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“Turnaround is transformation tragically delayed.” – Gary Hamel
Our organizations face unprecedented levels of change and the rate and frequency of changes will likely continue to rise. The models, practices, and tools we have used in the past to enable and manage change (for example, action research, Kaizen, lean, process improvement efforts) are valuable tools but they are not enough to help organizations keep pace with internal and external changes.
To become agile, organizations will need to make fundamental changes in how they work — their systems, practices, and their culture. Organizational adaptability is created through continual efforts to build nimbleness into systemic elements of the organization.
Organizational Leadership Agility Study
Note: Results reported from the “Organizational and Leadership Agility Survey” conducted the The Institute from Corporate Productivity.
These survey results mirror what we have been hearing from our clients who are endeavoring to create organizations that are designed — inside and out — to be responsive and flexible. Another challenge organizations face is how to go from having a change resistant organization to an agile one.
What is Organizational Agility?
Organizational Agility (OA) is your enterprise’s capacity to be consistently adaptable without having to change. It is the efficiency with which your organization can respond to nonstop change.
What does it mean to be consistently adaptable?
What does “without having to change” look like? What would this look like in the world of sports or the arts?
What does the phrase “efficiency with which your organization can respond to nonstop change” mean and how does this contrast with more traditional change management techniques and methods?
When we are consistently adaptable, we can modify how, when, and where something is completed with the same confidence and efficiency that we use to run a routine report. Zigging and zagging is second nature and being adaptable does not cause great stress or worry. In their article called, Quarterbacking Real and Rapid Organizational Improvement published in the Winter 2009 Edition of Leader to Leader, authors Longenecker, Papp, and Stansfield, emphasized how important it is to make adjustments:
“It is imperative to make adjustments quickly when things are not working as planned. One of the most important findings about successful leaders of change is the simple fact that they tend to be very timely in making decisions, solving problems, removing roadblocks, and fighting the tyranny of the urgent…In business, the wrong people might be on a project, analysis paralysis might set in, or excessive meeting might cause the effort to stagnate. These types of situations often go unnoticed until the cumulative negative effect takes momentum out of the drive.” (Longenecker, 2009)
Our definition of organizational agility states that we can adjust without having to change. To illustrate what this means and how it looks in action, imagine a top professional golfer named Jack. In between tournaments, Jack practices a couple dozen shots using all the golf clubs in his bag. Each course he plays presents new challenges and potential golf shot scenarios. To ensure he practices some of the tougher but less common shots (for professionals, anyway), Jack puts golf balls in sand traps and in the rough and in front of trees and in bad lies. He does this to practice hard shots and build his ability to recover from difficult situations. While in a tournament, Jack will need to shoot the ball from new distances and under new conditions. His previous practice sessions, however, will enable him to make many of these shots without having to learn something new, or change as a golfer.
When leaders, managers, and team members practice a variety of ways to work, they can respond to change without having to change. We learn how to prepare well, contingency plan, transfer and apply previous similar experiences, and act under somewhat ambiguous circumstances.
When individuals resist change, the efficiency with which they can adapt is reduced because part of their attention and time is spent moving away from the direction of progress. When we do not resist and in fact are highly adaptable, we can progress toward our goals faster and with fewer diversions. Resistance creates organizational mental garbage that can build up and become a culture you don’t want to combat.
Agility is a systems-based (organizational systems, not IT) capacity, not an individual trait. It takes more than will, or an open mind, to be flexible. An agile organization brings together people, processes, and systems to manifest the organization’s mission and strategies. OA is a critical competence for any organization facing nonstop change and increased competition. Agility will allow your organization to build into everyday practices an ability to nimbly respond to changing circumstances and take advantage or emerging opportunities. When your organization is agile, changes do not stress people or the system as this is a normal way of working. The level of fluidity and flexibility you need will depend on the quantity and speed of changes to which your organization must respond.
When thinking about agility, it is important to pay attention to the whole system and simultaneously improve the nimbleness of direction, focus, speed, quality, and sustainability. In their article called Building Agility, Resilience and Performance in Turbulent Environments in the Issue 3, 2009 of People and Strategy (a journal produced by the Human Resource Planning Society) authors McCann, Selsky, and Lee emphasized the importance of a systemic approach to building organizational agility:
“We are struck by how the agility and resilience literatures focus on individuals, team, and organizations, but rarely two or more of these at the same time. Emphasizing agility-building interventions such as systems thinking or creative problem-solving workshops at an individual or team level may be helpful, but if efforts to build agility across the organization are weak, then individual and team-level efforts ultimately fail.” (McCann, 2009)
Leadership teams are in a unique position to oversee and ensure systemic changes that improve agility and position the organization for greater success. Agile organizations must have the staying power to drive business performance over the long run AND the ability to quickly shift its focus across business units and teams.
