How to Lead an Agile Organization

“62% of leaders we surveyed didn’t want to lead, but incentives lead them to take a promotion” Michael C. Bush.

This is a quote from Michael C. Bush, who just took part on the HBR Webinar “Leading the Agile Organization”. I thought this was a really interesting insight, and very telling.

In my perception if you want to create an agile organisation you need great leaders. If a person doesn’t want lead, they are going to struggle to effect the leadership needed to thrive in a complex and changing environment.

The webinar hosted a pretty interesting discussion and worth a watch for those interested in the building agile/nimble organisations. However, for those of you coming out of the webinar with more questions than answers then I thought I would offer some concrete tips.

5 tips for Leading the Agile Organisation

So here are 5 things you can do if you are looking to build an organisation that is nimble and agile. (NB this is different from the practice of Agile software development). Credit for these 5 tips goes to Chet Richards via Certain to Win (Link below) and John Boyd. With my own twist.

Intuitive Competence. (Expertise & Pattern Recognition)

This is what is often referred to as Expert Judgement in the academic literature. This is expertise built up over time.

It allows you recognise patterns in your environment. This then allows you to implement the right actions at the right time, but also to implement them well. This is what is often referred to as Fingerspitzengefühl (finger tip feeling).

It is hard to be agile without being competent. It is hard to be agile if you are a noobie.

Mutual Trust & Cohesion. (Shared Values)

It is hard to underestimate how important mutual trust and cohesion are to agile organisations. Take a look at agile units in the military, mutual trust and unit cohesion is at the centre of teams.

The military spends huge amount of time building unit cohesion.

If you want to be innovative, then you need to try new things and new ideas. But no one is going to stick their neck out if they dont feel their boss or co-worker has their back. This is why Google in their study of successful teams put psychological safety as #1 on their list.

Chet Richard’s uses the word Einheit to encompass the meaning.

Strategic Alignment. Focus of main effort

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” Robert Burns.

The idea is: No matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it. This is what Robbie burns is saying in this line above in “to a mouse”. In complex environments you cant predict what is going to happen — so don’t rely to much on static plans.

Winston Churchill said, “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential,” while Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

To be agile at scale you should align people by creating a common focal point that people should work towards. In the military this concept is called Schwerpunkt.

Schwerpunkt is the idea of creating simple heuristics that should drive behaviour. Examples include “March to the sound of the guns.” by French Commander, Marshal Grouchy before the Battle of Wavre, 18 June 1815.

Creating common purpose and focus of effort is key to building agile organisations.

Take for example a team that team must make a decision in the face of uncertainty and with little time to think. How do they make the best choice? Which way should they choose?

Well the decision that moves them one step closer to the common purpose and shared goal, whatever it maybe. Initiative of workers can be harmonized and aligned this way.

Stephen Bungay calls this the idea of “Tell me what you want, what you really, really want”. He is British so he is, of course, a fan of the Spice Girls.

The Toyota Production System is a good example of this.

“The Toyota Production System, quite simply, is about shortening the time it takes to convert customer orders into vehicle deliveries.” Toyota Motor Co., Toyota Production System, p. 2.

Empowered Execution. (Leading by intent)

Retired 4 star General Stanley McChrystal, who I have had the honour of meeting, calls this Empowered Execution. It has many names, Leading by intent, Intent-based Leadership, Mission Command, Mission-type tactics, Auftragstakitkk.

Derived from the military, it is a style of leadership, which combines centralized intent with decentralized execution subsidiarity and promotes freedom and speed of action, and initiative, within defined constraints.

Here are some guidelines courtesy of this article:

Doing empowered execution is as much about creating the right culture as it is of communicating orders correctly and holding briefings. They are mutually dependent.

This style of leadership requires highly capable leaders. If you are one of the 62% mentioned by Michael C Bush above, you might struggle with this one.

Mental / Physical Agility. (Take apart & Put together)

By physical agility I am talking about the ability to pull apart and put together and combine physical things like human and technological resources.

Consultancy firms are very good at doing this. Each consulting team is thrown together and task organised based upon each client engagement. On the next engagement a new, most suitable team is put together.

Agility in here is the speed at which you can start doing something and change direction but also STOP doing something. This abrupt change can be brutal for individuals. Thus

”(S)He who can handle the quickest rate of change survives.” John Boyd.

Mentally or conceptually it represents the idea of breaking out of patterns. It is encapsulated by the cliche of “what got you here, won’t get you there”. Barry O’Reily has even written a book about this called Unlearn.

If you are mentally agile you can foresee change, break concepts apart (analysis) and put them back together (synthesis).

Bringing it all together:

So here are the concepts in one pretty picture, when you bring them together:

Want to see what it looks like in action?

What if you’re interested in learning more?

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