The best way to lead is to be led by data

Posted by Mike Walsh

5/18/20 11:51 PM


The current crisis is not only a test of our resolve and our health infrastructure; it is a test of leadership as well. With many employees working from home, companies are discovering that the challenges of remote work go far beyond just having the right technology and connectivity. How do you reset an entire organizational culture based on the politics and rituals of a corporate head office? This is particularly acute for leaders: what does it take to be an effective leader when there is no one around to lead?

Adjusting your leadership style to the new reality of managing distributed teams is difficult. In my latest article for the Harvard Business Review - The Key to Building a Successful Remote Organization? Data - I explore how three very different organizations - Zapier, Culture Amp, and Mars Incorporated - have adapted their leadership models and organizational design as a result of the pandemic.

There has been a lot of discussion about how the pandemic is speeding up the adoption of digital transformation. That is true, but only half the story. The chaos surrounding COVID-19 has also provided a compelling reason for why we will need more flexible and adaptable organizations that, like the Internet, are resistant to central disruption. Virtualizing our processes and platforms alone is not enough. We also need to upgrade our leadership models and practices.

Remote work is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a difference between temporarily letting your people work from home and creating a truly distributed organization. Whether you have an office or not is irrelevant, the question is whether your organizational model requires one to function. Forget silos and departments; distributed organizations are driven by small, autonomous teams that are empowered to act with a high degree of independence.

Decentralization and delegation are not easy. You need to support your distributed teams with high levels of automation. Eventually, we will also see a more significant role for AI and algorithms to not only assist with decision-making but also project prioritization and team co-ordination. In all three of the case studies I examine in my piece for the HBR, there are elements of a new and emergent operating system: data is shared transparently, decisions are logged and documented, and there is a high level of data literacy throughout the organization.

The hardest part of all of this is the culture shift. In a distributed organization, there is no concept of center and edge. Before COVID-19, remote workers in big organizations frequently struggled to remain in the loop. If you were not sitting in the head office and available for spontaneous meetings or discussions - it was easy to get sidelined. Now that everyone has experienced the frustrations of trying to get things done remotely using video calls and email - there is perhaps a fresh appreciation for the importance of data and a more disciplined approach to teamwork.

Smart leaders have always known that data is the ultimate leveler of status. Former Netscape co-founder Jim Barksdale said it best, — 'If we have data, let's look at data. If all we have are opinions, let's go with mine.' In distributed organizations, this is even more true. There is simply no time for bureaucracy, complex approvals, and convoluted processes. Teams need an objective basis to communicate, evaluate, and make decisions.

We might like to believe that we are already 'data-driven', but in truth, what we really need to be is 'data-led'. Data is not a weapon to be used to justify your position or prove that you are right. It is a reminder that we have to be ready to check our own egos and delusions of grandeur as a leader. After all, armed with the right data, anyone should be able to challenge an opinion—even yours.

Topics: Leadership

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