Strategy 2.0: How Business Needs to Accept the Hard Facts on the Power of Soft Skills

2016-08-01-1470094474-5931676-Strategy20.jpg

Alain Sylvain, CEO, Sylvain Labs

Business evolves. Just like music or fashion or any other industry, it grows and adapts with time to meet the demands of the economy, marketplace and consumer tastes. And if business is evolving, so too should the methods we use. The traditional, bottom-line, efficiency-focused strategies the business elite espoused just aren’t making the cut in 2016. The demands of modern business call for new points of view and more carefully considered thinking. While tangible, measurable attributes like accountability or rationality obviously still have a place, what really counts in today’s economy are “soft” skills like creativity, emotional intelligence and attentive listening. These are the building blocks of Strategy 2.0 and they’re laying the foundation upon which business will stand in order to thrive in the future.

Before you can fully grasp what Strategy 2.0 is, you have to understand what came before. That means acknowledging efficiency as the core value of business in the 20th Century. If we follow the timeline, it all traces back to the rise of industrialization, when “Strategy” emerged as a reaction to shifts in the greater economy. With an influx of new industrial capability, companies were able to make more stuff for more people at a higher rate and a lower cost. In this storied age of business luminaries and Six Sigma processes, it was declared that playing it safe would become the approved standard for getting things done. When traveling in uncharted waters, why would anyone rock the boat? It just made sense to say, “What iceberg?” and steer the whole titanic of industry toward a cozy, efficiency crazed status quo.

Here’s the thing about the status quo: it’s set to be challenged. Rational decision making through a strict adherence to process took us all pretty far, but people always want to go farther. What worked for past generations of business simply doesn’t stand up to the way today’s world works. Technology gives us instant access to information and opportunity, and that puts the power to change the world for the better right at our fingertips. Don’t be confused; the end goal will always be the bottom line, but there’s a better way to get there. And that’s where Strategy 2.0 can change everything.

Strategy 2.0 is a more thoughtful vision for all aspects of business. It’s not just about getting things done on-time and under budget to quell shareholder backlash after the next earnings report. It places a premium on imaginative problem solving, ingenuity and innovation. It welcomes new ideas and differing opinions from every color of the corporate org chart. It changes the question from, “Where can we find wiggle room?” to “Where can we go from here?”

Want to know how companies like AirBNB or Uber could disrupt “boring” industries like hospitality or transportation to become truly disruptive players? They went rogue and stretched traditional business dogma in a direction heretofore never seen in the boardrooms of corporate America: they just listened. All they had to do was put just one of Strategy 2.0’s soft skills to use in order to step out from behind the two-way mirror in the focus group and hear people asking for a better way to do something mundane. Then they found a creative solution, they made it easy and they made it fun. Finding the right answers to a business problem really isn’t as difficult as previous generations of executives would have you believe. All you have to do is take the time to realize when and how the questions have changed. This stuff is much less rocket science and much more social science.

Unfortunately, listening isn’t something you’re likely to be taught in business school, even if it is as vital a skill as risk management. Sure, there are creative degree programs available to today’s students that emphasize a softer skill set like imaginative thinking and design thinking over negotiation and risk management, but you can’t get an MBA with a concentration in paying attention. Virtually all of the soft skills that define Strategy 2.0 begin with being a better listener. When you take the time to listen, it means you’re giving others your attention and the time they need to speak. And if they trust you to listen more intently, they’re likely to respect your ideas and do the same. Then others will be heard, and more ideas will be shared, and a better, more empathetic understanding of everyone involved won’t seem so out of reach. Before you know it, that innovative breakthrough and undeniable success that past generations were so efficiently striving for will be yours. And all you had to do was quit yammering on about processes and workflows for, like, a second.

Obviously, Strategy 2.0 isn’t the universally accepted norm just yet, but it’s how industry is evolving. The classically cutthroat world of business will likely be a thing of the past in the near future, and the older, hard-nosed industry veteran championing rigid process over cooperation and imagination will be replaced by a compassionate corps of inquisitive, younger minds from a variety of backgrounds. When we take the time to surround our work with people who have new and interesting things to say, and can listen to what others want or need with genuine curiosity and empathy, that’s when the best ideas come to light and innovation shines through.