Unpredictability Drives the Need for Adaptable Leaders

Source: Institute for Digital Transformation 

Author: Terry Bennett

The pace of change in our world today demands that we examine everything – including the way we lead – with fresh eyes. The speed necessary for today’s success cannot be achieved using yesterday’s command-and-control approach. There just isn’t time. Trust and empowerment are absolute requirements. These necessitate that successful leaders have the humility to surrender some of their historical control.

Our world is not only moving at a much faster pace, it is accelerating and at the same time becoming more and more unpredictable. VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) is an apt description. In short, it’s crazy out there, and speed alone will not be sufficient for success. Unpredictability is driving the need for companies to be more agile. If inertia prevents your organization from quickly changing directions, you may soon find yourself hurtling uncontrollably toward the wrong destination. Agility will help you avoid disaster. Enterprise agility is simply the ability of an organization to change direction and accelerate while in motion.

Wanted: Adaptable Leaders. Apply Within.

Agile organizations require adaptable leaders. These leaders will undergo (or have undergone) a self-examination and self-transformation. They will have recognized that historical leadership approaches must change within the digital era. They will see the need to extend their focus beyond just their immediate company operations to the broader business and social ecosystems in which their company is embedded. And they will understand that their company will not change unless they do.

Adaptability must reach beyond the decision to change leadership styles into the very core of how leaders work.

Some leaders – and some followers – may have difficulty accepting that. We have long looked up to heroes who had the courage of conviction to stand their ground. We have celebrated as they won despite overwhelming odds against them. We have criticized past leaders who appeared indecisive, wishy-washy, or lacking conviction. We have been frustrated by those who seemed to practice “management by magazine” where they subjected their team to yet another huge change after attending the latest conference or reading another magazine. The team usually knew to simply not to react too quickly and give it a little time because “this too shall pass.”

But in today’s environment, changing one’s mind after learning new information is a necessity and should be considered a sign of strength.

Notice that this is not a whimsical change-of-mind brought about by a passing thought, the latest magazine, or the highest paid person’s opinion. And it is not just a reaction to change that is suddenly thrust upon them. It is an evidence-based decision based upon new data. In a world where information and knowledge are growing exponentially, each of us must be on a quest for lifelong learning – actively seeking new information, new knowledge. While evidence-based decision-making cannot totally replace intuition, there is no denying its benefits – improved financial performance, increased productivity, and reduced risks.

Care must be taken not to let the search for additional knowledge delay decision-making or cause ‘analysis paralysis’. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, said, “Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.”

Digital era leaders must use a formalized listening capability both personally and throughout the organization to capture new findings about customers, competitors, industry, and their ecosystem. They actively promote experimentation and A/B testing to gather more information with lower risk. Of course, this means that some amount of failure is not only accepted but encouraged and even celebrated because of the newfound knowledge it brings. They drive the extension of analytics capabilities into every corner of the organization with an aim of gaining answers to questions they haven’t yet even thought to ask. This in turn equips them with the information needed not only to react quickly but also to proactively anticipate and even influence change within their ecosystem.

When changes in direction are made, it is important that this be clearly communicated to stakeholders inside and outside the company, so they can understand the reasons behind the change.

Let’s realize that adaptability is not just making small tweaks in the way you operate. It means having the courage to change your business model and even cannibalize your products if needed. After all, if you don’t do it, someone else soon will.

Given the acceleration of change in a world that is becoming increasingly more complex and unpredictable, adaptability is a requirement for successful leadership.


1 Bennett, Terry. “New Leadership Behaviors Needed for Digital Era Success.” Institute for Digital Transformation, 25 June 2018, www.institutefordigitaltransformation.org/new-leadership-behaviors-needed-digital-era-success/.

2  Bennett, Terry. “New Leadership Behaviors Needed for Digital Era Success.” Institute for Digital Transformation, 25 June 2018, http://www.institutefordigitaltransformation.org/new-leadership-behaviors-needed-digital-era-success/.

3  Bennett, Terry. “Humility Required for Digital Era Success.” Institute for Digital Transformation, 18 June 2018, http://www.institutefordigitaltransformation.org/humility-required-digital-era-success/.

4 Reeves, Martin, et al. “The Five Steps All Leaders Must Take in the Age of Uncertainty.” MIT Sloan Management Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, sloanreview.mit.edu/article/the-five-steps-all-leaders-must-take-in-the-age-of-uncertainty/.

5  Wade, Michael R., et al. “Redefining Leadership for a Digital Age.” IMD Business School, IMD, 16 Feb. 2017, www.imd.org/dbt/reports/redefining-leadership/.

6 Kelly, Kevin. “Kevin Kelly, The Expansion of Ignorance.” Kk Lifestream, http://kk.org/thetechnium/the-expansion-o/.

7  “The Evolution of Decision Making: How Leading Organizations Are Adopting a Data-Driven Culture.” Harvard Business Review, hbr.org/resources/pdfs/tools/17568_HBR_SAS%20Report_webview.pdf.

8  Bezos, Jeff. “2016 Letter to Shareholders.” U.S. Day One Blog, Amazon, 9 May 2018, blog.aboutamazon.com/company-news/2016-letter-to-shareholders.

9 Granito, Frank. “Assessing Readiness to Be a Digital Enterprise.” Institute for Digital Transformation, 27 Mar. 2018, http://www.institutefordigitaltransformation.org/assessing-readiness-to-be-a-digital-enterprise-part-three/.

About the Author: 

Terry Bennett is a partner with Fortium Partners, a technology executive services firm providing world-class leadership to clients looking to find solutions to complex IT issues or difficult-to-solve challenges. He is a strategically-minded difference maker who improves business results through people, processes, and technology – in that order. Terry has successfully transformed IT departments into dynamic organizations that are proactive, business-focused, and intent on bringing a competitive advantage. His teams are recognized for achieving the highest levels of satisfaction from those they serve. He has achieved success in startup to turnaround to mature organizations, family-owned to Global 500 companies. Terry has a special passion for helping the C-suite transform their company to achieve the speed and agility needed for success in today’s world.

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