Become An Agile Leader: Do What Scares You

Do what scares you

After a busy fall helping leaders become more agile in organizations here and abroad, I am waxing my skis and getting ready to head to ski racing camp in Colorado later this week.

This will be my fifth year in a row. I blocked the dates and sent in my deposit as soon as camp was announced—not because it is comfortable or even fun, at times it is, but the real reason I started going and continue go is that it scares me.

Followers of my sporadic blog posts know that I returned to ski racing, a somewhat delusional passion from my Iowa youth (I seriously thought I could be a contender!), after a birthday that ended in “0”. I skied every chance I could as a teenager—park district bus trip to Wisconsin (I’m on it!), University of Iowa ski trip to Colorado that they foolishly opened up to area high school kids (I’m in!), weekend trips with my parents to Midwest resorts and the occasional Colorado ski vacation (I planned the rest of my life around them!).

The Racing Bug

Somewhere along the way, I got bit by the racing bug and also starting racing in as many USSA Central division races as I could get to, which included road trips to Minneapolis to race at Buck Hill, long before Lindsay Vonn, who got her start there, was born!

Coming back to skiing and ski racing when most of my friends have long since hung up their long underwear has taken a lot more commitment. When I was younger, it was easy to round up a group of adventurers willing to give it a go—many clad in their Iowa overalls.

Become an agile leader

The Author, Pamela Meyer

These days, it is much harder for me to find friends who want to head down the hill on two waxed planks, let alone into the cold. It was this challenge that led me to explore more organized ski activities, including racing clubs and camps.

With a great recommendation from a friend and former ski instructor, I found my way to Dave Gregory’s Peak Performance Ski Camp that he holds each November at Copper Mountain and summers at Mount Hood, Oregon.

Now, as I pack up for my fifth trip, I have a little better idea of what to expect, and yet, the apprehension has not completely lifted. Did I train well enough? You can never be too fit for racing. Will I crash? No question. Will I get hurt? It’s happened and is always a possibility. I still go because it still stretches me. It still scares me—not in a “why again am I jumping out of this airplane?” way—but in a way that pushes me out of my comfort zone, physically, socially, mentally.

Accepting the Challenge

Some years it takes, even more, commitment and intentionality. Two years ago, I had major surgery over the summer and had to make a concerted effort to recover, rebuild my strength and confidence. Last year, I fractured my shoulder on a training run. These experiences don’t deter me or my fellow masters racers. They do give me even greater respect for athletes such as Lindsay Vonn who had countless setbacks in their careers and yet came back, again and again. They make the effort and put in the work to return to peak performance, even when they have every invitation to use the latest injury to make a graceful exit from the competition (which Vonn, of course, did this past season).

My experience in life and especially these last few years, helping leaders, teams and organizations become more agile is that doing what scares you is where the learning is.

New learning, and especially the confidence to apply that learning under pressure, doesn’t happen by staying in our comfort zone. It doesn’t happen if are afraid of looking silly, incompetent and like we don’t know what we are doing. As uncomfortable as these experiences are, they are the hallmarks that learning (or at least the potential for learning) is happening. Agile leaders not only seek out new experiences that stretch their current skills and abilities, but they also model their learning and share the process of becoming more confident with others. This, admittedly, takes some courage and a certain amount of psychological safety. In fact, it took me some time to muster this courage the first year I registered for racing camp.

Becoming Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

agile leadership

The biggest lesson I have learned as I pack up for camp #5 is that being a little (and sometimes a lot) out of my comfort zone is where the growth and where new confidence is built. One of our race coaches says, “If you never crash, you aren’t trying something new. You aren’t learning!”

I realized I can’t very well travel the world talking about The Agility Shift and helping leaders be more effective in the midst of the unknown if I am not challenging myself to do the same. And leaders at all levels of the organization cannot very well ask others to take risks and continue stretching, growing and adapting to changes if they are not willing to do so themselves.

So, as we move into the holiday season, which is often associated with cocooning, being cozy with friends and family (which is a wonderful way to recharge our spirits), I invite you to also look for the opportunities that lie ahead that scare you. It doesn’t have to be ski racing or even a physical challenge. Maybe it is just accepting an unexpected invitation before you start over-thinking it, go ahead and say, “yes!” sign up, and jump in. Maybe I’ll see you there!

