6 solution-oriented mindsets for complex challenges
Everything changes and nothing is certain. Those who still doubt this after years of constant disruption learned a wise lesson in 2020. But how do you apply this lesson in practice? – How do you succeed in a world where success can mean something different every day?
In today’s stormy business landscape, leaders who are able to continually reinvent themselves and their organisations are triumphant. They can do this not because of some magical power, but because they bring together the best of different worlds.
Armed with six mindsets, they master any challenge. They sense what a situation calls for and know how to apply it.
- They recognise the value of what came before them.
- They have the power to go beyond it.
- They use the rules to their advantage
- They enjoy the game.
- They focus on the people.
- They form a vision for the future.
1. The value of what came before us
Moving forward is great, but don’t forget to look back at what is already there. The fact that companies must constantly renew themselves does not in any way mean that the old must be discarded – on the contrary, in the midst of all this change, it is all the more important to safeguard continuity: Archimedes already understood that you need a fixed point to move the earth.
However, the value of what is already there goes beyond continuity. The point is not only that it is already there, but also that it is still there: it has stood the test of time. It has had to prove itself time and time again, and it has succeeded every time. That does not mean that it cannot be challenged – age-old business models can suddenly become obsolete – but look for the strength that made it work for so long.
You don’t have to look far to see the power of continuity and tradition at work. While all the attention is focused on hip start-ups, it is mainly family businesses that keep the engine of the economy running. They account for over half of the GDP and perform better on average than non-family businesses, according to research by the Erasmus Centre For Family Business in collaboration with BDO and Rabobank: the financial value is 7% higher and profitability 16% higher.
The researchers are clear about the main reason behind this success: strong family values form ‘the cornerstone of the identity’ of family businesses and ‘an anchor point’ that gives direction to the strategy. By communicating these values authentically, family businesses also succeed ‘like no other’ in connecting with customers and suppliers. And for those who immediately think of the familiar baker around the corner, it is good to remember that Heineken, Volkswagen and Nike are also family businesses: you can travel the world with family values.
But you don’t have to be a family business to do that. Every company can benefit from the power of tradition and continuity. How? Firstly, create cohesion within the organisation – make sure you are more than just colleagues. Secondly, nurture seniority – the older employee may not be as well versed in the latest digital innovations, but has a wealth of experience and forms a vital link with the history of the company. This makes the experienced colleague also of great value for the third and final point: never forget where you come from – tell the story of your company, to customers but also to your own people. Because if you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you are going.
2. The power to go further
Such a shared history does have a downside. When everything revolves around what has been built together, people sometimes neglect to look further. But what if so much more is possible? What if the world lies at your feet, ready to be conquered? Then you need someone who dares to leave the safety of the warm nest. Someone who uses the power of the enterprise to strike. Would we still know Alexander the Great today if he had stayed in Macedonia? One thing is certain: we would certainly not know him as Alexander the Great.
Companies that want to exploit their full potential need a strong leader. Someone who has a clear will and who does not hesitate to exercise it, even if it causes a stir in the organisation. A strong leader is connected to the company, but does not coincide with it. The power that emanates from someone who fearlessly pursues their will is difficult to overestimate. It is a force that can break down walls and open up new markets.
It can also tear families apart. Rudolf and Adi Dassler never made up, but the two brothers laid the foundation for two of the greatest sports brands: Puma and Adidas. Rarely is the battle such a true brotherly affair, but there is no shortage of companies fighting each other to the death. And it can be ruthless. The corporate landscape is no longer afraid of a little war language – no one is surprised if you say you want to wipe out the competition.
The point is not to strangle each other. But be aware of the enormous potential of willpower. Do not hesitate to unleash this power on the world. Use it to force doors that would otherwise remain closed – to go further than your predecessors thought possible. And whatever you do, throw your full weight behind it. As a leader, you are the head of a powerful unit: use that power. Alexander did not become the Great on his own.
3. Use rules to your advantage
Even if you want to deliver a final blow to your opponent, the chances are high that you will not succeed. What then? – What do you do if you are unable to beat each other? Then it is time to sit down together and negotiate a treaty – to set rules to which all parties are committed.
Nobody benefits from a war without an end. Few knew how to express this idea as convincingly as Thomas Hobbes, the founder of modern political philosophy. In ‘Leviathan’, he argues that it is in everyone’s interest to voluntarily submit to an absolute ruler. It is rational to surrender our freedom if our opponent does the same, because in doing so we are all bound by rules. Under the dictatorship of rules, we free ourselves from the war of all against all. Chaos turns into order, and order enables us to build.
Order proves its worth not only in the wider business landscape, but also within one’s own organisation. Applying rules to the business process creates regularity, and regularity leads to efficiency. By introducing a production line where every employee only had to perform one action, Henry Ford was the first to succeed in producing an affordable car. So it was that in 1918, one out of every two cars driven around the world was a Ford Model T.
Some 70 years later, the efficient production line had become such a resounding success that new rules seemed necessary. Manufacturers were now able to produce extremely fast and affordable cars on an enormous scale. As a result, the German government was forced to impose a speed limit on the much-loved Autobahn. The major German car manufacturers did not like this. BMW offered to voluntarily limit the maximum speed of its cars to 250 kilometres per hour, on condition that the planned law would be scrapped. Mercedes and Audi followed suit, and today you can still step on the accelerator on the Autobahn.
The moral of this story is clear: when rules are inevitable, it is better to have as much influence as possible over them. And even if you are direct competitors, it can definitely pay off to stick together to the same agreements. The fact that these agreements were necessary because of the overwhelming efficiency created by the introduction of rules into the business process completes the circle.
