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In this topsy-turvy world, we have three options.
We can resist change and fade into irrelevance.
We can wait and react to change, then hang on for dear life and hope to survive. (We likely won’t.)
Or we can proactively anticipate change, then adapt and thrive.
It sounds simple enough. But the landscape is littered by people who chose one of the first two options.
Despite (or perhaps because of) a future that’s coming faster than we can blink, we’re living in an unprecedented period of opportunity.
Nobody knows that better than Keith Ferrazzi and Kian Gohar, authors of Competing in the New World of Work.
Ferrazzi is founder and chairman of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a management consulting and coaching firm that works to transform some of the largest organizations in the world. For decades he’s been a leader in the discussion about the future of work. He’s the bestselling author of two previous books. Gohar works with leading companies to harness innovation and “moon shots” to solve complex problems. He’s coached the leadership teams of dozens of Fortune 500 companies.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Everyone knows that the Covid pandemic has brought tragic levels of adversity to the global community. But it’s also triggered encouraging insight, creativity, and innovation. What has the pandemic taught us about opportunities in the world of work?
Keith Ferrazzi: Tragic though it was on the health and personal economic lives of many people, the pandemic helped us dispel many myths about work. For one, we realized that collaboration and productivity weren’t about where you worked, but rather how you showed up to work. It’s not physical distance that matters, but operational, strategic and affinity distance that matters.
If you design a new workplace that optimized for collaboration and inclusion, rather than for physical space, you can create a workforce that taps into the cognitive intelligence of distributed team members and reach exponentially more stakeholders. Likewise, if you design a management approach that seeks to maximize for inclusion through internal and external crowdsourcing, rather than limiting decision-makers to the four walls of your boardroom, you can create an inclusive culture that lets all voices be heard through savvy digital tools like Zoom breakout rooms and asynchronous collaboration. But it takes a conscientious effort to design this new world of work, rather than defaulting to lazy managerial habits of yore. And it takes repeated practice with your teams to strengthen the muscle for this new way of thinking. Managers and organizations that lean into this perspective will win the war for talent in this new world of work.
Duncan: You write about “radical adaptability.” What’s your brief elevator speech on what that is and what it means for the future of the workplace?
Ferrazzi: Radical adaptability is a sustainable leadership methodology for teams and organizations to thrive in a world of uncertainty. It’s derived from best practices in crisis management that we observed through interviews with 2,000 leaders during the pandemic era. Unlike typical responses to change, radical adaptability is predictive and proactive. It helps you see around corners to better predict the future and to mobilize resources through collaborative problem solving, agile sprints, and resilient teams. By developing a team muscle for radical adaptability, we believe organizations can flourish regardless of what new disruption arrives in the future.
In a world where leaders have to manage business complexity side-by-side with technology disruption, fast-moving consumer preferences, and even biological hazards, the savviest leaders must learn to create nimble, resilient, and agile workforces to withstand external variability on the workplace. And the best way to do this is to practice radical adaptability, and get really good at developing resilient teams that maximize collaboration and inclusion for innovation, regardless of where teams physically work.
Duncan: Covid will certainly not be the last disruption. How can business leaders reinvent their business models to thrive in a world of frequent disruptions?
Kian Gohar: Many of the business trends we witnessed during the pandemic—for example, work from home, tele-health, and service automation—were already underway before the pandemic. But Covid poured gasoline on the fire of digital transformation and accelerated these trends exponentially. A survey with Dell Technologies showed that 80% of businesses shifted their business model in 2020.
To thrive in a future rife with uncertainty and disruption, we recommend leaders follow a four-step methodology to continually future-proof their business models.
