January 28, 2013
I've read about how important it is to be agile in today's workplace.
So I tried typing that first sentence with my toes while balancing on one arm atop a cubicle wall. I fell twice and sprained my ankle.
Fortunately, that's not the kind of agile that matters.
Being agile in the working world means being adaptable, managing change, trying to keep pace with technology and consumers' ever-evolving needs and desires.
This is not something most American companies -- and many employees, for that matter — do well. We tend to get stuck in our ways, locked in the classic conversation:
"Why do we do things this way?"
"Because that's the way we've always done them."
A new survey by the workforce research firm i4cp found that companies consider the top two "critical issues for 2013" to be "managing/coping with change" and "managing organizational change." And yet the study found that only 35 percent of the best-performing organizations are effective at managing change.
"When it comes to the leadership properties in a lot of companies, they remain status quo," said Kevin Martin, chief research and marketing officer at i4cp. "You have to have agile leaders. The mantra should be, ‘We need to change internally as fast or faster than the market is changing externally.'"
In many companies, implementing change is like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier. Projects often become monthslong endeavors where team members cannot make decisions without clearance from multiple rungs of management.
The argument here is that companies should function more like youthful gymnasts than arthritic octogenarians. Steve Denning, author of "The Guide to Radical Management," said businesses that can't continually innovate have short life expectancies.
He gave me several principles for a company to become more agile.
Instead of focusing on making money, focus on delivering value to and delighting customers.
Instead of having managers controlling individuals in teams, let the teams self-organize.
Have teams that work in short cycles, with managers whose main role is to remove things that might get in the way of their work. At the end of each cycle, review what has been done and move on to the project's next step, learning from any mistakes that were made.
Keep communication horizontal, not vertical. Rather than receiving vague directions from on high, have face-to-face conversations, make sure everyone understands a directive and then get to work.
I particularly like the idea of projects being done in segments that don't eat up too much time. How often have you seen a work project drag on -- and lead to something feeble? The agile approach empowers the team members working on the project, giving them the freedom to be innovative and smart, while reviewing the work piece by piece so it succeeds.
"Companies like Apple and Amazon and others, they're all using this type of management and crushing the competition," Denning said. "It's a transformation. It's under way, and it's happening on a large scale."
Derek Wade, president of Kumido Adaptive Strategies and a Chicago-based board member of a national group called the Agile Leadership Network, said agile companies are "trying to amplify the characteristics of humanity as opposed to trying to mechanize them."
"As an agile leader, you say, 'I've got people. I know that they do good work and I'm going to give them this problem and they get days or weeks to work on it and show me what they've achieved,'" Wade said. "The responsibility is among the people to figure out how they're going to organize to get the job done. It's a framework that enables rapid group learning."
And it also makes it easier for companies to shift as market demands change.
"It comes down to tapping our own basic, evolved ability for adaptation and change, which is often driven out of most organizations by traditional management structures," Wade said.
There are plenty of workers who would function well in this kind of a system. My sense is that more often than not, traditional management structures keep employees from reaching their full potential.
So what do you do if you're an agile worker at a company that isn't agile?
"It's always important for the employee to go to the boss," Martin said. "If they're not clear on where the business is going, then they need to meet with their boss and get it figured out. You need to ask yourself a question: Are you in a position where you can influence where the company is going? If you're not, then it sounds like that might be an opportunity for someone to find a new opportunity."
For some companies, particularly in manufacturing, this approach may not be the best fit. But for most others, it's a wave that's likely to grow.
Better to hop on the wave now and learn how to balance. A skill I could have used while repeatedly falling off the cubicle wall.
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