The 18th century economist and philosopher Adam Smith suggested that the division of labor would lead to the dynamic engine of progress; and his foresight was nothing short of prescient genius. A deep focus on skills, time discipline, and the resulting inventiveness would advance demonstrable growth in Victorian factories throughout the nineteenth century.
But it was the economic stability of the twentieth century, especially after WWII, that would provide the perfect routine conditions for a more systematic management style of leadership to be unleashed. From F.W. Taylor to Peter Drucker, legions of management academics and practitioners alike would continually find ways to improve management theory. This era of 20th century management would ultimately deliver over a hundred years of unprecedented wealth and economic achievement for the United States and other economies around the globe; as world GDP per capita quintupled!
A New Century
But what happens when routine and stable conditions are no longer routine or stable? What happens to the management style that was so dependent on consistent routines to deliver profits? According to Gartner Research, that day has come. Not only is non-routine work surging, it’s rising at its fastest pace in history. By 2022, as many as 1 in 5 people will be spending a majority of their day in non-routine problem-solving work. The same research posits that 2 out of 3 jobs will be defined as non-routine jobs in 2027. This is evident as many workers adopt a career fluid mindset, with expectations to reskill, upskill, and poly-skill at unprecedented speeds. In line with this trend, Amazon recently announced their Upskilling 2025 initiative investing $700M in retraining 110,000 employees. They’re not alone. Merck, Verizon, Google, and others have recently discussed changes to their hiring approaches that emphasizes mental agility and the capacity for learning over previous skills and experience. And, while experience and expertise is still desired, it is the non-routine cognitive skills such as judgement, adaptiveness, creativity, communications and strategic thinking that have begun to surge in demand. Yet, a larger, more fundamental question goes unanswered: “How will non routine work affect the future of leadership"?
The new norm, disrupted by globalization, vertical disintegration, and rapidly changing technology calls into question assumptions about what it means to be an effective leader. The challenges have become more complex and much more rapid, and the evidence points to the fact that only a few leaders are achieving success in this current environment. For instance, although growth is the central mindset of most leaders, only 1 in 9 companies in the world achieves a modest level of sustained, profitable growth over 10 years (Founders Mentality, Zook, Allen, p.1). Further, only 44% of today’s industry leaders have held their position for at least five years, compared to 77% only a half-century ago (BCG, 2018).
The two most glaring challenges of non-routine work are speed and complexity. Either the novelty of the problem creates complexity, or the speed at which you need to work demands faster delivery, or both. The good news is that 85% of executives say that their main barriers to growth are not external, but internal. The bad news is that leaders have not determined how to grapple with such unprecedented speed and complexity, and their organizations, their teams, and even their individual leadership status are at stake.
The Call For A New Leadership Mindset
The etymology of the words management and leadership can be traced back to the 1570s with synonyms like control and direct. But, in non-routine situations, how can we hope to control or direct much of anything? Is it any wonder that AI is displacing middle management and pushing decision-making power to the front lines of business?
Today’s business literature is replete with methods that aim to solve the issue of non-routine work. But more often than not, they end up exchanging one pain point for another, either because they are too rigid, too complex, or too open-ended. The rigid methods are generally based on a preference or style that does not transfer from one department or organization to another. The complex methods such as Systems Thinking and Business Dynamics are typically too complicated and slow to be easily applicable in a fast-moving context. The open-ended methods, such as Design Thinking or Agile, are the most popular because they use an iterative approach that is very adaptive. However, because they thrive on trial and error, they can also be costly and time consuming. What we need is a new leadership mindset that is capable of handling complexity and improving speed to help organizations, teams, and individuals navigate the new non routine.
The Rise of the Non Routine Leader
After years of researching and analyzing the phenomenon of how non-routine work affects leadership, our qualitative and quantitative data revealed that a new type of leader has emerged. We call these leaders Non Routine Leaders™, and they are impossible to miss. While others get bogged down by speed, complexity, and the non routine, they somehow overcome it. They see straight through disorder and spin strategy from chaos. Wielding their razor-sharp minds, they rapidly frame problems and reframe opportunities with the ease of experts. They coach, teaching complex concepts with simplicity, and are regularly recognized for growing their organizations, their teams, and themselves.
Admittedly, these Non Routine Leaders™ aren’t always consistent, or even aware of what they are doing that makes them special. They often chalk it up to experience, luck, or intuition. For those on the outside looking in, it can appear as though Non Routine Leaders™ have a magical intelligence. We have found that Non Routine Leaders™ are the most adaptive thinkers and creative problem solvers in business today. The good news is that this leadership approach is not magic at all. It can be taught, practiced, and intentionally scaled across individuals, teams, and organizations alike.
Our research indicates that there are three competencies that Non Routine Leaders™ share, and they run counterintuitive to past approaches to leadership. Simply stated, they see, frame, and teach problems differently than most.
SEE through Complexity: Non Routine Leaders™ shift from Solutioning to Seeing, meaning that they place a larger value and focus on their desire to “see”, or understand complex problems rather than merely offering solutions to problems. This is directly related to increased judgment and adaptiveness as they have learned to embrace the non routine.
FRAME with Expertise: Non Routine Leaders™ shift from Figuring to Framing, meaning that instead of attempting to figure out problems with intuition or costly trial and error that eventually ends in expertise, they begin with expertise, using better-practice frameworks to think through problems, nearly flattening the typical learning curves. This competency has a significant correlation to both improved creativity and strategic thinking.
Share for Future Success: Finally, Non Routine Leaders™ shift from Telling to Teaching, meaning that they place equal, if not more, emphasis on future flexibility as the quality of the immediate outputs from their team members and employees. By using better practice frameworks to teach both the conceptual nature of the initiative as well as the specific details in a simple and logical format, communication skills are greatly enhanced as a result.
These competencies can also be paradigm shifts for many leaders because they contradict centuries of leadership and management training. However, this is precisely why Non Routine Leaders ™ are able to grow their organizations, their teams, and themselves, despite overwhelming speed and complexity.