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Why agility counts for leaders

Strategic impulses on how to bring strategies into action.

For seven years I have been engaged with the topic of agile leadership and still I find there is some confusion as to what agility means in a business sense. Sometimes I find managers who seem to have the impression that an ‘agile’ business is one that is a little bit chaotic or short-sighted. Often too, I find the adjective used to describe a wide variety of businesses in the start-up scene.

Honestly, I have seen many start-ups and hardly any of them were organised in an agile way. Yes, many start-ups do foster a special passionate spirit you will not find in larger corporations. But the only thing a corporate CEO can learn from these passionate start-ups is that if you have a strong vision, then even a loosely organised group of enthusiasts are able to strive hard.

For two decades I have worked on business strategy and transformation, during this time I have always wondered:

How can a board with a defined strategic intent or mission convert its fancy PowerPoint slides into concrete action?

It can be frustrating to know that nine out of 10 strategic initiatives fail to deliver on their promises. According to a study by the German Association of Management Consultants every fourth strategic programme fails. It can be hard for top managers to be aware that 90% of what they strive for will not work out.

My personal journey to discover how to make strategies work has led me to look further into social psychology, neuroscience and innovative concepts of management. Based on the intersections between these topics, we have developed our ‘Strategy Activation’ approach, an approach that has proven itself by delivering convincing results since its inception. As we have further developed this system, I have become increasingly aware that what we have labelled ‘Strategy Activation’ others have been labelling ‘agility.’

When I realised this common ground between our approach and what some would call an agile philosophy, I had an inner ‘Eureka!’ moment. By combining the two phrases, we could more easily broach the subject with our clients.

Today, I received many insights from large corporates that try an ‘agile’ approach. Often, they are supported by well-known and venerable consulting firms. They initiate squads, funnels, tribes and herds, they start agile programmes and impact hubs, digital production factories and agile leadership formats – countless words and phrases that somehow sound innovative and meaningful.

However, sometimes my blood boils when I realise how little of their work truly reflects agile thinking and behaviour.

To stop this anxiety, I took myself on a nice little two-day break to the Alps. With a gorgeous view of Germany’s highest peaks as my backdrop I walked through the remote landscapes of the mountains. As I walked, I reflected on the dozens of strategic ‘agile’ programme and initiatives I was involved with. I thought to myself, what was so truly agile about them? And why is agility used so often in the language of management, yet so rarely practised?

Agility itself is what it was created for: It represents a highly complex social change that is persistently calling for adaptions to be made to the ways in which humans organise decision making and work. It is a complex matter that has not yet been fully understood or investigated. We are living in a time where leaders and organisations must discover for themselves what agility really means.

They must try, fail and learn. That last point is the decisive one!

I never loose. I either win or learn.
Nelson Mandela

Mandela’s quote only holds true for people that are willing to take bold steps into the unknown and then learn from their experiences.

How much should this mindset apply to top management?
Many management concepts that we use today were developed in the times of Taylorism and industrialisation. For me, as someone who is passionate about leadership, it can be difficult to perceive why management teams are oblivious to the seemingly obvious blind spots when they look to innovate their leadership style.

Often, we hear a lot of ambitious words, but rarely do we observe consistent behaviour based on them. Everyone in an organisation may be aware of the seemingly obvious blind spots, everyone except the managers themselves.

As one CEO of a large retail firm once said to me:

“Often, when a new manager takes their position, they demand that everything must change. In reality they mean everything except them!”

Now, when someone is talking too readily about agility and change, I grow suspicious. The reality behind their statements and high talk may be that they want to force others to think and act like them. But they themselves may be held back by a strong unconscious resistance to adapt themselves. This is not an agile approach! Inspired by these thoughts, as I sat enjoying a latte macchiato and the beautiful mountain views, I developed seven hypotheses on agile leadership, of which I will share with you today and further explain in the upcoming weeks.

Seven HYPOTHESES on Agile Leadership

1. Agility is for complex environments, not for complicated things.

When does it make sense to be agile?

