In a previous post, I defined a nimble organization as one that has a sustained ability to quickly and effectively respond to the demands of change while continually delivering high performance. Gaining and sustaining nimbleness is not easily or casually achieved. To fully leverage its potential requires commitment and tenacity from the very top of an organization. This begins when members of the Board (or equivalent strategic sanctioning body) and senior leadership declare their deeply held belief that nimble execution is a vital strategic advantage. This conviction must then be translated into two levels of intention:
Strong, nimble intent drives the environment and application needed to consistently deliver expected results when executing change.
Nimble organizations have numerous characteristics that distinguish them from their competitors (leveraging technology, fostering innovative thinking, creative alliances, etc.). The focus here is only on those related to change execution, and there are seven: intentions, environment (leadership, culture, and roles), application (portfolio and implementation), and results. I’ll give a definition for each, followed by key questions to be used in evaluating an organization’s nimbleness.
INTENTIONS: Nimble organizations have established, specific goals around building nimbleness.
Environment—LEADERSHIP: The guidance provided by key executives across an organization can significantly contribute to or impede organizational nimbleness.
Environment—CULTURE: Well-established mindset and behavior patterns support the effective execution of change initiatives.
Environment—ROLES: Nimble organizations incorporate the capabilities needed to perform change-related roles into their hiring, job assignments, performance management, and development.
Application—PORTFOLIO: Nimble organizations effectively manage the overlapping demands of multiple change initiatives.
Application—IMPLEMENTATION: Nimble organizations implement each critical change systematically and effectively.
RESULTS: The nimble organization consistently executes change quickly and effectively enough to address the challenges it faces in moving toward its intended purpose.
As change practitioners, we have a duty to help leaders see beyond their current initiatives and be ready to deal with ongoing disruption. Nimble organizations quickly and effectively adapt to major transitions while maintaining high performance. Orchestrating this kind of enterprise requires strong commitment from senior leaders as they build: 1) an environment where nimbleness can flourish, and, 2) the application structures and processes needed to support successful execution on a consistent basis.
In my last post, I talked about The Zone, that place where dysfunctional symptoms form and begin to have an adverse impact on productivity, quality, and safety. This is where an organization can learn to operate in a “contained slide”—functioning just short of losing full control, yet able to squeeze the optimum speed and agility from its reservoir of adaptation resources.
Competitive ice skaters must contend with pushing the limits of their speed when going around corners as well as the traction that occurs between the blade on their skate and the surface of the ice. There is an optimum point when pressing this boundary that produces what can best be described as a contained slide. This is when skaters rely on their abilities to read the subtle information gained from their senses and experience to accelerate or slow down so they only briefly lose their balance (chaos), but then quickly regain it (order). Just as the speed begins to exceed a skater’s ability to regulate further action, he or she backs off enough to reestablish control, and then presses on faster again.
To accomplish the maximum speed while maintaining balance, the skater will suffer some downside. The act of sliding means being slightly out of control, however briefly, which lowers efficiency and effectiveness to some degree. In addition, the risk of a minute miscalculation or momentary loss of concentration can produce a disastrous fall. The only way the skater can invest all his or her strength with irretrievably losing control is to find and stay within this elusive, but essential, contained slide.
The loss of productivity, quality, and safety at mid and high levels of future shock are simply too costly to justify. At the lower end of the future shock continuum, however, there exists a still dangerous, but nonetheless potentially beneficial, amount of dysfunction. At this point, there is an “acceptable” amount of dysfunction—some loss of control, but not too much, and not for very long. Any dysfunction is costly, but this level is tolerable because of the speed and agility achieved. Functioning in a contained slide makes it possible to push the edge of an organization’s adaptation envelope—the amount of disruption people can absorb before displaying unacceptable levels of dysfunctional behavior.
During the early unfolding of future shock symptoms, certain problems should be endured in order to amplify adaptation capacity. Leaders who seek the elasticity of a nimble operation know that, as risky as high levels of change are for an organization, they must flirt with the rim of chaos if they are to keep the organization competitive. With tenacity and thick skin, they must push themselves and the people around them to ever-advancing thresholds of adaptation by surfing the zone between order and chaos.
Push Past Comfort but Stop Short of Destruction
Leaders of nimble companies are always pushing their organizations beyond previous change boundaries, but only after taking some action to extend these limits (e.g., hiring more resilient people; better preparing current employees; eliminating peripheral, less critical initiatives that drain adaptation resources; getting ready to turn the inevitable resistance that surfaces during major change projects in an implementation). Regardless of the nature of their actions, before they press the adaptation envelope, these leaders enhance their organization’s ability to cope. In doing so, they establish the groundwork for attempting more change than has been absorbed in the past.
Leaders striving for a nimble status know that the only way to test the results of their efforts to increase change capacity is to cautiously but decisively thrust the system past its previous benchmark and into uncharted waters. Just as some losses are incurred with any investment strategy and a certain number of failures result from innovative solutions, the price for increasing nimbleness is always some level of future shock dysfunction. If the future shock jolt is too great, the current project will fail to meet its objectives, and the damage done to the organization’s absorption mechanisms will reduce the likelihood of success with future change initiatives.
