Walking the line between creativity and chaos

Many leaders want to empower autonomous teams and free the frontline to innovate, yet they are afraid to let go. What will their role be if they lose power? Will chaos ensue if they loosen the reins? These fears often result in inertia, with leaders retaining a command-and-control structure instead of leadership at all levels.

The reality is that it’s less about letting go than changing our mental models about leadership to adapt to changing times. Nimble organizations are  fueled by three types of leaders: entrepreneurial, enabling, and architecting.

Entrepreneurial leaders fuel a company’s innovation engine. They use “sensemaking” to understand external market needs, new technologies, and the competitive landscape – and dream up innovative products and services. They are skillful at selling their idea to others and convincing them to join the effort. The guardrail that keeps chaos at bay is these leaders’ strategic mindset: their grasp of how their innovation could align with the company’s business model, strategic plans, and unique capabilities. Thus, innovation can align with both external trends as well as internal controls.

Enabling leaders help to guide and focus entrepreneurial leaders. They coach not by telling people what to do, but by asking questions that encourage entrepreneurial leaders to think strategically about innovation while also learning and developing as people. These leaders often have broad networks and create synergies by pointing entrepreneurial leaders to teams working on similar projects, as well as individuals who can provide targeted expertise and assistance. Enabling leaders function as a guardrail because their experience and relationships help innovators identify challenges and improve strategic alignment early in the process.

Architecting leaders create the “game board” that enables entrepreneurial and enabling leaders to do their jobs well. This might involve providing new leaders with the training they need to work autonomously or creating simple rules to guide innovation efforts. For example, a simple rule could be that new products must make at least $500,000 in revenues. Architecting leaders also knit together the many ideas emerging from below with their understanding of strategic imperatives. They shape organizational culture, structure, and process guardrails, and they constantly nd ways to build solutions that enhance innovation into the very fabric of the organization.

With these three types of leaders, organizations can shift mindsets and move from a bureaucratic, formal structure to become a team-based, nimble organization. Leaders no longer command and control, but rather they innovate, coach, collaborate, and architect the system of both freedom and control. These three types of leaders provide a checks-and-balances structure, which mitigates the risk of chaos if leaders let go and facilitates an agile and innovative culture.

By changing your mental model of what leadership is, you’ll be able to transform your organization into a workplace of the future.

DEBORAH ANCONA, Seley distinguished professor of management, a
professor of work and organization studies, and founder of the MIT
Leadership Center at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
KATE ISAACS is an MIT Sloan research scientist.

This article was published in the Bravo issue, october 2019


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