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A New Paradigm for Leadership in a Complex World

The world of work is changing quickly, and the way we think about it has to change too. Despite the seismic shifts in the workplace over the last few decades, the image of work many of us have is still the one we learned in school, where roles and goals were as rigidly defined as A’s, B’s, and C’s.

The historical paradigm is that you went to school to acquire the knowledge and skill to obtain a job. But with the rapid pace of change, today you often have the job before you have the skills.

The good news is this: with digital tools, information is so ubiquitous that it often only takes seconds to get the knowledge you need. The bad news is that to succeed at work in this digital environment, we have to manage through great complexity and at a faster pace than we’ve ever experienced before. Our goals are constantly changing, and our roles are rarely clearly defined.

According to the Boston Consulting Group, organizations are 35 times more complicated than in 1955, in response to a world that has grown 6 times more complex over the same time period. From day to day, that means that we have to move faster, pivot more, and be willing to refresh our skills continuously. Rather than seeing this state of affairs as an aberration from what we were taught to expect, the time has come to embrace it as the new normal.

At GE, one of our priorities has been to understand how our workplace is changing, and to translate that knowledge into a new set of expectations for the employer/employee relationship.

In this piece, I’ll outline three key changes in the workplace, and in the next piece I’ll talk about some ways we can change in response.

A faster workplace

GE’s Vice Chair Beth Comstock said it well: “As our information moves faster, we move faster.” This is true in the abstract—we read about the rapid pace of change in the news all the time. But it’s also something we experience firsthand. Just when you’ve tamed your inbox and mastered a new workflow, for example, it seems like a new set of goals and collaborators always comes along and you feel like you have to start over.

Adapting to accelerated change is hard, and it has real costs, both in time and brainpower. It’s on leaders to find every opportunity to make our work processes simpler and faster to understand and execute.

Leaders need to make sure that it’s absolutely necessary before introducing another layer of complexity, and regularly take stock and get rid of processes that aren’t needed anymore.

This starts with an attitude shift. We need to reverse our tendency to be quick to add work but slow to kill it. It is quite fair to expect leaders to know the work their employees must do and optimize every needed process in the interest of helping their teams unleash even greater capacity.

A world of insights

The amount of information we are producing and the amount we have to deal with is exploding. By some estimates, the total amount of data stored in the world doubles every 1.2 years, and that by 2020, we’ll be generating 1.7 megabytes of data per second for every human being on the planet.

One of the upsides to this explosion of information is the massive increase in insights about our work and how we create value for customers. Leaders and teams that capitalize on these insights and are willing to culturally change in the interest of changing customer outcomes will win and win big! Using real-time collaboration and feedback tools, we all have more chances to improve in concrete ways—and we don’t have to do it blindly or just occasionally.

You’ve got to inspire your employees

In the old paradigm, there was no question that employees were beholden to do what their managers told them. Authority flowed downwards and the assurance of compliance flowed back up.

In the new paradigm, the pace of change and the complexity of our challenges demand a more fluid approach. Teams and roles often shift around as needed. The result is that leaders and teams need to be more agile and adaptive in response to changing demands. Instead of relying on assumed authority, leaders have to inspire their team members with each new challenge.

In my experience, there are three key questions that team members in this new paradigm are always using to evaluate their leaders: “Do you know where you’re taking us? Do you know what you are doing? Do you care what happens to us?”

For leaders, this can only be a good thing. It keeps us on our toes, constantly answering and revising the answers to these questions. The result is an organization that stays closer to its purpose, and a leadership more clearly able to articulate it to those around them.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of how work is changing. I’d love to hear from you about which of the three principles best describes your experiences and what you think I’ve left out. Let me know in the comments! And please follow me on Twitter @hrjackryan.

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