Vehicles in high speed on road

Thriving in high velocity environments: what leaders can learn from the pandemic

Removing the speed limit on innovation.

By Shell on Sep 02, 2021

There is a simple lesson that organisations can learn from Germany’s Autobahn. A unique network of highways, it boasts the only stretches of road in the world that have no maximum speed limit. On certain sections, drivers are free to choose their own velocity.

Many people wonder how you can drive safely while travelling at much faster speeds. The answer is that not only are there defined rules for driving on the Autobahn but the motorists using the roads are used to operating within that system.

If you were to remove blanket speed limits on roads in other countries, you could not hope to achieve the same results. Even with the infrastructure in place, the people using it would not be immediately ready to adapt to the new system. To prevent the roads from becoming less safe than before would require not just the innovation but also a change in culture and mindset to support it.

This is a concept that Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan, (who lived in Germany when they were 11) also applies to their leadership philosophy. To them, the spirit of High Velocity Leadership aligns with open-source practices – with different groups collaborating to create solutions at speed and in a way that delivers better shared outcomes for all involved.

Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan
Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan

“The basic idea is that, instead of treating people as users, treat them as co-creators,” they say. In that way, you can more easily look at all sides of a problem and adapt the solution quickly to meet everyone’s needs based on their input. So, how can leaders remove the speed limit on innovation? And how has the pandemic shaped the need for more open-source thinking?

For me, leadership means looking at all sides of a situation and acting accordingly.

Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan

Reducing risk and saving time for everyone

The building blocks of Audrey’s leadership philosophy were set way back in 1995 when they dropped out of high school at 14 to focus on researching the burgeoning ‘world wide web’. Wanting to devote 16 hours a day – not just eight – to exploring the phenomenon of swift trust online, they spoke to their school director about the move.

“She thought for a moment and said, okay, tomorrow you don’t have to come to school anymore – focus on your research,” explains Audrey. “I think that’s leadership, right? It was risky because we didn’t have experimental school laws in place at the time. But she basically said she would absorb the risk for me.”

A crucial element in this for Audrey is how the school director was not only able to reduce the risk of dropping out but also save their time by removing the need to go to school for eight hours a day, five times a week. To them, this is the essence of leadership – reducing risk and saving time for everyone involved.

“When I say saving time and reducing risk, I mean, doing so across the board,” says Audrey. “So, saving time for everyone; not making trade-offs where you reduce risk for one person while increasing it for someone else. This has variously been described as empathetic leadership or servant leadership, but I wouldn’t add any specific adjective to it. For me, leadership means looking at all sides of a situation and acting accordingly.”

Person holding a white face mask

Co-creating an effective pandemic response

Possibly the biggest test of Audrey’s approach to leadership arrived with the COVID-19 pandemic. As Digital Minister for Taiwan, they have been working with three of the major pandemic prevention systems within the country – the mass distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), SMS-based check-in for contact tracing, and vaccine appointment reservation.

“We learned from public health experts that, along with social distancing and handwashing, we needed to reach 75% mask usage to avoid community spread of the virus,” says Audrey. “But, at that time, we were producing fewer than two million medical-grade masks a day for a population of 23 million people. So, masks had to be rationed.”

With limited resources, equity of distribution became a key talking point. It is why masks were quickly rationed, rather than made available for purchase. People were told to go to their local pharmacies where they could receive two masks a week. And, as production ramped up, this increased to three per week then nine every two weeks until the supply of masks was plentiful enough to end the rationing. The challenge of this for Audrey was how to look at all sides of the problem and effectively communicate a solution that worked for everyone.

“One example of taking all sides was the need to reduce the workload for pharmacists by making sure that they didn't have to answer calls from the public asking whether masks have been replenished,” they explain. “So, we communicated to people that the masks were there to protect themselves from their own unwashed hands – appealing to their own self-interest to encourage positive behaviours and make the full use of masks when they weren’t freely available.”

Another challenge was making sure that people who could not reach their pharmacies during opening hours. This saw an adaptation to the distribution approach, with members of the public becoming co-creators based on their different needs. This then led to collaboration with people in the economic sector (such as convenience store owners) to widen the network of where people could access masks.

“What I call this is a people-public-private partnership,” says Audrey. “The open-source community (those working to create the solution) prototypes the norm, the public sector amplifies the norm, and then the economic sector implements the norm – with the norm being mask visibility in this case. I believe it’s a concrete example of leadership where everyone's risk is reduced, and their time is saved.”

We have all become time-zone travellers, if not time travellers. The idea of who is close to you is no longer defined by physical distance but by internet connection speed and the urgency of the pandemic.

Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan

People waiting in line 2 meters apart for social distancing

Creating new global neighbourhoods for innovation

The people-public-private partnership that Audrey describes was highly successful in moving at speed to create and adapt solutions to people’s needs during the pandemic. An example of this was the roll-out of the country’s contact-tracing system, which used SMS and QR codes to reduce risk and save time for everyone. Where other countries took weeks and even months to implement, Taiwan had a system up and running in three days.

So, how can organisations learn from this? How can leaders adapt the open-source, co-creation philosophy to their own high velocity situations? Audrey’s answer is emphatic. “Don’t lead — follow the people,” they say. “Find communities of open innovation practitioners, engage them and yield the prototyping power of moving safely at speed to them. This allows the leader to become a follower in the initial prototyping stage.”

For organisations, this could mean collaborating with suppliers, partners, or even competitors. It is an approach many sectors are already taking as they work together to explore the potential of technologies like AI, machine learning, and distributed ledgers – creating open-source prototypes for everyone to build on and adapt to the needs of what companies commonly see as their end users.

Another transformation that leaders must adapt to is how the pandemic has altered their closest working relationships – creating a worldwide community that shares the exact same sense of urgency.

“Before the pandemic, leaders often had this idea of an inner circle made up of constituents or stakeholders that they’re accountable to,” they continue. “But the pandemic changed that because, for the first time, everybody feels the same urgency – and this has reconstituted the nature of our neighbourhoods and our in-crowds.”

The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed.

Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan

Close up on a hand typing on a laptop keyboard

Driving readiness for tomorrow’s high velocity situations

The big question for leaders is ‘where do we go from here?’ Many will be focused on the lessons they can learn from the pandemic – and identifying the challenges and opportunities that are likely to remain once the virus finally recedes.

In this sense, Audrey sees the pandemic as a useful metaphor for future high velocity scenarios. “There’s no shortage of problems for our new worldwide neighbourhood to tackle,” they say. “I think we’ll still need to address the disinformation crisis, cybersecurity, and climate change of course. It’s increasingly the case that many other issues have the same configuration as a pandemic. We can see that in the example of a computer virus, which is literally a digital pandemic.”

However, they are optimistic that, because of this similarity, future high velocity situations will see ready-made innovations able to tackle 80% of the issue at hand. The challenge will be providing that final 20% that relies on local knowledge – something that will require leaders to embrace a more open-source, collaborative way of thinking.

It will also require a focus on more equitable results. Much like Germany’s Autobahn network, making the most of the infrastructure means having the control and the culture to do so. As Audrey puts it: “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

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