“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” ? Ralph Waldo Emerson
In this post, I interview Daryl about what “nimble” means, why it is a strategic imperative, and why it seems to be so difficult for organizations to get traction with it.
For full disclosure, I work with Conner Partners, so I do have a bias. However, Daryl’s work of 40+ years speaks for itself—and you can make up your own mind. Please do share your comments below.
There are many definitions of “agile” and “nimble” in the business world. I know that you have a very precise meaning in mind. Would you share it?
Sure. The definition I use is “the organization’s sustained ability to quickly and effectively respond to the demands of change while delivering high performance.”
Some would say, “As long as you win the race you are first,” but I view nimbleness as a sustained, competitive, strategic advantage. It’s not enough just to ask, “Did we accomplish more change than our competitors this year?” Becoming truly nimble requires looking at the amount of energy that goes into accomplishing those changes and saying, “Was it optimized?”
In his own blog series, Nimble Organization, Daryl explores this further. In post 4 of that series, “Characteristics of Nimble Execution”, Daryl outlines the characteristics of organizations that are nimble at strategy execution:
As he notes, two components work together—environment and application:
How important is nimble for leaders today?
I published “Leading at the Edge of Chaos: How to Create the Nimble Organization” in 1998 and I thought then that I was late to the nimble game. But that was wrong. My first book, “Managing at the Speed of Change” (published in 1992), was about understanding how to implement the changes you have in front of you; “Leading at the Edge of Chaos” was about how to prepare for changes you can’t even envision.
The responses to the books, and many of the subsequent conversations I’ve had since their publication have been pretty consistent. There is an overwhelmingly positive affirmation of the idea of nimbleness. Leaders often say to me, “That’s exactly right. That’s what we have to do.”
I then make the point with them that, if you want your organization to be nimble, you have to treat executing change as a strategic capability. For example, it needs to be something you and your board talk about and take action on. This is when their interest in the idea of nimbleness starts to taper off. When it comes down to actually creating nimble DNA, I’ve found that very few leaders will invest the energy and mindshare that is required. They are so focused on the current change-related challenges that they can’t pick their heads up long enough to attend to a longer view.
Even though I‘ve had many such conversations with a wide range of executives, at this point in the discussion, I hear similar views: “Look, we are so overwhelmed with our existing portfolio of changes that you are going to have your hands full just teaching us how to deal with that. Isn’t it possible, Daryl, that if we manage this portfolio better with your help, we’ll automatically be more nimble? Can’t we leave it at that?”
My response is always, “Yes, you probably will be more nimble to an extent, but don’t confuse that with deeply embedding nimble DNA—at the level of personal mindsets and organizational structure—enough for people to be able to handle ongoing transformation as the norm. Will you be better prepared for new transitions after executing the changes you have before you? Of course you will, but that’s different than putting a stake in the ground and declaring that “It is imperative to become more intentional about being nimble…On my watch, this is going to happen.”
I have unsuccessfully made the case for years that being nimble is a crucial strategic advantage, not a luxury. Not that leaders aren’t responsive to the general notion, but actually following through with all the hard work involved in getting there is often not as well received. Getting a leader’s attention, interest, and enthusiasm isn’t that hard, but not many follow through with what it takes to actually build an enduring legacy of nimble operations. They almost always get diverted by the next crisis.
So, why don’t more organizations focus on becoming nimble?
There are many reasons, but one is that they fear they will have to stop what they are doing and pick up a separate task called nimble development.
That’s not really how it works, however. Shaping a nimble culture requires that leaders still do everything normally required of them, but they do it with the clear intention of fostering a nimble enterprise. For example, if an organization is seeking new talent anyway, why not hire people who have a predisposition for operating in a nimble fashion? Leaders know (or can learn) what those capabilities are and can incorporate a filter for nimble predisposition into their hiring criteria. Instead, I typically meet with leaders one week when they declare they are ready to move ahead with fostering a nimble culture (“We’re doing this!”), but by the next week, they meet with the board and there is a new customer service crisis or some other issue and all of their attention goes to that.
I’ve been fortunate over the years to work with several senior executives who were serious about architecting a nimble culture, so I’m not saying it never happens—I’m saying it is rare.
