Best Practices for Celebrating Agile Success and Being More Agile

Whether it is at a big project milestone, or end of the quarter or year, taking the time to acknowledge and recognize your wins and learn the lessons from experience will help you build on your successes and continue to innovate. Read on for some of my favorite Retrospective questions and best practices for success in the coming year!

1: Celebrate your wins, large and small.

Research and your own experience show how important it is to pause and acknowledge your progress. Such reflection improves employee engagement and retention, the ability and motivation to persevere, and the likelihood of long-term success.

Here are just a few of the successes our clients are celebrating this year, some of which can be overlooked if we focus exclusively on financial metrics:

  • Individual and team growth, competence, capacity and confidence development
  • Expansion and diversification of your Relational Web of skills, knowledge, talent and resources that enable you to be agile and innovate through the unexpected and unplanned

• Business results in key strategic areas:

  • Time to Market
  • Customer acquisition, satisfaction, and retention
  • The triple bottom line

2: Host a Retrospective.

In addition to celebrating your wins, consider hosting a year- or quarter-end Retrospective. As you may know, most agile methodologies include periodic retrospectives, in which the agile team reflects not just on WHAT it accomplished, but HOW it accomplished it and what lessons they learned that can guide them going forward.

Here are a few of my favorite retrospective questions to help you amplify your strengths and build on your areas of opportunity in the coming year:

  • When were you at your best?
  • How did you learn and adapt as you worked together?
  • Which of the Agility Shift dynamics did you actively demonstrate? Which do you need to develop and more consistently demonstrate? (Take the complimentary Agility Shift Inventory (ASI) to start this conversation, or contact us for a comprehensive Team ASI)
  • What lessons did you learn that could guide your success with your team?
  • Bonus Question inspired by Jeff Sutherland’s work: What one thing could you have done differently that would have made you happier?

3: Be More Agile in 2020.

Once you have celebrated and completed your reflections you will have a valuable list of successes to recognize and share across your organization. You will also have identified some exciting areas for new learning and talent development.

The next three questions can help you zero in on your areas of greatest opportunity by thinking about WHAT you want to get done, WHO would benefit most and HOW to realize those benefits:

  • Which of your key stakeholders and leaders have the necessary agility competence, capacity and confidence to execute your agile innovation initiatives and which could benefit from additional support?
  • How will your talent development strategy help your people at all levels develop their agility ability?
  • Who will champion these critical capabilities across the organization to help you achieve and sustain your commitment to agility?

You are not alone if you struggle to answer some of these questions. We regularly work with leaders and teams to help them discover the best agile learning and talent development strategies to meet their business goals.

Contact Us to Discover Your Best Approach to Agile Talent Development

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?

•••••

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.

 

Meyer Creativity Associates, Inc. is now Meyer Agile Innovation!

Meyer Agile Innovation

Welcome to Meyer Agile Innovation!

If we have been in communication recently, you may have noticed that you now receive emails from [email protected] (a bit long, we know, but there you have it) rather than [email protected] [Note: both email addresses will continue to work] and that we are now using MeyerAgileInnovation.com as the primary URL for the website.

Why the change to Meyer Agile Innovation?

Creativity and innovative learning and talent development strategies are still at the root of our work, and our specific expertise in business agility, namely helping leaders, teams and organizations build their ability to respond effectively to the unexpected and unplanned and quickly turn challenges into opportunities is more relevant than ever.

The name change is in response to two robust trends:

1) Organizations recognize that to compete they need to adapt more quickly and innovatively to change than ever before.

2) Businesses across industries are adopting and scaling agile frameworks and specific methodologies, such as Scrum to improve everything from product development cycles to marketing strategies.

These shifts inspired me to practice what I preach and adapt to the market, drawing on my years of experience and research helping others do just that. – Pamela Meyer Ph.D. President, Meyer Agile Innovation

What Does This Mean For You?

How Can You Get the Most Out of These New Agile Innovation Resources?

  •     Check out our latest business agility offerings
  •     Sign up for our monthly newsletter (In the box to the right)
  •     Contact Us to tell us about your agility leadership and team development needs
  •     Follow us on social media: 

 

 

Agile 101 (Part 1 of 3): Agile vs. Agility

Or Agile 101 for Smarties

Business agility and agile methodology have long surpassed any danger of being labeled flavor-of-the-month business trends. While various approaches pre-date it, The Agile Manifesto published in 2001 is credited with igniting the trend (beginning with, and now expanding beyond software development) toward project management approaches and business strategies designed for rapid innovation and adaptation. 

Organizations across industries and around the globe are adopting agile frameworks to increase revenue, reduce costs, and time to market while minimizing risk and maximizing value. 

Studies estimate that upwards of 75% of organizations are currently using or soon plan to adopt agile at some level (Freeform Dynamics, 2018). 

These trends don’t mean that agile is right for every project. Sometimes more traditional waterfall project management is best, especially if your project(s) is clearly defined, fairly routine and has minimal chance of new discoveries or changes along the way. Nonetheless, chances are good that you or your organization are using an agile methodology, such as Scrum or Kanban, in at least one of your teams. Perhaps you have been asked to join a Scrum team or take on some other role in an agile team.

Your company may be in the midst of an agile or digital transformation, and you hear terms like SAfe® or enterprise agility. Or, maybe you simply understand that to stay competitive in your industry, responsive to your customer needs, and a rapidly changing marketplace, you, your team, and entire organization need to be more agile.

SCRUM AGILE LEANBecause I have been working with leaders, teams, and organizations across industries that fall into each of these categories in recent years, and am frequently asked to distinguish between various agility terms and approaches, I have written this series of articles on the topic to help you distinguish between overall organizational agility dynamics and practices, and specific agile methodologies and frameworks so that you can begin to determine which might be right for you.