What are you doing/might you do that scares you?

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NOTE: This post is a revision of a 2017 post, updated with gratitude to be healthy and able to get out there for another season.

 

Developing Agile Employees Who Can Thrive in the Age of VUCA

Developing Agile Employees in the Age of VUCAWritten by Pamela Meyer, PhD

By now VUCA is common language for the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity of business. The term originated at the US Army War College to describe the changing conditions on the battlefield, and its wider usage now serves as a call to action for all those who wish to be more agile and effective in an increasingly complex global world.

How should we prepare the workforce?

It would be a mistake to lump all aspects of VUCA together, as volatility calls for a different response than ambiguity. Yet, when it comes to developing employees who perform effectively in the midst of the unplanned and unexpected, there is a universal need to shift the way we prepare the workforce.

Most employee development strategies assume a stable future and that the skills and knowledge learned today can be readily applied to tomorrow’s conditions. VUCA challenges those assumptions and urgently calls for new approaches and strategies to develop employees at all levels of the organization who can learn and adapt in changing contexts—in other words, employees who are not only agile but are learning agile. Recent research on learning agility, as well as lessons from those preparing for such diverse roles as those on SWAT teams; and improv troupes, can guide us in developing a more agile workforce.

Rather than develop competence and confidence to execute a set plan or follow a script, agile individuals train to be effective in the midst of the unexpected and unplanned developments and are prepared to adjust in rapidly changing conditions. For most businesses and their employees, this represents a significant shift, one I have come to call the Agility Shift. It begins with a shift in mindset and follows through to a shift in how employees make decisions and the actions they take.

 

The Agility Shift

For film crews, SWAT, and improv teams very little of their ability to think on their feet comes from classroom training or their formal Agile Employeescredentials. They develop their agility competence and confidence in hands-on and often high-stakes situations. Similarly, helping employees develop their agility competence and confidence requires a shift away from traditional approaches that rely primarily on pre-planned curricula, delivered via a range of onsite or online channels toward more informal learning strategies, where 70-90% of workplace learning takes place (Kim, Hagedorn, and Collins et al., 2001).

Below I highlight six of the most impactful shifts you and your learning and talent development team can make below:

1. Shift From Planning to Preparing

Most business schools and training programs are effective in helping people analyze data, develop and execute a plan. They are less successful in helping them quickly turn unexpected challenges into opportunities, or improvise with available resources. VUCA conditions require a shift away from an over-reliance on the plan, to one that focuses on preparing employees to think on their feet and be confident in their ability to respond to the unexpected.

Improvisers don’t rehearse, because of course, there is nothing to re-hear, but they do regularly get together to workout by playing games and improvising new scenes. SWAT teams similarly prepare for hundreds of scenarios, which not only expands their repertoire of responses but also their individual and team confidence when they encounter the completely unexpected.

2. Shift From Information to Interactions

In my work with organizations, I discovered that the agility shift also requires employees who can quickly tap their web of relationships and resources, or their “Relational Web,” to respond to new challenges and opportunities. Information is, of course, still valuable; its value, however, is realized through the interactions between and among employees as they make sense of what is happening, and then decide, and take action based on their sense-making. Researchers Beckey and Okhuysen’s study of film crews shows the value of the Relational Web, which includes awareness of available resources, a social-professional network, as well as past experience. On a film shoot, time is money. With hundreds of variables on any given day, from the weather to equipment failure to illness, everyone on the crew must be prepared to adapt, switch roles, and make optimal use of available resources. The time to discover and build this Relational Web is not in the midst of a crisis but through their day-to-day interactions.

3. Shift From Command and Control to Communication, Coordination, and Collaboration

This third component of the agility shift has significant implications for employee development, and even organizational structure. Agile teams and organizations do not miss opportunities or slow their response time because they are waiting for approval, or waiting for someone with the correct job description to become available. Like their improvising counterparts in the theater, they communicate, coordinate and collaborate in the present moment. This means shifting the focus of employee development from narrowly defined skills and knowledge to creating what IT consultant Scott Ambler calls “generalizing specialists” (2014) who can communicate, collaborate, and coordinate whenever and with whomever to respond to unpredictable challenges and opportunities as they arise.

