There is no innovation without agility. I am not talking about agile methods, but agility as a mindset. When I started working with innovation back in 2008, innovation was nice to have. Today, most leaders confront a situation where innovation is need to have and many have experienced the difficulties actually turning innovation ideas and projects into business value and tangible results.
Learning to access more agility is the answer to several of the challenges that leaders confront in the face of everyday change, innovation, new technology and stress. You can try to work more agile, but if you do not increase your individual agility, it is difficult for your organisation to actually become agile.
You may be familiar with the leader who ended an otherwise successful project to minimise risks. This was simply because there were too many unknown factors which were too difficult to predict and too potentially challenging of an outcome to control. Perhaps, you have made a similar decision.
In a stable environment, this is definitely the right thing to do. This is the type of environment where you can anticipate customer behaviour 18 months or more ahead, where you are not in danger of being disrupted, where you are not threatened by stress or new technology, and where success is created by doing the same thing as usual. Yet, in a constantly changing and unpredictable environment, being agile is needed and necessary.
These days, I am giving many motivational speeches on agility. It is a concept that many organisations are embracing. To be agile means to be able to move quickly and easily. It is actually a term that has been used in sports and dog training for a long time. But it only entered the business world and leadership at the beginning of this century with the agile manifesto. However, the concept of agile is nothing new. For decades, researchers (Weick (1976), Mintzberg (1985), Hamel (2012)) have discussed new and more flexible forms of organisation that enable the business to move quickly and easily when things are changing. Yet, what is new is that it requires you, as a leader, to be emotionally agile.
This article first appeared in connection with the leader’s conference series on agile leadership, where the author was also a featured speaker giving a motivational speech on agility.
What is agile?
Agile means to be able to move quickly and easily in its movements (Oxford Dictionary, 2018). The word has been used extensively in sports and dog training, but as a concept, ‘agility’ only entered the business world this millennium.
It was first introduced in a business context as a project management method for innovation and IT development projects. Later, the concept of agility became about emotional agility in a leadership development context.
Examples of agile leaders exist in many places and you probably recognise the traits. With an open mind, agile leaders can navigate uncertainty, act appropriately under pressure, take calculated risks in unknown territories, innovate and create steady momentum in rocky waters.
Agile Leadership in Novo Nordisk
As an Executive Coach, I have the privilege of accessing some amazing and agile brains. An example of an agile leader is Lars Arnoldsen, who is Corporate Vice President of Local Manufacturing at Novo Nordisk A / S. Novo is a leading pharmaceutical company. His area is responsible for building factories in collaboration with local partners.
Agility at Novo Nordisk
Over the past two years, Lars Arnoldsen and his people have redefined several processes and the way in which they have built factories in collaboration with local partners around the world. The redefining of the process often consists of removing processes and requirements, so the organisation can become more LEAN and agile.
For example, they minimised reporting requirements when they found that many of the numbers needed already existed in their systems. There was no need to ask the markets to use resources to report it themselves. The total changes have resulted in a concrete saving of 200 billion, which have the potential to reach 600 billion within a few years.
Like the software engineers who wrote “The Agile Manifesto”, Lars Arnoldsen wants to minimise bureaucracy, business procedures and hierarchy, so that the individual employee has the freedom to act when and where it is needed to respond quickly and easily to challenges.
The Agile Manifesto
At the turn of the century, software markets began to change quickly and unpredictably. The problem was basically that product specifications were already outdated by the time the software reached the customer.
In 2001, 17 rebellious software developers in Snowbird, Utah, met to find better ways to lead software development. They had felt oppressed from bureaucratic procedures that were hampering their ability to meet customers’ ever-changing needs. The result of the meeting became the agile manifesto.
These four adapted principles form the basis of the manifesto:
1. People rather than processes
Projects should be built around motivated people who can get the support they need. It should also be from the people you trust to get the job done. Management’s role should be to remove obstacles to facilitate easier and more fruitful collaboration
2. Talk less, experiment more
Teams should experiment with those small aspects of production which are in close cooperation with a few selected customers for short periods. If customers like what you have developed, keep it. If the customers are unsatisfied, make the necessary corrections or move on to the next product. Instead of spending time in lengthy discussions, team members should resolve strategic disagreements through experimentation.
3. Response to planning
Detailed, conventional project management is a waste of time and money. You should only plan for the tasks that will not have already changed once you reach them. It will create less distance to your customers and develop better results.
4. Centering around the customer, not the contracts
Specifications need to be developed throughout the project because customers can rarely predict what they really want. Therefore, one should not be restricted to contracts. Minimal prototypes, frequent market surveys and ongoing collaboration lend to focusing on what customers will ultimately appreciate.
Here the leader’s role is to set the direction, very often in the form of a vision. It’s important not to micro manage. Employees should be able to act quickly and independently when needed and go to their manager to get support when they want it. This leadership style requires openness and trust.
Storytelling in strategy rollout
One of the tools that Lars Arnoldsen uses to give space to local managers is through stories and metaphors. At the office in Bagsværd, Denmark, he has an artist paint a picture of the metaphors to visualise their strategy.
When Lars rolls out a strategy around the world, he uses different images of aspirations to both visualise and explain the stories. Then, whether in Russia or Algeria, it is up to the local managers to interpret the strategy themselves to suit their context.
Wall art from the Novo Nordisk office illustrating the aspirations from the strategy.
For Lars, it is the dialogue about the metaphor that creates the value, not the metaphor itself. And it can be interpreted in different ways. The trust-building relationship that is developed in the dialogue is fundamental to the implementation.
