One of the central principles of 20th Century Organizational Leadership was the ability of humans to manage highly complicated organizations. This was done by looking at the goal of the organization as an endpoint or an output and predicting all of the many small steps and actions needed to achieve success, and then doing them. Dependencies were considered, alternative scenarios were analyzed, and contingency plans made. Budgeting and forecasting became an art and by the end of the 20th century began to be supported by massive amounts of computerized data. The goal was to break each action, each contingency, each scenario into small, simple, easily recognized and understood actions, which if adhered to reliably created a desired result. This led to ever more efficient operationalization. Workers in carefully defined narrow specialties became highly efficient in executing that specialty. Managers led their workers by controlling the responsibility of each worker and commanding them on how to accomplish their contribution to the organization’s endeavors. Thus cars, airplanes and power plants could be manufactured in progressively efficient ways making them cheaper to produce. Relying on the same principle of breaking complicated matters onto small efficient parts, wars were waged faster and with less loss of American life as the Century progressed and closed.
Then something changed — in the last decade of the 20th Century and the first decade of the 21st technology began to disrupt organizations. Enemies in national defense terms, and competitors and consumers in business terms, learned that the vast, instantaneous and accurate amounts of pure data and information available to everyone with a computer, laptop or smartphone allowed anyone to adapt quickly to any plans designed to be efficient. The reality of the 21st century is that it is radically faster and more connected but it’s also massively less predictable than ever before. Complexity has overtaken complicated. In this new reality agile, innovative and resilient organizations will outmaneuver and ultimately defeat organizations with more resources, and exceptionally thought-out plans put into action by the world’s most talented and disciplined people. Organizational leadership in the 20th Century was designed for complicated but, in relative terms, predictable environments. The emerging 21st Century leadership model is for a complex environment — requiring a different form of leadership – one that has decentralized authority and encourages resiliency over efficiency.
What do you think successful leadership looks like in this complex environment?
I welcome your comments and discussion.
First in a series, adapted from “Team of Teams” by General Stanley McCrystal U.S Army Ret. with Tantum Collins, David Silverman and Chris Fussel
(NEXT: Why Command and Control = Management, while Adapt, Innovate and Resilience = Leadership)