In June 2014 oil (WTI) sold for $105.79 a barrel. Today that same barrel sells for less than $50, and there is little certainty of where it is headed. The oil patch is in for a period of uncertainty and volatility. There is no better time to be agile. There is no time when it is more important to be agile.
Change takes some level of disruption so change is often delayed in deference to the comfort we feel in today. For the oil patch at least, current business conditions have supplied that disruption. The smart money is on those who view that as an opportunity. In times of disruption we have a choice. We can react by pulling back into the supposed comforts of the past, what we have done, what we know to do. Or instead we can be proactive by using the disruption to build leaner, more resilient, more responsive, more agile organizations for tomorrow.
At its core, agility is team focused. We want teams to take initiative and be proactive in doing what they believe is right. We want teams to filter out the noise and focus on getting things done. We want teams to stretch themselves beyond their specific areas of expertise and comfort levels. We want teams to experiment together, to learn together, to find better more effective solutions together. We want teams to take disruption in stride and move forward confidently in the belief that they can make the best of the situation. This is what agility is about. Facing reality, understanding what is truly important, and acting openly to achieve the best outcome possible.
The good news is that we already have those teams. They may be hidden, they may be disengaged, they may be fearful, but those teams exist today. We simply need the courage and the foresight to unleash them. Leadership is required. Leadership that is focused on growth, leadership that is based in trust, leadership that leverages the talents, skills, intuitions, passions, knowledge, hopes of everyone in the building.
How to get started? I'd suggest the following:
Provide a Clear Vision
Leaders need to provide a clear, simply stated, easily understood, broadly communicated vision. Any mission/vision of the past is lost or overlooked in times of disruption. What is needed is clarity of today's purpose. What do the current business circumstances mean to the organization? How will we react? What is the objective? How will we be positioned as we come out of the current disruption? If this is well understood, then people at all levels of the organization can assess whether their current activities are moving the organization in the right direction and make or propose the right changes.
Define Key Priorities
What are the top three things that have to happen to achieve your vision? Define specific, clear actions with observable measurements. Priorities should help teams move forward incrementally. We need to focus on this now, once it is done then we can focus on that. Avoid setting too many priorities to deal with at once. That is the same as setting no priorities and people won't understand what is important or what to do. Provide a small number of priorities so teams can grab hold and make the right things happen.
Gather Feedback Continuously
Inspect and adapt. It's a key agile principle. In times of disruption more than ever we need learning organizations. Organizations that experiment in reasoned ways. Organizations that reflect on the experiment and either adapt to make it better, or end it to try something else. Constant feedback is required. How do we know what we are doing is working? Is the vision actually positioning us where we want to be? Are the key priorities really in alignment with our strategy? Are the objectives really understood by people throughout the organization? Are the day-to-day accomplishments of the organization helping to achieve our priorities? Can people move past distractions to focus on what is important? If we can't answer these questions we cannot make corrections to keep ourselves on course. If we can't answer these questions we cannot understand if we are even on the right course. This may require many leaders to reexamine their approach. Not only do leaders need to know the truth, they have to be willing to hear it. Reacting to the messenger rather than the message only encourages teams not to share the truth. Trust is the order of the day. Without it leaders will not hear anything except what people think they want to hear – that almost never includes the bad news you need to address.
Give Away Control
In adverse times, the natural (and understandable) tendency of many leaders is to grab more control. As a result they become a bottleneck and little action is taken without their specific instruction. As a result the organization is constrained to a single way of thinking and the ideas, contributions, engagement of others are lost. In times of disruption we need a clear set of tangible focused outcomes, and we need the full diversity of our organizations to achieve them. If we want teams to take initiative, to focus on getting things done, to grow, they need the guidance, the freedom, and the autonomy to do so. Leaders need to give control, not take it. Giving control pushes decision making lower in the organization, closer to the problem and the knowledge to address it. Giving control pushes accountability lower in the organization. Giving control builds trust and engagement. Giving control promotes grow, and learning. Giving control says that all of us are smarter than any one of us, and allows a wealth of information and contribution to come together in reaching the best solutions. What do your teams control today? What decisions can they make today without you? What information do they need from you to make better decisions? How can you position them to take more control tomorrow?
Today's business disruptions are opportunities to build the organizations of tomorrow. Examples of agile enterprises abound and the list grows farther outside the Internet startups than you might expect. There is also considerable information available to leaders wanting to grow their agile leadership skills. Steven Denning reaffirms many of the agile principles in Radical Management from purely a business point of view aimed at growing customer delight. David Marquet turned the disruption of a last minute change in command into the opportunity to build a leadership lab aboard a nuclear submarine. His Turn The Ship Around is a compelling story of organizational growth in what many would consider an unlikely setting. Robert Kaplan helps us better understand the leadership challenge in What to Ask the Person in the Mirror. Be prepared for some hard questions you likely don't know the answer to.
Today's world is one of constant change and growing complexity. The challenge is that the pace of both of those is increasing. Reaching back to what was comfortable yesterday; relying on what we knew yesterday is not a recipe for success. Instead we need to look forward. We need leaders who engage everyone at all levels of our organizations. Leaders that reward learning more than complying; trying more than succeeding; collaboration more than heroism. We need leaders who are agile and are building agile organizations. Then when disruptions do come our way, we can face them without trepidation. We'll know that we can face whatever comes and make the best of it.