How the brilliant basics transform complex environments

By Ashleigh Dueker

For those working in change, project management, and agility, there is never a shortage of tools or frameworks to be used to solve problems and deliver results. Organisations invest incredible sums on change and transformation initiatives, tools, and frameworks to improve their performance and drive success.

But while tools and frameworks provide structure for delivering change, they’re not the fundamental reasons behind success. Because tools and frameworks don’t solve problems; people do.

In our experience, there are three dimensions that all people, teams, and organisations can leverage to transform complex environments organically – the ‘brilliant basics.’ These are:

  1. Build commitment to move as one, through shared purpose and vision
  2. Reset your definition of leadership to build trust and accountability
  3. Unearth ingenious ideas through diversification and interaction

By mastering these brilliant basics in advance of, or in parallel to large transformation, organisations can harness their most important asset – their people – to navigate and evolve complex environments.

Build commitment to move as one, through shared purpose and vision

Our experience of delivering, and research into, organisational agility has shown that a shared vision across leadership is the crucial factor to success. Take the time as a leadership team to listen to different points of view and come to a common understanding, and then operate as a single, seamless unit. Just one dissenting voice going out to the wider team can completely undermine progress, so any shared vision must be clearly and consistently articulated at all levels, starting with senior leaders.

Underpinning the shared vision are shared goals – which teams and the wider organisation can unite behind. These should be reviewed quarterly and annually at all levels, looking at key blockers holding the team back from delivering outcomes, and how these can be resolved. Aligning in this way also empowers colleagues to say ‘no’ to extraneous activity – without feeling guilt.

Then teams should measure what matters. Pick the wrong measures and you create the wrong incentives. Pick the right ones and you'll power up your understanding of progress. Baselining measuring and reporting requires time – but it’s one of the most important things you can do before you get going on delivering against the vision/ goals.

At one leading British transport organisation, we introduced these new ways of organising and working with the Leadership Team of the IT Directorate. This enabled a generational shift from an organisation with an IT function to one with a trusted digital services partner, building the foundation for the organisation's digital future.

Next, we’ve found that purpose is a key way to build commitment. Our latest leadership research explores this singular need for people to know how and why their actions matter. And purpose creates a story that taps into this need. It enables quicker decision-making, helps with recruitment and retention, boosts resilience and productivity, and helps people stick it out when the going gets tough.

Reset your definition of leadership to build trust and accountability

There’s an undeniable paradox in the fact that while trust is a ‘brilliant basic’, it’s also complex. Yet it’s worth pursuing – and some perfectly achievable steps can drive quick progress.

To start building trust, start simply by listening and fostering open communication. Complex challenges cannot be solved in isolation; they requite competing, constructively challenging points of view, regardless of hierarchy. And it’s a virtuous circle. Exchanging and accepting ideas builds trust, which creates more openness around further sharing – and this boosts the quantity and quality of the ideas that are produced within an organisation.

The traditional leadership model – and the one used to drive change – has been built on strength, competence, and experience. But a growing body of research suggests that the best way to build trust and influence is to begin with warmth. It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas. Even a few small non-verbal signals – a nod, a smile, an open gesture – can help build trust.

The more people listen, connect authentically, and build trust, the more they are able to be courageous and hold themselves and others to account. This is the mindset of shared leadership. In today’s era of complex transformation, cross-functional teams need a different approach – where the ‘leader’ is comfortable knowing less than each of the functional specialists in the team, where they admit when they need to find out answers and come back to the team. And where they repeat the vision and courageously revisit challenges regularly in order to evolve. This shift takes leadership courage; the courage to step back and let others lead.

Unearth ingenious ideas through diversification and interaction

Even when teams are on a progressive path and following the first two brilliant basics, complex environments will always bring moments of challenge, uncertainty, and indecision. In these moments, organisations need ways for people to come together and find a way to move forward through co-discovery. This process is what I call ‘diversify and interact’.

There are two sides to diversifying. On the one hand, it’s a need to ensure we’re tackling complex problems with a multitude of different viewpoints. It also means maintaining our individual differences, particularly from those who are similar to us; holding on to what inspires each of us; and bringing what makes us unique to problems we can solve.

Then, there’s a need to interact with – and adapt to – teams and directorates beyond your own, keeping your teams open to change, transferring knowledge and resources as required. This calls for an appetite for continuous learning, where feedback loops drive iterative cycles of improvement through both teams and the wider organisation.

Diverse teams interact and adapt, sharing and apply new ways of thinking, technology, skills, and capabilities. Working this way, they inspire each other to not just navigate complexity, but to co-discover new answers and ideas.

At a large global technology and innovation firm, we successfully introduced a new operating model and cross-functional business unit focused on R&D and product development to diversify revenue and ensure the organisation was future-fit. The business unit's foundational charter emphasised embracing diversity and interaction, and the need to harness new technologies and ideas to co-discover new solutions daily. These solutions are being developed into a growing product portfolio, where new thinking is then shared back with the wider firm in a virtuous circle.

These brilliant basic ways of working will complement the implementation of any tools and frameworks, enabling firms to reap benefits quicker while lowering risk. This is how leaders can leverage the brilliant basics to transform complex environments.

About the authors

Ashleigh Dueker PA agile transformation and product management expert

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