile, a digital skills passport can track not just current role responsibilities but skills and lessons learnt, enabling more transparency for project assignment and upskilling.
Skill democratization and cross-skilling
Inevitably, one of the by-products of cross-functional collaboration is the opportunity to learn from each other. Fostering collaboration from the top-down and enabling people to work together without the need for managerial intervention will broaden minds to different perspectives, unlock new information channels and create greater transparency – enabling individuals to make quicker, more informed decisions on the edge.
In the age of life-long learning (see Dynamic Learning), a workforce that is constantly regenerating its knowledge is more likely to stand the test of time. But as well as boosting individual performance, cross-skilling is also enabling companies to democratize niche skillsets and build talent pools.
Technology is one area where we are already seeing skill democratization. As technology has become more prevalent in business, demand has surged. Between 2010 and 2018, tech sector GVA grew nearly six times as fast as the UK economy as a whole.
The rise in tech citizens – such as citizen data scientists – shows how skill democratization and cross-skilling will help to plug talent gaps. Tech citizens are people whose roles are not traditionally technology-based but who can, with the support of training and tools (e.g. analytics and data), recreate some of the more basic business functions of niche tech specialists.
As niche tech skillsets become more in demand, a workforce that can share the load by cross-skilling will become invaluable, not least for workers that need to upskill to stay ahead of the curve.
Put into the context of other chapters, a truly agile organisation could be self-sustaining. A workforce that is able to self-motivate, cross-skill and make its own decisions autonomously will have no reason to bind itself to any sort of management structure. In this sense, we will all become collaborators.
On the other hand, one of the defining values of the future workforce is a crystal clear corporate identity and purpose. And the beauty of this is that it is fluid, led by employees who self-organise to align objectives and priorities to meet common goals.
Organisations that display cross-functional collaboration, shared knowledge in high-value areas such as technology, and autonomous workforces will be able to act with both stability and rapidity to market changes.
For years, business leaders have warned of the implications of living in a VUCA climate. The words we use to describe the market – high velocity, unpredictable, turbulent, disruptive – all hint at the need for regular adaptation and agility. The coronavirus pandemic is a real-life example of VUCA in action. And it won’t be the last. Change, both small and monumental, is an inevitability we must all be braced for. And technology is the trigger point for this transformation, the architect of its innovation. It is a catalyst and an accelerant.
In our Tech Through Adversity series, we explore how the world of work is changing under the pressure of a VUCA climate – and the role tech has to play. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.