The Top MIT SMR Articles of 2021

The past year’s most popular articles offer insights on managing through an unpredictable environment of disruption and change.

Reading Time: 4 min 


In December 2020, the first highly anticipated doses of COVID-19 vaccines arrived, sparking hope that 2021 might bring a fresh new start less burdened by the pandemic. Since January, the world has made huge strides in managing the pandemic — but coronavirus variants have advanced as well. Thanks to the delta variant, the Great Office Return expected in September seemed to peter out before it began, landing us at the end of another year characterized by constant adjustment, reorientation, and shifting plans.

In 2021, readers unsurprisingly gravitated toward articles about leading through a pandemic-changed world, understanding an unpredictable supply chain, and managing remote and hybrid teams. As the year progressed, readers’ focus shifted toward content about optimizing return-to-office plans, driving culture change, mitigating burnout, delivering on data science projects, and, of course, the always relevant issues of strategy and leadership. The following are 12 of the most widely read articles SMR published in 2021.

The Future of Team Leadership Is Multimodal

Robert Hooijberg and Michael Watkins

The shift to hybrid virtual and in-person work models requires a fundamental change in the skills team leaders need to succeed in 2022 and beyond. Leaders will need to play four roles — Conductor, Catalyst, Coach, and Champion — as they adapt to managing a hybrid post-pandemic workforce.

The Future of Work Is Through Workforce Ecosystems

Elizabeth J. Altman, David Kiron, Jeff Schwartz, and Robin Jones

Today’s leaders need best practices for dealing strategically and operationally with a distributed, diverse workforce that crosses internal and external boundaries. The best way to address the shift to managing all types of workers is through the lens of a workforce ecosystem — a structure that consists of interdependent actors, from within the organization and beyond, working to pursue both individual and collective goals.

10 Things Your Corporate Culture Needs to Get Right

Donald Sull and Charles Sull

The Culture 500 research team studied the attributes that contribute to a strong organizational culture and found that 10 specific factors most influence employees’ positive or negative views of their companies. With the labor market upended by the pandemic, corporate leaders may need to pay attention to some previously invisible issues if they wish to retain valued employees.

What You’re Getting Wrong About Burnout

Liz Fosslien

The pandemic has had a major effect on the mental health and well-being of employees, with many reporting that they feel stressed and stretched too thin at work. Companies that don’t help their people feel a sense of purpose, belonging, and progress amid these forces will see burnout persist — or worsen. Leaders and managers can take seven specific steps to create a healthier work environment.

Redesigning the Post-Pandemic Workplace

Gerald C. Kane, Rich Nanda, Anh Phillips, and Jonathan Copulsky

As organizations make their post-pandemic plans, they should take advantage of the opportunity to rethink how and where work is best done and how they can combine the best aspects of remote and colocated work.

Why Every Executive Should Be Focusing on Culture Change Now

Rose Hollister, Kathryn Tecosky, Michael Watkins, and Cindy Wolpert

Having the wrong culture undermines the best-laid strategy and organizational development plans, but many leaders have yet to be proactive in building the types of culture required for successful transformation. Describing seven elements of adaptive culture, the authors share a set of eight culture transformation principles that maximize the likelihood of success.

Optimizing Return-to-Office Strategies With Organizational Network Analysis

Rob Cross and Peter Gray

Organizational network analysis — a methodology that maps employees’ working relationships — can help guide decision-making for hybrid work plans and enable employees to improve their own effectiveness.

Why Good Leaders Fail

Morela Hernandez, Jasmien Khattab, and Charlotte Hoopes

It’s hard to understand why successful leaders suddenly fail to meet expectations — what the authors term leader derailment. While personalities are sometimes to blame, organizational context plays a significant role. Companies can help prevent derailment by identifying the most challenging demands leaders must overcome early on and providing better support systems.

How to Combat Virtual Meeting Fatigue

Katie Kavanagh, Nicole Voss, Liana Kreamer, and Steven G. Rogelberg

Employee data shows that people find virtual meetings draining because of their scheduling and structure. Leaders can make meetings more effective and less fatiguing by incorporating feedback from their teams.

Why So Many Data Science Projects Fail to Deliver

Mayur P. Joshi, Ning Su, Robert D. Austin, and Anand K. Sundaram

Many companies are unable to consistently gain business value from their investments in big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. A study of the data science functions and initiatives in three of India’s largest private-sector banks identified five obstacles to successful data science projects and suggests remedies that can help companies obtain more benefit from their data science investments.

What Everyone Gets Wrong About the Never-Ending COVID-19 Supply Chain Crisis

Yossi Sheffi

The ongoing global supply chain crisis shows no sign of abating. And although many media outlets have blamed pandemic shortages on companies’ practice of just-in-time inventory management, abandoning it would do little to help solve current supply chain problems.

Strategy as a Way of Life

Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi

Implementing strategy becomes a way of life when leaders follow six key practices drawn from examples of soulful business leaders.


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