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Amalgamating Process Standardization & Thought Liberalization

Dr. Gagan Singla, the Managing Director of BlinkX at JM Financial, shares his insights on the future of leadership in the digital age:

Ravi Lalwani: What differences in leadership capabilities do you see between generalists and specialists? Have the differences narrowed or widened over the last few years? Will Generative AI change this trend?

Gagan Singla: Both generalists and specialists have been critical to the optimal functioning of an organization. The difference between them is that while specialists have deep knowledge and domain expertise in a specific area, generalists have an understanding of multiple domains, although their knowledge of any single domain is unlikely to be as deep as that of a specialist.

Now, with the speed at which technology is evolving, expertise is increasingly becoming the primary asset of the knowledge economy of an organization. Interestingly, the evolution of AI, including its latest form – generative AI, is giving rise to a new type of leader, one that is neither purely a specialist nor a generalist.

Author and founder of Puttylike, Emilie Wapnick, once talked about ‘multi-potentialites’ in her TED Talk, meaning people with a wide range of interests rather than a single deep expertise. She said: “Innovation happens at the intersections. That’s where the new ideas come from. And multi-potentialites, with all of their backgrounds, are able to access a lot of these points of intersection.”

What this essentially means is that leaders today need to have a good amount of expertise and depth of knowledge in 2-3 domains. Such leaders can drive organizations to be more agile and better equipped to adapt to the changing business landscape. Staying updated on the latest developments, especially in the rapidly evolving technology domain, is imperative to gaining a competitive edge and driving business success.

Another crucial aspect is that such leaders can help leaders build resilient teams. This is critical to business continuity, given that AI is also changing the way we work.

So, we’re already seeing the distinction between generalists and specialists breaking down. The key now is for leaders to have a growth mindset, keep themselves current with developments in their field, and master the essential soft skills to lead teams effectively.

After reaching a stable position, people who have risen to middle management are suddenly facing a disruptive future thanks to disruptive technologies and disruptive start-ups. What can their future be like?

As early as 2019, Gartner had predicted that the traditional middle manager might become obsolete by 2028 as technology evolves. But we’re already seeing companies build small, autonomous, high-performing teams that can easily converge to act on a project and then be dismantled for other assignments. In fact, the major layoffs in early 2023 by tech giants like Meta Platforms, Alphabet and Intel, focused largely on middle management.

The problem is that the traditional middle manager typically is a generalist, competent at multiple tasks, including people management, risk mitigation and running projects, but not a master at any specific cluster of skills. But today’s fast-paced organizations need a balance of both complex technological and domain skills as well as higher-order behavioral or human-centric skills.

In response to AI-ML reshaping job descriptions, organizations are likely to engaged in what the Harvard Business Review called ‘The Great Rebundling.’ This essentially means finding ways to reskill and upskill middle managers, such that employees can be redeployed across different job roles.

In fact, Walmart, the largest private employer in the world, appreciates this need for rebundling and offers on-the-job coaching via Walmart Academy to prepare middle managers for supervisory roles. In addition, its Live Better U initiative offers free training in emerging areas, such as cybersecurity, supply chain management, etc, to make employees future-ready.

Do you aim for more standardization or less standardization within the organization? Can you explain a situation where your approach helped achieve a substantial transformation?

The only way to maintain consistent quality across the board is to standardize processes within the organization. With standardization, companies can streamline operations, increasing efficiency and productivity, ensuring optimization of resources, and reducing waste. In addition, in the heavily regulated financial domain, standardization eases compliance and enhances safety.

Plus, we are entrusted with sensitive customer data. With standardization, we are prepared with an action plan, in the event of a data breach or other cyber threats. It also helps us deliver customer support of uniformly high quality, regardless of the individual addressing the customer issue.

Having said that, a balance between standardization and out-of-the-box thinking is crucial for a disruptive fintech. We cannot innovate with products and services if our thinking is stringently compartmentalized. This is my focus area. I believe I have been able to drive innovation that takes our digital ecosystem to the next level while staying true to our quality standards and ultimate vision.

I believe a conscious blend of ‘Process Standardization’ and ‘Thought Liberalization’ is absolutely critical for our line of business. Process standardization brings about efficiency and consistency by establishing clear guidelines and procedures around key deliverables, whereas, thought liberalization encourages an open-minded culture where creative thinking and innovation are valued. It allows for the free exchange of ideas, stimulating problem-solving and adaptive strategies that can lead to breakthrough innovations.

This synergy not only boosts productivity but also enhances employee satisfaction and engagement by valuing both their contributions to the established systems and their innovative ideas for future growth. Every innovation we make – whether, it is our hyper personalized nudge engine or the versatile customer data platform – their existence thrives on the amalgamation of Process Standardization and Thought Liberalization.

While innovation is the buzzword, some people are simply not good at it. Do you have any suggestions which will help them think outside the box so as to not lag behind?

Innovative thinking is all about being able to take what exists already and use it in new ways. Yes, not everybody might be as good at this. To promote innovative thinking, I would suggest the following:

Make innovation a core value: Encourage employees to be open and honest, share ideas, and explore initiatives without any fear of retribution. Practicing brainstorming is a good way to foster this. No idea is too small or irrelevant during a brainstorm, and everyone is encouraged to participate.

Ensure diversity within teams: When people from different backgrounds come together, they share unique perspectives, which drives out-of-the-box thinking. Plus, differing skills and experiences add to the mix to bring innovative approaches to problem-solving.

Make time and space for creativity: You can set aside space within the office premises where employees can gather together, share ideas, and take a break from the route to get inspiration for new thoughts.

Drive collaboration: When people of different ages, backgrounds, specializations and experiences work together, it allows them to learn from each other and build something new.

Promote lifelong learning: Continuous learning is the only way to remain relevant in this fast-changing world. More importantly, training in new skills inspires new thinking.

Encourage micro innovation: Micro-innovations might be small, but they can become powerful agents of change, leading to incremental moves that drive major transformation. Better collaboration is the key to driving micro innovation. So, facilitate interdepartmental collaboration within the organization through strategic brainstorming sessions.

The pace of transformation will leave some people feeling left behind. Is empathy the most important approach to engage with such people? What other approaches are meaningful and impactful?

Happy employees are not just more productive, they lead to better customer experiences. So, employee engagement can make the difference between success and failure. It is, therefore, important to make each employee feel valued at work. This can be achieved through:

Recognition & Appreciation. It’s easy to fall into the habit of correcting employees. Instead, focus on positive changes and day-to-day achievements. Don’t wait for an annual performance evaluation to reward good work. Look at everyday work and see what they did differently that made a difference. Verbal acknowledgment, even a thank you, can work wonders on morale.

Give autonomy to make decisions. Seek inputs from the entire team when making decisions or solving a problem. Encourage everyone to participate. Did you know that when an employee is asked for help, they tend to keep appreciated and more engaged?

Focus on the entire employee experience. Right from onboarding to the daily work environment and even initiatives to promote work-life balance and employee well-being count.

Build connections. Value employees for who they are and help them feel connected with the vision and objectives of the company, as well as with one another. Communicate how their role fits into the organization’s larger purpose and how they fit into their teams. This builds a sense of belongingness.

When you encourage peer-to-peer connections, appreciation and collaboration, you not only foster cohesive teams but also make sure that no one gets left behind.

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