Model of Organization Agility
There are three types of agility — Focus Agility, Resources Agility and Performance Agility. To be optimally adaptable and nimble, an organization should endeavor to strengthen each type of agility and the systems and practices that support them.
Model of Organization Agility — Focus Agility
The degree that your organization can and does nimbly adjust its mission, strategies and goals – where it is heading – to respond to new threats, opportunities, or business conditions. Agile organizations read their markets (current and potential customers, competitors, trends, regulatory environments, etc.), scan their external and internal environments, understand emerging opportunities, and quickly turn the information into a road map for action. To improve focus agility your systems and practices need to not only tolerate change, but also be designed to prompt leaders at all levels to regularly recalibrate and adjust the organization’s focus. And all employees should be expected, encouraged, and rewarded for keeping their eyes and ears open for helpful information and sharing this business intelligence.
Focus agility is most visible when applied to broad strategies but is also important on the departmental level. Leaders who fail to adjust the direction of their work groups will find it difficult to optimize results and performance.
Focus agility requires a continual evolution and realignment of an organization’s mission, strategies, goals and business plans. Goals will need adjustment more frequently than your mission, likely, but all aspects of how you define your organization’s path need to be reevaluated to ensure they represent your current needs and are not inadvertently in conflict with one another. To ensure alignment between these direction setting systems, leadership teams use risk assessments, SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), foresight and forecasting, value evaluations, market trending and other methods that help the team make informed decisions about direction.
Model of Organization Agility — Resources Agility
Achieved through a continual redeployment of people, processes, money, capital and other organizational assets. To achieve resources agility, leaders need to have systems in place that alerts them when a reallocation is warranted and could better serve the organization’s mission and strategies. Agile organizations do not leave the potential need for resources reallocations to chance nor do they tolerate an ad hoc approach to management. If nonstop change is an organizational reality, then it is important to regularly reassign assets to meet today’s and tomorrow’s needs.
While it it almost always the case that resources agility should follow a change in focus (mission, strategies, goals), resources agility might also be needed in absence of a change in focus. Agile leaders measure progress and use data to proactively reallocate resources to better achieve goals. It is also common that changes in performance agility (see next) impact how resources are allocated and used.
The primary systemic elements at play are people (which includes all costs associated with people), money, capital expenditures, outputs (used internally or sold externally), and brand elements. For many organziations, their brand(s) is as much a resource as is their products and services. The methods we use to flexibly adjust and use these resources include teams, rapid reskilling, reallocation, integration, reconfiguration, and partnerships.
Model of Organization Agility — Performance Agility
Is perhaps the most commonly practiced. Many businesses use efficiency tools and practices such as Lean, Kaizan, quality processes, Theory of Constraints, and Agile (not to be confused with Organizational Agility) to improve their processes and ways of getting the work done.
In addition to creating agile processes, it is important to create agile people, teams, and cultures. Like is the case with operational processes, we need to continually adjust and align how people do their jobs and how people work together. It is not enough to ensure that people are accepting of changes, they need to advocate and initiate changes.
Work cultures are thought to be slow and difficult to change and this is often the case. Agile organizations, however, have learned how to identify core elements of their desired culture and quickly replace obsolete notions, practices, and beliefs. Agile cultures encourage employees to discuss and challenge (in a culturally acceptable way) business practices, values, operating methods, and work processes as this is an important way that leaders learn the information they need to keep business results on track to achieve goals.
Comes from how well things work as made evident by systemic elements such as data, processes, performance management, return on investment (ROI), and measures. To measure and improve the agility and performance of these systems we use process improvement, measures, learning and development, culture development, technologies, collaboration, and other performance enhancing methods and practices.
Our model of Organizational Agility can be used as a discussion aid to help leadership teams discover ways they can improve system-wide adaptability and alignment, decide how to optimize these systems, implement meaningful changes, and measure the impact of their efforts.
Assessment: How Agile is YOUR Organization?
We have been talking aobut Organizational Agility and it is time to determine how agile your organization is and where improvements might make the greatest positive difference. This is a systems-based assessment, which means that it will assess each element of OA (focus, resources, and performance) by looking at several systems including: