How to Help Your Team (and Yourself) Be More Agile

Reposted with Permission From the October 10, 2016 IBM Social Business Spotlight Blog by Pamela Meyer

While major corporations such as AT&T are recognizing the need to create a more agile workforce1, most continue to rely on strategies designed for the mythical stable, knowable future. Whether you are leading or a member of a software development team, developing and executing your company’s sales and marketing strategy, or working in any number of high-stakes, rapidly changing contexts, you know that your success in the moment is likely not going to be based on the finer points of your strategic plan, or even the day’s to-do list. It is also nearly certain that when the unexpected hits, your success is not going to come from something you learned in business school or other formal training program.

Despite evidence that up to 90 percent of executive action is ad hoc2, most training programs and businesses are doing a dismal job preparing their workforce to be effective in an increasingly VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) environment. Two outdated approaches are impeding organizations’ ability to create a more agile workforce, and in turn—your ability to help yourself and your team be more agile:

1) Most business school and workplace learning approaches disproportionately focus on aspects of the business that (in theory) can be controlled, which leads to an overemphasis on planning and analysis, and role-specific skill and knowledge development.

2) Most approaches to workplace learning, whether delivered at the university or at the workplace itself, are based on the assumption that information shared and skills developed in the classroom (on-ground or virtual) will be readily transferred to the complex and uncertain environment of the workplace and world of business.

The problem with these assumptions is borne out by the disheartening 10 percent of learning transfer from training room to the workplace3. Why the low transfer rates? Most learning approaches do not take into account the level of complexity required to access and translate prior learning and apply it in new and often unfamiliar contexts, let alone create opportunities for learners to develop their agility competence, capacity and confidence.

Developing the Agile Team

If you truly want to develop your and your team’s overall agility, rather than teaching new skills and knowledge with the assumption they will be applied in a known, stable context, you must seek and provide opportunities to experience situations that demand adaptive responses. This means experiences where you and your team not only need to find and frame the issue or opportunity, but also to then generate novel approaches using available resources. I am not talking about canned training activities where you work to solve a pre-defined problem (solve a puzzle, build a tower, etc.), but ill-defined, high-stakes scenarios and activities with real or almost-real-life consequences.

Such activities, whether experienced in the safety of formal training or encountered on the job, also help team members develop their capacity for learning agility. In recent years researchers have identified learning agility as the single most critical success factor for long-term career success, as well as for organizational results. Defined variously as the ability to “learn and adapt in changing contexts,”4 and “the willingness and ability to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions,”5 learning agility is the key to success when things don’t go as planned and when new, unexpected opportunities arise. In other words, learning agility is the key to business success.

Learning-agile people and teams are better able to adapt when asked to switch roles, work in a new culture, expand the scope or complexity of their responsibilities, lead a new initiative, learn lessons from experience after a set-back and use them to guide their future success, and innovate with limited resources.

Critical Success Factors: Intentionality and Responsibility

When you make your own and your team’s agility your top priority, you must make opportunities to develop learning agility the core of your talent development and management strategies. This responsibility is not something to pass off to your HR department or Training and Development Team. In the agile organization, everyone is a learning leader. Those formally charged with people development in your organization, if you are lucky enough to have them, can be excellent partners for you, and ultimately, you are responsible for developing your own and your team’s agility capability.

In practice, this means being intentional in your agile practices and taking responsibility for your own learning, while encouraging your team members to do the same. Here are just a few best practices that companies I work with are adopting with excellent results:

  • Seek out and provide new and unfamiliar opportunities that require new learning, innovation and adaptation.
  • Practice high stakes “What, if . . .” scenarios that require your team to rapidly come up with alternative strategies and resources, in order to maintain business operations in the midst of a disruption or quickly capitalize on a new opportunity.
  • Intentionally expand, diversify and strengthen your Relational Web of skills, knowledge, talent and resources so that you have access to them when the unexpected happens.

Taking the time to be intentional and responsible for agility and to develop learning agility is well worth the investment. Studies show that adopting best practices such as these, as well as others borrowed from agile project teams, can increase your productivity as much as 38 percent.6 Even if you and your team realized a only fraction of these results, wouldn’t it be worth it?


