How can leaders increase agility, pace and connection for competitive advantage?
2020 was the year when the world changed for everyone, everywhere. In 2021, the pandemic continues, as does volatility, uncertainty and complexity. For some businesses, the pandemic has been terminal, but for the most agile it has meant surviving and thriving.
In the face of crisis, the required pace of change has impacted every business. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that agility and pace of change are key for success and the most agile leaders continue to evolve their business. It’s no longer about big versus small, it’s about fast versus slow, agile versus fixed. The pandemic has pushed us forward and accelerated change beyond our wildest imaginations.
The new ‘agile’
It wasn’t that long ago that ‘agile’ was associated with project management or software, with IT and project teams attending agile courses and displaying their ‘agile knowledge’ as a badge of honour.
Agile is now being defined as the new buzzword and universal panacea for how we approach the future of work. We refer to agile working, agile workplaces, agile cultures and agile organisations, each designed to enable rapid change without cost or pain.
In terms of leadership behaviour, agility is the ability to adopt thinking and behaviour to suit the requirements of different situations, to see the value of an alternative view and be receptive to changing circumstances. It’s a critical leadership competency, and one that has helped to differentiate leaders during the pandemic and beyond.
The best leaders I’ve worked with balance both emotional agility and consistency to drive that business agility. But leaders need to strike a balance; too much consistency results in rigidity, too much agility results in lack of focus. It’s by balancing the combination of consistency and agility that leaders can become more strategic, delivering on the organisation’s purpose and goals and changing course whenever the situation demands.
The power of connection
Alongside agility and pace of change, there is another critical component at play. Advances in neuroscience research in recent years have identified the most basic human need is social connection – it has a stronger motivational pull than even food, water and shelter.
People remain fatigued, emotional and weary at the lack of human connection and loss of social capital. Connecting – or reconnecting – people in the workplace will ensure that ambitious and agile leaders and organisations take their people on the journey with them.
Case studies from Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) identify the main reasons why face-to-face working in the same physical place is essential. They found that value, creativity and innovation can be leveraged by serendipity – those legendary serendipitous ‘bumping into each other at the water cooler’ moments. Social cohesion is also enormously important for knowledge workers and, although much can be consciously done online to connect people, there is nothing better than face-to-face interaction with a coffee or glass in hand to enable conversation and sharing ideas.
It’s about being human. MIT talk of us being in the age of unknown unknowns. We need that human leadership to give us the connection and moral purpose – the soul – we need to rebuild trust and connection. Leaders from Salesforce, Microsoft, the retailer Uniqlo all talk of the Soul of the company, the truths and principles that guide us to do what is right as human beings through uncertainty and hardship.
When we are making decisions on where we are going and how we‘re going to get there, we need that connection to help make the right choices about how we get there together, and consider the impact of agility and change on our people, business and society.
Hybrid is here to stay
Think back to March 2020; within weeks we changed things that for so many years seemed impossible. Problems were solved with rapid adaptation, incredible creativity and huge resilience on behalf of organisations and also their people, setting up makeshift workspaces at home.
We’ve had 18 months of working in this way. We’ve learned from it and it’s been an iterative process that we’ve been experimenting with and adapting since. And it’s not over, given as Sir Andrew Pollard of Oxford Vaccine Group, has recently said, “Britain is going to face a period of bumpiness in transmission rates and uncertainty about the near future.”
This bumpiness is certainly being felt by many of my coaching clients, at a time when restrictions are easing in many countries. Hybrid working is here to stay, that’s a given. The movement to flexibility is not new, it has just been accelerated by the pandemic. Agile and innovative leaders are embracing the change and using it to gain a competitive edge in attracting and retaining talent.
Agility for sustainable advantage
“In today’s era of volatility, there is no other way but to reinvent. The only sustainable advantage you can have over others is agility. That’s it. Nothing else is sustainable. Everything else you create someone else will replicate.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic hit those businesses that lacked the foresight and agility to respond, reposition and reinvent. The retail sector in particular has seen businesses either dive or thrive. Those with a multichannel or high online presence and established logistics have benefited in the pandemic – online retailers such as Ocado, Tesco, ASOS and Amazon. But agility also requires connection, commitment and the right talent.
To retain talent, Ocado is actively encouraging its workforce back into the office but people will be given the chance to take one month each year to work from abroad. This means that for employees with families overseas, they have the ability to see their family without using holiday allowance, offering employees more balance and choice about how and where they work.
Similarly, a tech disruptor referenced how the pandemic has only reinforced his thinking on recruiting the best most agile talent, whoever and wherever they are. He doesn’t care if his people are wearing ‘tee shirts and tattoos,’ as long as they are doing the best work of their lives and are accelerating the pace of change so that the company achieves its ambitions to be a $1billion corporation sooner.
Agile vs Hybrid working
But not every company is a tech company with the vision and agility of a tech disruptor. And agile working isn't necessarily hybrid working.
Paul Allsopp, author and MD of The Agile Organisation, talks about agile working, post Covid. He believes work is about activity, not place, and that culture and inclusion are about connection and belonging. This means a key part of agile working is creating communities which may or may not be in one place – and they will be increasingly virtual. Also that agile working requires technology and screens, not desks. Ultimately, his view is that agile working should be tailored to the individual, this will widen the talent pool, increase retention and create a more diverse workforce.
For so many organisations this isn’t clear cut, it isn’t just a one size fits all “Martini” approach, enabling people to work “anytime, anyplace, anywhere”. Every organisation has to consider what kind of workplace they want and how that will support their people and business values and deliver sustainable results for their customers, communities and wider society.
The purpose of an agile leadership team is to build and operate an agile system and enterprise, where innovation, experimentation and learning run in parallel to existing business operations.
Creating an agile organisation requires leaders to create a carefully balanced eco-system that delivers both stability and agility - running the business efficiently and changing the business effectively. This dual approach incorporates continuous improvement and will improve business results, unleash the potential of employees, enhance job satisfaction and ensure that the business survives and finds a ‘new and different or indeed a better normal'.
Corporate Rebels describe one of the trends of progressive organisations as moving from planning and predicting to experimenting and adapting, thinking about change not as a big project but as a series of small experiments to quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. Small experiments create a greater sense of immediacy and urgency than a long, drawn-out change process.
The companies that are doing it right - those that will continue to thrive - have agile operating models underpinned by an unshakeable sense of purpose. To maintain agility, pace and innovation as the uncertainty continues, agile leaders will continue to adapt, predict and respond to situations more quickly than ever. Agility needs to be hard-wired into the fabric of the organisation’s leadership and culture.
The pandemic has put leaders centre-stage and great leaders will be remembered for their human leadership; for inspiring their people and igniting a sense of common purpose, for reimagining and reigniting the business and ultimately reaching a different pace and place.
As Anita Roddick once said and how right she was:
“Speed, agility and responsiveness are the keys to future success.”
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen examples of agility being at the heart of unimaginable success. What is now truly apparent is how essential it is to keep agile and innovating at pace.
The pandemic has proved that agility, pace and connection are key for leaders to achieve sustainable competitive advantage and success.