Does that mean organizations are not good at juggling multiple strategic priorities?
I think it’s more the reverse of that. They think they are so good at pursuing a huge number of priorities that they believe they can just add nimbleness to the ever-growing list of initiatives their organization must then endure.
More to come
Daryl shared more insights in the interview than can be covered in a single post, including thoughts on how leaders can manage their multiple strategic imperatives andstay focused on building organizational bandwidth and capability for “quickly and effectively responding to the demands of change while delivering high performance,” (i.e., a nimble culture).
Thoughts? Reactions? Please share in the Comments section.
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The panel was stellar, with names well known to board and strategy watchers: Thomas O’Neill, Krystyna Hoeg, Stephen Bear, and Ken Smith (bios in Post 1). Overall, I found it a great overview of the most obvious answers to the seven questions, peppered with relevant examples and a few deeply insightful remarks.
The bottom line for me? The board members totally “get” the need to be engaged in strategy formulation; however, there was not much conversation about execution. Granted, it was not specifically called out in the abstract but I had hoped it would get more mention. The jury is out for me on what to make of the fact that it didn’t.
Question 6: Is scenario planning more popular now?
Of course, Stephen Bear kicked off, sharing his deep experience from McKinsey. He noted that, when done well, this is an important strategy formulation tool and that it provides a way to manage the sometimes “schizophrenic tension” between short-term performance expectations and ensuring health over the long term. It is a tool to ensure that we are investing in both at all times.
I confess, I lost a little traction with the note-taking here. I am sure Ms. Hoeg and Mr. O’Neill commented, but I caught myself reflecting that this all still falls short of the high-level oversight on realization of results (that I read into “board oversight of growth strategy”) that I was hoping for. I realized that my own biases had shaped my expectations.
Question 7: What is the relationship between management and the board regarding strategy development? Do we expect management to resist and object? Do we expect them to say, “It’s my job. If you don’t like it, fire me”?
Ms. Hoeg referenced her experience at Shoppers Drug Mart and noted that it was not long ago that the board brought Domenic Pilla into the president and CEO role. They had done so, realizing that a strategic refresh was in order, and recognizing that he would need time to learn the organization and prepare that plan. She noted that management went shopping for a strategic advisor and prepared two or three plans. The board was engaged in these processes. A five-year plan was produced that looked at what the organization could do organically and, alternatively, through mergers/acquisitions. This really served to put the board in a “ready state.”
Thomas O’Neill noted that “down the hall” at Loblaw, where he is a board member, they were looking at their strategy. They recognized that the grocery industry had peaked a couple of years ago and was stabilizing around three companies (i.e., “it was time to do a deal”). Loblaw made a bid for Shoppers and the acquisition is underway.
Mr. Bear weighed in with the observation that sometimes board members end up asking a lot of questions, sometimes the wrong questions. He cautioned that this can waste precious time. He also noted that, at times, the role of the chairman and CEO is to work with the board members to focus.
Mr. Smith invited each panel member to have a “last word” before he opened the floor to questions:
All in all, this event was well worth the time. The opportunity to see how board members think was fascinating and to hear some of their “war stories” was intriguing. I will be attending more of these events.
Our interest in such matters tends to track along with the economy. Given that the recovery is in full swing, we are well into transformational growth strategies. Acquisition announcements, such as Sobeys’ purchase of Canada Safeway, Loblaw’s purchase of Shoppers Drug Mart, and many other dramatic shifts, are examples of growth strategies that have our attention.
As these proceed into execution, we will have an opportunity to shine the spotlight on the board’s role in this critical step.
Presently, I come at this from the perspective of an investor in institutional funds that buy into these corporate strategies. The very sharp point of my own motivation is to gain from these strategies—and when they fail (as they did wildly in the sub-prime mortgage crisis) I know I bear the risk. Chances are, you are in the same boat. I also bring 20+ years of strategy execution experience to the table. I know, viscerally, how difficult this is. What I wonder is, “do boards?”
I believe there are ways to provide boards with efficient and insightful means to track execution and to require the organization to build change agility. Here are some examples that would focus their diligence, bring their deep experience to bear, and deepen the organization’s—and the board’s—capabilities:
Over the next several months, the role of the board in Strategy Execution is a theme I will continue to pursue.
