In a fast-paced digital world, it is tempting to suppose that deploying the latest technology is the lynchpin to competitive advantage. Extremely powerful digital technologies are now accessible to most companies—meaning you must find new ways to distinguish yourself in a crowded field.
One very effective method for unearthing strategies that differentiate your organization from everyone else is to leverage your people as a competitive advantage. “Using people,” in this context, means placing an emphasis on any full-time employee, contractor, partner, supplier, gig worker, etc., who is part of your extended ecosystem of strategy and delivery. These are the groups and individuals who provide the fuel to make your technology engine work. You will find them interspersed inside and outside your organization, and it is your task to harness their collective power to build a coalition of support for your business. If you do this well, you can use ecosystem engagement as a way to build stickiness between your organization and employees. As we progress through this latest digital era, we are starting to see more strength in numbers—particularly from unexpected partnerships that provide different perspectives and allow ideas and innovation to originate from a variety of sources. By embracing cognitive diversity, these partnerships thrive because they’ve learned how to tap into a variety of players in order to design and deliver a compelling solution. Each time you tap into it, your people ecosystem presents a blank canvas of potential innovation, and capitalizing on their insight and adaptability creates new opportunities for unique advantage.
Organizations that struggle to keep or fully engage their people ecosystem may find themselves facing the quandary of having people who once worked with them or for them easily becoming foes. History shows us that not recognizing the latent talent in your untapped, disengaged employees creates a hazard for your organization: a cohort of employees who understand your strategic priorities and what you value and use that knowledge to compete, providing new services aimed at dissatisfied customers looking for new options. Armed with the quick and easy tools that make spinning up a startup or a competitive initiative effortless, former employees can quickly wreak havoc on your best-laid plans—something that it used to take a much larger organization to accomplish. What can you do? Go on the offense, pursuing a strong people-based competitive advantage to build a vibrant ecosystem of employees and partners who feel valued and aligned with your organizational goals.
A significant challenge you might face when you are looking to strengthen your people ecosystem is the temptation to continue operating within your traditional mode of working, and within your traditional types of relationships. Your old ways of working required one level of engagement, but to exploit the power of the digital economy, you have to bring new players into the ecosystem and be far more intentional about the way you interact with them to use their capabilities. As you do this, you will quickly find that what it takes to make one group or person happy is not what it takes to make another group or person happy, and you will constantly negotiate outcomes to ensure everyone feels like they are in a win-win scenario. The digital economy moves at a frenetic pace and causes massive changes in personal and societal expectations. Solutions that worked just a few years ago will no longer keep customers and partners happy. That’s why it’s vital that you maintain an environment where people feel they are in a win-win relationship and they see your success as something that’s good for them. Leaders who assume they have good relationships with freelancers, contractors, or suppliers can quickly find themselves struggling with the same concerns vocalized by disengaged employees, and this type of disconnect can dramatically impact your level of output. You lose a great deal of innovation capacity when you can no longer count on people to give the extra effort that comes because they are autonomously motivated to succeed. To keep everyone happy and excited at the same time, you will need an agile engagement approach. That means the painstaking work you do today to build a high degree of engagement with your people may have to be revisited often to keep them invested in your organization.
If you want to develop a strong, competitive advantage built on the expertise of people in your ecosystem, you should focus on five key strategies:
- Discover what your customers deeply value. Develop a cross-functional, inside-out team that focuses intensely on this issue. Nothing works better to discover what your customers value than to have a diverse group of people who can relate to and reflect the customer base. For instance, rather than using all of your talent to concentrate on delivering better features to existing customers, use some of your talent to uncover and solve new problems. This will help you move from a product-centric approach to a customer-centric approach.
- Have a value proposition that people can engage with. Creating a company identity, placing your company in the marketplace, making clear what you hope to accomplish, the future you want to achieve, and communicating all of that to those you work with provides the raw materials for engagement, for helping those employees, partners, contractors, and even gig workers find a place for themselves in your company’s future.
- Recognize that great people are everywhere in your organization, tucked away where you can’t see them. Look for talent spread out through every level in your company and start to use that talent in new ways. Some of your best opportunities for ideation will come from crowdsourcing innovation up, down and across your team. For instance, when leading a technical team, use traditional technical skills like understanding objects, understanding layers, or understanding components in a LEGO-like architecture, and use those functional skills as analogs to the soft skills that help team members understand leadership and how the different parts of the organization relate to each other. Help team members recognize that there are layers to the way that the business works, layers to the way that people work, or layers to relationships. Help people with high potential understand how all parts of the business work together and demonstrate how to conceptualize new ways to use old processes. Transform team knowledge from solely a functional or technical capability to a business capability, and work with your staff to be very deliberate about the roles and opportunities they take or the places where they invest their time.
- Build teams with cognitive diversity. Deliberately look for people and partners who come to the table from different paths in life. Have multi-generational, multi-ethnic, geographically dispersed teams that understand how to work well together by leaving bias at the door. Have multi-disciplinary teams pour through your data with the express assignment of finding new problems to solve. Recognize that just because you invited everyone to the table, that does not mean they all have the courage to speak up. Provide prompts and cues to ensure team members participate, describing their findings, testing their ideas, and sharing insights into their thought processes. This will spur collaboration, spark innovative ideas within others, and remove the stigma associated with failure. To help move this forward, design your meetings to enable every voice in the group. Talk openly about great attempts that failed, share team successes, and give room for even the most silent participants to open up and share their thoughts. People can often believe the smartest person in the room is also the most confident person in the room, and that’s not always the case. You can frequently have very astute team members with a wealth of knowledge built from their path in life and professional experiences, but they might lack the confidence or interest in speaking up in front of a group. Create a standard knowledge sharing process so team members can exchange discoveries and discuss ideas in open and honest ways.
- Allow employees to move around in order to develop different capabilities. You’ll want to discover early in your team members’ careers what they might want to do later in life. This is true for your partners and suppliers just as it is for your employees. Spend some time discovering their capabilities. Some people might transition into great business leaders, others might become great technical leaders, and others might become strong master contributors who really know your customers and your business well. Regardless of the track they choose, you want use their capabilities strategically so they stay engaged and excited about solving your most pressing business problems. Whether it’s working as a coder, designing a strategy, or understanding the bowels of the enterprise and how to get things to move when they are stuck, allow team members to grow and be useful in ways that create opportunities in a variety of places. Give them a chance to travel, take on choice assignments, work remotely, change jobs and roles, dabble in fringe interests, or work together on pet projects. This means you will have to hand off commodity work to more junior staff so your senior leaders can grow organically in ways that work for them and the organization. If you overlook this, your people can feel stagnant and will look to create opportunities for movement on their own, which means they will likely look for employment elsewhere.
As you focus on these areas, you will naturally see new and different capabilities emerge. Recognize these capabilities in your people not just for what they can do for you now, but for what they can do for you in the future, and then strategically position them so they can help you transform the business. Placing people in flexible roles helps them come up with autonomous innovation because the deeper they get into technology, the content, or their knowledge of the business, the more they uncover opportunities for you to get better, to modernize, to offer new solutions, or to have the next big thing that might transform the industry. Instead of looking at your people solely as tools to fulfill your current work, look at them as opportunities to uncover new jobs, expand your offerings, design new partnerships, discover a new mission, and recognize new customers. By doing that, you will have a talent advantage that cannot be duplicated.
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