1. Hardy, Q. (February 13, 2016) “Gearing Up for the Cloud, AT&T Tells Its Workers: Adapt, or Else.” New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/technology/gearing-up-for-the-cloud-att-tells-its-workers-adapt-or-else.html?_r=0
2. Mintzberg, H. (1973) The nature of managerial work. New York: Harper & Row.; Moorman, C., & Miner, A. S. (1998) The convergence of planning and execution: Improvisation in new product development. Journal of Marketing, 62(3), 1—20.
3. Brinkerhoff, R. O. (2005) The Success Case Method: A Strategic Evaluation Approach to Increasing the Value and Effect of Training. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 7(1), 86-101. doi:10.1177/1523422304272172
4. Mitchinson, A., & Morris, R. (2012) Learning about learning agility.
5. Lombardo, M. M., & Eichinger, R. W. (2000). High potentials as high learners. Human Resource Management, 39, 321-330.
6. Salesforce.com. (2010) White Paper: Transforming your organization to agile. Retrieved from https://developer.salesforce.com/page/Transforming_Your_Organization_to_Agile

Giving (and Receiving) the Gift of Agility

This holiday season as you begin to transition from the year that is wrapping up to the shiny new one that is about to begin, you will likely be making time for celebration. Hopefully you are also making some time for reflection, regrouping, restoration and re-energizing.

In the spirit of the season and all of the above activities, I offer you a few gifts you may want to consider giving to yourself and others. Each will go a long way in helping you and your friends, colleagues and loved ones stay agile and energized in your life and work:

  • Give the gift of a new experience or adventure. It might be as simple as a membership to the local art museum, botanical garden, experimental theater company
  • Or as grand as a hot air balloon ride, cross-cultural travel, or an outdoor adventure

Give the Gift of Adventure

  • Write a note of appreciation highlighting the ways your colleagues responded to the unexpected and unplanned or turned a challenge into an opportunity.

Give the Gift of Appreciation

  • Give the gift of an invitation to participate in a new volunteer experience that is aligned with your shared values

Give the Gift of a Volunteering

  • Give the gift of self care: a spa treatment, 10-pack yoga class card, gym membership

 

Give the Gift of Self Care

  • Give the gift of time and resources to:
    • join or form a community of practice
    • attend a conference or professional development opportunity
    • develop a new idea, business relationship, product or service prototype

 

These are just a few ideas to get your creative wheels turning. However you choose to celebrate and co-create the season and the year ahead, remember like fitness, your ability to stay agile and engaged requires the gift of your continuous and generous attention.

Agile Organizations are Fit Organizations

With the change of seasons from summer to fall, my attention shifts from the flatlands of Chicago that I call home to the mountains of Colorado and the start of ski season. I recently reclaimed this beloved sport from my youth after a few decades-long hiatus (first due to lack of funds while working in the arts, and later succumbing to the challenge of rustling up interested friends to join me on the adventure). Today, I not only have recruited my wife and a few hearty friends, but joined a local ski club that offers me many opportunities to ski all season.

Author Pamela Meyer

Author Pamela Meyer

Even more than the skiing, I have fallen back in love with Alpine racing, a sport that all but ruled my life as a teenager growing up in Iowa (yes, I was a ski racer from Iowa, and that is another story altogether). Returning to racing in mid-life I can confidently say that Lindsay Vonn’s records are safe. And while each race lasts only 30-45 seconds and, at most, a race day will include four races, reclaiming my identity as an amateur athlete has had a positive impact well beyond my success in any individual race, race day or ski season—To be prepared for those races and ski season, I am motivated to maintain my fitness and agility throughout the year to be competitive.

Life-long physical fitness is characterized by strength, mobility, flexibility, stamina and balance (Nagasaki, Itoh, & Furuna, 1995), of course, with a healthy mix of rest and recovery. While, for me, those short races are a blip on the wider landscape of the ski season, not to mention my day-to-day life, to be able to negotiate the literal twists and turns of the race course, the unexpected patches of ice, the rut that wasn’t there the last run, I must arrive in the starting gate fit and agile. The same holds true for your business. While many of your day-to-day responsibilities or operations may be routine, you must always be prepared for the unexpected and unplanned, as well as constantly scanning the environment for new opportunities and challenges. To do so, consider how the characteristics of fitness translate to your organization. Could your organization pass a fitness test in each of these areas?

