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Losing Control and Embracing the Chaos: What it Takes to Lead in the Digital Era

Murielle Machiels Founder @ QiLi and Academic Director “Leading Authentically in Digital Times” @ Solvay Brussels School 07/04/2021 Stratégie, Leadership

“Without order nothing can exist. Without chaos nothing can evolve.” — Oscar Wilde

In today’s digital world, yesterday’s strategies simply won’t cut it. That’s why I’m always surprised when a business leader approaches me about helping them reinvent their organisation but expect me to do so using out-of-date techniques. 

But I guess I can’t really blame them. After all, this is exactly the approach I used to take towards reinventing my company. As CEO, I would start by gathering my management team. Together, we would carefully analyse everything and gather input from across the organisation. We would then retreat for a few days, returning with a new strategy and a detailed business plan that was guaranteed to give us a new competitive advantage. Sure, implementing the new plan would cause a lot of stress and resistance at first, but give it time and everybody eventually fell into line. Soon, our new, reinvented organisation would be getting the results we sought.  

This method was great when you only needed to transform your company every five or 10 years. But those days are long gone. As the world becomes increasingly digital, the need for transformation intensifies. At first it was every couple of years, but before long organisational transformation became an annual event. Today, it happens quarterly – if not every month. 

Such rapid transitions often mean the company is still trying to adapt to one change when the next one kicks in. The old retreat and reinvent process is simply not sustainable in a fast-paced digital world. What I realised is that instead of reinventing my organisation, I had to reinvent my business techniques. As CEO, this meant:

  • Increasing the customer experience
  • Adopting new business models
  • Forming new ecosystems
  • Becoming agile
  • Increasing empowerment
  • Prototyping

The storm before the calm

Needless to say, such a reinvention requires major change in how an organisation is run and, as with any change, this often results in chaos. But chaos is the antithesis of the business executive. After all, business executives are trained to control people and, above all else, avoid chaos. 

But this too is an antiquated mindset that serves little purpose in the digital era. Digital transformation thrives on chaos, as it is in chaos that we find creativity. Business leaders who understand this succeed at reinventing themselves, setting aside their need to control in order to gain the agility to lead through the repetitive cycles of chaos and structure.    

Leading your organisation through digital times

The good news is that there are things you can do to prepare yourself – and your organisation – to better handle chaos.

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