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Harvard: Curiosity & Adaptability

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

Digital Leadership Skills / Future of Work

Welcome back Humantific Readers: This week we are sharing our appreciation of an informative three part series that appearred recently in Harvard Business Review entitled Where Can Digital Transformation Take You? Insights from 1700 Leaders, by Professor Linda A. Hill, and her associates; Ann Le Cam, Sunand Menon, and Emily Tedards.

Focused on Digital Transformation, we were particularly interested in the third part of the series entitled; Curiosity, Not Coding: 6 Skills Leaders Need in the Digital Age.

This is a thought-provoking and useful article series. The result of extensive research and a series of round tables there is alot there for organizational leaders to chew on. Much of it, with a couple of exceptions, we agree with and support.

Within Part 3, the authors stress the importance of the human side of digital transformation articulating the most important "qualities/traits" that just happen to mirror our Humantific approach to enabling adaptive capacity in organizations almost perfectly...:-)

"Leadership Qualities Necessary for the Digital Age




Comfort with ambiguity"

We might differ slightly in that we consider these learnable skills rather than "qualities" or "traits" but never-the-less agree on their importance.


On the not-so-perfect side, how the HBR article paints a picture of diversity and inclusion is rather not so with-it as it is described as "functions, levels, and geographies" with no mention of cognitive diversity which we understand in our own enabling innovation work to be key.

From years in practice we already know that its unlikely that truly effective cross-disciplinary teams can be created without surfacing the cognitive diversity present. Geographic diversity is not going to do it.

We recognize that so-called psychological safety cannot be created without surfacing and acknowledging the cognitive diversity present. Dare we say inclusive culture cannot be created without surfacing and acknowledging cognitive diversity. In practice, we already know this to be the case! In this regard the HBR article is not in sync with what is already known.

(See also ONE LAST THING below)

"6 Skills Leaders Need: [Abbreviated]

1. Be a catalyst, not a planner

Leaders need to catalyze change rather than plan for it. That means creating the initial conditions for the organization to achieve its ambitions and guiding their company through a process of continual learning, pivoting all along the way.

2. Trust and let go

The ability to orchestrate collective action—co-creation instead of top-down direction—has never been more important.

3. Be an explorer

With so much changing around them, leaders must be explorers. Explorers adopt what one executive calls a "software mindset," committing to continual “personal upgrades.”

4. Be courageous

Leaders need to learn to experiment, iterate, and pivot themselves if their organizations are going to be able to thrive. Leaders must go from trying to have all the answers to being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

5. Be present

Everything about work and careers is being transformed. The best leaders stay present and emotionally engaged, communicating openly and authentically.

6. Live values with conviction

As much as leaders must be open to new ideas and changing circumstances, those without a sense of purpose will struggle, participants said."


Here are 15 points that we thought were most important in the Part 3 article.

1. “Transforming an organization starts with transforming its leaders.”

2. “Leaders who set out to reshape their companies to compete in a fast-evolving digital world often come to a daunting realization: To transform their organizations, they must first transform themselves.”

3. “However, the qualities they need to develop aren’t the ones you might expect. 71 percent of 1,500 executives we surveyed in more than 90 countries said that adaptability was the most important leadership quality in these times.”

4. “[Leaders] must learn to stretch their "own imagination and creativity" to envision what the future could be for the company and its stakeholders, anticipate possible scenarios, and prepare to adapt to whatever unfolds.”

5. “Leaders need to learn to experiment, iterate, and pivot themselves if their organizations are going to be able to thrive.”

6. “Leaders have to learn how to manage the conflict that will come with including new voices in their deliberations and seeking partnerships from even unexpected sources.

7. “On one hand, leaders need agility and courage to adapt to unfolding circumstances, but they also need determination and discipline to move a company toward digital maturity.

8. “Employees and customers, especially of the younger generations, expect leaders to take a stand on controversial environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters.

9. “The only reasonable response to the digital sea changes happening around us is for leaders to adopt a learning mindset and show generosity toward other people and themselves.”

10. “Too often, leaders only communicate how digital transformation will improve the company’s performance. Instead, they must develop a narrative—a human-centric story—for how digital transformation will improve the lives or livelihoods of their [employees], customers and stakeholders.”

11. “Digital transformation requires continuous individual and collective learning. Forty-four percent of our survey respondents view continuous learning as key to success in the digital era.”

12. “Leaders must be empathic about the stress employees feel as they grapple with the complexity and change that comes with digital transformation.”

13. “An outside-in perspective can infuse the creativity and curiosity that digital transformation requires.”

14. “Navigating the arduous journey of digital transformation requires certain mindsets and behaviors from leaders that are different from those required in the past.”

15. “The task is not to cross the finish line and turn off the engine, but to get comfortable—as a leader and as a company—with this new pace and the attendant complexities.”


Overall there was not much about this article that we did not agree with, as far as it went, so we highly recommend it to our Humantifc readers.

One last thing that we did notice in the article (and many other HBR articles), is a tilting of the narrative towards the privledging of convergent thinking (positioned in business school language as as decision-making) as in how organizations should "share in decision-making" rather than more holitsically/fundamentally describing the need to reorient organizational values towards the equal valuing of not just convergent thinking but generative thinking as well. This is often a mistep on view in many MBA program related literatures, even today. Many of those programs remain in transition to the era of VUCA and continuous innovation.

Today in adaptive capacity building in the face of VUCA we need the generative thinkers and the generative thinking on board and equally valued as much as the convergent thinkers. Convergent thinking is only one part of innovation and not the holey grail. Its been over sold and is often vastly overly represented in organizational contexts. Innovation leaders need to be making the valuing shift clear.

That clarity is at the heart of cognitively inclusive culture building. Hope this is useful Humantific readers.

Adaptable Capacity?

At Humantific we define Adaptable Capacity as the organizational ability to proactively drive change and continuously address complex challenges beyond product, service and experience assumptions. In a continuously changing world, where complexity is rising this requires new adaptive skills, methods and behaviors that contain no baked-in assumptions regarding what the challenges and opportunities might be.

How do we help build Adaptive Capacity?

Image Credit: Harvard Business School, Harvard Business Review, WORKING KNOWLEDGE, Business Research for Business Leaders.


Questions? Send us an email: kickitup (at) humantific (dot) com


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