This series is not intended as an in-depth discussion of each approach, however, throughout each post, you will find links to additional detail that may be helpful in your exploration.

My intention is to provide leaders at all levels of the organization a broad view of the approaches that organizations across industries are using, to call out some of their critical success factors potential pitfalls that are often overlooked in the initial burst of enthusiasm.

With this big picture in view, my goal is to save you time, money and heartache and set you up for a wildly successful agility shift. 

Agility vs Agile Frameworks and Agile Methodologies

In this first post in the series, I will provide a very high-level description of some of the approaches that agile project teams are using to improve their processes and results.

I will go into much more detail on the topic of business agility in Part 3 of this series. Broadly, I view agility with an understanding that organizations are human systems of interaction. This means that we make sense of what is going on and get things done with and through other people. A humanistic understanding of business agility points not to a dictionary definition, but to a competence statement:

Agility is your ability to respond effectively to the unexpected and unplanned and quickly turn challenges into opportunities (The Agility Shift, 2015).

The individual, team and organizational capacities required to develop and sustain this competence require continuous attention and are the foundation for the successful implementation of the agile approaches I overview in this post. Rather than think of business agility and agile frameworks and methodologies as separate, they are interdependent.

What is the Difference Between Scrum, Lean, and Design Thinking?

Many agilists (people who embrace agile principles and practices or a specific agile approach) are fond of saying that “there is no agile methodology,” only agile frameworks that provide concepts and guidelines for improved project management and delivery.

In practice, most agile teams settle on and adopt a specific methodology. From here on out, I will refer to these as methodologies, recognizing that each approach is intended as a set of guiding principles and practices that can (and should) be adapted and refined to fit your needs.

Whether you are practicing Scrum (by far the most common agile methodology), Kanban, Crystal, XP or others (see brief descriptions of several methodologies here), agile methodologies share the same goal: to minimize risk and maximize value.

Agile vs. Agility SCRUM

 

Sample Scrum Overview

Agile methodologies, as practiced today, began in manufacturing, were modified in software

Agile software development

The Cycle of Agile Software Development

development, and are now used widely across domains for everything from new product development, marketing, event planning, learning and development, and R & D, to name just a few.

Regardless of the focus, agile methodologies center around rapid prototyping cycles (often called sprints) with each iteration focusing on delivering the highest value aspects of the project for inspection and adaptation.

In close collaboration with the end-user or other key stakeholders, agile teams quickly receive feedback that they use to inform planning and priorities for the next cycle.

 

When You Should Consider an Agile Methodology

Agile methodologies are ideal for complex projects where discoveries are likely to be made at each iteration, and requirements are likely to change as other new information becomes available.

Changing requirements and new learning are why IT projects are now almost exclusively developed using agile today. The exponential growth in agile is due to the realization that any complex project can benefit from an agile approach, such as marketing campaigns, change management, mergers and acquisitions, even family life

 

Critical Success Factors: There is a significant learning curve associated with adopting and implementing an agile methodology. It takes time to build what I call the Three Cs of the Agility Shift: Competence, Capacity, and Confidence. Before embarking on this learning curve, ask yourself:

  • “Do we have the commitment, resources, and patience to progress from novices to experts?”
  • “Do we have leadership buy-in and support?”
  • “Do we understand and have the willingness to make the mindset shift necessary for this new way of working to thrive?”

If the answer is yes to these questions, I highly recommend you and as many of your colleagues as possible start, as I did, by getting your ScrumMaster® Certification or share another immersive learning experience to become familiar with your agile methodology of choice.

 

Lean 

LEAN ManufactoringIn the same eco-system as agile methodologies, Lean approaches are designed to maximize customer value and minimize waste. While most strongly associated with its manufacturing roots,

Lean is also used in service delivery. As its name implies, the goal is to create the leanest, or most cost-effective value chain through experimentation and testing, to discover or refine standardized processes. Organizations from healthcare to consulting are adopting the principles and practices of lean.

 

When You Should Consider Lean

With its focus on cost and waste reduction, as well as efficiency, lean can be particularly useful LEANfor systems and processes that are relatively routine and include many moving parts. 

 

Critical Success Factors: Focusing solely on cost reduction and efficiency at the expense of continuous learning and innovation, which are processes that can be inherently messy. Meeting time and budget goals can lead to something called “technical debt,” a concept rooted in software development that applies more broadly.

It is a “debt” that is incurred when a team chooses an expedient but flawed solution that has to be paid, usually with interest, at a later date when the overlooked problem is even bigger and more expensive to solve.

 

Design Thinking

With many of the characteristics of agile methodology, design thinking, or human-centered design (HCD), might also be worth your consideration. While agile is considered a project management approach, design thinking is geared toward problem framing and solving (or alternatively, opportunity finding and exploiting). The human experience is central in both agile and design thinking.

Agilists often start by understanding the user experience and translating those experiences into user stories which include a statement of a user experience that needs to be improved; while design thinking teams start with empathizing with the person(s) who have the problem they have identified and craft user statements as their starting point to generate innovative solutions.

The most common design thinking framework includes the stages in the graphic below, with the understanding that there is no one right way to execute each phase. Tim Frick and Emily Lonigro, CEOs of their respective Chicago-based digital media companies, Mightybytes and LimeRed, have written an excellent article that details two business examples of how they have applied design thinking and HCD in their businesses. Lest you think design thinking is exclusively for creative businesses, check out how global logistics company UPS regularly applies the approach to identify and solve customer problems, reporting: “We can’t emphasize enough the importance of rapid prototyping, testing with real customers and iterating or even pivoting based on those learnings.”

