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 Two outdated approaches are impeding organizations’ ability to create a more agile workforce, and in turn—your ability to help yourself and your team be more agile: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.

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 

Three Lessons from (and for) Agile Teams

Three Lessons from (and for) Agile Teams

or

“If you want to understand organizations, study something else,” Karl Weick

SWAT Team_dreamstime_xs_18800265

 

An agile team is one that can learn, adapt and innovate in the midst of change, using available resources.

There is compelling research to support the business case for making agility a strategic organizational priority. A study of 649 firms by MIT’s Sloan Center for Systems Research found that agile firms grow revenue 37% faster and generated up to 30% more earnings per share (Business agility and IT portfolios, 2006). The reasons for increasing agility are clear, but most leaders are less clear on how to enhance agility in their own organizations.
Lessons learned from successful agile teams in high stress, high risk circumstances, such as SWAT teams, film crews (Bechky & Okhuysen, 2011) and fire fighters (Weick, 1993) show us that agile groups and organizations have both the required competence and capacity for:

 

Continuous Learning

The ability to quickly become aware of, assess (and often re-assess) new information in real time and regroup (including the capacity to drop prior plans, agendas and preconceptions as they become obsolete) and respond to the situation at hand is essential to agile teams.

Fluid Communication

Agile organizationFilm Crew_dreamstime_xs_25247256s have open channels of communication across job functions and levels of authority. Critical new information can emerge at any level of the system at any time and those who receive or perceive the data must be have the confidence and competence to share it with the appropriate stakeholder.

Context

I have written extensively about the value of playspace (2010) in creating space for innovating, learning and changing. Playspace is the serious business of creating the context where people are free to play with new ideas, play new roles, create more play in the system and engage in improvised play to be effective in any situation. This is not the funny hats and games type of playspace; it is about creating a context where people do not feel constrained to respond in the moment to an urgent customer or business need because it is not in their job description.

Agile organizations require leaders who understand that agility is a key competitive advantage and who align their learning, development and business practices to develop and sustain. Lessons from high-risk teams can inspire us to action. Sometimes it is helpful to raise the stakes by conducting a thought experiment and ask ourselves, “What if our lives depended on our organization’s ability to be agile?” When we raise the stakes, we often discover capacities we didn’t know we had.

 

Bechky, B. A., & Okhuysen, G. (2011). Expecting the unexpected? How SWAT officers and film crews handle surprises. Academy of Management Journal, 54(2), 239-261.

Business agility and IT portfolios. (2006). Cambridge, MA: MIT Sloan School of Management, Sloan Center for Systems Research.

Meyer, P. (2010). From workplace to playspace: Innovating, learning and changing through dynamic engagement. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Weick, K. E. (1993). The collapse of sensemaking: The Mann Gulch disaster. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38(4), 628-652.

 

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