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Flexibility—A Key Leadership Skill in a Rapidly Evolving Environment

May 20, 2014
Satyamoorthy Kabilan
National Security and Strategic Foresight

The Conference Board’s Council for IT Executives (CITE) met in Ottawa on May 8 and 9 to explore how organizations are preparing to deal with the unexpected. From new cyber security threats to a rapidly evolving technology landscape, we need to deal with an increasingly uncertain operating environment. Throughout the meeting, whether we looked at case studies from crisis management or worked through new techniques for exploring the future, one key theme kept recurring—the need for flexibility in leaders.

Rather than trying to predict the future, organizations need to be flexible when faced with uncertainty. They need to be prepared to deal with a range of futures and adapt their approach to deal with all challenges, regardless of whether they have experienced them before. It was apparent from some of the presentations and discussions that leaders need to be adaptable if they want to successfully steer their organizations through a rapidly evolving and uncertain future landscape.

Two particular examples stood out:

Flexibility in a Crisis

One case study looked at a fire that caused major damage and forced the affected organization to close its main premises for about a year. Though plans were in place to deal with many of the issues arising from this crisis, a number of new challenges emerged. For example, how do you deal with the fact that you no longer have office space? How do you keep your staff productive and ensure that the business can continue to function?

The organization determined that it could have staff working remotely in many cases and still provide services to its clients. However, there was no specific plan in place to rapidly roll out mobile working across the workforce. The IT leadership in the organization took the lead, identifying what would be needed and purchasing and supplying the equipment to staff. To do this quickly and effectively, they had to circumvent some of the organization’s systems for procurement and deployment.

The organization’s leadership gave the IT function the freedom to operate in new ways, outside of normal processes. As a result of this flexible approach, there was almost no downtime for the organization’s services throughout the entire year that its main office was unavailable. By exhibiting flexibility in how the crisis was managed, and by entrusting that flexibility to key leaders, the organization dealt very effectively with an unforeseen crisis.

Flexibility in Planning

It’s not just crises that require leaders to be flexible. The environment that organizations find themselves in today is constantly evolving. Leaders have to adapt to new situations rapidly if they want to succeed. A key tool for helping organizations deal with an uncertain future is strategic foresight. The goal of a strategic foresight exercise is to offer insights to decision-makers on how best to prepare for all possibilities, what they might do to shift toward a future they prefer, and how to recognize and adapt to events and trends.

Members of CITE—IT executives from the public and private sectors—were taken through a half-day workshop to demonstrate a strategic foresight tool and how it could be used to help them deal with a changing future landscape. The focal question used for this exercise was “What does the role of an IT executive look like in 2025?” Privacy and technology emerged as the two key drivers that would impact most heavily on the future role of an IT executive. However, there was some uncertainty as to how these drivers would develop and interact, leading to a number of potential futures.

As in the crisis scenario described earlier, the need for flexibility emerged as the crucial ingredient. Leaders need to be flexible in their thinking to utilize qualitative techniques such as strategic foresight to help them visualize potential futures and the impact of these futures. Leaders also need to have the flexibility to use these insights to help them adapt their strategy when they see signs of major change coming at them. Strategic foresight can help you visualize potential futures, but flexible leadership is still necessary to make full use of the insights generated.

We face an unprecedented rate of change in today’s environment. This creates a very challenging environment for organizations. The IT industry, in particular, has been heavily affected by this the pace of change. To be successful in this rapidly evolving environment, today’s leaders need to be flexible in how they view the future and how they deal with new and unexpected challenges.

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