  

Design Thinking Overview

When You Should Consider Design Thinking

Design Thinking OverviewDesign thinking and HCD are especially useful when you have a complex situation with many stakeholders and need a process to clarify the problem or opportunity by engaging many perspectives. It is also excellent when innovation is your top priority.While not the originators of design thinking (here is an excellent history) IDEO has become a leader in applying and teaching the process for new product and service development as well as for humanizing, simplifying, and solving complex organizational and social issues.

Critical Success Factors: Design thinking is a highly participatory approach, and to do it well, you need to make time and space to engage multiple perspectives, experiences, and voices of those who have or are touched by the issue.

It may be tempting to leapfrog over or truncate this stage in the interest of saving time and money, but doing so will undermine the essence of the process: the humans at the center of HCD. These diverse experiences and perspectives provide valuable insight to spur innovation; they can also disrupt your assumptions about the issue.

Do not start a design thinking process if you are already attached to your preconceived ideas; DO start the process if you are willing to listen and be surprised by what you discover.

Once they have experimented with and adopted agile methodologies in one or more areas and begun realizing the benefits, many organizations begin to scale these approaches across the enterprise. In Part 2 of this series Agile 101: Enterprise Agility Strategies, I overview the most common approaches and pitfalls of enterprise agility.


 

Are You Ready to Make The Agility Shift?


Pamela Meyer, Ph.D., is the author of The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams and Organizations. As president of Meyer Agile Innovation, Inc. she is a sought-after keynote speaker and works with agile teams, as well as leaders across industries who need innovative learning and talent development strategies to make the mindset and business shift to compete in a rapidly changing marketplace.

Agile 101 (Part 2 of 3): Enterprise Agility Strategies

Understanding Which Enterprise Agility Strategy Might be Right for Your Organization

Many organizations begin their agile journey by forming agile teams in one or more functional areas, such as IT, marketing, and new product development. When they saw the results of improved time to market, lower cost, and higher employee engagement, they decide to adopt the framework across the enterprise. These enterprise agility initiatives are implemented using a variety of approaches, including Safe® or other customized agile transformation strategies, often branded internally by the organization. I won’t go into each enterprise approach in detail but want to help you distinguish between those that are sometimes used (mistakenly) interchangeably.

To help you begin to explore which approach may be right for your organization, in this second post of my Agile 101 series, I share very brief overviews to distinguish each along with links to fuller descriptions and examples to help you consider if an enterprise agility strategy is right for you.

Agile Transformation

Working model of business: AgileWhile more common in smaller organizations, large enterprises now recognize their urgent need to be more nimble to stay competitive in a rapidly changing marketplace. An increasingly favored strategy is to scale agile methodologies, such as Scrum, across the organization. Businesses, as varied as Ericsson, CapitalOne, and most notably, Amazon, have adopted this approach to improve the speed and quality of the products and services they bring to market. Here are brief descriptions of the most favored approaches.

SAFe® (Scaled Agile Framework) is the most common and fully developed approach to agile transformation, currently being used to some degree or another by 70% of Fortune 100 companies (according to the SAFe® website). With its roots in software development, the goal of the SAFe® approach is to create a Lean enterprise

Digital Transformation: describes the process whereby an organization moves all of its business operations, including people, processes, systems, and customer interactions to technology-based interfaces. For many, but not all, this includes a cloud-based strategy. Disrupters in every sector (think Amazon, Uber/Lyft, even companies like Quicken Loans) are forcing their competitors to adopt digital strategies, as well, if they want to stay competitive.

For a more complete overview and examples of digital transformation, I recommend Clint Boulton’s recent piece for CIO. Digital transformations, while not the same as agile, can certainly benefit from their ability to execute complex projects rapidly, as many organizations are finding. After all, you cannot improve agility using mindsets and approaches designed for another era.

DevOps: In its essence, DevOps is the convergence of Development and Operations and has roots in agile methodologies. The DevOps movement was sparked by software developers’ frustrations. While they were adopting agile methodologies in their teams, they encountered obstacles in actually releasing code and collaborating across organizational silos.

DevOps emerged as a strategy to integrate system-wide structures and processes to ensure that the communication, collaboration, and coordination of agile carried throughout the organization. In this sense, DevOps is a specific type of agile transformation. Atlassian, a leader in large-scale DevOps strategies and systems, has a more in-depth overview on their site. 

When You Should Consider an Enterprise Agility Approach

All approaches to enterprise agility can only thrive with engaged support from leaders throughout the organization who have themselves made the mindset shift necessary for a radical new way of working to take root. These leaders must also recognize the need to foster and sustain an organizational culture that values whole systems thinking, broad transparency, and understands their organization as a human system of interactions, not merely a series of operational transactions. 

Critical Success Factors: Scaling agile transformation requires communication, collaboration, and coordination of stakeholders and contributors across the enterprise, as well as the integration and, often, disruption of well-established systems and processes.

You should only consider a scaled agile approach if you have broad leadership commitment and resources to follow through. This commitment includes embracing the urgent business case for a radical change, along with the acceptance that leaders at all levels of the organization will be asked to make a significant mindset shift that will take them out of their comfort zones.

This shift may impact your leaders’ familiar ways of thinking and working, as well as their roles and even their hard-earned status. To support this formidable transition, organizations such as Ericsson established Centers of Excellence as central hubs to coordinate the transformation, as well as to provide training, coaching, and support across the organization early in their transformation.

At Meyer Agile Innovation, Inc. we are working with clients who, rather than rely on a central hub, are developing Agility Champions throughout the organization to serve as resources, coaches and guides on the side to support individual and team success through their agile transformation.

If your business is operating in a rapidly changing VUCA environment and has the understanding, commitment, resources, and willingness to persevere through a complex process, agile transformation could well be worth your investment.