First, zoom out ten years to imagine what your industry and business can look like in a distant future. Second, identify the technologies and trends that will dramatically impact this future vision. Third, zoom in to the next 12 months and create agile experiments leveraging one or two of these disruptive technologies. The goal is to learn quickly, and if the experiments prove fruitful, to scale up and intercept the exponential growth curves of these technologies and grow alongside them. Finally, as technologies become democratized and accessible by all, you need something to differentiate your offerings, and having a super engaged community or consumer base will serve as a moat for your business until you develop the next innovation in your business model. The key is that this is a continuous cycle, rather than a once-and-done effort. So, the savviest leaders are constantly cycling through this methodology every year to look over the horizon.
Duncan: What best practices have you seen for helping virtual and blended teams perform at high levels?
Ferrazzi: The highest performing teams have—regardless of where they work—a set of agreed work behaviors for all team members. The default is a commitment to collaborate transparently and inclusively to avoid silos developing in the office, when some work remotely.
Additionally, the most successful teams test assumptions for what collaboration really means, and are able to move fluidly through what we call the “collaboration stack.” They first attack a problem through asynchronous collaboration, which means they work not co-located, and not at the same time. Team members offer potential solutions to the dilemma using a shared cloud document called a Decision Board, through which the problem owner can view the universe of submitted ideas, and then call a meeting (remote or hybrid) to take action toward the desired outcome. Finally, an in-person meeting is called only when there is a need to have an emotional connection to celebrate a success, or build positivity among the team members.
Finally, managers should track and reward individual and team outcomes, rather than time in office, or time spent solving a problem. On hybrid and blended teams, it shouldn’t matter when or where the work gets done, so long as the team members stay committed to their agreed upon work behaviors and deliver on the desired work product outcome.
Duncan: What role does courage play in team members’ ability to produce consistently good results?
Gohar: Being right doesn’t always guarantee the right outcome. What matters is marrying knowledge with courage.
Consider the story of Tilly Smith. In 2004, Tilly was 10 years old and on vacation with her family in Thailand. While walking on the beach, she noticed the water was bubbling unusually and foaming, and the waves were receding uncharacteristically from shore. She had just learned in school how ocean water behaves right before a tsunami. So, she told her mom that a tsunami was coming and they needed to evacuate the beach. Her mother was skeptical and ignored Tilly’s warnings. So, Tilly started screaming until everyone on the beach heard her and cleared the beach. Moments later, the great Indian Ocean tsunami hit and more than 200,000 people died. But no one died on the beach where Tilly helped evacuate. What made Tilly a hero wasn’t her knowledge, but her resolve and courage in her convictions, and her willingness to put insights into action.
So, when team members are tasked with new goals, it’s important to inspire them to be like Tilly Smith—to be courageous enough to ask bold questions, explore new avenues, reassess long-held assumptions, and raise warnings about potential risks. Otherwise, they may miss important signals that can be the difference between failure and success.
Duncan: Increased focus is being put on mental health and employee wellbeing these days. How do those issues relate to creating resilient teams?
Gohar: During the pandemic, teams were asked to climb one hill after the other, to recreate new and often strange ways of working, and to run toward really hard problems. This kind of agile experimentation helped us survive the crisis, but it was also exhausting emotionally, and led to a lot of burnout. The teams that thrived in the pandemic were able to sustain their energy for the long-term by resting after each sprint and re-energizing before the next one.
For the first time ever, videoconferencing allowed us to peer into each other’s living rooms and recognize personal responsibilities beyond work. We realized we came to work with different levels of energy and personal resilience. Depending on the day, some team members had more personal social support than others, while others may have had more abundant financial assets to weather the ups and downs. Even our most esteemed leaders couldn’t hide behind the proverbial stiff upper lip. And in order to cross the finish line together, we learned the value of supporting each team member through peer-to-peer coaching. Individual resilience was certainly important, but it was team resilience that mattered most in a crisis.
Our research shows that managers play a critical role in building team resiliency. At an individual level, team members were asked to block time on calendars for personal wellness breaks. And at a team level, managers deployed tools to diagnose team energy, and then created a culture that celebrated resilience by modeling behavior and encouraging teams to crowdsource peer-to-peer solutions to individual stressors.