  • Strength (do you know your strengths and consistently build on and leverage them?)
  • Mobility: Are you and your workforce able to move with the needs of the market?
  • Flexibility: Have you developed the competence and capacity to adapt when things don’t go as planned?
  • Stamina: Have you built systems, processes and a culture that supports sustained success?
  • Balance: Does your organization have access to a diverse network of skills, knowledge, talent and resources to respond to opportunities and challenges as they arise?

Just as physical fitness is not attained simply by purchasing a gym membership, or working out with a trainer for a few months, organizational fitness requires a sustained commitment in each of these areas.

•••••

Nagasaki, H., Itoh, H., & Furuna, T. (1995). A physical fitness model of older adults. Aging, 7(5), 392-397.

Four Keys to Creating an Agile Organization

Just because you can hit a tennis ball, doesn’t mean you can win a game.

Pamela Meyer Agility Expert

Many of us weekend warriors know that our brilliant rallies with the backboard, don’t always translate to a stunning performance on the court. The same is true in our organizations; having the skills and knowledge (competence) for agility does not necessarily mean that you and your organization have the ability to put it into action in the midst of volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) situations (Stiehm and Townsend, 2002).

For an organization to be truly agile it must develop the capacity at all levels of the system to enhance and sustain agility. Leaders can assess their systems, processes and frameworks for their current capacity for agility, and enhance them for maximum responsiveness. Here are a few places to start, along with some provocative questions to ask:

  1. Systems and processes to convene a team of experts to respond effectively to an unexpected event or opportunity. Does your organization have a strategy to use existing technology to easily search for and assemble people based on their expertise and experience?
  2. Systems and processes that enable agile communication and collaboration. Do you have the capability to swiftly communicate with the right stakeholders in the midst of a fluid situation and/or high priority collaboration
  3. Frameworks to quickly develop new products and services (Rapid prototyping). Do your employees across job functions and business units know where to take a new product or service idea and how to move it smoothly from inception to execution? Does your organization have the capacity to rapidly prototype a new product or service in response to an emerging need or opportunity?
  4. Streamlined organizational structure and decision-making processes. Research shows that organizations that have minimal structure necessary for their specific business are more able to improvise (Moorman & Miner, 1998). Does your organizational structure and decision-making process enhance or impede agility?

With systems and processes that enable rather than impede responsiveness, organizations have a foundation for agility. This “agile infrastructure” alone will not insure individuals, teams and the entire organizational system is agile, only that the infrastructure will not be part of the problem. Organizations that are confident that all of their employees can and will respond effectively to the unexpected and unplanned also invest in developing, reinforcing and rewarding individual and team capacity to improvise to meet the changing needs of the business and its customers.

 

Moorman, C., & Miner, A. S. (1998). Organizational improvisation and organizational memory. Academy of Management Review, 23(4), 698-723.

Stiehm, Judith Hicks, & Townsend, Nicholas W. (2002). The U.S. Army War College: Military education in a democracy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

 

This post by Pamela Meyer originally appeared on meyercreativity.com/blog 

What Enables Organizations to be Agile?

Agility is perhaps the most essential capacity for organizations today. A recent study by MIT showed that agile organizations grow revenue 37% faster and are 30% more profitable than non-agile companies (Glenn, 2009).

The two most salient factors influencing organizational agility, according to a comprehensive review of research done in the field (Bottani, 2010) are:

1.    Employees role and competency in the company

2.    Technology: Virtual enterprise tools and metrics and the adoption of information technology systems

What does this mean for your learning and development strategies?

Confidence and Competence Development.  Every organization must have an explicit strategy to help individuals, workgroups and entire divisions develop the capacity to effectively improvise in response to the unexpected and unplanned, as well as to spot and respond to emerging opportunities and trends. This involves more than improving communication and resource sharing, though these are also key. It means providing significant experiential learning opportunities for individuals and groups across sectors to develop their competence and confidence in thinking on their feet, acting in the moment and effectively drawing on all available resources—human, material, technological and intuitive.

