Agile leaders develop swift and steady teams that are equipped to face the challenges posed by a VUCA world. Dr Simon Hayward from Cirrus writes for the ILM Edge magazine.

Agility has become a highly-prized leadership asset.  Agile leaders can develop agile teams that in turn create agile businesses, able to adapt quickly to the ever-changing competitive conditions in our VUCA world. Agile businesses tend to be more innovative, better at meeting customer needs, and more productive.

The challenges of our VUCA world

Originally used in the US military, the term VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) is now widely-used to describe the world around us. It has become a shorthand for the changeable environment in which we operate.

Some real-world VUCA examples include:

Volatility: Financial markets have been quite volatile since the global financial crisis, compounded by other factors such as globalisation, political unrest, and natural disasters.

Uncertainty: We have seen a great deal of political uncertainty in recent years, with election results (and the actions of our political leaders) proving harder than ever to predict.

Complexity: Globalisation and the digital revolution have created multiple ways for humans to communicate, learn, work, and play. For many businesses, this has led to a dense operating network which is difficult to navigate.

Ambiguity: There are few clear and simple answers in today’s world. We are bombarded with myriad facts and opinions through regulated and unregulated information channels.

Digital transformation

The VUCA world and the pace of technology are pushing us towards more agile ways of working. Technology, and what we do with it, is changing the way we behave. It has altered the way we collaborate and communicate with our colleagues and customers. The explosion of internet connectivity also raises questions about who, or what, is in control. For business leaders, many of whom want to feel ‘in control’, this can be quite a challenge.  We need to create new ways of working that reflect the changing world outside and inside our organisations, and enable us to respond to unexpected opportunities or challenges with speed and accuracy.

The agile leadership paradox

To become an agile leader in a VUCA world, and achieve a balance between speed and stability, leaders need to be both connectors and agitators. We need to embrace both sides of the agile leadership paradox, the need to enable and the need to disrupt. This means that we need to create more joined-up businesses, while at the same time challenging how our organisations operate at a fundamental level.

When we look at the business leaders at the helm of today’s most successful organisations, they tend to be quite disruptive.  They are unwilling to accept current rules, and willing to think the unthinkable, to achieve breakthroughs in innovation in both the customer experience and the operating processes of the organisation. They go against the grain, challenge preconceptions, and are unafraid to encourage what others might see as unreasonable step changes in productivity when it matters most. However, as well as being ‘disruptors’, these people are also ‘enablers’.  They understand the need to engage people with transformation. To do this, they build a clear sense of purpose to underpin the importance of where the business is going. This encourages others to follow with conviction. These leaders create an environment where fear of failure is replaced by ideas generation, collaboration and innovation. None of this can be achieved in a traditional command-and-control structure. However, it can be achieved if leaders ‘let go’ and devolve responsibility to others. Successful agile leaders remove barriers to productivity and create an environment where teams are free to get on with doing a great job.

Balancing speed and stability

Consulting firm McKinsey describes ‘organisational health’ as ‘the ability to align around and achieve strategic goals’, which is critical for long-term performance. A 2015 analysis of McKinsey’s Organisational Health Index showed that companies with both speed and stability have a 70 per cent chance of being ranked in the top quartile. The research also identified the top management practices which differentiate the most agile organisations from the least agile. Top of the list was role clarity, or what they described as ‘organisational clarity, stability, and structure’. To achieve the strength and balance that agility requires, it is important for leaders to ensure that teams and organisations are well defined and clearly structured. If each individual role has clear priorities and these are coherent across the organisation, we will have aligned priorities, which reduces complexity and internal conflict. Reduced complexity helps us to achieve increased speed.

Leading agile teams

At the heart of agile ways of working is the team. One of the central principles of agile organisations is that teams get on with it and self-manage.  In a truly agile set-up, the team is a multi-skilled, collaborative unit of production. Teams also need freedom. An agile leader empowers team members to decide how they will achieve their goals, in line with overall organisational strategy. They work together to deliver what customers want, quickly and effectively. Many leaders find it difficult to cede control to others, especially if they’re trying to drive change, but if they can devolve decision-making and responsibility more widely across teams, it empowers others to achieve results.

When I’m working with executive teams, we often start with defining a compelling purpose for the team, one that means something special to the team members and which gives them clarity about the real value they collectively provide to the enterprise. For very task-oriented executives this can seem a somewhat esoteric activity until they go through the process of defining their purpose together, and then typically they realise the value in specifying the reason this team exists, and what it means to each of the team members. Defining purpose is a crucial step in becoming a great team, as it provides a constant reminder of why they need to work together, and with what focus.

The pursuit of shared purpose is a powerful motivator.  A common purpose is crucial to teams knitting together to achieve great things. Teams with shared purpose are also good at solving their own problems. Team members share mutual accountability and a willingness to act, which in turn leads to quality results.

Once the purpose is clear, teams find it easier to agree the shared goals they should focus on. The team members will prioritise their role in the team over and above their individual goals, if the purpose is sufficiently compelling.

Having explicit shared purpose and goals helps to build trust between team members, and an appreciation of the contribution each member can make, so that they can value the differences between them. Trust in a business context is about having a real confidence in others, in their capability to deliver, and their character to do so reliably and honestly. Building trust in your teams is an essential foundation if you want them to work together in agile ways, and it starts with creating an environment where they feel safe, and therefore confident to take risks. Creating this requires dedicated effort from the team and the team leader to building this confidence through creating time and space for honest conversations, team reviews and reinforcement of positive behaviours.

A key challenge here is that the majority of senior leaders employ management techniques that have proved successful in the past, but are largely unsuitable for addressing today’s problems. Because they do not know how to change, they end up focusing too much time and effort on the wrong things.

To adopt agile thinking, many leaders need to change their own belief systems and attitudes. An example of this is not blaming team members if things go wrong – to develop agility, leaders need to encourage experimentation alongside a ‘fail fast and learn’ approach where team members learn from mistakes, move on, and do it differently next time. It is up to leaders to create a safe environment that enables team members to work in an agile fashion despite pushback from elsewhere.

In conclusion…

What makes agile organisations special is their ability to balance fast action and rapid change with clarity, structure and stability. Agile organisations are typically powerful engines for innovation and learning, with strong motivation from having meaningful values and inspirational leadership.

If your leaders can develop teams to face the challenges of our VUCA world, your organisation will be better able to react and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Through building trust, creating a culture that brings a united sense of purpose to the organisation, and empowering the people around you to take responsibility and make decisions with speed, you will be well on the way to building an agile business – one that is more customer-focused, innovative and competitive.

Dr Simon Hayward is CEO of Cirrus and author of Connected Leadership (FT Publishing 2015) and The Agile Leader (Kogan Page 2018).

© ILM Edge magazine 2018

 

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