image of a person thinking as he stands in front of a blackboard

How’s Your CEO’s Cognitive Flexibility?

Andreea Kiss wants to improve your organization’s ambidexterity.

Andreea Kiss’ interest in a CEO’s cognitive flexibility and organizational ambidexterity arose after reading a series of interviews with Apple’s Steve Jobs and Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman. “Both used the word ‘flexibility’ when they were prompted to reveal what they think are key characteristics for a successful leader in the innovation space,” says Kiss, associate professor of management at Lehigh Business.

Cognitive flexibility is the capacity to switch between different modes of thinking and find workable solutions to conflicting problems. Organizational ambidexterity is the capability to simultaneously exploit current competitive advantages while developing new advantages through significant innovation.

Flexibility is on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s list of most desirable skills in a 21st century worker, but Kiss couldn’t find any research that connected a CEO’s cognitive flexibility to firm strategic outcomes such as ambidexterity.

And there’s a reason for that.

“There’s a lot of research out there that tries to connect demographics like age, experience and top management team composition to innovation, but because CEOs are often reluctant to participate in studies, it’s harder to capture aspects related to their cognitive make-up,” says Kiss, “That was the gap I was trying to address with this study.”

To overcome this hurdle, Kiss looked for innovative solutions to ensure that she’d get a representative sample for her study.

“One of the first strategies I used was to look to an alternative market,” Kiss says. I also needed to take into account that email and mail surveys often get poor response rates.” 

Kiss chose India as an alternative market given that she would get responses in English from a vibrant tech sector in an emerging economy. She worked with a local marketing agency who met face-to-face in the field with CEOs as they completed their surveys.

Kiss and her coauthor team then conducted two smaller studies in the U.S., including a study with 58 executive MBAs. For this part of the study, each participant was given a case study in which they needed to search for information to answer a specific innovation-related dilemma. “We emulated the real-life setting. We gave them a website to search for answers and analyzed their information search behaviors This allowed us to isolate a first set of relationships between flexibility and the ability to search out solutions,” says Kiss. “Our goal was to show that variation in cognitive flexibility informs information search which informs outcome.” 

The full study demonstrated that a CEO’s cognitive flexibility determines where and how intensely and persistently she searches for information. It further showed that the CEO with these skills is able to read signals in a fast-changing environment and simultaneously pursue different forms of innovation, leading to the overall ambidexterity of the organization.

“The concept of cognitive flexibility and the ability to use it is something very valuable – especially to small businesses and for any CEO or founder who is helping to get the company out of hole,” says Kiss.

According to Kiss, these skills in CEOs and organizations are particularly beneficial to companies as the world emerges from months of a global pandemic and protests.

“This coronavirus crisis has shown us that a lot of companies continue to use prevailing business models that may no longer be applicable in the current environment. For some industries, that’s an easy shift to make, but others may have to rely on the CEO to find solutions or alternative business models,” she concludes.

WHY IT MATTERS: Using Kiss’ research, companies could employ scenario-based exercises as part of their interviewing processes to determine whether a CEO candidate possesses cognitive flexibility skills.  To build cognitive flexibility skills in their existing and aspiring leadership, firms should frequently expose them to unfamiliar experiences and settings (e.g., international assignments, spending time in new departments, altering daily routines).

Story by Beth Tancredi

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