February 21, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 9:43 am
TALKING POINTS

Future of business lies in seizing unpredictable

Alpesh Bhatt

Q&A talks about control and predictability in business with Alpesh Bhatt, principal of The Center for Leadership Studies in Somerville NJ. Bhatt is an advisor to senior leaders at Facebook, Novartis, Siemens and other organizations across the globe.

Q: There has obviously been a lot of turmoil in the world of business in recent years. What is your take on what's happening?

A: Well, I think we have to separate out two very different themes that are playing out. The first has to do with everything we've already heard about: the financial crisis, the housing bubble, debt, etc. These are real issues to be sure. However, significant as they are, they are not the "big story." The big story is the second theme that is unfolding: the fundamental collapse of industrial-era assumptions about almost everything.

The overriding concern of business managers for most of the past two centuries was this: "How do we bring control and predictability to our organization?" The 20th century saw massive contributions in terms of our ability to manage efficiently. Through accounting, operations management, advertising, human resources, and a dozen other disciplines, we have created mechanisms for controlling and predicting everything from error rates of manufacturing processes to absentee rates of employees. Without these disciplines and their contributions, the massive growth in the global economy would not have been possible.

In the business environment that is emerging, however, generating new possibilities and innovating is not only central to your job, it's necessary for basic survival. Unfortunately, most organizations, even if they see this shift, are engaging in largely industrial-era responses that rely on expertise and methodology — 'right answer' and 'the best practices' — to regain control and predictability.

Q: If control and predictability are not the linchpins for business growth in the 21st century, what is?

A: Innovation, creativity, trust, loyalty, collaboration and learning. Somewhere along the way, we attempted to bring these intangible elements of organization into a state of control and predictability when they not only don't benefit from it, they wither and die in its presence.

The number one job of a business leader in the emerging economy will not be to remove any potential for lack of control or unpredictability, but rather to prepare for surprise. Real competitive advantage will emerge from systems that can transform the surprising, the unintended, the unplanned, into business value. Traditional approaches to organization not only don't allow for this, they were actually designed to oppose it.

Q: So, how do we prepare for surprise?

A: What organizations were initially designed to do, they do remarkably well. It is simply the case that, in the context of the world we find ourselves in, the design of organization itself needs to be reconsidered. Consider just these two frames of reference:

• Assuming that your employees are clear about your organization's vision, mission and purpose, consider the ways in which this vision/mission/purpose blinds them on a daily basis from exploring unplanned, unpredictable opportunities for value creation. Consider also how much of themselves — their values, their commitments — they have to leave 'at the door' in order to operate within this vision/mission/purpose.

• Look at how you measure the health of your key relationships (employees, customers, vendors, etc.). Odds are that a great deal of the metrics are quantitative. The more quantitatively we can measure something, the easier it is to know when it is in a state of control/predictability. How do these metrics inhibit the relationship? What conversations do they force off the table? What opportunities for creative surprise are effectively killed by the presence of these metrics?

If you are willing to examine these two sets of questions, you will begin to see the blind spots that our current understanding of organization has put in place.

Alpesh Bhatt, principal, The Center for Leadership Studies

Continue the discussion

Alpesh Bhatt and five other senior business advisors will be in the Hartford area for a panel conversation titled The Leadership Dialogues. The Mar. 3 event will be moderated by Tim Orr, a vice president of marketing at Johnson & Johnson. For more information on this event, go to: www.cbia.com/leadershipdialogues.

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