Back to Basics: Where to Turn in Times of Business Challenge

Basil Chen Strategy, Values

Extreme events, whether they are man-made (such as the European imbroglio, global financial crises, or radical political events such as the Arab Spring), or natural disasters such as tsunami, floods and earthquakes, seems to be occurring more frequently. In reality, the frequency may not be any greater, but our perception of the frequency has increased thanks to the 24 hour news cycle and our increased global awareness.
Business has taken notice. The economic and social consequences of such viral events are a matter of enormous concern and uncertainty for business. In fact, some of the only things that are certain are complexity, interdependence, and change. In the face of such unavoidable change, wise leaders return to the most fundamental questions of corporate leadership:
  • What is our business?
  • “What is our vision, and mission?” 
  • (And perhaps most importantly) “What are our values?”

Values guide people’s decision-making in uncertainty.

While people may feel disconnected with each other at such times, the reality is that when everyone in a company shares common values, and it is these values that give people a framework and parameters within which to operate.

On April 12, 1970, when Apollo 13 mission changed from lunar landing to rescue mission, NASA flight director Gene Krantz galvanized the team by firmly reconnecting them with their core values – prioritizing the lives of the three stranded astronauts –  with the following words, “We have never lost an American in space. We are sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option.”       
How do you place value on values? The leadership team must strike a balance between freedom and constraint, chaos and structure, that helps to create empowerment and facilitate the emergence of creativity (an absolute necessity for responding in the unchartered territory of uncertain times)Finding this balance is a paradigm captured in the Taoist literature and articulated in present day social innovation and strategy literature. The approach seeks to create “minimum structure” in order to avoid too much rigidity and to harness the innate intelligence, creativity, and capacity for self-organizing and self-actualizing in people and groups. Too much planning, structure, and intervention will stifle adaptive capacity. Too little structure will leave a system vulnerable to the entropic forces of habit, conflicting self-interests, and lack of vision and direction.
A good strategic design is elegant in its simplicity. Such a design also provides a way to discern the needs of the future by reaching deeply into the evolving patterns of the present, rather than simply projecting the assumptions and lessons of the past. The learning and data gathered in the past may be useful but will also have diminishing relevance in a rapidly changing world. When confronted with extreme challenges, a nimble organization whose employees are well-tilled in regard to the organizational values will respond to challenges with emergent leadership and creative solutions from all levels of the organization.

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Basil Chen, M.B.A., is a certified management accountant who has held various leadership positions in public and private Canadian companies. He currently teaches at Centennial College’s School of Business and is a Ph.D. student with the Center for Values-Driven Leadership