Leading at the speed of change


In the dynamic society that we live in, networks are constantly evolving, constantly updating from chaordic information that we, as individual and non-technologically supported observers, do not have access to. Not being able to see (or foresee) the implications of this data puts us at a disadvantageous position to those who can, and thus the race for the best data with the most useful information begins.

However, if we attempt to run at the pace of change as unsupported individuals, those without the appropriate technology, knowledge, or team, we will not be successful in keeping up. The pace is simply too grueling. Don’t get me wrong, I love races—as long as I can sit back at the finish line and cheer on the front runners. But seriously, how can leaders remain competitive in this landscape?


Simple, we are told, just innovate. But how? Fortunately scientists have already been working on this leadership problem. As Dee Hock describes it—“the principal science of the next century [is] the understanding of autocatalytic, nonlinear, complex, adaptive systems, usually referred to as ‘complexity.’” Just in case you were wondering, the next century is here.

To determine exactly what it is we are to do about this little issue called innovation, I’m going to reframe this story a bit. Sorry Mr. Hock, I know you changed the world by convincing banks to let go of their control over a valuable asset (exactly how DID you do that anyway?), but this little ol’codger is going to co-opt your definition of complexity and shed light on the question at hand by re-terming it with a different word I think is a more helpful for our readers—”networks”.


Rather than rush to solve the problem, order reports, convene tactical teams, etc. to answer the question ‘how do we innovate’, the wise leader takes a step back to collect his thoughts around this conundrum. Shouldn’t we ask ourselves why are we innovating first? I mean, understanding how to innovate is important only if you know why you’re doing it, and what the expected outcome is. Let’s not innovate for innovation’s sake, and fall into the same trap as previous generations chasing after the innocuous term/fad of the decade. Today’s leaders, with so much access to information (i.e. Big Data), need to be interested in much more.

Now, I want to emphasize for all the Big Data freaks out there, the goal is not harnessing ‘Big Data’, although that seems logical. Let’s remember the roots of this conversation. The goal is an “understanding of complex systems.” More data does not equal better understanding. The wisest societies in our world have demonstrated time and time again that technology as an end and not the means will have us come to the surface still wanting, and arguably, never to the surface at all. The Rockefeller Foundation “has also long recognized that knowledge on its own is not enough for innovation.” [2] Haven’t we learned this lesson?


To harness Big Data, the real outcome is value creation—rather than try to understand a network (isn’t that definition above pretty unapproachable?), leaders are more highly leveraged when they can influence the network in whatever state it IS in.

One of the key questions you can be asking yourself as a leader in this highly networked society in which we live is, “How do I influence my networks?” Be they internal implementation teams, boards, strategic partners, or direct competitors, everyone has a stake in the influence game. While most leaders are throwing huge budgets at collecting data (everyone knows knowledge is power, right?), even the small fish in the sea can be competitive if they know how to influence the right market, people, or network.


Putting our leaders in highly connected environments rich in social connections is the best predictor of their success in influencing their environment. However, it’s important to note that “even strong leaders that are not placed in a highly connected position in relation to their network do not lead to significant support.” [3]


  1. With much respect to Daryl Conner’s book, I’ve change a word in his title as it captures this article topic well.
  2. http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/innovation_for_the_next_100_years
  3. Pawel Sobkowicz, “Effect of Leader’s Strategy on Opinion Formation in Networked Societies with Local Interactions,” International Journal of Modern Physics, 21, no. 6 (2010): 839-852, http://dx.doi.org/10.1142/S0129183110015518 (accessed January 18, 2013).