In my next and final post of this series Agile 101: Developing Agile Leaders, I make a case for and provide an overview of the mindset and cultural shift, as well as the six dynamics of the Agility Shift that are crucial to realizing the results of any agile transformation.


How agile is your Talent Development Strategy?


Pamela Meyer, Ph.D., is the author of The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams and Organizations. As president of Meyer Agile Innovation, she is a sought-after keynote speaker and works with leaders and teams across industries who need innovative learning and talent development strategies to make the mindset and business shift to compete in a rapidly changing marketplace.

 

Agile 101 (Part 3 of 3): Developing and Sustaining Agile Leaders

Agile 101 (Part 3 of 3): Developing and Sustaining Agile Leaders

Developing and Sustaining Agile Leaders, Teams, and Organizations

In Part One [insert link] I shared the inspiration for this three-part series. In a nutshell, this series is for anyone whose organization has made agility a top strategic priority. This includes, but is not limited to, companies that are adopting agile methodologies at the team level, are starting to scale agile across the enterprise (see Part Two of this series), or have more broadly understood that business agility is critical to staying competitive in a rapidly changing world. This final post is for you if your organization fits any of these categories, and you want to assure that your investment in business agility delivers the results you seek.

“Where Should We Start?”

The question above is the first one leaders ask after committing to being more agile. Of course, before we can answer that question, we must agree on what are we talking about when we talk about agility?

Broadly, I describe agility as your ability to respond effectively to the unexpected and unplanned and quickly turn challenges into opportunities.

This is not a dictionary definition but a performance statement. The leaders I work with don’t need to know what agility looks like on paper; they need to know what it looks like in action.

The goal of any agile initiative is not agility itself, but sustained performance through both stable and volatile conditions.

To consistently achieve this level of performance, the organizations I have researched and work with consistently attend to each of the six dynamics of the Agility Shift. To fully understand each dynamic and how to bring it to life in your organization, I direct you to my book, The Agility Shift: Creating Agile Leaders, Teams and Organizations, as well as my website for additional resources. Below is a brief introduction to each of the dynamics:

Relational Web

Relational Web: The network 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 a new opportunity emerges. 

Relevant: The ability to understand current trends, customer and workforce needs, and adapt to stay relevant to and competitive in the market. 

Responsive: The ability to respond in a timely and effective way to unexpected and unplanned challenges and opportunities.

Resilient: The ability to quickly regroup when things don’t go as planned.

Resourceful: The ability to make optimal and innovative use of available resources.

Reflective: The ability to learn the lessons from experience and thoughtfully apply those lessons to new and emerging situations. 

Agility and Agile methodologies are certainly not mutually exclusive. You don’t need to adopt a specific agile methodology to improve your leadership, team, or organizational agility. Yet, adopting an agile methodology without attending to the necessary mindset, culture, and practice shifts will not yield the hoped-for results, especially over the long haul.

Making the Mindset and Culture Shift So Agility Can Thrive

Now that we have a shared understanding of agility and the six dynamics necessary to sustain it, we must understand and make (and continue to make) the mindset and culture shift required to thrive in this radical (for many) new ways of working.

A recent joint global survey by Forbes Insights and the Scrum Alliance of 1,000 C-suite executives across industries that found 83% of respondents cite an agile mindset/flexibility as the most essential characteristic of today’s C-suite (2018).

At its core, an agile mindset and culture value learning and change over planning and control.

In my research of more than 1,500 leaders at all levels of business and industry, an agile mindset is tightly linked to two key aspects of agility: Responsiveness and Resourcefulness.

Responsive and Resourceful

In particular, the ability to quickly turn challenges into opportunities and look for opportunities in the midst of change are strongly connected to Agility Shift Inventory-takers’ ability to be responsive and resourceful. These mindset attributes also strongly differentiate the most agile from the least agile respondents in the Agility Shift Inventory

Reinforcing our research, when Nigel Davies at Forbes interviewed several leaders about the pitfalls of adopting agile, he also found that mindset was a common challenge.

For example, Christopher McFarlane, an agile project manager for Walmart Canada, shared with him, “instilling an agile mindset internally is one of the hardest things about the transition.” Successfully building an agile organization is also an endurance sport, says David Fort, managing director at Haines Watts Manchester, “Being an agile business isn’t a start-stop scenario, it’s a constant shift in culture and balance that has to be regularly revisited. If you stop running as an agile business, you’re likely to seize up. The real challenge is ensuring the agility is fresh, and the team members are focused on being agile.” (Davies, 2019)

Adding urgency to the need to attend to the leadership mindset is that many organizations are not yet seeing the expected returns of their formidable investments in agility because leaders underestimated the mindset and cultural shift that would be required for a successful transformation.

Mindset and culture are directly linked. Mindset influences thinking; thinking influences our actions; culture is created through repeated patterns of thinking and acting.

Version One’s survey of 1,319 leaders in organizations ranging from less than 1,000 employees to greater than 20,000 found that the top challenge in a successful agile transformation is that their current culture is at odds with the degree of communication, collaboration, self-organization and continuous learning that is at the heart of agile practices. Coming in a close second is an overarching organizational resistance to change (13th Annual State of Agile Report, 2018).

There is good news, however. The Forbes Insights and the Scrum Alliance report cited earlier also found that those organizations that were realizing results from their adoption of agile practices also reported strong cultural alignment, while those that were not yet seeing a return cited organizational culture as the impediment (2018). Leaders have a significant influence over the success or failure of agile initiatives as they set the tone, model, and reinforce the underlying beliefs, values, and behaviors that make up their organizational cultures. 

This growing body of evidence all points in the same direction: any organization that makes agility a top strategic priority, must also prioritize learning and talent development strategies that support the critical mindset and behavioral shifts necessary to achieve the results of these investments.  

Our work in recent years with companies like T-Mobile (see case story and webinar) demonstrates the power of engaging leaders across the enterprise in high-content, high engagement learning, and development experiences and has yielded exciting results. In addition to high net-promoter scores, showing initial enthusiasm, a rigorous analysis of how learning is being applied across the organization is demonstrating significant business value. If an organization like T-Mobile, operating in an extremely competitive environment and through years-long uncertainty of a possible merger can sustain results, your organization can, too. 

Supporting Your Organization’s Agility Shift Through Learning and Talent Development

Just like reaching your health and fitness goals, developing and sustaining business agility, is not a one-time endeavor but a commitment to a new way of life. Fitness experts have found that the secret to sustained success is consistency and variety. The same is true for your organization’s leadership, team, and organizational agility.

Making the Agility Shift

Making the Agility Shift

Attaining a consistent practice for agility requires an approach that includes enough variety to keep your workforce stretching and growing. The strategies we have found most impactful put the mindset shift in the center and build the Three Cs of The Agility Shift: Competence, Capacity, and Confidence. Consistent and innovative learning and development approaches in each of these areas reinforce a culture in which agile thinking and behavior can thrive.

 

Scalable Talent Development Approaches for Agile Leaders, Teams, and Organizations

One of the challenges in supporting organization-wide agility initiatives is providing meaningful and impactful learning opportunities across the enterprise. Whether led by your in-house training team or outside contractors, you are likely constrained by budget, available time (both training professionals’ and employees’ available time), as well as personnel.

We use several highly adaptable strategies to help our clients overcome these barriers:

  • Human Resource Strategies: To ensure an integrated approach across the organization, we often work with HR and Talent Development leaders. Aligning staffing, talent development, performance appraisal, and coaching with agile organizational goals helps assure that you are building a workplace culture in which agility can thrive. 
  • Train-the-Trainer: We work with in-house learning and development professionals to train and certify them in customizable modules that they can then use to lead sessions for leaders at all levels of the organization. We provide an Agility Shift Facilitator Guide and participant materials. This approach offers the most flexible and comprehensive approach for building and sustaining an agile workforce.
  • Agility Champion Training: In this immersive training session, we help designated Agility Champions throughout the organization learn the foundational concepts and best practices of team and leadership agility, while building their competence, capacity and confidence as an agility resource person, coach and activity facilitator. Agility Champions are also trained on and given access to a series of micro-learning resources and Take it to Your Team activities they can use to support continuous leadership and team development. 
  • Agility Lab Micro-learning Resources: Many managers and agile team leaders like to integrate our range of micro-learning resources and guided activities to support team engagement, innovation, and performance. These resources can be used one-on-one or to kick-off a meeting, planning session or integrated into a retrospective.
  • Agility Assessment: Often, the biggest challenge in making the Agility Shift is the mindset shift and understanding how that mindset shift translates into new habits in each of the six dynamics of the agility shift. The Agility Shift Inventory (ASI) helps individuals and teams discover where their greatest strengths and opportunities lie and so that they invest their time and resources for maximum impact.
  • Coaching: Because agile ways of thinking and working represent a significant shift for most leaders and team members, we provide individualized coaching to help contributors make their own agility shift so they can ensure their teams and the organization realize results from their agile initiatives.
  • Leadership Development: An agile leader is anyone who spots a challenge or opportunity and effectively responds. Now more than ever, organizations need agile leaders at all levels of the business who can lead effectively in the midst of rapid change and uncertainty. Your current and emerging leaders need to be able to consistently model and inspire others to make the Agility Shift.
  • Team Development: Agile organizations are team-centric and increasingly networked. The best investment you can make is in team success, whether or not you are adopting agile methodologies, teams need to be able to effectively innovate and adapt, as well as communicate, collaborate and coordinate resources. We help teams build their agility competence through high-content, high-engagement development days that integrate reflection and action planning based on the results of their Team Agility Shift Inventory.
  • Customized Solutions: There is no one-size-fits-all solution for any organization. Your business priorities, leadership commitment, environment, and available resources all dictate which strategy is best for you. We work with organizations to determine the approach that will be most effective and sustainable to improve performance.

When You Should Consider an Agile Learning and Talent Development Approach

The good news is that building your organization’s overall competence, capacity, and confidence in agility is compatible with overall organizational agility objectives and each of the agile methodologies and agile transformation approaches described in this blog series. Not only is it compatible, but it is essential that you provide engaging and motivating development opportunities and help your leaders and teams make and sustain the necessary mindset and practical shift required to deliver results. Because we, as humans, are hard-wired to scan our environments for threats (read changes and disruptions) and avoid or resist them at all costs, we need new and continuous practices to help us make the intentional shifts to help us maximize each new disruption and opportunity. Whichever approach you choose, you need to have a strategy that helps your human system of interactions engage with and deliver the positive benefits and outcomes of your agility shift.


Which learning and development approach is right for you?

SCHEDULE TIME WITH PAMELA MEYER TO FIND OUT

 


Pamela Meyer, Ph.D. is the author of The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams and Organizations. She is a sought-after keynote speaker and works with leaders and teams across industries who need innovative learning and talent development strategies to make the mindset and business shift to compete in a rapidly changing marketplace.

Additional References

13th Annual State of Agile Report. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.stateofagile.com/

Davies, N. (2019). Agile Deserves The Hype, But It Can Also Fail: How To Avoid The Pitfalls. Forbes. Retrieved from Forbes website: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nigeldavies/2019/07/02/agile-deserves-the-hype-but-it-can-also-fail-how-to-avoid-the-pitfalls/#c9ced757a0cf

How Agile and DevOps enable digital readiness and transformation. (2018). Hampshire, UK: Freeform Dynamics.