This should be the first question management asks when thinking about a topic. To be sure, this should not be considered a question that requires an ‘either, or’ approach, but rather one that can be considered in an ‘as well as’ form. The art of line leadership is to be able to distinguish which areas of a strategy would benefit from being more agile, and which would benefit from being more stable.

An agile approach is perfect for complex topics where cause and effect are not clear. Agile philosophies are great when exploring the unknown, when adapting to markets and customers that are driven by multiple actors that cannot be projected based on past or present figures. Other times, taking a purely agile approach can be a nightmare and make progress harder than it needs to be.

2. Agility is a mindset.

As we have already discussed, one can utilise agile methods, tools and routines while still practising a strong hierarchical, top-down leadership style. Tools and instruments will not necessarily change a corporate structure. Preconditions to successfully implement an agile philosophy include having a predominantly open mindset, curiosity and confidence in the ability of others.

3. Customers come first.

If you are a senior executive - How much of your time do you dedicate to gaining a deep insight into the jobs your customers want you to do for them? Regardless of whether they are end users or internal customers. How much time do you spend gathering first-hand qualitative customer feedback? Effective executives should track the experiences their customers have and work to optimise them.

My bet would be that you spend less than 5% of your time on the above!

Many extraordinary companies are extraordinary because they think and adapt based on the perceived performance their customers are experiencing and continuously strive to align their processes to create maximum value for the customer.

4. The Management Dilemma

Managers often worry that they must give something up to be agile. In an agile world, line managers must understand what it means to lead self-empowered teams. Many line managers have reached their positions through promotions based on their own professional capabilities. Therefore, they may enjoy being a bottleneck, or rather having the final word, when it comes to processing professional and people management decisions.

Herein lies the dilemma they, often obliviously, face – If one wants to lead an agile team, one must remove one’s own desire to intervene in how one’s team creates professional results. An agile line manager must do things that may not appear ‘sexy’ to them. They have to delegate trust and do some of the work they are not used to. They must coach and promote people, help them to develop, help them to find support and so on.

They must also remember that management is still key even in an agile organisation. A manager must still provide even the most agile team with a clear vision and mission briefing that can be followed effectively.

5. Awaken swarm intelligence

MIT Professor Tom Mallone conducted a series of IQ tests with management teams. Teams in which the average executive had an IQ of 120. However, when the teams were forced to do an IQ test together, the IQ collective collapsed to 70! This is a mental disability. The reasons for this drop can be explained by unconscious bias and cognitive psychology. Tom Mallone found four principles - and each of them is reflected in the agile approach.

In short, they are:

  • Diversity of viewpoints
  • Structured, but open-minded thinking
  • Mutual contribution
  • The ability to address non-verbal communication.

As individual power and influence is replaced by clear structure, the intelligence quotient of a team can be even higher than the average of its constituent members. Another point worth remembering: the agile approach clearly separates meetings about the professional challenge from meetings about the ‘soft skill’ side - like mutual collaboration and self-organisation.

6. Agile means: Disciplined!

This might sound like a contradiction to many. But agile working is a very disciplined way of working that allows teams to cope with complexity and therefore create results that provide value in a complex environment. Agile teams are very open-minded towards their findings and how they will solve a problem based on them. 

However, if they do not abide by defined formats and rules, they will fail to create the best possible results. Therefore, effective agility requires someone who can ensure that crucial components like sprint-planning, regular alignments, stakeholder reviews and team retrospectives take place according to transparent rules.

7. Leadership is a shared thing!

Agility helps with the discovery of complex challenges. Successful agility demands very different types of people with specific expertise who share a common interest. To be agile means to have different professions across silos and hierarchies who join to complement each other’s strengths and hold joint ownership for team results.

It is not always easy to make people understand that leadership can be a dynamic and shared team process in this context. It requires people who are intrinsically motivated to take the lead when their expertise or role is needed.

Veröffentlicht in Corporate Leadership am 27.09.2023

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