“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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What competencies do leaders and agents need to excel at in order to be successful? Are you building a Community of Practice or Centre of Excellence? What’s on your list?
Below is my top-ten list for change leaders. In two weeks, the post will list my top-ten competencies for change agents—and a bonus list for change targets.
School of Hard Knocks and Sherpas
There is no greater teacher than experience. Whether you are a leader or an agent, every experience will teach you more than any training, and arm you more than any tool or methodology. Find ways to work with more experienced practitioners and, if possible, find a mentor. Mentors can be like sherpas—they have travelled the journey many times before and can act as interpreters and guides.
1. "Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest", Peter Block, Berret-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 1996
2. “The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking”, Roger Martin, 2009.
3. “Change The Way You Lead Change”, David Herold and Donald Fedor, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California 2008.
It’s a seductive reality: strategic change may be the most exciting endeavour of an executive’s career.It compares with climbing Mount Everest?not everybody makes it on the first attempt, some don’t survive, but those who succeed are considered heroes.
The difference is that for most organizations committed to a strategic change, it is a business imperative. There is no backing down - re-tries have additional risks.
We are not talking here about linear, progressive change, but rather 90- degree turns or even 180s?we are talking about the kinds of strategy that makes or breaks the organization’s future. This is the kind of change that is rocket fuel to start-ups like Facebook and LinkedIn; the elusive Fountain of Youth for dinosaurs like Kodak, Nokia, Canadian Pacific and JC Penney; and Buckley's Cough Syrup for every organization in between.
Because strategic change is so complex and dynamic it takes years to develop successful, comprehensive approaches. Early attempts, such as Project Management, were linear. Change Management added another dimension. Anecdotal information suggests that these have improved effectiveness and yet still there are gaps.
The legendary “70% failure rate” and the real rate
Since 1993, when Hammer and Champy famously quoted the following 70% failure rate, it has been burned into our collective conscious: “Sadly, we must report that despite the success stories described in previous chapters, many companies that begin reengineering don’t succeed at it…Our unscientific estimate is that as many as 50 percent to 70 percent of the organizations that undertake a reengineering effort do not achieve the dramatic results they intended.” 
This has been reiterated in subsequent studies (for example “Success Rates for Different Types of Organizational Change”  and repeated ad nauseum by every consultant selling a solution (a challenge from our chairman here http://connerpartners.com/how-challenging-is-the-change/the-dirty-little-secret-behind-the-70-failure-rate-of-change-projects).
Notwithstanding all the sales pressure, it has resonated with leaders and managers alike precisely because it reflects our common frustrations.
The real rate is unknown. However, the only real rate that matters is the organization’s rate of success/failure. This can be examined and improved.
Breaking it down—and building it back up
As with most complex problems, it has taken time to break down change management into discrete and treatable elements. Project Management has been elevated to address delivering on-time, on-budget and on-scope at the Program and Portfolio levels as well. Change Management emerged to increase commitment and adoption.
Yet, even after closing these gaps, there were still shortfalls. Even in projects where strong project management and change management are effective there are still places where teams have to “muscle through”.
“We moved past change management 10 years ago,” our chairman, Daryl Conner, said. We were talking about Strategy Execution with a client and there was an obvious moment of reflection in the group. “Yeah,” I thought.
Conner Partners (formerly ODR) is most well-known for advancing theory and practice of change management. And yes, while our methodology includes change management, this is only one part of our Strategy Execution approach.
Daryl went on to explain, “As we studied the patterns of winners and losers in transformational change, it became clear that there were gaps beyond change management. Our current approach addresses these.”
Differentiating between symptoms and root causes is not easy.
An example:It is widely accepted that the most significant critical success factor in executing change is the performance of leadership, specifically the sponsors’. Even after breaking down more specific role definitions and competencies and getting leaders to fully lean into these important activities we still found gaps – between sponsors.
It became clear that we had assumed full commitment from all sponsors and that they would cooperate together. However, systemically, organizations are not set up this way. Most hierarchical organization charts require tasks to be parsed apart and delegated discretely. Getting tight alignment at the leadership level for cross-functional, transformational change requires specific activities and explicit contracting. Building a successful consulting offer to tackle this obstreperous challenge has not happened overnight—we do this today through a comprehensive offer we call “Managing Intent”.
The fact is that on the market today, there is no public end-to-end, top-to-bottom approach. Some come close, but ultimately those organizations (or even teams) who are determined to compete will develop their own.
What are the frontiers of strategy execution and change management?
In 2010 I wrote the first version of a white paper to try to create a framework to describe the various interconnected elements as applied to innovation capability, “Call to Action: Power innovation bandwidth with the 9 pistons of the Change Management engine” (http://www.symphini.com/doc/Call%20to%20Action%20to%20Power%20Innovation%20with%20the%209%20pistons%20of%20CM%20engine%20v10.pdf). This was an unconventional and fledgling approach (business, not organizational design perspective) and it still needs work.
However, the underlying business challenge remains unsolved (i.e., how to think efficiently about and comprehensively improve an organization’s needs for change capability).
 “Reengineering the corporation: a manifesto for business revolution”, Michael Hammer and James A Champy, Harpercollins, 1993.
 “Success Rates for Different Types of Organizational Change”, Martin E. Smith, PhD, Performance Improvement, Volume 41, Number 1, January 2002.
Seems like many organizations are looking for the secret to effective strategic execution?the one thing that will fix the so-called 70% failure rate. The problem is (and we all know it deep down), there are no simple solutions for complex problems. In this series, I will look at the conventional “silver bullets” and explore why none work alone and each is only moderately effective in its common form.