Leading a Network

Leading a ‘remote’ team through unpredictable times is tough.  David Presswell explores whether a new set of skills might be required, those for leading a network.

Last week a coachee referred to an upcoming team event as ‘an off-site’.  It was to be held in their company offices – in which few of them had set foot for months.  Another mentioned how her direct reports were getting used to ‘remote working’.  “Remote” I asked, half-joking, “from where?”  ‘Off-site’ and ‘remote working’ were entirely standard terms before Lockdown, but have now largely lost their meaning.  In a world where so many team members are ‘remote’ and contributing from wherever they happen to be at that moment, perhaps we should start referring instead to ‘distributed teams’.

The term ‘distributed team’ in turn points towards a trend that has been emerging for a while now but which, like so many others, has been accelerated by the Pandemic – namely, that teams are increasingly operating as networks.  In his book Team of Teams, General Stanley McCrystal relates his experience as Commander of US and International Forces in Afghanistan and the shock of realising that the highly trained, professional hierarchy he led was being out-manoeuvred by a loose network of Al Qaida operatives.  These fighters based themselves in town centres, travelled by unmarked car and communicated by mobile phone with each other and, via social media, the world.

In his book, he goes on to chart the history that many businesses have followed.  The original model, dating back hundreds of years, was that of the single craftsman, such as a shoemaker, operating from his workshop.  He could question customers individually so as to adapt a product to their individual budget and requirements.

In the mid-nineteenth century and the introduction of factories, enormous efficiencies were achieved by standardising outputs and installing production lines.  Over the decades since, these manufacturing processes have become orders of magnitude more complicated, but they have remained essentially the same.   Efficiency has been improved by innovating and fine-tuning to produce standardised, highly predictable outputs for large – but only broadly understood – customer groups.

In recent years, however, computers have generated such vast amounts of ‘rich data’ that the idea of adapting output to the individual customer, as the shoemaker once did, has become feasible – but on a global scale.  Alongside this, those same technologies have turbo-charged a ‘VUCA’ world in which Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity are the order of the day.

On intact team workshops I’ve run, ‘process efficiency’ was often volunteered as a central goal – something defined as ‘the experience of no effort being wasted’.  But I’ve recently come recently to question this.  In a VUCA world, the predictability that makes perfect planning and total efficiency possible is little more than a fantasy.  Indeed, the more ‘optimised’ a system becomes for any specific goal the less resilient it is to alternate outcomes.  In a complex world, the essential characteristics required are those of adaptability and resilience – to expect the unexpected.

For McChrystal, this is only possible if an organisation operates as a network, adopting two core capacities.  Firstly, a ‘shared consciousness’ amongst all its members of the collective goal (the ‘what’ we are trying to achieve) and its purpose (the ‘why’ it matters).  As the Commander in Afghanistan, he took transparency to startling levels: most his calls were conducted on speaker-phone and, by the end of his tenure, he held 2 hour daily conferences to discuss highly sensitive military information with up to 7,000 invitees.  As he himself admits, what at first sounded like a nightmarish example of bureaucracy proved quite the reverse.  He became convinced that “whatever efficiency is gained through silos is outweighed by the costs of ‘interface failures’”. His daily briefings ‘saved an incalculable amount of time that was no longer needed to seek clarification or permission.’

The second necessity is what he terms ‘empowered execution’: the sense that, because his people so clearly understood the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ as well as the organisation’s values, the responsibility for delivery could be given to those best placed to discharge it – those on the front line.  This generated not only far higher levels of engagement throughout the organisation, but also greater adaptability to fast-changing events.

The same has been discovered in organisations with a cherished reputation for customer service.  Two great examples of this are Nordstrom, whose employee handbook is a single card that says ‘Use good judgment in all situations’, and Ritz Carlton, where every employee receives a generous budget to resolve any customer complaint there and then, and to record their actions.

But leading a network also requires different skills in its leaders to the ‘command and control’ approach of more traditional hierarchies.  It necessitates the personal confidence to share your vision clearly, broadly and transparently and to accept good ideas from wherever they come.  It demands you remain ‘eyes on but hands-off’, and empower others to take decisions rather than deriving the ego-kick of being the one to whom they have continually to refer.  And it requires a leader who is prepared to share their own vulnerabilities, and thereby to create an environment in which others too are prepared to take risks.

The image that comes to mind of such a leader is less that of the grand chess-master, scheming and second-guessing and dependent entirely on their own brilliance, and more that of a gardener who plans and plants, but mainly tends.  The team is no longer envisaged as a ‘complicated machine’ to design and run, but as a ‘complex organism’ to guide and encourage.

If these are the lessons for how to lead a distributed team through unpredictable times, they are likely to be ones that serve leaders far beyond the challenges of the current pandemic.

David Presswell, Partner, Aretai LLP

November 2020

  • Coaching
  • Consulting
  • Executive Search
  • Financial Services
  • Legal Services
  • Professional Services

You might also be interested in