Duncan: Change management is a challenge for all leaders. How can they use bite-sized performance milestones to help teams navigate large change initiatives successfully?
Ferrazzi: Rather than initiating a massive change management exercise through lofty rhetoric and difficult-to-achieve moonshots, leaders should adopt bite-sized initiatives that—when cobbled together—move the organization toward the desired transformation.
The best way to do this is to adopt short-term sprints with very clear attainable objectives. These sprints last one or two weeks and allow teams to focus on solving the most urgent problems facing them rather than on less immediate goals. To succeed, the objectives have to be small enough that they can be accomplished in two-week sprints. But they also have to be big enough to matter to the long-term vision. This limited timeframe also helps protect downside. If an experiment goes awry during a sprint, the damage to the change management initiative is limited.
During each sprint, teams adjust and pivot towards accomplishing short-term objectives, and create momentum for the next change initiative. Layered on top of each other, these sprints angle the organization towards long-term change and transformation.
Duncan: How do you define an “agile team,” and what makes it more likely to succeed than traditional teams?
Ferrazzi: An agile team always puts customer value first. Not operational metrics, office politics, or internal processes. It prioritizes customer value above all else. An effective agile team is composed of those employees sitting closest to the customer. In the depths of a crisis, leaders don’t have perfect visibility through the proverbial fog of war. So they have no choice but to push decision-making and problem-solving capability to those closest to the problem.
These agile teams are empowered to test new ideas, iterate, and pivot based on measurable outcomes in short 2-week sprints. Agile teams are constantly asking, How can we create more value? How can our project be better? Who else do we need on the team to unblock a problem today?
In this new world of work, where new technologies create opportunities (and disruption) faster than bureaucracies can deal with them, the only way for organizations to thrive is by adopting agile teams that are fast, flexible, and fluid.
Duncan: Many corporate “purpose statements” come across as little more than PR virtue signaling. How can leaders use “purpose” in ways that actually inspire their people to competitive success?
Gohar: The best way to make sure purpose is woven into the fabric of the organization is to crowdsource it from the bottom up. Don’t just decide at the board or executive level what you think your organization’s purpose should be. Instead, ask your entire organization what the corporate purpose should be. By doing so, you’ll get much more engaged stakeholders who believe they have a stake in making sure the company lives up to its corporate purpose.
Start with an all-employee survey to get a broad overview of employee sentiment. Then invite a representative sample into focus groups and smaller breakout sessions comprised of three or four employees each to better understand what they think the organization does to make a difference in the lives of employees, customers, and society. Then broaden out the crowdsourcing and ask your external vendors, stakeholders, and partners to comment in a similar fashion. By aggregating the reactions, you will inevitably see common patterns arise. How do these observations connect to your bottom line? Can you identify new products or services that lean into these passions? Can these passion-inspiring categories be the source of your firm’s competitive advantage?
Purpose serves multiple uses: as a filter for decision making, as an employee engagement and retention tool, and as glue for building stronger internal and external relationships. If you already have a purpose statement, can everyone in the company recite it? Is it clearly understandable? Are executives walking the talk, or is it just lip service? Finally, make sure your purpose goes beyond the basics of business success, and focuses on macro-level levers that the company can help influence separately from its products or services.
Duncan: Is the so-called Great Resignation here to stay?
Ferrazzi: No, it doesn’t have to be this way. The pandemic made everyone reassess how we live, how we work, and how we socialize. Instead of a Great Resignation, we’re seeing what we call a Great Exploration, where employees are now looking for workplace environments that match their post-pandemic expectations of how they want to live and work.
Those companies that don’t tap into the intelligence of distributed teams and create inclusive workspaces and resilient teams, will suffer the effects of the Great Resignation. Those that lean into co-exploring the future with employees, will thrive. The choice is up to managers. Either go back to work, or go forward to work.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.