In the first article of this multipart series, we looked at how relentless business disruption appears to have required a whole new set of rules for chief executive officers to engage. Established companies have faced the dual threat of changing consumer expectations and upstart competitors that have offered products and services that intuitively match those expectations. We touched on our recently completed research on what makes a ceo “undisruptable,” and how these unusually spiritual attitudes help them successfully lead their companies. This article takes a deeper look at the factors behind undisruptability.
Our research uncovered five characteristics particularly important to cultivating resilience to disruption. Ceos who have successfully led their companies through relentless change embraced ambidexterity, cultivated emotional fortitude, adopted a beginner’s mind-set, mastered what we call disruptive jiu-jitsu, and truly stepped into the shoes of their customers. And if this brings to mind the discipline of a martial arts instructor or the mental control and discipline of a Jedi Knight, you’re not far off the mark. Here’s a closer look at these qualities.
Ceos we interviewed collectively defined ambidexterity as an urgent, continuous need to simultaneously exercise the two “hands” of exploitation and experimentation, cultivating the tension between short-term, efficiency-driven profit optimization and fail-fast-fail-often exploration throughout a fully integrated organization. They stressed the challenge of embedding these oppositional elements across all processes, structures and cultures, rather than extracting exploitation in one unit and experimentation in another. Incumbents who want to stay ahead of the curve should consider forever enhancing current operations and exploring the continually emerging new frontier.
Ambidexterity, with this “twist” of integrating both of these aspects across the entire firm, was a dominant characteristic among the five attributes of undisruptability we identified. While the remaining four factors were critical on their own in important ways, they also reinforced ambidexterity by bringing talent, emotional timbre, focused attitudes, clear thinking, and sources of deep customer insight to bear on the question of how to achieve an organization that is ambidextrous across all areas.
Cultivating Emotional Fortitude
Ceos need to display — and cultivate within their companies — an ability to use fear of the rapidly changing landscape to fuel more productive outcomes, and accept that failure is a risk when placing big bets. We call this emotional fortitude: the need for leaders to combine a sober assessment of potential risks and roadblocks with the fearlessness to pursue lofty visions. The ceos we interviewed stressed the importance of being vision-driven by deed, not just by word.
Emotional fortitude may well be a powerful response to the innovator’s dilemma. The new breed of ceos have learned to lead in a chaotic world in part by bringing chaos into the organization and understanding fully that failure — on some level — is inevitable.
Encouraging a Beginner’s Mind-Set
Here we enter the realm of the Yoda-like ceo. The Zen Buddhist concept of Shoshin holds that “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” This captures one challenge ceos consistently raised: seeing the world from the perspective of someone who does not know much about it. Rather than trying to be the smartest person in the room, they found greater comfort and better outcomes in asking questions, even about things they do know.
This means listening more intently and considering what they hear with less judgment, coupled with a need to find patterns amid chaos. Success in a world of disruption depends on knowing what they do not know — for this they can’t rely on a static pattern-recognition formula to predict the future. They need to embody the seemingly paradoxical dynamic of practicality and childlike curiosity in the way they express doubt, ask questions and examine their assumptions.
Mastering Disruptive Jiu-Jitsu
Following on the need for pattern recognition, leaders need to figure out how to undo those patterns. Becoming masters of disruptive jiu-jitsu is precisely how ceos aspire to handle disruption: recognizing threatening, disruptive patterns from competitors and others in the environment, breaking them into their components, selecting those components that can strengthen their organization, and then — perhaps by channeling the Force — finding a way to “hijack” these disruptive elements to use for their own competitive advantage.
One of the first steps toward harnessing disruptive threats is to identify them. Modeling inquisitiveness, some of the most successful ceos keep a sharp focus on gathering and distilling information from the outside. They then need to engage others in the task of prioritizing and interpreting all this discordant and disorganized information. But beyond scanning for disruptions, the ultimate goal of disruptive jiu-jitsu is finding ways to turn those threats to your advantage.
Stepping Into Your Customer’s Shoes, Getting Into Their Minds
We all know that companies — especially retail companies — need to focus on their customers. But ceos also must strive to gain insight into the experience of their ultimate end users, becoming trusted champions by discovering their customer’s most subtle — perhaps unconscious — habits, desires and concerns. Because today’s customer is online, social, hyper-connected and awash in product knowledge, ceos are used to obsessing over nuances of their entire experience, and they expressed a need for much greater proficiency in achieving greater understanding.
This requires nothing short of an ethnographic study of the end-to-end customer experience, from the top of the marketing funnel to exceptional after-sales service. This is a search for innovative ways to delve far deeper into the consumer’s wishes and needs. While machine learning and AI do hold distinct promise for a more granular view of consumers in the aggregate, they can fall far short of a complete solution to this challenge. Ceos we interviewed are mono-focused on fighting customer wars on multiple fronts, which requires an understanding of individual customer needs and reactions that go beyond the customer’s consciousness.
In sum, while our initial model for the stereotypical ceo was the conductor of a symphony orchestra — seeking harmony among the body of performing players and adhering closely to a predetermined score — after the conversations we’d had, which helped us determine the new characteristics required for undisruptability, we needed a more accurate analogy. Aside from these quasi-spiritual components, what organizations may need most from ceos more closely approximates a jazz bandleader, pressing each band member, with their own area of authority and expertise, to collaborate far more — something that rings true with the type of ambidexterity we discussed here. Certainly, there is the need for a strong leader who is the ultimate arbiter — but the undisruptable leader is constantly reinventing their own work and seeking fresh, new approaches.
About the Authors
Mark Lipton is a graduate professor of management at The New School in New York City, an accomplished author, and an eminence and content strategy contributor for Deloitte’s CEO Program. He is based in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional inquiries can be sent to Jean-Emmanuel Biondi, principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP who serves as the Apparel lead for Deloitte’s Retail and Consumer Products practice. He is based in Atlanta and serves clients in the greater NYC area. Jean-Emmanuel can be reached at email@example.com.