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Leading in the age of disruption

Business leaders have become "change agents" and champions of an ethos that will help firms discover the routes to innovation and growth.
Monday, October 24, 2016 - 05:50

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Most leaders would agree that there should be a good mix of attributes such as genders, backgrounds, qualifications and nationalities on their teams.

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"Size and ownership model alone rarely determine success in seizing the upsides of disruption and change. Rather, common qualities among leading businesses are their relentless pursuit of innovation in a digital era and business leaders leading differently to foster innovation that delivers to the bottom line." - Max Loh

CONVERSATIONS on the future have seen a common theme emerge - that it is disrupted and predominantly digital.

Technological advancements in artificial intelligence, robotics, sharing platforms and the Internet of Things are fundamentally altering business models and industries. These changes are often not only alien to businesses; they are taking place at unprecedented speed.

Many organisations, in particular the larger established ones that are encumbered by complex structures and bureaucratic processes, may find adapting to the pace of change a real struggle. Entrepreneurial businesses are often said to have a huge competitive advantage by virtue of their smaller size and simpler business model, which affords them the needed agility.

Yet, size and ownership model alone rarely determine success in seizing the upsides of disruption and change. Rather, common qualities among leading businesses are their relentless pursuit of innovation in a digital era and business leaders leading differently to foster innovation that delivers to the bottom line.

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DRIVEN BY A PURPOSE

According to an EY-sponsored Harvard Business Review study, organisations with a clear purpose drive innovation: these organisations have seen 10 per cent revenue growth over the past three years

Purpose and entrepreneurship are inextricably linked. In the very act of starting a business, an entrepreneur expresses his sense of purpose. Usually, that purpose will be an attempt to solve a pressing problem, seize a new market opportunity or bring a fresh perspective to a tried-and-tested process or product.

Knowing the purpose is one thing; manifesting that purpose - through decisions and actions - on a consistent basis is another. In the digital age, business leaders can find themselves distracted by noise and short-term pressures to jump on the bandwagon of "the next big thing" could tempt them to succumb to digital fads and technological tactics too quickly.

The better the business leaders are able to connect their innovation to the purpose of their organisation, the more authentic they are in the eyes of their stakeholders, the more likely a better reputation and performance they have.

USE DATA, ANALYTICS INTELLIGENTLY

In guarding against "tech window-dressing", business leaders should not neglect the agility and intelligence that technology can bring. When organisations leverage data and analytics effectively, they open up opportunities for new products and revenue streams.

While most firms recognise the competitive advantage of an analytics-driven organisation, the challenge lies not in acquiring the technology but in transforming their business.

Data analytics can reveal customer insights for improvements to their products and services only if business leaders combat short-termism and think strategically for the long-term.

Also, a successful transformation relies on every level of senior management driving the analytics agenda - including encouraging people in non-leadership positions to act as analytics advocates.

The digital era demands a new way of thinking that data and analytics can help to drive, and if need be, leaders must be ready to challenge rigid decision-making based on existing mental models.

ENCOURAGE INTRAPRENEURSHIP

Even for organisations that are performing well, the future is uncertain. Incumbent business models could be displaced at any moment by a new app, platform and technology. Leaders need to be looking to self-disrupt their organisations.

One way is to foster an intrapreneurial culture by encouraging employees to act, think and behave like entrepreneurs within a large organisation.

To catalyse the proliferation of new ideas, leaders need to provide a conducive environment and formal structure that supports "rapid prototyping" or otherwise known as "fast development", where ideas can be tested, and rolled out in phases if they show promise, instead of being blocked by bureaucracy and onerous approval processes.

As an example, EY has in the past year, appointed a chief innovation officer to lead a global innovation team. Their job? To disrupt our own organisation with new and better ways of working and serving the market.

EMBRACE DIVERSITY, LEAD INCLUSIVELY

Leaders who think they can generate new ideas, creative approaches and fresh perspectives without diversity in the boardroom or elsewhere in their workforce, need to think again. Based on research, the majority of organisations that rated highly for diversity and inclusiveness are more likely to succeed in new markets and improve market share.

Most leaders would agree that there should be a good mix of attributes such as genders, backgrounds, qualifications and nationalities on their teams.

However, diversity will not simply take care of itself and conscious effort spanning recruitment to development to retention must be taken in order to build a diverse team that is grounded in the criteria of meritocracy and not tokenism.

However, achieving diversity is just one part of the equation to achieving high performance. Leaders need to lead inclusively - and this may include a shift in leadership style and correction of an unconscious bias mindset - to harness the diversity for innovation and competitiveness.

BE OPEN, CURIOUS, QUESTIONING

Leaders who are able to sustain innovation need to not only find people who are passionate about their organisation's purpose, but to also empower them to drive it forward. The reality is that business leaders no longer have all the answers and by that extension, nobody does in this current era of disruption.

Instead, the role of business leaders has evolved to become one of "change agents" and champions of an organisation ethos that will help their people and themselves to discover new pathways to innovation and growth.

The question that all great leaders should always ask is: Is there a better way?

  • The writer is Asean and Singapore managing partner, Ernst & Young LLP.
  • The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organisation or its member firms.
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