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Topics & Trends: April 2020

April 2020 digest of Vantage's commentary on recent articles of interest.

In this edition:

In Disruption, Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch and Dinner, Too

A February 5 article on the MIT Sloan Management Review blog* offered this prescient advice: Any company that expects to go through some kind of disruption (i.e., any company) should invest in developing its people. The authors’ research—surveying nearly a thousand managers in North America and Europe—indicated that most managers view culture as more important than strategy in disruption. They found other strategies, such as downsizing, as unhelpful in times of disruption, and that you can’t count on being able to hire new talent to fill skill gaps (because everyone else is trying to hire for these skills, at this time, because of similar disruptions). The only reliable approach is to develop your people. And you should be doing it all the time, so you are ready for disruption. 

What’s interesting? Leaders may think a key strategic shift makes all the difference. “Surprisingly,” most managers say it’s more important to invest “in their work cultures to develop workforces capable of reacting nimbly to the blistering pace of disruption,” noted the authors.  In particular, they found that investments in learning and development were essential: “[T]wo-thirds of respondents felt that updating working practices and skills … was key to managing disruption.”

Our Take: Every organization must dive in and swim amidst sea change—a truism prior to, and underscored by, COVID-19. When yesterday’s answers can’t solve today’s problems, when complexity makes it difficult to accurately predict tomorrow’s challenges, no longer is it sufficient to settle on the right strategy and then execute. “Thriving in Constant Change” requires developing the mindset and skills of adaptive leadership—making our people more capable to peer ahead, spot trends, navigate the fog of uncertainty, and nimbly adjust to maximize success.

 *Invest In People to Best Manage Through Disruption

Now's the Most Important Time for Difficult Conversations

We reflexively downplay bad news—and discourage those who bear it—to our great detriment, whether we are leaders of nations or leaders of businesses and teams, argued noted author and Harvard professor Amy C. Edmondson in her March 6 article* on the Harvard Business Review blog. Beset by crisis, leaders must be transparent, and difficult topics should be surfaced and addressed. Transparency and openness require requires cultivating a culture and honing the skills for “difficult conversations.”

What’s interesting? “Organizations that get serious about improvement first must encourage people to speak up honestly about the current problems they see,” Edmondson explains. “Without that step, success will be illusory at best. Absent data on what’s not working, it’s all but impossible to know what to fix and how to fix it. No data, no progress.”

On the other hand, “With accurate information, people can turn their attention and skills to the challenges of developing novel solutions to the newly visible problems. Rather than living with false confidence that all is well, leaders and subject matter experts alike can instead get to work on what needs to be done.”

Our take: Organizations (and their leaders) do best when they align their culture—one that encourages individuals to embrace conflict and be open to learning from mistakes—with the requisite individual skills. As discussed in “Managing Difficult Conversations,” it is hard for individuals to speak up in the absence of such a culture. It is equally challenging to create the culture, without developing individuals’ skills so they can put themselves in the shoes of others—and demonstrate genuine curiosity about their counterpart—while also recognizing their own interests, assumptions, and emotions. These behavioral skills can be honed through training and practice. These skills for “difficult conversations” not only enhance individual relationships, but also drive to concrete business results as individuals are better able to face challenges and times of crisis head on.

*“Don’t Hide Bad News in Times of Crisis