Burkhard Gnärig

19 July, 2016

Leading at Times of Disruption

Disruption is happening all around us: Leading at times of disruptionthe recent arrival of over one million refugees in Europe; the dramatic cuts in some of the most generous donors’ aid budgets; and the fact that each of the last twelve months has been the hottest on record globally. These are just some of the most obvious examples. When disruptions like these occur, civil society organisations (CSOs) are nearly always affected. The International Civil Society Centre tries to support CSOs with:

  1. spotting disruption early so that they have enough time to come to terms with expected changes;
  2. preparing themselves for disruption, strengthening their adaptability and resilience;
  3. managing disruption once it strikes.

In the best case we will spot disruption early, be well prepared, and thus increase our chances to navigate disruption successfully. Let’s briefly look at the leadership challenges these three aspects – or you could also say “phases” – of disruption entail.

Spotting disruption early requires systematic and thoroughly planned activities of strategic foresight. Such activities will hardly be possible in organisations whose leaders are convinced that a “business as usual” approach will serve them well. Good leaders understand that disruption is a likely challenge, and opportunity their organisation faces. They communicate this understanding without creating panic, and invite staff to discuss possible disruptions and the options to navigate these. They secure the resources for professional horizon scanning, and make sure that foresight is not only the task of specialists, but of all staff in the organisation. They create a culture where new thinking and seemingly unlikely assumptions are welcome and, as a matter of routine, seriously considered.

Preparing an organisation for disruption is another major leadership challenge as it entails prioritising the unknown and the far away, over the known and the urgency of today. All organisations – and CSOs with their tight resource base even more than others – are under permanent pressure to deal with the immediate matters of today, and to prioritise these above all other issues that can be postponed. Systematically preparing for disruption requires farsighted leaders that are ready to break the vicious circle of urgency, and to free staff to look beyond the crisis of today and take a more strategic approach. Preparing organisations for disruption also means examining decision making structures for their resilience and effectiveness in times of crisis. It means dismantling cumbersome hierarchies which take too much time to come to decisions. For example, the federal structure of many international CSOs may be far too slow and inflexible to lead a large organisation through disruption.

Leaders will face their ultimate test when disruption strikes and panic or paralysis haunt their organisations. I have seen formal leaders all but disappear in such situations – and sometimes informal leaders stepping up trying to keep the organisation afloat. I have also seen effective crisis managers steering their organisations through the immediate challenges without addressing the bigger picture, thus only exposing the CSO to the next incarnation of disruption. And I have seen leaders who were able to use the crisis to transform their organisations enabling them not only to survive the crisis but, at the same time, preparing them to address threats and opportunities better in the future. These leaders had a vision for the future of their organisation, understanding that in the absence of a vision they would have to take their clues from their organisation’s past – a real problem at a time when disruption breaks existing rules and establishes new and rather different ones.

Great leaders will go ahead and convince their organisations that it is wise to prepare for disruption even at a time when nobody can be sure whether it will come, or where it will come from. They will strengthen their organisation’s resilience by sharing responsibilities and streamlining decision making. And they will have their own vision of their organisation’s future – and if they don’t have one, they will find help with devising one.

Flyer: Managing Disruption lab in Berlin

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