4. Share Responsibility for Learning and Agile Employee Development

In addition to the mindset and strategy shift described above, the agility shift also requires that the responsibility for learning and Agile Employeesemployee development be shared across organizational roles, especially by the employees themselves. This means helping employees become more learning agile. Just as healthy people don’t abdicate responsibility for their wellness because they have access to doctors, we don’t want our employees to give up responsibility for their learning and growth because the company offers training resources.

Learning agile employees take responsibility for their own learning. They are not only effective at thinking on their feet, but they are also able to quickly tap their prior experience to be successful in new and unfamiliar situations. This ability first gained the attention of Morgan McCall, Michael Lombardo, and Ann Morrison in the late 80s when they studied the significant learning experiences of more than 190 executives. They found that the key to success within a complex organization was the ability to manage something new without having to master it first (McCall, Morgan, and Lombardo, 1988). Learning agility is now widely cited as a critical success factor for long-term leadership success (De Meuse, Dai, and Hallenbeck, 2010).

5. Shift From Formal to Informal Development Strategies

Coach employees to seek out stretch opportunities. Studies of successful executives highlight the value of taking on new roles that stretch employees outside of their comfort zone. These can include expanded responsibilities, a broader scope of current responsibilities (e.g., from managing a team to a full department, or a distributed global team) and/or working in a new culture.

6. Shift From Planning and Analysis to Rapid Prototyping

You don’t need to be a software developer to experiment with some of the concepts of agile methodology. Many organizations, such as Ericsson, are using lessons from agile methodologies throughout their organization to shorten product development time and increase profits.

Rather than develop a detailed plan up front, agile developers collaborate with their customers (who may be internal) to agree on the objectives and prioritize product features. They then move into action in short work cycles to get working versions of the product (idea, project) into the hands of the customer or end-user as soon as possible to test, setting in motion an action-feedback cycle that greatly reduces the implementation time.

Shifting your employee development strategies must include a shift in how and what you recognize and reward. The best success indicator for the agile employee is not only whether or not they meet their sales goals or implemented the strategic plan effectively, but it is also how effective they are when things didn’t go as planned, or when they are thrown into a new situation with little or no preparation. By including indicators of agile performance in your evaluation and recognition programs, you will reinforce the mindset and behavior shift needed for success in a VUCA world.

The ideas in this article are adapted from my latest book The Agility Shift: Creating Agile Leaders, Teams and Organizations.

 

Ambler, Scott W. (2014). Generalizing specialists: Improving your IT career skills. Agile Modeling. Retrieved November 19, 2014, 2014, from http://agilemodeling.com/essays/generalizingSpecialists.htm

Bennett, Nathan, & Lemoine, G. James. (2014). What VUCA really means for you. Harvard Business Review, 92(1/2), 27.

De Meuse, Kenneth P., Dai, Guangrong, & Hallenbeck, George S. (2010). Learning agility: A construct whose time has come. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 119-130. doi: 10.1037/a0019988

Kim, K., Hagedorn, Collins, Williamson, J., & Chapman, C. (2004). Participation in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning: 2000–01. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

McCall, Morgan W., Lombardo, Michael M., & Morrison, Ann M. (1988). Lessons of experience: How successful executives develop on the job. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Mitchinson, Adam, & Morris, Robert (2012). Learning about learning agility. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership, Teachers College Columbia University.

Tap the Agile Power of Your Relational Web

Tap the Agile Power of Your Relational Web

By Pamela Meyer, PhD with contributions from Nick Freiling, Director of PeopleFish

Over the past two years, we have collected and analyzed almost 1,000 Agility Shift Inventories (ASI) from people working in organizations large and small, across industries and nations. Each individual who takes the ASI receives a snapshot of their current agility capacity and opportunities, based on their answers. They also receive our complimentary Agility Shift Catalyst and Conversation Guide, that provides a series of reflective questions and action steps to help them begin to make their own individual agility shift.

While individuals are using their results to expand their own agility competence, capacity and confidence, we have been aggregating and analyzing the anonymized results looking for additional trends and actionable insights to help our clients reach their business goals.

Our Surprising/Not so Surprising Finding

One of the first things that caught our attention was how significant a role an individual’s Relational Web plays as a predictor of their overall agility. If you are new to the six dynamics of The Agility Shift, the Relational Web is your web of skills, knowledge, talent, and resources that you need to be able to tap at a moment’s notice when things don’t go as planned or when a new opportunity emerges.