4. Enjoy the game
Rules bring order, but do not end the struggle – they turn it into a game. And those who play a game had better enjoy it. For the true entrepreneur, the endless battle with competitors is a wonderful adventure. Of course, to enjoy a game you have to take it seriously: you have to do everything to win. Within the margins of the rules, this requires more than brute force – it requires a good strategy.
In a constantly changing playing field, a winning strategy is never sustainable for long. In the long run, efficiency alone is no longer enough to win: Ford’s production line was completely streamlined, but it always produced exactly the same T-Ford. That may be enough to stay in the game, but to win, you have to keep moving forward: you have to keep improving yourself – constantly looking for opportunities to sell more, capture more market share, make more profit.
Whoever does this the smartest will come out on top and be able to boast of their success. However, because the battle is never completely over, you can never sit back: every day there can be another winner. This is not a problem. In fact, if you enjoy the game you are happy with it – you don’t want to knock out the opponent for good, then the game is over. What would Feyenoord be without Ajax? Archenemies need each other. Sometimes they propel each other to unprecedented heights: would Apple and Microsoft have grown into the world powers they are today without each other?
No one will dispute that the tech giants are the winners of our time. In fact, they are so successful that they have, in a sense, risen above the game. Where players have to listen to the referee, giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google themselves are taking on the role of referee: they are setting the rules of the platform economy and are now more powerful than most countries.
Such astronomical success is, of course, reserved for the few. They don’t have to be. The rules of the game allow for countless winners. And even if you lose once, it is not the end of the world – there is always another round.
5. Focus on the people
What is sometimes forgotten in the heat of the moment – even if it is just a game – is that there is more to life than winning. The pursuit of success can lead to tunnel vision, so that certain questions are not asked: At what cost do I want to be successful? Is winning at all important? How do I relate to the rest of the world?
Of course, there is nothing wrong with pursuing a goal. But if you are going to spend a large part of your life doing so, you had better examine whether that goal is worth it, and what pursuing it means to the world you are part of. It would be a shame if you only found out at the end that you could have done better.
By widening your view, you see that a business is more than a profit machine. It is a shared enterprise – a place that brings people together. Those people all have their own reasons for coming to work every day. You do your employees and yourself a great service by integrating their goals into the company mission. This way, you involve all employees in the company, and involved employees create more value for the organisation. Gallup has estimated that a staggering €6 billion is lost annually because only 15% of employees worldwide feel engaged in their work. Seen in this light, employee wellbeing should be at the top of even the most money-conscious manager’s business agenda.
Evaluating your objectives does not end at the boundaries of the organisation. Just as every employee is connected to the company, the company is connected to the world. The way in which you want to give substance to that connection determines how your company presents itself to the outside world. How do you include social themes such as poverty, the environment, health and diversity in your business strategy?
Such considerations are often expressed as finding the balance between profit and sustainability. However, this implies that one is always at the expense of the other. The reality is different: research by Harvard Business School shows that between 1993 and 2013, sustainable companies achieved almost twice the stock market return of their unsustainable competitors. A more fundamental point is that value cannot be fully translated into profit. And this is precisely why it is good not to take the value of winning for granted.
6. Form a vision for the future
One way of expressing the value of the things you do is to look at what you add to the world by doing them. As human beings, we are all co-creators of the world around us. From this realisation, it is a logical next step to ask yourself what your legacy will be: what do you want to contribute to the world? Yet this is a question that few seem to ask themselves.
In the turbulent business landscape of our time, this question is perhaps more relevant than ever. To survive, companies must continue to transform themselves. In other words, they must keep adding something new to the world, something that will keep them ahead of the competition. They must form a distinctive vision for the future.
You don’t have to explain to anyone how difficult that is. But while difficult things are often automatically associated with hard work, it is good to do a little less in order to form a powerful vision. That may sound strange, but any innovator, artist or scientist will tell you that inspiration cannot be imposed. Chances are you recognise it too: that one brilliant idea usually doesn’t come to you while you’re banging your head on about it for hours, but when you let go. You are in the shower or exercising and suddenly it is there.
Leaders who have their hands full running and innovating their business would do well to use this phenomenon to their advantage. Even after the initial vision is formed, it is very productive to just do nothing for a while. You keep the vision in your head while you continue with the daily business. You stay alert, so you don’t miss the right moment when it comes. Compare it to an eagle gliding on the thermals. He keeps the overview, saves his energy and strikes when the moment is there.
Such a moment came for Steve Jobs in 1979, when he visited Xerox. There, the operation of the first computer mouse was demonstrated to him. Jobs was far from being the first to see the new invention. He was, however, the first to understand its enormous potential. He came to Xerox with a revolutionary vision in his mind: a computer for everyone. From that idea, he saw what no one else saw. Some call him an ordinary thief, but visionary is more appropriate: what he saw in the mouse turned out to be more valuable than the invention itself.
The road a vision travels before it has become a product, service, business model, strategy – or whatever it may be – is often a long one. Of course, not every vision will lead somewhere – the fate of a vision depends on all kinds of factors, not all of which you can control. But you are not powerless either.
This is where the ability to bring the best of different worlds together comes into play. The leaders who are able to reinvent themselves and their organisations time and again not only have a strong vision for the future, but also the peace of mind and overview to make it materialise. They sense what the situation calls for – they recognise the value of what came before them, have the strength to move past it, use the rules to their advantage, enjoy the game and understand that there is more to life than winning. This is how they always find solutions to complex challenges.