Technology Infrastructure. Agility also demands that all organizational participants have the tools and resources to quickly access the organization’s knowledge network and relationships. A simple knowledge management system is no longer sufficient for agility; individuals need to be able to quickly access the people and capacity of the organization, not simply search decontextualized bits of data.

Research also shows that people need more than just awareness and access to their knowledge networks; they need relational connections and context to effectively use the network (Cross and Parker, 2004). Learning and development approaches that combine the development of social capital, along with awareness of and access to the wisdom and experience of the network are thriving. Creating a technology infrastructure that provides the stability and flexibility for responding to emerging opportunities, along with enhanced confidence and competence in improvisation is an unbeatable strategy for creating the agile organization.

What strategies are you using to enhance agility in your organization?

Bottani, E. (2010). Profile and enablers of agile companies: An empirical investigation. International Journal of Production Economics, 125, 251-261.

Cross, R., & Parker, A. (2004). The hidden power of social networks: Understanding how work really gets done in organizations. Cambridge: Harvard Business School.

Glenn, M. (2009). Organisational agility: How business can survive and thrive in turbulent times: Economist Intelligence Unit.

Creating the Agile Organization: Learning to Play Within the Givens

Sitting in the audience during any long-form improvised theatrical performance the importance of memory becomes readily apparent. One of the best-known long-form improvisations, “The Harold,” was developed by Del Close (Halpern, Close, & Johnson, 1994) and is performed several nights a week at Chicago’s IO (formerly Improv Olympic). Based on a single suggestion from the audience the players begin to “jam” together as they explore the interesting dimensions and associations with the suggestion. This jam session may start with a motion, sound, phrase, exclamation or any number of responses. As the players accept and explore these discoveries soon the first scene and characters emerge, and the players not directly involved on-stage retreat to the sidelines as intent participant-observers to the unfolding action.

 

Collectively, the players must hold both the original “given” (the audience suggestion) and all of the discoveries that emerge from that given. Their challenge is to use this organizational memory to fuel their discoveries, improvised characters and action over the next forty-five or so minutes. If their relationship to this memory is overly procedural (tied to successful bits and characters from past performances), they will not be able to continue to unfold the action and mine the givens for increasingly surprising discoveries, but fall into recursive routines enacting the original assumptions and one-dimensional dynamics.
Organizations are similarly challenged as others (Moorman & Miner, 1998a; Vera & Crossan, 2004) have described, impeded in their ability to improvise when they are overly tied to routines and procedures. However, memory of past routines and approaches can be useful raw material for a novel response to the unexpected (Moorman & Miner, 1998b).
Memory of the “givens” in improvisation, the original inspiration, the organizational vision, the boundaries of available resources, and ready access to various dimensions of knowledge (representational, reflective, and relational), as well as past organizational routines and effective responses are all dependent on a present moment lived experience that includes a relationship to the past and (in the case of vision and goals) the imagined future. This capacity is highly valued on the improv stage. Recently I brought a group of students to a performance at Chicago’s IO. During the post-show discussion a student asked the improvisers, “What quality or competence do you think makes someone a great improviser?” One of the seasoned players responded, “A high point of reference. By that I mean, someone who is well read, is up on current events and popular culture and can draw on any of it at just the right moment. That makes for a very rich improvisation.”
For improvisers both in the theater an organizational settings memory itself does not impede successful improvisation, but the individual’s  relationship to memory and the context (and culture) within which the improvisation is occurring. In other words, memory of the “way we’ve always done things” can be either a limiting routine, or (with “Yes, and…”) a springboard to a novel response.
Balancing Creativity and Constraint
When you think about the givens that you must play within in your organization or work, what systems, process and strategies do you use to help you maintain a lively relationship to them?
Halpern, C., Close, D., & Johnson, K. H. (1994). Truth in comedy: The manual of improvisation. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether.
Moorman, C., & Miner, A. S. (1998a). Organizational improvisation and organizational memory. Academy of Management Review, 23(4), 698-723.
Moorman, C., & Miner, A. S. (1998b). The convergence of planning and execution: Improvisation in new product development. Journal of Marketing, 62(3), 1—20.
Vera, D. M., & Crossan, M. (2004). Theatrical Improvisation: Lessons for organizations. Organizational Studies, 25(5), 727-749.