Understanding the Dynamics of Your Relational Web

The Relational Web is woven into each of the other five dynamics of agility and is at the center of the Agility Shift model, for a reason. All of my prior research and experience helping organizations become more agile and innovative showed a link between the size and diversity of the Relational Web to individuals, teams and the entire organization’s ability to be agile.

We were surprised and excited by additional correlations we found between an individual’s Relational Web and other agility-enhancing behaviors. For example, those who report intentionally making and building connections that expand their Relational Web are also significantly more likely to practice other key behaviors linked to overall agility. These include evaluating the diversity of relationships to ensure access to multiple perspectives, effectively making sense and meaning of what is happening when things don’t go as planned, and intentionally becoming aware of new resources in the environment.

The graphic below highlights some of the most interesting and actionable correlations.

These findings align with other recent research, such as the Google study of 180 of their teams, in which they found that the most successful teams had leaders with the largest and most diverse social networks (one aspect of the Relational Web). These leaders were also intentional about making and building their connections by doing things like regularly rotating who they ate lunch with.

We have long known of the importance of networking for career success. Our latest findings highlight the value of consistently and intentionally weaving a dynamic Relational Web for sustained agility.

So What? Turning Insight into Action

Whether you are a sole practitioner, individual contributor, or a leader with hundreds of reports there are things you can do to turn these latest insights into positive action:

Expand your awareness and access to available resources. Attend (or organize) meet and greets for new colleagues. Learn about emerging technologies or other relevant developments in your environment.

Build meaningful connections with other people. This goes beyond sending and accepting LinkedIn invites. It means understanding the value of building connections that are founded on more than their transactional or operational value.

Participate in informal networks and affinity groups. Whether in a focused Community of Practice or simply a community, you can connect and build relationships and share resources with others who share your passion for continuous growth and learning.

Review your on-boarding experience with the RW in mind—does it help people discover who does what, become familiar with available resources, build relationships?

Seek and provide opportunities to expand your/your employees Relational Web and organize/participate in:

  • Volunteer projects
  • Job shadowing/mentoring programs
  • Recreational activities
  • Off-sites
  • Industry, vendor or practice-area conferences
  • Lunch & Learns

In coming weeks, I will share more actionable insights from our research. In the meantime, I invite you to inventory your own agility capacity by setting aside a few minutes to take the complimentary Agility Shift Inventory.

We have also developed a Team version of the ASI designed to give your entire team or department actionable insights for building on their strengths to improve agility and overall business results. Our clients find this resource particularly valuable to jumpstart agility, or to help their team lay the foundation for success whether they are adopting agile project management methodology, or simply wanting to improve overall success. Click here to learn more about the Team ASI, or contact us here.

How Fit is Your Business? Part 4: Speed & Mobility

How Fit is Your Business? Part 4: Speed & Mobility

Many day-to-day business responsibilities and operations are routine. In order to be prepared for the unexpected, we must constantly scan the environment for new opportunities and challenges.  Responsiveness, Competitiveness and, Innovation are key components of an organizations Speed and Mobility.

How Fit is Your Business?Are you and your workforce able to move quickly with the needs of the market?

 

Flexibility is not one in the same with speed and mobility as discussed earlier, physical flexibility enables broader access to your strengths. Therefore, you need to be flexible in order to move. You also have to be ready which is where speed and mobility enter.

Readiness is the Capacity for Speed and Mobility

Military troops are ready when they can be quickly mobilized to respond to an emergent need. Similarly, your workforce is ready when it can rapidly mobilize to respond to a new opportunity, a shift in the market, or even a crisis.

In The Agility Shift, I describe the events that revealed a significant gap between competitors Nokia and Ericsson’s ability to mobilize. A fire in an Albuquerque, NM semiconductor plant caused a supply chain disruption for a crucial component on which both cell phone manufacturers depended. Nokia was ready to quickly mobilize in response to the crisis, while Ericsson was not, leading to significant losses and a drop in their market share. Sometimes it takes a crisis to prioritize agility. In recent years, Ericsson has done this across its enterprise with impressive results. The good news is that you and your business can benefit from the lessons learned by others and develop your readiness by attending to these critical areas:

  • Communication, Collaboration and Coordination
  • Surface Exposure
  • Decision Speed
  • Time to Market

Four Ways to Improve Your Speed and Mobility

Improve Communication, Collaboration and Coordination. Speed and mobility require competence, as well as systems and processes for what I have identified as the three Cs of agility: 

communication, collaboration and coordination.

