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            [post_title] => Agility: elusive, but essential and the key to thinking differently
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            [post_title] => Curiosity at work is the birthplace of innovation
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            [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_23185" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Business agility is undeniably important, but do we know what it actually is? (Picture Source, CFPRO) Business agility is undeniably important, but do we know what it actually is? (Picture Source, CFPRO)[/caption]


Leading, working and performing in a more complex environment and at an ever-increasing pace is probably one of our biggest challenges today. Disruption and continuous change are now ‘normal’ and expected in most industries.

But this is not necessarily new and has been going on for some time. So how are we doing at managing this increased complexity and pace and what seems to be working for those who have led the way?
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Agility as a solution

Organisational agility is well established as one of those critical organisational competencies that has helped organisations successfully adapt to a more complex and rapidly changing business environment.  For more high-profile cases, just look at what Netflix or Amazon have done with their business models over the last 10 years.

Agility is also established as a well-researched quality in future-proofing organisations and employees for future challenges and opportunities. Many business writers and researchers have identified Agility at organisational, team and individual level as the most common and necessary quality in dealing with rapid and turbulent change.

The basic and quite compelling argument is that, if business leaders can improve an organisation’s agility and build it into the organisational culture, structure and processes, they will have gone a long way in dealing with the ‘complexity challenge’ and in preparing their organisation for the business challenges and opportunities of the future.

So far, so good.

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The problem with Agility

While agility has been around forever one way or another, more modern agile principles and practices for today’s context have been developing in areas like software design and product development in recent years.  These principles and practices have now begun to spread into the wider enterprise.

But there is a problem. As a deliberate organisation wide strategy and competency, Agility is often inconsistently defined and unevenly executed. Is it just simply about change or adaptability or is it something else? Is it a mind-set, methodology or culture or a mix of all these?

[caption id="attachment_23190" align="alignleft" width="200"]Bill Joiner Bill Joiner[/caption]

Bill Joiner neatly captures the multi-faceted elements of Agility with one definition amongst many that exist out there - “Agility is acting with purpose and flexibility, collaborating with disparate stakeholders, developing creative solutions to complex problems, continually learning and changing”.  However, many leaders and employees struggle to agree on what Agility actually means for them and their organisation let alone how deep it should go or how it should be implemented and managed.

There can also be a healthy conflict or tension between the practical consequences of agile mindsets and principles compared to the traditional command and control cultures and more comfortable ways of working of the past. McKinsey and others also fairly point out that you can’t have agility without stability thus prompting the question amongst leaders as to where and how to strike that important balance in their organisation.

These are some of the reasons as to why making real progress on implementing Agility has remained in the “want to have but hard to do” category with more pressing, sometimes conflicting short term challenges often remaining higher up the priority list.

Given the prize and opportunities that come with Organisational Agility, the important question is what does it really mean and look like for your organisation, your leaders and your employees – and how can it be delivered appropriately at organisational, team and individual level in your specific context and situation?

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The Agile Leader

As well as leaders conducting a structured, high level and honest scan of Agility for their organisation, one of the early places to start is with leaders themselves, helping them think through how agile they are as leaders and what impact this is having on the wider organisation.

In their book, Leadership Agility (Jossey-Bass, 2006) and subsequent research, Joiner and Joseph define the natural and progressive development stages of the ‘Agile Leader’.

From the tactical and problem-solving orientation of the “expert leader” to the more strategic and outcome oriented “achiever leader” and then the more visionary and facilitative/empowering “catalyst leader”, Joiner and Joseph describe the practical skills of progressively leading in a more agile way.  This helps to clarify and call out typical leadership development stages through the lens and language of agile principles and practices.  Such self-awareness and clarity of language and behaviour is an important requirement for any organisation seeking to be more deliberate and mindful in developing genuine organisational agility.

Leading in a more complex and rapidly changing work landscape will remain one of the most important organisational, leadership and personal challenges into the future.  Agility is also one of the more compelling solutions to leading in this future but, as a concept, it needs some work with its definition and its image at organisational level.  Otherwise the Agility paradox will continue.

With input and support from the leading international experts in their fields, the IMI Senior Executive Programme (SEP) sets out to support senior leaders explore strategic topics such as Agility in detail and to forge their own ‘next practice’ in strategically leading their organisations, their employees and themselves through this evolving environment.

