“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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“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” —Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
What is this all about? Is this an approach whose time has come? Are organizations actually approaching execution in a systematic way? Or are consultants just promoting the next fad?
Who is talking about Strategy Execution?
On November 11, 2013, a Google search yields ~30M responses (which compares to ~699M responses for Project Management and ~48M for Change Management). Granted, this is a very blunt instrument with which to measure activity but it is interesting. Thirty million responses suggests there is some chatter.
I happen to monitor Strategy Execution because I figured out about a decade ago, on reading “Execution: The discipline of getting things done” by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, that this is what I do. I realized then that I had deep insight and experience in only a few components of it and set out to get an understanding of the broader picture. Even last year when I put together the series on “Strategy Execution Methodologies” it was not such an easy or straight-forward piece of work. There are many who talk in terms of principles—motherhood, if you will—but very few who can translate this into operational process.
Back in 2002/03, references to strategy execution were lower case, as if it were a category like performance improvement or operational efficiency. Not too many people were talking about Strategy Execution. Don’t get me wrong, many consultants use the phrase “strategy execution,” typically as a generic reference to a set of competences or processes, but not as a standard discipline.
Years ago, when I started looking for thought leaders on Strategy Execution, outside of the usual consulting firms who promote their services but publicly provide little in the way of research or process, I found only Conner Partners. Granted, the firm’s inception out of ODR in 2004 gave it a very OD-related perspective; however, the innovative approach was also peppered with bottom-line concepts including strategic alignment, installation vs. realization, and the integration of change management and project management. The firm has continued innovating and you can catch the latest perspectives on “Successful Strategy Execution” in this 21st Century Business Television Series showing across various US cable networks in November 2013.
Other distinctive training and consulting offers have emerged. Here are some examples:
Of note, although a lesser-known name, Joe Evans at Method Frameworks is producing some very insightful and pragmatic tools, techniques, and approaches.
What’s that chatter all about? And why is it “hot” now?
There is a general recognition that the rate and degree of change that organizations are required to make to remain competitive is still increasing. Further, there is a level of anxiety around the low success rates that most organizations have with strategy execution (more on this in “Time to kill the phantom 70% failure rate?”).
As the complexity of strategy has increased and the pressure rises to implement faster, organizations are pressed to coordinate and deliver to higher standards. This is creating interest in the nascent discipline of Strategy Execution.
However, this is not your mother’s Project Management. Project Management emerged years ago and has continued to evolve. It has moved faster than leaders’ understanding of it. Program and Portfolio Management are still not widely appreciated. And yet, only just this August, PMI released a discussion paper on integrating change management (more on this in a subsequent post).
Agree and disagree
There is no standard definition of Strategy Execution so some approaches will agree on some components and disagree on others.
To my mind Strategy Execution is the C-Suite-to-front-line, beginning-to-end conception-to-execution of strategy—from approved Business Case to sustainable results. This means integrating three key components:
Where most thought leadership still falls short, though, is in how to operationalize these in a comprehensive and, yet flexible, approach.
Sure, there is a commercial angle here. Most of the sources noted are consultants and training providers, so if you want to know more about how to execute, you should, of course, retain them and/or take their training. Buyer beware though, in my opinion, most of these are still emergent. My own experience and networking suggests that many large organizations that have thoroughly reviewed some of these offers are still faced with cobbling multiple approaches together to create “ABC Company’s Delivery Approach.”
What is “bigger” than Strategy Execution?
As fast as we are running to help organizations become better, faster, and more effective at Strategy Execution, most organizations are also missing a bigger opportunity.
Surely it has become clear that the notion of stepped change (i.e., make a change, then milk that new competitive advantage, then later change again) is an anachronism. Organizations need to change constantly. This will continue to be a process, but it need not be an ordeal. Organizations need to develop competencies around change. They need to develop a culture of change, an appetite for change.
Many thought leaders have written about “change agility” and the “nimble organization,” but it seems that most organizations are focused on current needs rather than developing deeper capabilities.
Meanwhile, newer organizations in newer industries such as technology and communications seem to have been born into a more dynamic state. Organizations such as Apple, Amazon, and Google live to change.
Imagine the impact on our economy if all of our organizations were highly adaptable.
We are just scratching the surface of this topic. More to come.
So, who do you follow on the subject of Strategy Execution? Or on creating a nimble culture?
“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]
“I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.”?Oliver Wendell Holmes
What does breakthrough innovation look like?
Let’s start with a common reference point. Say, something boring made stunning.
Something you thought you would never use, like, or buy that you suddenly reconsider.
A friend sent me this great videoof modular, multi-purpose furniture. “Yawn,” you say? Look again.
This stuff is elegant and remarkable:
Everything about this furniture is deliberate, thoughtful, and optimized. Look again at the hinge on the bunk bed at 4:24?it is below center so that the bed folds under the shelf. Even big parts like the fold-down double bed work silently and move effortlessly.
Yes, the end product looks so elegant as to be simple. However, as Ron Barth explains, the furniture systems represent “complete design.” They are the culmination of multi-discipline collaboration: every design involves a furniture designer, a mechanical engineer, and a hardware company. This requires collaboration of a higher order.