On the other hand, if the boundaries of change are not seriously challenged on an ongoing basis, the organization will be unable to keep pace with the accelerating magnitude of the transition demands being imposed by a competitive market. Leaders must keep their organization in a never-ending contained slide, always pushing the limits of the adaptation envelope without losing control and falling into full chaos. This calls for inoculating companies with just the right amount of future shock to prevent a more lethal case of adaptation deficiency than they can survive…pushing just slightly past the point where people begin to display early signs of dysfunctional behavior.
In my last post, I described nimble organizations as those with a sustained ability to quickly and effectively respond to the demands of change while delivering high performance. Constrained organizations, on the other hand, constantly inhibit their own efforts to implement change.
Today, clients struggle with perpetual unrest and ongoing change, and there is no terrain without vulnerability—only greater or lesser risk and liability. Constrained organizations see themselves as having to choose between two hazards: non-competitive order or hyper-unstable chaos. They fear that if they under-use their adaptation capacity, they won’t be able to keep pace with market demands that are growing increasingly dynamic and competitive. Yet, if they thrust more change on their people than they can effectively absorb, they end up with watered-down results, causing morale to suffer and people to lose confidence in leadership.
Nimble organizations have a different perspective on the same two forces. They believe that between bedlam and calm resides a narrow realm where agility can be fostered. At the point where order and chaos most closely resemble one another, there exists the greatest possibility for broadening human capacity to adapt to instability and uncertainty.
Future shock happens when people can no longer adapt to the change load without beginning to slip on quality, productivity, and safety standards. Paradoxically, where future shock resides is also where nimbleness thrives. It is here, as future shock symptoms are only beginning to cause problems, that optimum agility can be attained before the cost of change overload becomes too great.
Nimbleness Resides Between Order and Chaos
As dangerous as future shock is, leaders of nimble organizations intentionally use it to help foster the agility they prize so highly. But how can something dysfunctional by nature be such an asset? To grasp the apparent contradiction of deliberately thrusting more change on people than they can deal with, it’s important to understand more about the struggle between order and chaos.
Order and chaos are competing forces caught in a synergistic dance. Each force represents a separate and powerful influence that acts to balance the impact of the other. The choreography between them reveals that they are counterweights to each other and inextricably bound together. Isn’t it fascinating that the nimble organization lives in the eye of such a storm?
For most organizations, the chaos of too much change doesn’t cause an immediate, noticeable explosion of symptoms. Future shock usually surfaces gradually. It is this progressive aspect of chaos that allows it to have an enabling relationship to nimbleness.
Any amount of future shock is dangerous, but in the formative phase, there also exists the potential for a great deal of flexibility. It is at this early stage of future shock that an optimum amount of agility can be attained before the cost of dysfunction becomes too great. Initial future shock precedes full-scale chaos and creates an environment where nimbleness can emerge.
Think of emerging future shock as if it were a potentially dangerous medical treatment that, if administered properly, could become a lifesaving remedy (e.g., radioactive material used to fight cancer; Warfarin, used to kill rats, given in small doses to humans as a blood thinner; polio and measles viruses introduced in small amounts to provide disease resistance).
If calibrated appropriately, certain adversities can be used to promote opportunity. The same can be said for future shock. Even in moderate doses, it can cause insurmountable blockage to an organization’s competitiveness, if not its viability. Yet, a lighter measure of too much change allows an organization to stretch its ability to adapt; the price for doing so does not exceed the gains achieved.
“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”
As change facilitators, we are just as vulnerable as any professional to becoming so focused on the tactical trees in front of us that we lose sight of the forest. Compare this with the orthopedic surgeon who diagnoses the stress fracture but dismisses repeated migraines, or the urban planner who develops his piece de resistance in one small section of town, but ignores expanding decay in surrounding areas.
We run the risk of being so focused on helping organizations with their individual change endeavors that we don’t take into account their ability to address change from a generic standpoint. If we are riveted to the initiatives at hand, we can fail to help prepare our clients for changes that haven’t even been identified yet. When this happens, we unintentionally keep them in a strictly reactive mode instead of helping them also address the preventive side to execution…helping them get ready for ongoing disruption, not just for the next project that has been announced.
Beyond the implementation of specific change efforts, practicing our craft should also deal with fostering nimble organizations. The question is—are we paying sufficient attention to this aspect of our work?
The marketplace is extremely turbulent, and there are no indications that it will become any less so in the future. No sector is immune—public, private, governmental, and non-profit must all contend with this turmoil. In such an environment, success is only possible by rapid, masterful responses to shifting external pressures/opportunities and internally driven initiatives. The organizations that will survive—and thrive—will be those that demonstrate agile execution.
Execution Aptitude: Two Types of Organizations
Over time, organizations show patterns of mindsets and behaviors that reflect how well they can adjust in order to remain successful. These patterns provide insight to an organization’s location on a continuum that runs from constrained to nimble. Few organizations fall at either extreme of the continuum. Most are somewhere in the middle, but clearly demonstrate a strong leaning toward one or the other pole.
The Constrained Profile
Constrained organizations pursue change, but thwart their own efforts to implement. Some consciously avoid as much change as they can. Most see the need for some key transitions, but can’t execute them.
Here are some of the symptoms of a constrained organization:
Here are some characteristics of the people who populate constrained organizations:
The Nimble Profile
In contrast, nimble organizations consistently succeed in unpredictable, competitive environments by quickly and effectively modifying their operations when necessary.
Here are some characteristics of nimble organizations:
Characteristics of people in nimble organizations: