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 

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.

The Positive Principle: Building Your Capacity for Improvisation and Appreciative Inquiry

The Positive Principle(D. L. Cooperrider, Sorensen, Whitney, & Yaeger, 2000: 20) is a central and guiding principle of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), as well as its theoretical foundation [NOTE: For fuller introduction, download Organizational Improvisation & Appreciative Inquiry:] Not based in deficit thinking, rabid searches for “problems” or organizational challenges, AI looks for “that which gives life to the organization.” For legions of executives and MBA graduates this is indeed a radical, even heretical concept. Many business people build their credibility and careers on their ability to identify and solve problems. Even I, as I was starting my consulting practice, was counseled to identify “the problem to which I was the answer.”

My experience bears out this ingrained “problem focus.” Working with clients and students using the AI process, I have noticed how often they are tempted to shift into “problem-solving” mode, or to ask deficit-focused questions once the appreciative inquiry is underway. Here, additional competence in the practice of principles of improvisation can help AI participants leverage the positive, forward movement of the inquiry toward its positive potential.

AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential (Cooperrider, Sorensen et al. 2000: 5).

Improvisation, like AI, is founded on a positive principle—the principle of Say, “Yes, and . . .” (Meyer, 2000: 63). Improvisers must accept (or say, “yes”) to anything they discover on stage, receive from another player or the audience. They cannot stop at acceptance, however, they must move the action forward by adding their own discoveries (saying, “and . . .”). This positive orientation is the foundation for improvisation success, as it is for all creative collaborations in business and life.

The conceptual framework of AI is most often translated into practice as the 4-D process (D. Cooperrider & Whitney, 2000; Hammond, 1998; Watkins & Mohr, 2001). AI, not only supports positive organizational change, but helps individuals build some of the skills necessary for successful improvisation in the workplace. The practice of AI also contributes to organizational memory via storytelling and while giving individuals opportunities to cultivate their improvisation competencies and foster a culture where improvisation is more likely to be successful. Additionally, the inquiry process is grounded in the lived experiences of organizational participants. To discover the positive core of these experiences, AI participants must listen closely and without judgment—essential competencies for improvisation.

At the center of the “4-D Process” of AI is inquiry into personal positive experiences related to the topic. Concert pianist and consultant, Michael Jones writes Creativity involves living in the question—Improvising involves a living inquiry into what is. When our conditioned knowledge and theories no longer serve us, we need to inquire more deeply into things as they are. This creates a space for more subtle insights to emerge (1997: 60).

An inquiry of quality and depth, grounded in individual experience also promotes organizational learning as framed by Crossan, Lane and White (1996) as including intuition, as well as interpreting, integrating and institutionalizing new discoveries. Individual learning, within this framework, includes changes in cognition and/or behavior. Integrated learning represents a change in both cognition and behavior. An inquiry that invites participants to share their experiences and make (sometimes new) meaning of them, then, may enhance this integration process while building individual experience, comfort and capacity to “live in the question” and improvise.

Cooperrider, D., & Whitney, D. (2000). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative inquiry. In D. L. S. Cooperrider, Jr., Peter F.; Whitney, Diana; Yaeger, Therese (Ed.), Appreciative inquiry (pp. 3-27). Champaigne, IL: Stipes. Cooperrider, D. L., Sorensen, J., Peter F., Whitney, D., & Yaeger, T. (Eds.). (2000). Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking human organization toward a positive theory of change. Champaign, IL: Stipes. Crossan, M., Lane, H. W., & White, R. E. (1996). Organizational learning: Toward a unifying framework.Unpublished manuscript, London, Ontario. Hammond, S. A. (1998). The thin book of appreciative inquiry (2nd ed.). Plano, TX: Thin Book Publishing. Jones, M. (1997). Getting creativity back into corporate decision making. Journal for Quality & Participation, 20(1), 58-62. Meyer, P. (2000). Quantum Creativity: Nine principles to transform the way you work. Chicago: Contemporary Books. Watkins, J. M., & Mohr, B. J. (2001). Appreciative inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Five Ways to Make Space for People to Play with New Ideas and Perspectives

As often as I balk at prescriptive approaches to creating playspace, I am asked for examples of how others are doing it in their organizations. Below is a short list of innovative approaches from a wide range of organizations. Some are from “From Workplace to Playspace,” others I have heard from workshop participants and readers around the country. I hope that you will be inspired and “get permission” from them to experiment with approaches that fit for your organization.