Something tells me that achieving this level of innovation (balancing creativity, precision, and quality) has inherent challenges. There are three competing value systems and design criteria to balance. And there is risk on the order of magnitude of: “Can this be done?” and “Will it sell?”
This is not for the faint of heart.
Characteristics of the innovation experience
My own experience with product development involved:
These include and go by many names and disciplines, such as market research and strategy, product management, marketing management. Even project management is brought in for execution. However, one thing was crystal clear: a journey of this kind is not linearand not that predictable.
Innovation requires many different professionals in a process that is intentionally disruptive.
One can either take a big risk and go for the “big bang” (long development and launch full product) or do more rapid-cycle development. Either way, there are always unknowns, and skeptics abound. One must be constantly re-building commitment in the core team, selling the vision across silos, horse-trading for scope (and resources), modifying and re-prioritizing and re-planning. It is quite the ride.
The changes these products bring often alter the way people do their jobs internally. They disrupt individuals’ expectations and can require them to shift their beliefs and behaviors.
As an example, rolling out online banking for retail customers (I know—it seems ancient now but it was only 15 years ago) changed the way individuals banked and changed the face of banking. Among the changes? Less traffic to branches; more and different inquiries to call centers; different types of fraud and money laundering. All of these required role and process changes in the organization.
The old-school approach to product development (pretty much top-down, big bang) was complex enough ?now, however, there is pressure to keep market share by rolling out change quickly, even if in smaller pieces.
Now forward-looking organizations run a multi-year, rolling roadmap of product development that provides for frequent new product roll outs. Just think about Apple’s track record since its first mp3 player. Internally, organizations may be preparing multiple upgrades on the same products concurrently. This level of complexity creates high levels of change, and corresponding stress and anxiety.
Where do breakthroughs come from?
Imagine that to develop and executive your strategy you need to go beyond the core delivery team to call on the brightest minds across your organization, across your supply chain, across your customer base.
It almost makes me giddy—all that potential is thrilling and daunting at the same time.
The first mindset shift is getting people to maintain two concurrent frames of reference:
These two priorities (stability and change) are in conflict with each other and balancing these on a daily basis puts some bandwidth stress, both emotional and physical, on leaders and their teams.
The dream and the reality
Imagine that you can create a customer experience unlike anyone else’s?so simple, seamless, and optimized that your organization is the obvious choice, that even emotional loyalty to an organization that could/would deliver that is outweighed by the pure superiority of the experience itself.
Organizations say they are trying for that every day?yet “stuff” gets in the way:
The secret weapons: understanding, alignment, and commitment
“Simplicity on the far side of complexity” begins with the leadership team.
It begins with a full and detailed understanding of both the dream and the reality. Most organizations assume this. And we know where this leads.
Most organizations assemble the leadership team to develop and anoint the strategy, and then they parse out the components and expect that it will all synchronize. But it doesn’t.
Conner Partners, with over 40 years of execution experience in observing patterns of winners and losers, has revealed a few potent interventions. Leaders often do believe in the strategy. However, commitment at the outset is usually a superficial “uninformed optimism” that breaks down quickly.
A fuller exploration of the strategic intent and the moving parts of the execution plan up front reveals the conflicts that need to be addressed and resolved.
This is work?it challenges the “stuff” that sabotages strategy. The investment in developing explicit, deliberate, and thoughtful alignment around the impact of the strategy pays off. In that process, real commitment can begin.
On the other side of the strategic intent work we see a much more sober, but clear and committed team. Their understanding of the challenges, the opportunity, and the plan forward is crystal clear. It is a form of simplicity on the other side of complexity.
In the next post we’ll look at the nature of dynamic and collaborative breakthrough innovation.
We have been hunkered down for a couple of years following the recession.
In early 2012, I was hopeful that organizations would break back out. However, it seems to me that this is only happening in pockets.
There are a few brave souls on the horizon, however.
Train wrecks dominate
There is plenty of bad news (think crises like the sub-prime catastrophe and Barclays LIBOR manipulation, arguably caused by weak leadership [more here “8 High-Profile Financial Scandals in 5 Months” http://abcnews.go.com/Business/high-profile-financial-scandals-months/story?id=17023140#])
I find myself longing for great leaders?for the potential that they see, and the energy they can generate.
Real inspiration in the face of adversity
I have been impressed with a few leaders in the last several years. I don’t necessarily agree with all of their views or approaches (in fact I may disagree with some). Rather, it is their determination and willingness to stand on their truth that impresses me.
There are many other less-famous leaders who toil every day to make a difference. We are privileged to work with many, but can’t tell their stories without breaking confidentiality agreements. I will, however, share a quote that sent chills down my spine, spoken by one such leader: “I may not be forgiven for launching this strategy.” We all knew in our bones that this strategy was an imperative?that it might not work. We still worry (although we don’t dare say it) that it might damage the organization. Still, he perseveres.
So I am curious. Who inspires you?
Please share names, stories, links in the comments section.