Integrating Front-Line Team Members Makes for Better Decisions

There is an overriding concern from many leaders in today’s organizations who are trying to lead in a time of tumultuous chaos: traditional organizational structures no longer seem sufficient. There’s a simple reason:

The world in which many of today’s leaders were raised and trained no longer exists.

Fast Company Editor Robert Safian’s cover article in the November issue of the magazine is entitled The Secrets of Generation Flux: How to Lead in a Time of Chaos. In an earlier post I took a look at one section; now it’s time for another section – one that hits close to home for me.

Where hierarchy clearly fails the modern organization is in fostering and encouraging the creative ideas needed to stay agile in today’s networked world. The challenge for the Generation Flux leader, then, is to encourage creativity and agility while retaining the advantages of hierarchy. One of the leaders who has done so most successfully is General Stanley McChrystal. An Army man, McChrystal ran Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly five years, and later commanded all U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, before he resigned in 2010 after his staff was quoted saying critical things about the Obama administration in a Rolling Stone article.

McChrystal experienced a reinvention challenge of his own when the threat of Al Qaeda emerged and the U.S. military had to rethink its assumptions. “We thought we knew the rules, that we knew what it took to be successful,” he says. “But the sport we had been playing wasn’t good enough for the sport we were required to be effective at.” McChrystal, 58, speaks with the stentorian assurance of an old-school leader. But what he has to say doesn’t fit that profile.

We grew up in the military with this [classic hierarchy]: one person at the top, with two to seven subordinates below that, and two to seven below that, and so on. That’s what organizational theory says works,” he explains. Against Al Qaeda, however, “we had to change our structure, to become a network. We were required to react quickly. Instead of decisions being made by people who were more senior–the assumption that senior meant wiser–we found that the wisest decisions were usually made by those closest to the problem.”

In other words, leaders need to be open to letting others make decisions for them. In a fast-changing world, the boots on the ground–be they soldiers or salespeople, engineers or intelligence officers–often need to react without going up the chain of command for approval. What’s more, they need to be empowered to act, to solve problems they encounter unexpectedly. This kind of openness requires not just free-flowing information but a new kind of collaborative trust.

For McChrystal, creating an organization where the best ideas win starts with instilling what he calls a “shared consciousness.” Leaders want the best ideas, but they want to ensure that everyone across the organization understands its goals and strategies. How else can you ensure that your people will act as you would like, even when you are not there? “If I’d proposed this idea to the people I grew up with [in the military],” says McChrystal, “they would have beaten me up and taken my lunch money.”

In Iraq and Afghanistan, local commanders relied on video surveillance from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which gave them unparalleled views of target zones. But there were few UAVs to share among many commanders. Divvying them up was operationally critical but also emotionally important; in a fluid, diffuse war zone, commanders could easily feel slighted if they weren’t informed and empowered. “We forced our task force to hold frequent video conferences,” says McChrystal. “It was tempting to centralize control of these assets, but neither I nor my top leaders did. The commanders made the decisions about how to disperse them.” McChrystal invested in technology to spur communication and decentralize decision-making; his organizational structure made sure that it was used by the troops in more efficient ways. “My command team and I guided our values, strategy, and priorities,” he explains. “The leaders lower in the organization made tactical and operational decisions in line with those principles.”

What makes McChrystal’s comments above very personal to me is that one of my sons is in the Air Force UAV program. He’s a sensor operator, providing the video surveillance described above that helps commanders make crucial, time-sensitive decisions. Serving under the same command structure described in the Fast Company article, he has guidelines to follow. But more than ever before, those guidelines allow the critical input of the front-line troops.

As the son of a WWII vet, the father of an active-duty airman, and an avid reader of military history, the movement toward this type of decision-making is unprecedented. That may be, but it’s being duplicated in all types of organizations – even in ChurchWorld.

As McChrystal says, “The wisest decisions are made by those closest to the problem – regardless of their seniority.”

At organizations big and small, the smartest leaders recognize that a new kind of openness to ideas is required. This is where hierarchy fails us completely. How can a leader make sure that all the options and ideas from the trenches make their way to the top? If you rely on a traditional suggestion-box approach–“Please send me your ideas”–you’re doomed to limit your inputs, even in a digital, social age. Self-censorship is endemic wherever there is a whiff of hierarchy. People assume that their opinions aren’t really valued.

It seems as if today’s leadership is about ambiguity. It’s time for both/and, not either/or. Leaders need a balance between top-down command and control and bottom-up, front-line leadership.

It’s time for GenFlux leaders.

Who’s the GenFlux leader in your organization?

My favorite post from October, 2012

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Generation Flux Revisited

One of the greatest challenges of 21st century leadership is that the world we were raised and trained in no longer exists.