1) Warm-up Your Day. Umpqua Bank, a thriving regional community bank, featured in the book, begins every day across its more than 175 locations with something CEO, Ray Davis calls a “Motivational Moment.” Every single employee gathers in the lobby at each location to join in a group activity to boost their energy and enthusiasm for the day. Anyone can lead the session, and the only guidelines are that it cannot be political or religious in nature. This means that Umpqua associates start their day singing, dancing, improvising, playing games such as Marshmallow Dodge Ball and generally building the camaraderie, good will and focus that has landed them on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list the last four years in a row.

2) Warm-up Your Meeting. Research shows that people are more creative if they engage in some sort of light-hearted creative activity before they take on a new challenge (Conti, Amabile, & Pollack, 1995). Anything from 60 seconds of Be. Here. Now. time (see demonstration video) to engaging in a brainstorm about how to solve some seemingly impossible challenge (e.g. How can we eliminate world hunger? How can we become a totally paperless office? How can we use migrating birds to deliver our communications?), the more outlandish, silly and/or impossible the challenge, the better.

3) Argue a Different Point of View. Skilled debate teams regularly switch sides to become more adept at their craft. You can build your team’s critical thinking skills in a similar way. If you see a passionate debate come to a deadlock, ask the key proponents from each side to argue for another option. Ask others to list the pros and cons as they emerge. This is also an effective strategy if everyone seems to be getting cozy with one point of view. Step back and ask people to argue for the opposite view, or for a point of view that is not represented in the room (e.g. Play the role of the front-line worker, customer, student, child, non-English-speaking immigrant, senior citizen). What new possibilities emerge when you consider the other side? Are there ways to take these concerns into consideration?

4) Play. There are endless lists of games and contests that can bring more play (as in flexibility) in the system, levity, build relationships and open up more space for possibilities. Some of my favorites include Google’s “Pimp My Cubicle” Contest, and various guessing contests, such as those inviting employees to match baby pictures, hobbies, or pet photos with their owners. These have significant value in getting people to connect outside of their formal roles and responsibilities, which goes a long way in building relationships and social capital—that enhance collaboration and resource sharing.

5) Say, “Yes, and . . .” Anyone who has taken a basic improv class (or attended one of my playspace sessions) knows that “Yes, and . . .” is the secret to successful collaboration and idea generation. It is also key to making space for more possibilities. It simply means that we replace the word “but” with the word “and” and look for every opportunity to build on our colleagues’ ideas. Saying “yes” does not mean we are going to implement every idea, simply that we are willing to explore its possibilities. Most innovative solutions began as crazy impractical ideas that benefited from some generous “yes, and-ing.” Take it for a test drive and let me know how it worked for you!

This list is just a start. Please post your ideas for making more space for the play of new ideas and perspectives in the comment section below!

— Conti, R., Amabile, T. M., & Pollack, S. (1995). The positive impact of creative activity: Effects of creative task engagement and motivational focus on college students’ learning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 1107–1116.

Follow the Energy

One of the consistent themes I have seen in everything from improvised scenes on stage to creative collaboration sessions and entire organizations is that when people follow the energy of what is most compelling and engaging they are more successful. Appreciative Inquiry is based on the principle that in every human system something works, and if we tap into the energy of what is working we will likely tap into what people care about and their generative capacity to create positive futures. Just as plants grow toward the sunlight so, too, do human systems grow toward their generative core. This does not mean that we ignore obvious problems, or put on rose colored glasses that only reveal the positive. It means that we use the generative energy of what drives us to co-create new and better possibilities.

In an improvised scene generativity is fostered by the practice of saying, “Yes, and . . .” or accepting a fellow players idea (or “offer”) and building on it with something that heightens and explores what is most interesting. In creative collaboration, it plays out similarly when people come together to generate new possibilities by building on each idea, rather than finding every flow, and in organizational systems it means following the people, processes and products that are generating most interest and attention, as well as revenue. In our personal and professional lives, it also means not laboring over relationships and projects that simply are not coming to life, or life-giving. I regularly have opportunities to relearn this lesson, and each time I have discovered that when I move on from a situation that is no longer generative, it frees up additional energy and resources for even more fruitful possibilities.

For more on the relationship between improvisation and appreciate inquiry, see my article at http://www.meyercreativity.com/articles/.