Practicing Agility

“The pace of change in the world will never be slower than it is now.”

Because this feels true it probably explains why ‘agility’ has become such a buzzword. There is a heightened sense that because everything is changing so quickly, we need to be able to move fast, jumping from one thing to another.

This interpretation of agility is problematic. It could just as true to say that we need to slow down. Things are so urgent we better not rush. In fact, speed can often be a symptom of complete immobility.

Agility is not one thing. It is a synthesis of capabilities. Therefore, I love the way the pharmaceutical giant Roche* define agility for their organisation as “the right balance of speed, flexibility and stability to thrive in the current environment”.

There is not a single blueprint for agility. Each organisation can find their own definition. However, agility is neither a process function – or a mind-set function. It is both. The integration of process with mind-set means that agility at an organisational level cannot happen without agility at the individual level.

At Roche, agility is seen as both a leadership and a business competence. Leadership development is grounded in what the business requires. In assessing their progress towards a more agile culture the measure of impact is “how did the business change”?

What is the main obstacle to agile?

You cannot get a new “what” from the same “how”. You need to disrupt the pattern. This is a is a challenge for many leaders. Typically, they are the ones who have won praise and status – probably since their childhood – for their ability to forward engineer the past, making what has worked in the past work again in the face of changing times and evolving challenges.

These are the leaders who struggle most in an unpredictable world where there cannot be a perfect plan. In our unpredictable times this way of working – which ironically seeks to guarantee certainty – amplifies risk.

Leaders who feel they must come up with the perfect plan endure huge pressure. In playing the role of the heroic leader they become the organisational bottle neck. In telling everyone that they know the way forward; they disempower everyone around them. This mind set is the main obstacle to agility.

Enabling greater agility

Agile leaders have learned to be braver, more creative, and more resourceful in their relationship to disruption and uncertainty. Moral courage is a meta-competency in the agile organisation. It is the ability to act in the face of not knowing; acting even though you know you cannot be completely correct and being able to manage the associated sense of vulnerability. It is in this space the knowing and doing of agility is bridged.

As questions emerge it is not about having the perfect plan – it is about knowing how to bring people together to figure it out. This leap in leadership capability can have a transformational impact on the organisation. It releases the bottleneck created by heroic leadership.

Instead the leader is open source. This is counter intuitive for most of us. It is not how we built our careers and our businesses. We probably became successful by being heroic and telling others what to do. The agile leader has learned how to transform their leadership so that the organisation is self-transforming.

Otto Scharmer (Essentials of Theory U, 2018) puts it this way:

“The job of leaders and change makers is to cultivate the soil of the social field. The social field consists of the relationships among individuals, groups and systems that give rise to patterns of thinking, conversing, and organising which in turn produce practical results.”

The agile leader grows and harvests the collective wisdom of the organisation through nurturing relationships and cross-fertilising ideas and perspectives. The organisation becomes wiser when everyone’s perspective is sought and incorporated into collective learning.

Practicing agility

Taking the Roche example, they started a practice of regular ‘systemic-sensing meetings’ where diverse perspectives from both inside and outside the organisation (including competing suppliers) gather to converse about what they are experiencing, seeing, and doing. As the practice developed, a deeper connection to higher purpose emerged, giving intent to the conversations, and creating a transformational experience for the participants that they could transfer back to their business units and organisations as a way of being.

Another Roche routine involved ‘fireside chats’; where small groups gathered to share personal narratives; for example – “what you may not know about me but if you did you would understand me better as a person and as a leader”. In the true spirit of agile, these practices were tried without knowing their impact in advance. The agility programme walked the talk and the outcomes surpassed expectations in the way seasoned leaders opened their hearts, how relationships transformed and how business performance metrics improved as a result. For example, new product launch timelines reduced by more than 50% by working with government agencies in a more agile way.

Other pointers from the Roche case include, participation was invited and not enforced thereby honouring the right of others to self-author their own development and enabling individuals to choose a different way with their autonomy and agency intact. In allowing the programme to create the pull, enrolment across the 90,000 employees was six times greater than predicted. In an agile response, the programme was scaled to match.

Let go, be open source and be ready

We are faced with the beautiful challenge of moving from superhuman to becoming super human beings. The latter is about being authentic, having the courage to be vulnerable, taking off the mask and letting the human in us out.

We must learn to give up shaping and learn to let things happen. We need to learn to scale through resonance rather than coercion. This work demands real commitment. It is not easy. It is uncomfortable and it is worth it.

There is so much disruption in the world, I sense we have a moment now when the gate to the social field is swinging open for new ways of thinking and behaving and for new mental models to emerge. As the Roche example shows, this work impacts the things that businesses care about.

The Originize Project

This article was inspired by the Originize project. Originize is prototyping next stage practices for cultivating the social field through conversations. Originize is premised on the need to build the capacity for transformation – co-creative, participatory, an open source learning community to deal with the current times – bootstrapping a way towards true agility via action learning.

Read more about leading into the unknown.

Return to home.

*The Roche Case Study was the subject of a dialogue at the Coaches Rising Summit July 2020 with Paul Byrne, Director at the Leadership Circle, Dr Tammy Lowry, Global Head of Talent Innovation at Roche and Bruce Lyon, Global Head of Leadership and Employee Development at Roche.

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