Agility – Why is it elusive in organisations

Agility is the ability to move quickly and easily in any direction. An agile organisation anticipates, senses and responds to its external environment in ways that create a competitive advantage. Organisational leaders often feel dragged down by the weight of an organisation’s structure and the rigidity of its processes. Being in vantage points, they can see or perceive the workflow and blockages. These leaders are best positioned to appreciate the value of agility in making an organisation nimble enough to seize fleeting opportunities and make quick comebacks. If that is the case, why are they not able to bring themselves to change and be more agile? And what can be done about it?

There are a few aspects of how leaders function in organisations that can explain why it is hard to embrace agility in organisations. Addressing these aspects with a systems perspective can point the way forward.

Sticking to Current Competence – An organisation is a system. How a system performs is a result of the interaction of its parts, not a consequence of how the parts function separately. Leaders are parts and how all the parts interact is key to their current competence getting converted into organisational performance. How all the parts interact, in turn, is defined by a systems configuration – a particular arrangement of all parts in relation to the whole. Performing leaders have grasped the current systems configuration and know how to leverage it for using their current competence. When leaders are asked to change, they wonder whether the existing systems configuration will support new learning and changed behaviours. Unless the leader is sure about the systems configuration changing or adapting to accept new learning from her, she is going to stick to her current competence.

Seeking the Psychological safety of Acceptable performance – Most organisations offer a particular definition of acceptable performance in which they recognise and reward acts of commission (things you have done). There is no record of acts of omission (things you could have done, but did not) that organisations keep.

A significant consequence of this is that people get on with doing what they have to do without concerning themselves with things that are totally discretionary. The role of mistakes compounds this further. In record-keeping, the fewer mistakes you have committed, the more creditable is your performance. If somebody is considering something totally discretionary and there is any chance of it being a mistake, that person simply plays it safe and doesn’t do anything.

Acts of omission (things you could have done, but did not) proliferate in a set-up that looks down upon mistakes. However, they can have a damaging impact. Avoiding doing something has real consequences. The leader who did not voice a nagging concern because playing safe equalled acceptable performance is a leader who has not performed – all on account of fearing a mistake!

Presently, leaders are rewarded mainly for the right things done well. Wherever the right thing is known, the measure is then of how efficiently or mistakes-free the execution is. In Agile, we don’t even know straight up, what the right thing is. Agile is all about experimentation and being willing to commit mistakes and learn from them. The right things are known after rapid decision and learning cycles in which mistakes and the learning accrued from them are surfaced as the real output for the current decision-action cycle. This output informs the input in the next cycle. The right things do not indefinitely stay right either, so the cycles continue.

Tinkering, rapid prototyping, going back and forth, revisiting the drawing board are not really mistakes but continuous learning feedback loops in action. Unfortunately, leaders used to getting things right in the first go view everything that has not gone according to plan as a mistake. Anyway you put it, the learning process viewed as mistakes is the only way to learning and change. Accepting this is deeply uncomfortable for leaders. They continue to seek the psychological safety of acceptable performance.

Dangling between Learning anxiety and Survival anxiety – When survival anxiety is felt more than learning anxiety, people in organisations will move towards learning. Leaders continue to dangle between the two. Organisations can and do try to reduce the learning anxiety. And circumstances may demand that survival anxiety be played up. It is important that both anxieties are sought to be reconciled in organisational decision-making on how to promote agility.

Unless articulation about survival anxiety and the urgency of change happens at a systems level, leaders seem to develop an auto-immune response against a healthy concern about survival. They seek the psychological safety of acceptable performance. Leaders are prone to believing that the grand strategy that illuminates the darkness will come from the very top. Till then, they will stall for time and engage in incremental learning.

Clinging to Current mind-set – Organisations in order to be agile have to make fundamental shifts in the mind-set around five critical elements – strategy, structure, process, people, and technology. The current mind-set which leaders have informs everything they do and leaders will naturally attribute whatever success they have to it. Agility throws a spanner in the works and urges leaders to have a growth mind-set as opposed to a fixed mind-set.

Elements Current mind-set in place Growth mind-set for agility
Strategy Value is captured from external environment – Scarcity/ Competition Value is co-created with all stakeholders. Abundance/ Collaborative competition
Structure Hierarchy and clear chain of command works Networks of teams and project-based work
Process Self-contained, insulated, predictable Rapid decision & learning cycles, experimentation, adaptive
People To be controlled and directed To be empowered & enabled
Technology Supporting role that helps doing Integrative role that helps becoming

The shift to a growth mind-set is tough for leaders as they are asked to let go of what has apparently worked for them. They are being asked to break away from their performance code: whatever they think makes them excel. Their learning anxiety goes up as a countervailing factor to the push for agility.

To sum up,

Unless the leader is sure about the systems configuration changing or adapting to accept new learning from her, she is going to stick to her current competence.

In an organisation, leaders seek psychological safety by avoiding committing mistakes as a sure way to acceptable performance. Agility is all about experimentation, rapid decision-action-reflection cycles in which mistakes are nothing but feedback to be surfaced for moving forward.

Leaders dangle between learning anxiety and survival anxiety. The scales should tilt in favour of survival anxiety in a way that retains the efficacy of the organisation as a system.

Leaders cling to the current mind-set as they believe it to be core to their success.

Strengthening the move towards agility requires addressing all these factors in a systems framework that works just right for your organisation.

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