Thoughts? Reactions? Please share in the Comments section.
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“A rising tide lifts all boats”—John F. Kennedy
There are, of course, many compelling reasons to take a vacation, but here is one that reconciles with your business objectives.
Go slow to go fast.
To bring our best selves forward to complex and high-pressure strategy, we need clear minds and fulsome spirits.
Optimize your rejuvenation
We all need to rejuvenate in different ways, of course. However, it seems to me there are three simple, but key, ingredients:
The body has physical needs. There is no point disputing this. “Mind over matter” only works until it matters. When we are physically run down, our bodies shut down for us. Let’s not get there.
A few weeks ago, my husband, my two sons, and I took a trip to Bermuda. It’s my homeland; my children were born there, and we lived there for five years in the late nineties. It is at once both familiar and intriguing. For all of us, it was a chance to kick back, sleep, eat, reflect, and explore. It was just what we needed to reenergize ourselves.
Decision One: “Go with the flow”
The first decision we made was to “go with the flow.” We slept every morning until we weren’t tired anymore. Then we ate, healthy, as needed.
Over a couple of days we could all feel our clarity coming back. We became more interested in the events around us, more curious, more demanding. A great golf game for the boys and a little exploring in the city began gearing us all up.
Our conversations turned lazily to the issues we have been wrestling with. For our teenage boys it was about how school was going, decisions around course selection, university options, and summer jobs. But without the intensity that pressure brings, our conversations were reflective and interactive.
Turning over the issues like rocks on the beach, looking at the implications less passionately, more curiously, more resourcefully, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” became “What are you interested in? What is important to you?” One conversation even turned into “If you were going to get a tattoo, what would you want on your body forever?”
Reuniting with our best selves
It has occurred to me before that under pressure of strategy execution or any other major change, we lose sight of who we are. We become a product of that environment. We get wound tighter and tighter. Our best selves fade into the background.
Returning to familiar things and places reminds us of our best selves. This gives us confidence, inspires us, rejuvenates us. All around us are memories of accomplishment and people who believe in us. This is powerful stuff. It frees us of our insecurities and feeds our courage.
Decision Two: Explore
The second decision we made was to explore?to do some things we have never done?get outside our comfort zone. I was born on this little rock, 21 miles long and 3 miles wide in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and I have only been off-shore once before. This year we decided to go whale watching. It was long-time dream of mine and my family humored me.
We were all somewhat intimidated. The sea is vast and even six miles off shore is farther than any of us could swim. The thought of seeing wild whales bigger than our 45-foot boat filled us with both awe and fear. Not to mention the risk of being seasick for six hours…
Curious to hear about our whale-watching adventure? The only thing better than a real vacation is a vicarious one. Stay tuned for Post 3 next week. Want to subscribe? Sign up top left.
“Be careful what you ask for cause you just might get it.” Refrain from “When I Grow Up” by The Pussycat Dolls
Many organizations are chasing the “innovation” strategy. We want all of the benefits, don’t we?
We want the shiny design, the “loyalty” of our clients, the envy of our competitors, and the bountiful revenue.
This is “hot” change. Maybe uncomfortably hot.
What price is the organization willing to pay?
What price are you, the leader, willing to pay? How about you, the employee?
If it were easy, someone else would already be doing it.
Real breakthrough (there’s a shiny word) innovation is hard. Anyone who has even attempted it and failed knows how perilous this journey is.
It is perilous for at least three reasons. This post looks at:
Aligning with the four corners of the “earth”
There are at least four sources for innovation, inspiration, and collaboration:
For some organizations, there may be many more sources. For example, your Board and investors might want to weigh in; volunteers (in hospitals, for example) might have a useful perspective.
The point here is that these are very diverse constituencies with different experiences with your “product” (or service or opportunity) and very different agendas. There are “interests” and polarities to be managed. Their opinions will diverge greatly and converge powerfully.
Engaging them has been referred to as “herding cats” or “riding rodeo.” It requires a certain set of skills. Some organizations call it “stakeholder management” — I actually prefer the term “stakeholder engagement.”
