February 7, 2019
In a conversation about organizational agility with a senior executive, I remarked, “The irony is, it sounds like you believe you sometimes have to be top-down, command-control, in order to empower people to exercise more authority in a flatter organization.” This executive’s task is to make his organization more agile and thus resilient. He is “looking around the corner” to what, metaphorically, may be 15 blocks away, barely visible right now.
Agility is essential for a resilient organization. The need for resilience is not new—withstanding changes in technology, generational changes in consumer tastes, and new competitors is a perennial demand. But the rate of such disruptions has increased dramatically. Today, the pace of disruption makes organizational agility essential for survival. Fortunately, organizational agility can be cultivated.
Just as human bodies, with regular exercise and the right diet, become more agile and better able to recover from illness and injuries, organizations, and the individuals in them, can increase their agility. AMA’s Strategic Agility and Resilience seminar shows that companies can use a variety of strategies and techniques to enhance agility, promoting the resilience required to thrive in the face of disruptions.
Organizations that have proven resilient in the face of disruption, such as IBM, provide insights into practices that yield agility. Many established companies can achieve resiliency when they recapture some of the entrepreneurial spirit and behaviors of their start-up years.
Focusing on individual output more than status (such as who has what title, parking space, and office) relates to an agile practice the senior executive is implementing: reducing levels of hierarchy and empowering more members of his organization to make decisions. This practice allows it to respond more readily to trends while they are still emergent.
In the conversation cited above, the executive wondered: “How do you reorient people to exercise more autonomy, when they have been for years acculturated to command-control, compliance-oriented leadership?” After all, part of making an organization agile is equipping people at all levels to function in a new environment, in which they must be more self-directed.
The answer to the executive’s question is complex, but part of the solution lies in first overcoming what is often called the “bureaucratic ethic”: an approach to organizational life in which finding and pleasing an institutional “protector” is key, in which seeking to avoid blame by avoiding decision making ensures personal success, and in which intentionally obscuring real goals and the meaning of events can lead to promotion. The bureaucratic ethic is kryptonite to organizational agility.
To be sure, reorienting people from the bureaucratic ethic to an ethic of self-direction takes time. Organizations can, nonetheless, achieve this reorientation, such as by replacing a bias for simply taking any action with an emphasis on research to ensure the right action is taken. Likewise, creating a culture that welcomes mistakes as occasions for growth and that rewards results more than cultivating “feudal” relationships reorients people to an ethic of self-direction.
Another part of the solution lies in preparing people to think critically and strategically and to make unbiased decisions. For example, learning to conduct macroenvironmental scans, learning to conduct experiments, and seeing how to adapt and extend current resources can empower people to respond to the disruptions that characterize today’s business environment.
While the conversation I relayed here focused on individual transformation, agility occurs on both the individual and organizational level. An organization has to become an ecosystem that facilitates innovation, and its members must be prepared to function in that new ecosystem.