The Elusive Agile Enterprise: How the Right Leadership Mindset, Workforce and Culture Can Transform Your Organization. Jersey City, NJ: Forbes Insights and the Scrum Alliance (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.scrumalliance.org/ScrumRedesignDEVSite/media/Forbes-Media/ScrumAlliance_REPORT_FINAL-WEB.pdf

Schwartz, J., Collins, L., Stockton, H., Wagner, D., & Walsh, B. (2017). Rewriting the Rules for the Digital Age: 2017 Deloitte Human Capital Trends. Retrieved from: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/HumanCapital/hc-2017-global-human-capital-trends-gx.pdf

 

 

Are You Training for Airmanship (AKA Learning Agility)?

The ability to effectively frame and solve problems in the cockpit in a high stakes, rapidly unfolding situation is called “airmanship.” In leadership development, we call this learning agility.

Learning Agility in Action

With the first anniversary of the tragic Boeing 737 Max crash of Lion Air Flight 610 followed months later by Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 upon us, there is a new wave of coverage in the news. As families continue to demand answers and accountability and outside entities work to understand what went wrong, another line of inquiry is being explored that has implications for anyone who works in high-stakes environments.

While not the ultimate source of the disasters, some, such as journalist and former commercial airline pilot, William Langewiesche, question whether or not the pilots’ training prepared them to be effective in complex high stakes situations (2019).

I have written about another key aspect of Cockpit Resource Management (CRM), the ability to communicate, collaborate and coordinate in the heat of the moment in The Agility Shift.

Also key is the ability to effectively frame and solve problems in the cockpit in a rapidly unfolding situation or “airmanship” (applied equally to men and women).

What is “Airmanship”?

Its full meaning is difficult to convey. It includes a visceral sense of navigation, an operational understanding of weather and weather information, the ability to form mental maps of traffic flows, fluency in the nuance of radio communications and, especially, a deep appreciation for the interplay between energy, inertia and wings. Airplanes are living things. The best pilots do not sit in cockpits so much as strap them on (Langewiesche, 2019).

A recent analysis by the New York Times of available flight data and cockpit recordings of these doomed flights provide some evidence that the crews of both doomed flights may not have had, or were not able to access their capacity for “airmanship” when the stakes were highest. Langewiesche sounds an alarm for the flying public.

. . .  it is certain that thousands of similar crews are at work around the world, enduring as rote pilots and apparently safe, but only so long as conditions are routine (2019).

Many fields have variations on the term “airmanship.” For example, miners who have an intuitive connection to the state of a mine, and potential threats to their safety are said to have “pit sense.” (Kamouche, K. and Maguire, K., 2010) while Aboagye-Nimo, E and Raiden, A (2016) use the broader term “site-sense” to include any variety of settings in which the ability to access and apply tacit knowledge is essential to success.

For those of us working in or with organizations, the stakes may not always be life and death, but they are often urgent and high. To stay competitive leaders at all levels of the organization must be able to respond quickly and effectively to a wide range of unexpected events and information; they must be able to make decisions in the midst of uncertainty, and they must be able to rapidly make sense of complex and volatile situations. In short, they need to develop “airmanship.”

Airmanship Requires Learning Agility

At its most essential, airmanship and site-sense share the same underlying competence: the ability to learn and adapt in changing contexts. In leadership development, we refer to this competency as learning agility. In their study of more than 190 executives’ significant learning experiences, management researchers identified the key to success within a complex organization: the ability to manage something new without having to master it first (McCall, Lombardo and Morrison, 1988). Learning agility is not simply the ability to think on your feet, it is the ability to apply lessons learned in one context to another, often more complex, one situation.

The good news is that it is possible to develop learning agility, though it doesn’t happen without concerted and intentional effort.

How the United States Navy Uses Learning Agility to Instruct Fighter Pilots

The United States Navy manages to instill a sense of this in its fledgling fighter pilots by ramming them through rigorous classroom instruction and then requiring them to fly at bank angles without limits, including upside down. The same cannot be expected of airline pilots who never fly solo and whose entire experience consists of catering to passengers who flinch in mild turbulence, refer to “air pockets” in cocktail conversation and think they are near death if bank angles exceed 30 degrees. The problem exists for many American and European pilots, too. Unless they make extraordinary efforts — for instance, going out to fly aerobatics, fly sailplanes or wander among the airstrips of backcountry Idaho — they may never develop true airmanship no matter the length of their careers (Langewiesche, 2019).

Training to Develop Learning Agility

Over the past several years working with a wide range of organizations to help them make the agility shift and build more adaptable teams and organizations, we have found a number of effective strategies to help leaders across the enterprise develop their learning agility competence, capacity, and confidence.

Each of the following can be integrated into formal or informal learning programs, as well as be used in coaching and mentoring for learning agility:

  1. Seek and provide learning experiences that call for adaptation. Even if you are learning a new skill, it is important to build enough confidence that you can apply that skill in a variety of situations (high stakes, uncertainty, missing or changing information, etc.). In formal training, be sure to design into your program learning activities that have some complexity and not a single right answer. If you, yourself, are the learner or are mentoring others, be sure to seek out and encourage your mentees to look for these opportunities in their roles.
  2. Experiment with scenario-based learning that requires that you/your learners communicate, collaborate, and coordinate with their Relational Web of skills, knowledge, talent, and resources. We regularly design experiential learning opportunities like this for teams to develop these capacities. You can also use these learning strategies as ‘thought-experiments” for individual and team reflection and idea generation.
  3. Become a Cognitive Apprentice. Coaching and mentoring are excellent ways to learn a new role, build confidence and self-awareness, and progress toward a host of personal and professional goals. Sometimes overlooked in coaching and other informal learning strategies is the value of understanding an expert’s way of framing problems and opportunities and determining a course of action. This modeling process is sometimes called a cognitive apprenticeship (Woolley, Norman N.; Jarvis, Yvonne, 2007). Learn to ask and help your learners probe for the thinking process that led to key decisions. Sometimes it can be as simple as asking questions like: “How did you zero in on __________ as the key issue?” or “How did you come to that decision?” Listen to the responses and for how experts question their own assumptions and process complex or competing narratives.
  4. Do what scares you. Perhaps the best way for you to develop their competence, capacity, and confidence is to seek new opportunities outside of your comfort zone intentionally. The more comfortable you (and your learners) can become in uncomfortable, even scary, situations, the more likely you will be able to think and function clearly when the stakes are high.