 


[caption id="attachment_23187" align="alignleft" width="167"]Photograph by Zak Milofsky Photograph by Zak Milofsky[/caption] Kevin Empey is Programme Director of the IMI Senior Executive Programme and also Managing Director of WorkMatters Consulting. [post_title] => Agility has a PR problem – and it needs to be fixed [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => agility-pr-problem-needs-fixed [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-11-07 17:02:09 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-11-07 17:02:09 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.imi.ie/?p=23182 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) )
Simon Boucher

Simon Boucher

20th Jan 2020

Simon Boucher is CEO of IMI

Related Articles

Agility: elusive, but essential and the key to thinking differently
Curiosity at work is the birthplace of innovation
Agility has a PR problem – and it needs to be fixed

Look beyond the money to ensure everyone profits

A cynic might say that an easy way of understanding history is to ask: “Who profited?” Behind every event, every movement, every societal sea change, someone has inevitably pulled strings behind the scenes and profited off it.

‘Follow the money’ is the dogma for journalists who recognise that wealth accumulation is a primaeval motivation. For chief executives, following the money has also become dogma, articulated as ‘generating shareholder value’. This singular focus creates a Darwinian marketplace where anything other than the relentless pursuit of revenue is perceived as irrelevant – all’s fair in love, war and profit.

This approach has the benefit of simplicity. It also doesn’t work. Business history is replete with cautionary tales of organisations that got caught up in short-term profit-maximising hubris – think Enron – and suffered inevitable consequences in employee wellbeing, management ethics and customer trust.

The 2008 financial crash dramatically exposed this philosophy. But some organisations survived those bleak times and continue to thrive. Many illustrate a common thread: they pursue ‘higher ambition’, aspiring to bring about a positive impact on society while accumulating profit in a sustainable manner.

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Higher-Ambition Leadership 

The Center for Higher Ambition Leadership Europe hosted their 2019 CEO summit in IMI

The concept of ‘higher-ambition leadership’ was first coined by a global team of researchers in Harvard and Sweden studying the actions and behaviours of leaders after the financial crash. It refers to a leadership mentality that simultaneously focuses on creating long-term economic value for the organisation, while also generating societal value. Its real purpose is to build organisations that are robustly sustainable over the long term.

Traditional ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) initiatives – no matter how well intentioned – don’t capture the higher ambition mindset. They also miss the point; while corporate social responsibility is good for our conscience, higher-ambition leadership is good for business.

An original higher-ambition poster child is Peter Sands, chief executive of Standard Chartered Bank between 2006 and 2015. When he joined the bank it was languishing – ‘bleeding money’ according to Sands. The first steps he took were traditional: rationalising its portfolio and markets.

But during this ‘crisis’ moment, Sands also took the time to review Standard’s many charitable activities. He came across a campaign combatting preventable blindness and set the bank an ambitious goal: to raise enough money to save the sight of 28,000 people, as the bank had 28,000 staff.

By eliminating lots of small-scale initiatives and focusing around a coherent, meaningful and longer-term objective, within a couple of years the bank had a remarkable impact, restoring the sight of 2.5 million people and reaching another 7.5 million through preventable care.

The impact of the programme on the bank was profound. Having demonstrated the impact of setting lofty ambitions and a clear long-term strategy, Sands proceeded to apply the same principles to the bank’s business objectives.

He prioritised the development of a truly collaborative cadre of managers who focused on long-term growth and sustainability rather than short-termism. Trust and autonomy were given to these local leaders, incentives were decoupled from quarterly profit and silos were dissolved; managers who wouldn’t collaborate departed. When the crash hit, customers seeking stability gravitated to Standard.

With so many economists now predicting that another global downturn is inevitable, how many organisations are still just searching for a boost in this year’s earning? If a crash came tomorrow, how sustainable is your organisation?

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The pathway towards a higher-ambition 

Smartly allocating resources is key for higher-ambition leaders

A challenge for higher-ambition leaders is striking the right balance in allocating resources to create both social and economic value. While such objectives will sometimes be mutually reinforcing, on occasions leaders need to be brave and bet their chips. Whatever the ultimate priority may be, the trick is to be explicit with stakeholders about the choices that are being made and the rationale behind them.

Hiring is another lever for higher-ambition leaders. Encouraging employees to effectively work to both social and economic targets can be difficult; recruiting leaders who have worked in both contexts in the past can provide a short-cut.

Unsurprisingly, the most fundamental requirement to enable a higher-ambition culture is for senior leaders to embody the change: making decisions that may seem risky in the short term but play into a long-term, sustainable vision of organisational growth and positive societal impact.

The pursuit of short-term profit and cashflow are essential goals for day-to-day business survival. But as raisons d’être in and of themselves, they are self-defeating – ultimately imperilling connection to the hearts of customers and staff alike.

Higher-ambition leadership, in the end, provides a deeply held philosophy that a company can mobilise around – maintaining one eye on long-term organisational sustainability, and the other on the impact that our companies have on the world around us. It connects strategy to people and creates organisational purpose that can have a motivational impact.

The next time you discuss a new business plan or strategy with a cynical colleague who asks, ‘who profits?’ wouldn’t it be nice to be able to reply with a single word: ‘everyone’.