Robert Safian, Editor, Fast Company

Earlier this year I wrote a series of posts about a feature article in Fast Company magazine entitled Generation Flux:

Generation Flux was a term coined by Fast Company magazine Editor Robert Safian. It describes the people who will thrive best in today’s environment. It is a psychographic, not a demographic – you can be any age and be GenFlux. The characteristics of a GenFluxer are clear: an embrace of adaptability and flexibility; an openness to learning from anywhere; decisiveness tempered by the knowledge that organizational life today can shift radically in a short time period.

In the November issue, Safian has written a great follow-up feature, Secrets of the Flux Leader.

According to Safian, “we have grown up with certain assumptions about what works in an enterprise, what the metrics for success are, how we organize and deploy resources. The bulk of those resources are wrong now. The clarity of words we use to discuss business, standbys like marketplace and competitive advantage, are being redefined and rendered almost meaningless.”

It’s the same for ChurchWorld, too. 

Following a single system or outmoded model is foolhardy – churches that are successful in understanding and accomplishing their vision will be nimble and ever-changing.

Attempting to minister in today’s world is nothing if not paradoxical. Churches must be both efficient and transparent; thrifty and ambitious; nimble and stable. Churches and other organizations based on traditional stable structure and management models are not equipped for these dualities.

Generation Flux leaders are the ones who will steer their organizations toward more sophisticated models needed to survive – and thrive – in today’s world.

Are you a GenFluxer?

The Lessons of Innovation

The January issue of Fast Company magazine featured articles on Generation Flux. I thoroughly enjoyed it, posting several applications to ChurchWorld:

The March issue has arrived, focusing on the world’s 50 Most Innovative Companies. Again, there are some great lessons for ChurchWorld – starting with Editor Robert Safian’s lead editorial. He linked his feature story from the Generation Flux issue to themes that emerged in the Top 50 list. Here are the top eight themes:

  1.  Growth should be a tactic, not a strategy
  2. Big companies need to be nimble as startups
  3. Tech is disruptive in unexpected places
  4. Design is a competitive advantage
  5. Social media makes products and services better
  6. Data is power
  7. Money is flowing
  8. Copycats are history

These themes emerged from business names you will recognize, but the truths behind them also have application in your organization – or they should.

Tomorrow: a closer look at these themes and how they are impacting ChurchWorld.

 

If Only Things Were Like They Used To Be

Nostalgia is a natural human emotion, a survival mechanism that pushes people to avoid risk by applying what we’ve learned and relying on what’s worked before.

It’s also about as useful as an appendix right now.

That quote is from Fast Company Editor Robert Safian, writing the cover story “Generation Flux” for the February 2012 issue. He goes on to add:

When times seem uncertain, we instinctively become more conservative; we look to the past, to times that seemed simpler, and we have the urge to recreate them. This impulse is as true for organizations  as for people. But when the past has been blown away by new technology, by the ubiquitous and always-on global hypernetwork, beloved best practices may well be useless.

ChurchWorld, to a great extent, finds itself in that situation right now.

There are huge shifts occurring in the economic, social, cultural, and spiritual fabric of our lives right now. That’s not new – change has always been a part of who we as humans are. But what’s different is the pace of change. It’s not just getting faster – it’s accelerating along an exponential curve.

And the response of ChurchWorld?

Put a fence around your facility and charge admission to a museum dedicated to the 1990s – or 1980s – or 1970s – or 1960s – or 1950s – or…

Oh, it’s not that blatant – but it is obvious.

It’s time to change.

My absolute favorite quote about change is from Will Rogers:

Will Rogers quote

To survive THRIVE in this age of flux, you have to claim what makes your church unique, what sets you apart from 10,000 other churches, what God has uniquely gifted your people to be and doHold onto that – and change any and every thing else that needs to be changed in order to live out God’s calling.

Efficiency – yes, Adaptability – no…

…Generation Flux to the rescue!

Fast Company’s February issue has a cover story and several articles about Generation Flux. Read yesterday’s post here for a quick summary. Better yet, go to the website here to read the whole article.

Need a little teaser? Here’s another quote from the lead article by editor Robert Safian:

The challenge they [traditional organizations] face is the same one staring down most of America, not to mention government, schools, and other institutions that have defined how we’ve lived. These organizations have structures and processes build for an industrial age, where efficiency is paramount but adaptability is terribly difficult.

Sound like any institution you know – say, ChurchWorld?

Dev Patnaik, cofounder and CEO of strategy firm Jump Associates adds the following:

In an increasingly turbulent and interconnected world, ambiguity is rising to unprecedented levels. That’s something our current systems can’t handle.

If ambiguity is high and adaptability is required, then you simply can’t afford to be sentimental about the past. Future-focus is a signature trait of Generation Flux. It is also an imperative for organizations that want to survive: Trying to replicate what worked yesterday only leaves you vulnerable.

Can I get an amen to that?