Understanding How Learning Agility can Serve us in a Crisis

No one is suggesting that developing airmanship or learning agility vindicates what appears to have been serious flaws in oversight and design of the Boeing 737 Max. However, these and other high stakes incidents remind us that at the center of every operational crisis, are human beings who must quickly assess the situation and tap their available resources to respond as quickly and effectively as possible.

While we cannot control or train for every possible situation, we can be more intentional training for airmanship and developing our own and other’s learning agility.

What other strategies do you use to develop your own and others’ learning agility?  

Discover more approaches for learning agility, and other customizable talent development solutions to make your agility shift!

•••••••••••••

Aboagye-Nimo, E and Raiden, A (2016) Introducing Site Sense: Comparing Situated Knowledge in Construction to Coalmining. In: P W Chan and C J Neilson (Eds.) Proceedings of the 32nd Annual ARCOM Conference, 5-7 September 2016, Manchester, UK, Association of Researchers in Construction Management, Vol 1, 467-476.

Kamoche, K. and Maguire, K., 2011. Pit sense: Appropriation of practice-based knowledge in a UK coal mine. Human Relations, 64 (5), pp. 725-744.

Langewiesche, W. (2019, September 21, 2019). What really brought down the Boeing 737 Max? New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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

Meyer, P. (2015). The Agility Shift: Creating agile and effective leaders, teams and organizations. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Woolley, Norman N.; Jarvis, Yvonne (January 2007). “Situated cognition and cognitive apprenticeship: A model for teaching and learning clinical skills in a technologically rich and authentic learning environment”. Nurse Education Today. 27 (1): 73–79.

 

Do You Have an Agile Mindset?

Agile Mindset

Assess and Adapt Your Outlook to Thrive When Things Don’t Go As Planned

Whether you have been charged with helping your leaders, team or organization become more agile, are in the process of adopting agile methodologies, or simply recognize the need to be more effective in the midst of change, the starting place is the same: developing and reinforcing your agile mindset.

In previous posts and my book, The Agility Shift I have described this mindset as one that relies less on planning and more on preparing. This shift doesn’t mean that we need to throw planning out the window altogether, but that we recognize that in rapidly changing contexts we must approach our work with a readiness to learn and adapt.

The Agility Shift Book

Training, no matter if we are working out, or planning the future of our organization, means pushing performance to the next level.

 

For many of us, this represents a significant shift in perspective and mindset. Below are a few characteristics of this shift, along with a new resource for you to assess your current state of mind and begin your own agility shift:

An agile mindset welcomes discoveries.

An agile mindset welcomes new discoveries as an opportunity to improve and refine the work at hand rather than seeing them as a threat to anyone’s original idea, plan, value, identity, status, ego or any other barrier that can get in the way of innovation.

An agile mindset expects iteration.

Of course, iteration is at the heart of each sprint cycle in agile methodologies because developers of new software, products and services know that each iteration is an opportunity to test and learn. You don’t need to implement an agile methodology to understand the value of testing and learning. When you expect to iterate, you can hold your ideas and plans lightly, be open to new information, and fail, learn and innovate faster.

An agile mindset is responsive, not reactive.

You know the difference between being reactive and responsive if you have ever said or done something you later regretted. Reactivity is often guided by a knee-jerk impulse based on fear, defensiveness and the hard-wiring of our reptilian brain. Responsiveness can take place in the same amount of time, but includes a level of self-awareness and awareness of available resources, along with a rapid assessment of the situation and ability to prioritize effective action (or in some cases, inaction).

Most of us can’t honestly claim to have an agile mindset 100% of the time, especially under stress or in the midst of a high stakes challenge or opportunity. The stressed or anxious brain tends to revert to its familiar ways of thinking (at best) or go into full flight, freeze, or flight mode (at worst). Neither mode is particularly effective when innovation is our goal. The good news is that all of us can learn to make an agility shift to an agile mindset, even if it is not our first response.

The Agility Shift Book

An Agile Mindset Starts with Awareness.

The first step to making this agility shift is to become more aware of what you are experiencing when things don’t go as planned or when you discover new disruptive information.

I am excited to announce that we have added a mindset segment to the Agility Shift Inventory (ASI) to help you with this first step: Awareness.

As before, the individual ASI is complimentary. If you have taken the ASI in the past, I recommend you take a few minutes to take our 2.0 version. This version includes:

  • New survey questions designed to inventory your current agile mindset state
  • An updated Generative Conversation and Catalyst Guide with explanations and coaching questions to improve your mindset for effective action.
  • A chance to update your answers from the last time you took the inventory (remember, your results are highly contextual, so if your work setting/situation has changed since you last took it, your results will likely change as well).

Of course, if you have never taken the ASI, this is the perfect time to take it to start your journey to improved agility and innovation.

