One important lesson this pandemic is teaching us is that urgency to change and obsessive attitude to listening to customers, definitely boosts organizational agility. Companies who were able to survive (and thrive) to the first virulent wave of Covid-19 in March/May, developed, almost unconsciously, in incredibly short time, new capabilities to respond to disruption, which now let them to surf on the high crest of the wave. What all this taught us?

Darwin with his theories, indirectly taught us that trying to change people, by saying them what to do and pushing to act in such a way, is useless.

He discovered that changing the environment in which people live is the most powerful approach to start their process of change: we are animals and when it comes to survive we bring the best attitudes into play, no matter if this could be tiring, challenging, even frustrating or painful in some cases.

The one who survives is the most adaptable to change

This founds confirmations from Maslow’s theory which demonstrated that human beings spend their most effort first on looking for psychological, personal, emotional, financial and health safety and, only when those are achieved, they could relax a bit and seek out for love, belongingness, status, recognition and self-actualization.

Thus, it seems that facing sudden, profound shifts in our environments creates the context in which change can happen, triggering our fast and focused reactions.

Well, while this is actually real, it does not always happen overnight. Changing is hard and, before embarking in such a journey, it happens that we firstly try to deny, to resist, to ignore, deluding ourselves that the problem does not exist or is not that critical. Often complacency sets in.

This tendency has been clearly explained by doctor Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She studied that people move through six different moods when facing with major change.

However, when worldwide crises happen, like the one we are facing right in these days, the only way to survive for organizations. is to literally rewiring their own bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments that form company structures. Radically, quickly, vigorously.

What above cited, have been demonstrated by the Business Agility Report by BAI Institute. The dramatic change and urgency Covid-19 brought in, forced the organization to a huge, but focused, effort to overcome the crisis, actually forcing but allowing organizations to build new capabilities.

Covid-19 has acted as a forcing function on organizations around the world; they reported an average maturity increase of their Business Agility of 15% post-COVID-19, as shown in the graph above. There is an exception for North America, which actually decreased in average maturity by 10% (still under investigation).

So, now the question is:

How can we create such an urgency in our organizations so that they are called to quickly morph into a newer, more suitable and adaptable version of themselves?

Create a sense of urgency

John Kotter in his books Leading Change and XLR8 (read accelerate) studied and explained this phenomenon since years.

He developed a model that greatly explains how organizations could use the lever of urgency (not instrumentally) to mobilize people hearts and minds towards a new compelling vision of their organizations, for chasing big opportunities or surviving to threats.

When a sense of urgency is definitely established in organizations, people finally understand why change is no longer optional. But urgency and danger can be perceived by people in different manners with different degrees of awareness.

How can we increase the sensitivity of this perception?

First of all, bring real data of those opportunities/threats in front of employees’ eyes every day; factsfiguresimages from real life are better than a thousand words.

Additionally, we know that communication is key when it’s time to change.

Top leadership needs to draft a statement that explains the WhyWhy UsWhy Now and What of the urgency for change. A dedicated campaign shall be launched to send a message which should be :

  • Rational. No wishful thinking. Real things, concrete opportunity.
  • Compelling. It must inspire and motivate people. Win over their hearts and only after their heads.
  • Positive. Telling a bad story is not the point. Scaring people saying what the consequences could be is a false start. Be positive, show opportunities use an active and positive form.
  • Authentic. It must be and sound genuine. No cheating or hidden agendas.
  • Clear. Crystal clear. No space for misunderstandings or misinterpretation.
  • Aligned. It must be totally aligned with organization’s vision, values and strategic themes.

How to Build Organizational Agility

Now, we should be in the situation where the whole company knows it needs to change towards Business Agility. What to do now?

Before moving even a small step we should ask what we do mean by Agility. Sheppard and Young (2006) defined agility in sports as follows:

Rapid whole body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus

Athletes to become nimbler and increase their agility train static and dynamic balancespeedstrength and coordination competences. We are convinced that those skills are the same we need to be created, developed and improved also in organizations.

How? There is no silver bullet, or repeatable receipt that can be used; rather we need to find the right cook that, knowing the available ingredients, her kitchen, the art of cooking and the final results to achieve, can act, through series of experiments, towards the final results.

Unleashing existing internal entrepreneurship is one approach.

Unleashing Entrepreneurship

Uncle John (Kotter) comes back to help us again.

He correctly explains that such innovation cannot be reached via hierarchies. Innovation requires creativity, accepting risks, people thinking out of their boxes, out of their silos. Management-driven hierarchies’ mandate is, though, to minimize risks, keep people doing the usual things and give silos “a long life”.

This, however, should not led us to think that hierarchies is evil per se, throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Hierarchical functional organizations worked great for years, and stil works well when it’s time to effectively guide and coordinate the actions of employees, even thousands, spread around the globe. Such an Operating System lets people do what they learned to do and how to do it, exceptionally well.

What we need to do is to create a Second Operating System arranged like a network, next to the existing hierarchy, whose mandate is to change, innovate, re-think and re-invent the organization to cope with the new context.

The network organization works differently.

No one tries to project-manage it: it is “left” to self-organization, mimicking successful enterprises in their entrepreneurial phase (startups), freeing a level of individualism, creativity, and innovation that even the least bureaucratic hierarchy cannot provide at all.

To develop Business Agility capabilities, an organization needs to change its own culture and leadership. Review their operating models made of structures, processes, roles, system of measurements, technology, even facilities.

In times of abrupt disruptions this cannot be done with usual re-organization approaches, which are mostly following a traditional top-down waterfall approach.

To move faster and beyond their current limits, organizations need to pull more people than ever before into the change game. Organizations should enlist small cross-functional teams (armies) which work pursuing the change vision, which have a clear mission and clear mandate to identify, analyze and remove barriers to Business Agility.

Kotter uses a great metaphor to describe how this network should work. He describes it as the solar system.

The sun is the Guiding Coalition, a team of executives, senior leaders and other subject matter experts which has the responsibility to guide, steer the change of the organization in the right direction , while the other initiatives (run by the above-mentioned armies) are the planets, moons and satellites that gravitate around it, pursuing the same mission.

Back to the metaphor of the cook above mentioned, we have now all the ingredients available to start experimenting, but please always take into account that not all donuts come with a hole…at least the first ones.