Often cited for its agility, fashion retailer Zara is able to respond to changing trends and customer tastes at a regional and even store level. With an integrated supply chain and innovative systems and processes to monitor sales and feedback, Zara is able to get new fashions from

 concept to retail racks in a matter of weeks. Are you making optimal use of your existing systems and processes to maximize the three Cs?  

Increase Your Surface Exposure.  One of your first priorities to improve speed and mobility is to increase what researchers Christopher Worley and Edward Lawler call “surface exposure.” (2010). Surface exposure is the degree to which members of your organization are exposed to feedback and new developments in the marketplace. Zara has developed sophisticated channels and practices for just this purpose. Another of my clients uses Slack to monitor social media and other feedback channels in real time and immediately discuss them across product development, marketing, and customer service. In these examples it is not enough to monitor the information; your team must have the commitment and capability to digest and rapidly respond. How can you increase your surface exposure and responsiveness to the feedback it provides?

Improve Decision Speed.  Agile systems and processes have little value if the ideas and input they channel get lost in a maze of confusion and enervation. Numerous studies have linked fast decision speed with organizational performance and growth. Agile organizations empower their employees to make decisions on the spot, especially when they directly affect business results. Don’t let your fear of losing control deter you from improving decision speed. Rather, use it as motivation to clarify decision rights throughout your team or organization. This recent HBR article on decision making provides an excellent guide. Are your employees empowered to quickly make decisions that can impact business results?

Improve Time to Market.  You will have a hard time sustaining your results if your competitors beat you to the market with new products and services. A study by Salesforce.com found that developers using agile methodologies improved their time to market by 61%. Rather than adopt all of the elements of agile methodologies, especially if you are not in the software business,  you can significantly improve your timing by shifting your mindset and business practices with many lessons learned from agile pioneers. I distill and translate many of these lessons for wider application in The Agility Shift.

What business practices, systems, and processes do you have in place to increase your speed and mobility in response to shifts in your market?

How Fit is Your Business? Part 2 Flexibility

How Fit is Your Business? Part 2: Flexibility

In Part 1 of this series, we’ve already learned that keeping your business “Fit” will keep your moves agile. Agility, along with adaptability and resourcefulness, are the keys to maintaining our next business performance indicator: Flexibility.

Have you developed the competence and capacity to adapt when things don’t go as planned?

Remember, strength and flexibility are interconnected.  The more flexible you are physically the more access you have to the strength in the entire length of your muscles. However, too much flexibility without strength can lead to instability. 

In the gym, if we only concentrate on strength, our muscle fibers shorten and limit our flexibility and range of motion (you’ve heard of the term ‘muscle-bound’), which can lead to injury.

In business, flexibility means being able to use your core strengths to adapt to and respond effectively to both challenges and opportunities.

This is the essence of what I have come to call The Agility Shift. Without the capacity for agility, no business can sustain its relevance or results.

Practice Flexibility

Just as our bodies need intentional practices to maintain flexibility, so do our organizations. Without intention, the muscles in our bodies and our organizations will atrophy.

We can all name brands, businesses, even entire industries that allowed their success to lull them into believing that they did not need to continue to adapt and innovate. Most athletes know they are only as good as their most recent competition. This knowledge motivates them to jump right back into the gym soon after a successful competition.  

Continuous training means you are always pushing performance to the next level, no matter whether you are working out or planning the future of your organization .

How Can You and Your Organization Become More Flexible in 2018?

I highlight several ways highly flexible and innovative organizations stay that way in my books From Workspace to Playspace and The Agility Shift. It starts with a mindset shift and extends to shifts in the ways you work and do business, as well as how you implement and use highly adaptable systems and processes.

One of the best ways to improve collaboration and flexibility only takes a few minutes.  Try it the next time you meet with your team. Kick off your meeting with a quick improv or agility exercise, here is one of my favorites.

Where and how do you and your team “work out” to maintain your strength and flexibility to meet the next opportunity?

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.

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