Keeping the team together on the journey to innovation
The status quo may not be brilliant but it is often comfortable. It is known and predictable.
Some might have said that the Murphy beds of the 1950s were more than adequate (see Post 1). Why go through the effort of innovating it?
There are a lot of reasons to get stuck, to resist — for the initiative to stall out or flame out and lots of factors:
The leaders must remain resolute and must be energetic in continuing to engage their teams and constituencies. It takes powerful momentum to keep the innovation freight train moving — it takes all of the change execution skills and resources you can muster.
One of the Conner Partners leadership mindsets about transformational change strikes me here:
“Sponsors and agents aren’t there to make people comfortable during change—their job is to help them succeed despite the inevitable discomfort” (“Realization Mindset for Sponsors”).
“The inevitable discomfort”
In the previous post, I talked about strategic intent and the clarity leaders gain in that process. It is essential to share and perpetuate that clarity throughout the organization and the constituencies involved. It is only the first step toward managing discomfort.
Many change management approaches rely solely on broadcasting communication for this. You know what it looks like: townhall meetings, webinars, emails, intranet websites. These are good, but insufficient. People need to talk through their doubts and reservations. And, rather inconveniently, we all need to talk through it more than once.
Previously, I have referred to the commitment curve. We tend to think that we help people get on the commitment path and they stay on it. Nothing could be further from the truth. At every point in time, it is human nature to assess new information coming in. We can stall or drop out at any point, and we often do?usually when we become uncomfortable.
When leaders at each level of the organization talk with their people regularly they can head off discomfort by providing additional information and clarification or sometimes by reminding them about the benefits and consequences for the organizations and themselves.
Because innovation is fraught with ambiguity, the need for ongoing conversations is even more imperative than in other change. Information is updated regularly and decisions are made on the fly. It is easy to get left behind and feel out of the loop. Great leaders mitigate this and keep people aligned by sharing updates and discussing implications.
Innovation is one of the single most important strategies of our generation. It is more than a competitive advantage?the future of our organizations, communities, and economies depends on it.
Innovation is transformational change. Let’s invest in understanding how to do it well.
Are you in the midst of this struggle? Let’s talk [email protected]
“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”?Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Isn’t that what great leadership does—teach us to long for the endless immensity of the future?
That is not nearly as easy as it sounds. It is about more than the typical prescription for “vision.”
Actually, more great leadership is what I long for these days. I long for strategic leaders who have oceans of imagination, energy, momentum, and resolve. You don’t see it so much as you feel it, and are swept in by it. It aligns with your values and calls your best self forward. It reminds you of what is possible—what you are capable of.
This is not about charisma, with its shallow veneer and gloss of likeability. It is about something much deeper—personal commitment.
Great leadership inspires words such as “legacy,” “visionary,” “influencer,” and “exemplar.” Most leaders have heard this calling, even if it has been reduced to a whisper.
And, yes, before all the scholars and trainers get agitated, there are excellent leadership techniques, skills, and capabilities. But those will only empower the underlying motivations.
Real leadership is about who you are, what you stand for, and what you dream about.
Most of us are capable of drawing on this, but we get sidetracked. We become disappointed, frustrated, and disillusioned. We sell our souls for job security, bonus, and promotions. We fear change and what it might mean for us. We lose our capacity to dare.
There is a way back.
The heart of a great leader keeps beating on the dream of making a difference.
We are waiting for you.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it
Are you also longing for leadership? Send this post to your leaders as encouragement and a vote of confidence. Post it in the cafeteria or in the gym, “share” it, “re-tweet” it—get the message out there. Make your own voice heard. Talk to your leadership; ask them what inspires them and what their greatest hopes are for the organization, for your community, for the economy. Ask how you can support them.
Are you a leader who has lost the spark? What first intrigued you? What did you think you might be able to do? What would you do if you had nothing to lose? What is the future that you want to live into? Please, re-discover the leader in you.
Are you an emerging leader? Yes, you are. Walk tall. Get up when you stumble. Be bold.
Are you a follower? Don’t wait. There is a leader in you. Be a voice of hope and determination. Lead discussions on future possibilities.
Above all, look to the future.