O.B.S. Trust and openness.
You may have heard it before in some management course, but it still applies: Trust and openness are the glue in relationships. It also welcomes management relationships. Trust and openness enable people to act in uncertainty and stress. Agility requires a lot of free and undefined room to act. On the other hand, if there is no trust and openness, an agile leadership style can create insecurity and stress.
There must be courage
Like the other agile leaders, Lars Arnoldsen must exert bravery to be driven by something greater than himself. He often meets resistance when he implements his progressive ideas. But Lars is not driven by positioning himself, he is driven by creating value, even if it means putting himself at risk.
What you do and the way you set the tone of your organisation, including your ability to handle change, innovation and stress are critical for what your organisation will be able to achieve.
The conduct of the leaders is significant. It is indeed tempting to place all of the responsibility of the leader as well. But it is actually the interaction between management and the organisation that create the results. The organisation’s reward system, culture, structures, goals and role models draw the framework that employees and managers can succeed or fail within. It can, therefore, be beneficial to work at all levels, both organisational, managerial and at the individual level.
Agile management does not have a final destination. You can always become more agile.
An agile organisation is one that can easily and quickly respond to challenges and changes. It can be designed, developed, cultivated and trained.
Agile organisational development
Most of the organisations that have turned to agility have worked with agility at a project level. It might have been used to run some innovation sprints or utilised for some agile project management methods. Netflix is an example where the entire organisation trains to be agile (Hochstein, 2017).
At Netflix, errors are invited within a controlled environment. It keeps employees on their toes. This is similar to how you might practice your emergency preparedness drills in the office in case of fire.
When you want to relax and watch a movie or series, there is nothing more annoying than if the service doesn’t work.
Netflix knows this well. Their movie and TV service is basically a digital platform with a lot of heavy content, where uptime and user experience are crucial to their competitiveness.
Therefore, Netflix has developed a programme called the ‘Chaos Monkey’. The Chaos Monkey works like a virus. At unforeseen times during working hours, employees will encounter errors and knots in the code that the Chaos Monkey has intentionally created and which they will then have to solve. You could call it a digital fire drill (Netflix Technology Blog, 2011).
Netflix is a successful and agile company worth watching. Their annual revenue increased by 32% from 2016-2017, while the financial result tripled to $ 559 million. They have an agile management philosophy and an HR policy that has garnered much attention, which has also been an important factor in their financial success.
Although the organisations where we work create the frameworks for us to succeed or fail, and even though they frame very much for how you can succeed, you can also do something yourself. The higher in the system you sit, the more critical your agility is to the rest of the organisation.’
Courage, security in oneself (rather than in position and status) and the ability to keep one’s brain at rest is a decisive ability for an agile leader. Although, when we feel threatened or stressed, the brain becomes hijacked by the reptile brain.
Avoid getting your brain hijacked
Have you ever experienced your reptile brain? Do you even know what it is? When the reptile brain hijacks your brain, you typically respond in one of the three following ways:
- You become aggressive
- You fail to act
- You hide
This is known as the giant freeze response which can manifest itself in higher or lower degrees.
There is nothing more to it than for you to feel that you are a little too busy or pressured before the amygdala takes over reason. It requires a large portion of self-knowledge and emotional agility to avoid being hijacked by your reptile brain.
The brain’s amygdala is responsible for fear
Your amygdala is the fight-or-flight response in the brain that is stimulated when you encounter something that feels threatening or when you are under pressure. Your brain instinctively tells you that it could potentially be dangerous.
Our brains have not evolved much since we were cavemen, they were after all designed to keep us alive in the Savannah. As a result, the vast majority of us feel uncomfortable when we undergo any change or new experiences.
If you are controlled by your reptile brain and automatically fight against change and new measures, it is difficult to become agile.
The amygdala is far stronger and faster than our frontal lobes, where our logic, creativity, ability to analyse, and potential to see things from other perspectives occur. The amygdala is responsible for quickly activating the frontal lobe to find a lot of good reasons why, for example, the innovation project must end or why we should maintain the status quo rather than acting agile.
But we can overwrite the bottom up process in the brain, by building a personal capacity to confront the automatic response from the amygdala, and make a deliberate action or non-action instead. That is what I call emotional agility.
The concept of agility also describes the individual’s ability to handle negative emotions with self-acceptance, clairvoyance and an open mind.
It is not about ignoring difficult thoughts and feelings, but about being able to recognise them from different perspectives, and then moving past them (David, 2016).
Developing one’s agility and becoming a stronger version of oneself is something leaders of the largest companies in the world must frequently do. You too can access yours. Everyone’s brains have neuroplasticity. That is, we can develop our brains and ourselves throughout life when we are motivated.
It is not essential for everything and everyone to be agile. However, anything that requires significant changes in a short amount of time, require an agile approach. Agile executives can create great results in a short period of time. This not only applies to financial results, but also to creating long-term value for organisations, societies and people. This even applies to everyday life between people and things that change continuously.
About the author
Josefine Campbell is an MSc (Com), Management Advisor and an Executive Coach. She works primarily with large international companies, where she coaches and advises managers from a perspective where strategy, management and personal development are connected. Josefine Campbell is also the speaker and host at the Leaders’ Conference on Agile Management, where she speaks about agile management based on her own experience as a martial arts master. Read more about Josefines inspirational speeches on agility here. If you are interested in the lecture you can read more about it here, or contact Josefine Campbell at +4526361199 or email@example.com
David, S. (2016): Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. New York: Penguin Random House LLC.
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