PIVOT: Organizational Agility - What is it? Why does everyone want it? And what does it get you?

By Jarrod Shappell

Friday, September 15th 2017

Automation, globalization, and specialization are increasing and will greatly impact the global economy and job market. These are not trends that will impact specific industries, but a tidal wave of change that is certain to wipe out all organizations and leaders who cannot find holistic ways to adapt.

We find many organizations today are tinkering with how they respond to these changes. Like a giant machine, bolting on a new gear, organizations add an employee engagement program, a business unit charged with INTRAprenuership, or a newfangled org structure. But the cog by cog attempts of change are not enough. With all the change afoot, this decades old metaphor of organization as machine is breaking down. And much like an aging computer or dated manufacturing equipment, upgrading parts is unlikely to bring success.

In order to achieve organizational agility we need to look at the entire machine.

With our clients we reference this organizational model. Each organization contains four key components: the work; the people who perform the work; the formal organizational structure; and the culture that reflects their values, beliefs, and behavioral patterns. In order to move from aging machines, to agile organisms, all parts of the system must be addressed and fit together.

Work: From Marketing to Listening

Organizations have more tools than ever to tell the world about our products and services. You probably found this blog because someone from our firm shared it on social media or because it came to your inbox. These tools can fool us into thinking that the work of overcoming consumer and market trends is to be louder and more active with our marketing. Rather, because of the quickly changing demands of Millennials and iGen generations, it is listening that must be at the core of our work. But listening is more than what people say in a focus group. It’s being curious about someone’s desires and motivations and having the empathy to pivot your activity to meet those needs. This capability is crucial for all organizations trying to create products, services, and solutions. It is also critical for executives seeking to understand their employees as the employment value proposition evolves and employee’s expectations change.

Culture: From GTD to GTDT

Like all good machines, our organizations are measured by their output and productivity. And the cogs in our organizations are primarily the people (sorry if you nodded along as you read that). The individual productivity focus has created a boatload of productivity tips - prioritization, list building, “someday maybes” - to getting things done (GTD). But today, as jobs become automated, what remains of “work” will be more social. It will be less about what one person can do at their computer, but rather about the breakthroughs that will come from a group of people with a shared mission. The agile organizations of the future have a culture (and tools) that invites collaboration, has participative processes, and even allows for self-organizing teams.

Formal Organization: Top down organizing to self-organizing

Recent studies show that nearly 60% of all employees have experienced a redesign in the last three years. There are more reorganizations today than ever before. Executives are constantly shuffling chairs to respond to the disruption they are experiencing in their industries (see Walmart’s most recent efforts). But what if our reorganizations create more chaos than clarity? People naturally organize together to accomplish more. Science has shown us that all life forms are self-organizing. Agile organizations understand this. Leaders of agile organizations know they don’t have all the answers and successfully organize the orchestra. Allowing those closest to the change (consumer demands, technological advances, etc.) to inform your organization’s structure is key. Navigating in today’s high-change environment requires this kind of ground up structuring.

People: From Depth to Breadth

Harvard Professor David Deming says that there is a “death of single skill jobs”. Whether because of automation or the rapid speed of change, those who have depth of expertise in single areas are struggling to keep and find jobs. So what do the employees of the future have? His study shows that workers who successfully combine mathematical and interpersonal skills in today’s knowledge-based economies are the ones who will gain and hold jobs. As different forms of communication evolve, the need for a wide range of media literacy is vital. As work becomes globalized, cross-cultural understanding is a basic necessity. As every industry and organization has technological components of it, coding and mathematics will be must haves. The people of our organizations, whether in finance, marketing, operations, supply chain and/or Human Resources will need to have breadth more than depth.

Leadership: From Command and Control to Action in Ambiguity

Business school teaches leaders that it is their job to tell others what to do. Management texts for decades have taught us this command and control. That kind of leadership will not work in times of changes because the impact of change is fast and cuts deep. Think about a response to an unexpected change like a natural disaster. First responders are on the front page because they act quickly, decisively, and without fear of failure. This is the kind of employee that organizations of the future need and leaders need to make room for. The procedures, policies, and laws of command and control style leadership breeds passivity, deference, and an abdication of responsibility. Agile leadership tolerates ambiguity, trusts others, quiets their own anxiety, and invites action.

We can create agile organizations that respond continuously to shifts in markets and environments. But it’s not one part that needs fixing. It’s the whole of your organization – and yourself – that must undergo transformation. 

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