The need for leaderless organisations

Leadership Unplugged

A leader like Nirmala Sankaran, who has 18 years of experience leading product development and innovation at HeyMath! and 12 years of working with the Citi Group, has surely seen various phases and evolution of running an organisation. She decodes leadership from this rich experience and presents it to us at the leadership unplugged event.

“What’s common between a flock of birds, a termite colony and our own immune system?” says Sankaran in her TED style talk at the Leadership Summit. They are all leaderless organisations – where knowledge and power are distributed within the system and decisions are made based on local interactions. This she believes, is the future of organisations amid seismic shifts in technology, society, demography and the economy as a whole. Here’s what she details as the five big trends in the global market and how organisations can better brace for impact.

On automation and the gig economy

The first big trend is the advent of AI and automation adding that they have the same power for transformation as steam engines had in increasing productivity. Millions of jobs may become automated leading to disruptions in the job market calling for reskilling and creation of new jobs.

The second biggest trend is the rise of the gig economy. An increasing number of people are opting to work as freelancers, part-timers and contract workers to have flexibility. In the US, 50 per cent -60 per cent of the workforce is engaged in this sort of work, whereas a minor segment of the Indian workforce is experimenting. “What this means is that organisations need to figure out how to integrate people with diverse backgrounds and work with talent on demand without a fixed number of employees on regular payroll,” she explains.


“The ‘state of flow’ is when the challenge level in accordance with skills is neither too high to create frustration nor too low to create boredom,” notes Sankaran.


Changing dynamics of the workplace

The third major trend she highlights is the death of retirement. More and more people are rejoining the workforce well into their 60s, coming out of retirement. In a world where there are immense possibilities, cultural expectations are also shifting.

“The general breakdown of trust in governments, corporates, media and democracies is a disturbing trend by itself,” she says. She quotes the latest examples of Facebook data breach and other issues in big tech companies that have long prided themselves on being meritocratic in functioning.

The final trend, according to her, is the rising number of women entering the workforce. Sankaran calls them the new wealth of nations adding that there is an economic imperative to include women in the workforce.

The crucibles of leadership

The three ways for navigating the ‘fluid, ambiguous and flexible’ workplace is through developing new competencies through revamping the school curriculum; keeping humanity at the centre of discussion amid growing automation concerns ; and lifelong reinvention though acquiring timeless skills according to her.

The starfish approach

Returning to the theme of the animal kingdom, Sankaran notes that observing how a starfish functions helps one understand how to be nimble. With no central nervous system, each of the five tentacles of the starfish has to agree to enable movement. There is no top-down command. This, she believes, is how organisations need to make the most of the opportunities. Sankaran states that her company, Heymath, consciously facilitates this approach where no one is in charge yet everyone is in charge.

Using this peer-to-peer relationship model, leaders should cultivate the right culture in the organisation which specifies the norms and values that guide decision making. Every organisation should be a mix of catalysts and champions. Catalysts are those who conceptualise and ideate, connecting people to form teams whereas champions are the doers who evangelise and create, she explains.

The key is to ensure those individuals’ skills and challenges are utilised to create a ‘state of flow’ as coined by Cynthia Maxwell, Director of engineering at Slack. The ‘state of flow’ is when the challenge level, in accordance with skills, is neither too high to create frustration nor too low to create boredom.

What she has learnt from experience

Overall for her, there is no such thing as work-life balance, as she gets too engrossed in what she does. In terms of specifics, she says surrounding herself with ‘agony aunts’ who have taken the role of mentors playing devil’s advocate has helped her get over roadblocks. What has also helped is killing ageism by working directly with the 14-year-old intern, who gives feedback on Heymath!, and the 82-year-old retired teacher, who brings a wealth of wisdom.
On stepping out of one’s comfort zone she says, “If you need to go straight, sometimes you must take a right.” Most of the innovative ideas occur at the edge of inter-disciplinary research. She quotes the example of Dr. Atul Gawande who roped in Boeing’s aviation experts to tackle the high death rates at hospitals. Their simple suggestion drastically reduced the deaths- create a checklist which everyone right from the receptionist to the surgeon follows (as is followed by everyone between the ground-staff and the airplane pilot.)

Concluding her session, she recommends that one should invest in oneself to future-proof the career. “Acquiring timeless skills is something you can invest in which automation cannot take away,” she signs off.


Speaker Profile

Nirmala Sankaran is one of the Founders of HeyMath! – a global Ed Tech leader in Mathematics Education. Developed since 2000 in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, UK. HeyMath’s mission is to support the work of teachers and help students build a strong foundation in Mathematics.

Over the last 18 years, HeyMath! has been successfully implemented with proven results in Singapore, South Africa, India, Latin America, Malaysia, UAE, the US and has individual users in over 50 countries. Nirmala Sankaran leads product development and innovation at HeyMath!


Best Takeaway

Following a starfish approach towards leadership, i.e,eliminating top-down command, an organisation can stay nimble with employees thinking on their feet

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