 

 

 

Leading Through Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA)

Leading Through VUCA

Leading Through Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA)

Over the past few months, a number of companies have asked me to help their leaders lead in the midst of VUCA.  These organizations include a US-based company that is preparing for a possible, but not certain, merger and needs to continue to serve its customers, grow and innovate as it awaits approval. A European pharmaceutical company that is reorganizing to be even more responsive to the marketplace. A global financial services company that is adopting new technologies and leveraging AI to meet its increasingly tech-savvy customers’ expectations.

Most likely you are familiar with the acronym that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity and was first used by the US Army War College to describe the contemporary battlefield. Today VUCA is widely used in the changing landscape of business.

 

For each of these above scenarios and many more, business success depends on the ability to compete in a rapidly changing climate.

The Agility Shift starts with expanding our understanding of what it means to be a leader.

 

Everybody is a Leader in a VUCA Environment

When things are changing rapidly, there is no time to run every challenge or opportunity up through the chain of command.

As I define in The Agility Shift, “an agile leader is anyone who spots a challenge or opportunity and effectively responds”. This definition expands the understanding of leadership from the command and control model of yesterday to one focused on communication, collaboration and coordination. No longer is leadership designated by your job title, compensation package or place in the org chart. In VUCA environments, everyone is a leader. Everyone must be empowered to act to serve the customer and the needs of the business.

 

Which Aspect of VUCA Do You Prioritize?

To understand the leadership implications of VUCA, you need to identify which of the four characteristics are most relevant to your current situation. The matrix below, first proposed by Bennet and Lemoine (2014) may help begin to identify your leadership priorities:

Leading through VUCA

VUCA Examples

Ambiguity

  • Moving into a new market
  • Launching a new product, creating a new strategic alliance
  • Expanding beyond your core competencies
  • Big leadership or organizational changes

Complexity

  • Doing business in global markets
  • Multiple stakeholders with competing or shifting  priorities
  • Multiple brands, products, supply chains, distribution channels

Uncertainty

  • Competition is launching a new product/service and the impact on the market not known
  • Merger/Acquisition MAY be on the horizon
  • Proposed legislation/regulations MAY be adopted.

Volatility

  • Natural disaster
  • Supply chain disruption
  • Labor dispute
  • Technology breach
  • Geopolitical instability
  • PR/Ethics Scandal

Of course, each of the four characteristics of VUCA rarely happens in isolation. For example, you might be experiencing volatility and complexity at the same time (A sudden change in leadership at the same time as your competitor launches a new product).

Think about which of these examples and characteristics, or VUCA combinations, best describes the eco-system in which you do business.

Which VUCA characteristics are most relevant to the challenges and opportunities you are confronting in your organization? Department? Your role as a leader?

Make Shift Happen

Now that you have identified the characteristics of VUCA that are most relevant to your current situation and before you start thinking about specific strategies and tactics to be effective, it is time to make the mindset shift to ensure you are setting yourself up for success.

 

Mindset Shift: From Planning to Preparing

In stable contexts, we can rely on the tried and true practices of planning and analysis. When the future, not to mention the present, is uncertain and unpredictable, we must make a mindset shift toward preparing and enter a state of readiness.

Just as improv performers, athletes, and SWAT teams train and prepare for various high-stakes, high-stress scenarios, you can expand your capability and capacity to be effective when things don’t go as planned.

The best practices below fall into two key and interdependent categories: 1) People and talent development strategies and 2) Systems and processes. They are interdependent because you can have the best systems and processes in the world and if you have not developed your people to make the necessary mindset and skill set shift, you will be disappointed in their performance when it counts most.

Leading Through VUCA Best Practices

As you read the following best practices for leading through VUCA, pay particular attention to those that are within your span of control or influence.

Volatility

Characterized by an unpredictable, unstable situation, though not necessarily complicated. Information is available as events unfold.

  • Train for role elasticity and develop “generalizing specialists.”
  • Improve decision-speed
  • Build redundancy into your system and build slack into the supply chain
  • Leverage technology and alternative strategies to ensure continuous communication
  • Regularly train for various disruptions, and ID needed skills, knowledge, and talent
  • Tap your hi-potentials for temporary assignments

Uncertainty

Characterized by a lack of key actionable information, such as timing, duration, cause and effect.

  • Tap your Relational Web to:
    • Reduce uncertainty
    • Gather additional information and insight, including customer data, market analytics
    • Improve access to market insights via resources like slack and yammer
    • Reflect on and share experiences of successfully working through uncertainty
  • Identify the givens of the current situation and focus on what is within your span of control
  • Provide or seek career-pathing and “stay interviews” so you can identify people’s interests and strengths to keep them engaged
  • Implement agile performance appraisals and regularly provide feedback and acknowledge agile success

Complexity

Characterized by an overwhelming amount of information, interconnected or moving parts and relationships.

  • Improve communication, collaboration and coordination
  • Clarify decision-rights
  • Adapt organizational structure and expertise to match the complexity of the context
  • Identify people who have strengths and experience in dealing with complexity
  • Recruit and develop people who can thrive in complexity (See The Agility Shift, chapters 8-9).

Ambiguity

Characterized by a lack of information and precedent, making the ability to predict the impact of actions a challenge.

  • Create (some) clarity
  • Make space for interactions
  • Re-engage and recommit to your purpose
  • Understand and prioritize user needs
  • Focus on your MVP (Minimal Viable Product)
  • Practice rapid prototyping to fail faster and learn quicker
  • Experiment and pilot to discover what you don’t know
  • Make time to learn the lessons from experience and carry them forward

These ideas are not intended as a prescription for the issues and opportunities that are most pressing for you and your fellow agile leaders. They will help get the conversation started and lead to thoughtful strategic and tactical approaches that build your competence, capacity, and confidence to effectively lead through VUCA.

 

Bennett, J. and Lemoine, G., (2014) What VUCA Really Means for You, Harvard Business Review, January-February Issue.

 

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.