The recent Agile Leadership Unlocked webinar and panel discussion saw business leaders coming together to explore the topic of agile leadership, agile culture and change resilience. During the session, the panellists shared how they have built a culture of agility and effective leadership in their organisations, especially during times of crisis and upheaval. Some audience questions were tackled during the webinar, but there were many more that there was no time to answer. We have summarised these questions and answers below within the following themes:
- Creating an agile culture
- Unpacking Leadership Agility
- Measuring and developing agile leaders
- Resistance to agility
- Agile leadership in the remote workplace
Creating an agile culture
The seven-component model offered by the Agile Business Consortium provides insight into the building blocks of agile culture. As with individual development, it will be impossible to change an organisation that doesn't want to change. An organisational assessment will be a useful starting point to hold up a mirror to create awareness of the need for change. This will also help in creating a common purpose. Transition to agility then needs to be role modelled and driven by the leaders.
A clear first step is for the organisation to conceptualise and express a clear purpose that all its stakeholders find meaningful and buy into. Secondly, it is important to assess where leaders are in terms of being able to encourage agility, psychological safety, trust and transparency. How willing and able are they to delegate authority appropriately? Are they able to role model the required agile behaviours, especially continuous learning, creativity, innovation and humility? If collaboration and agility are highlighted in the values of the organisation, and if these norms of behaviour are modelled and rewarded from the very top, this should go a long way to encouraging teamwork and more positive interaction.
Firstly the organisation needs to ensure that a clear, concise and inspiring purpose has been articulated and has been accepted by all. Agility then needs to be embedded in the culture of the organisation. From being highlighted as part of its values, to being demonstrated by its practices and processes. This needs to be observably role modelled by the leaders at the top in order for it to cascade to all other levels.
Cultural agility is not about the culture of the organisation constantly changing, but rather about creating a set culture that is imbued by the principles of agility: innovation, learning, collaboration, reflection, iteration, experimentation, adaptability and more. A successful agile culture should always strive to embody these principles.
Unpacking Leadership Agility
The five dimensional model of agile leadership encompasses Change, Insights, People, Results and Reflection, and captures the behaviour requirements quite succinctly. We all have the ability for agility, but one must also desire and strive for agility.The ultimate is to find oneself in an environment that encourages and supports agile behaviour. Being an effective agile leader is not only about being agile in one's own work, but also about successfully nurturing the agility of your team.
If I had to identify one thing, it would have to be the leader's ability to reflect on their own performance. To enable effective self-reflection, they should focus on cultivating an awareness of their strengths and limitations, as well as nurture a drive to constantly improve.
In the panel discussion, Dr Jonathan Louw made reference to the fact that an agile culture is not necessarily devoid of structure. We find structure in a well articulated purpose, KPI's and organisational (agile) processes and practices. Furthermore, individual well-being and fulfilment is built into the nature of agile cultures through its strong focus on creating a happy and positive environment rather than one characterised by fear, stress, fatigue and burnout. Agile leaders are by nature collaborative, empathetic and empowering.
There is substantial evidence from HFMtalentindex research and other independent international studies that have demonstrated a strong positive relationship between agility and performance, especially that of leaders. A 2019 Learning Agility meta-analysis, combining the results from over 20 different studies, found a correlation (relationship) of 0.74 between agility and leader performance. This was far higher than the correlations found between performance and other predictors (personality, cognitive ability etc.). Read more on the study here.
Traditional leaders may have relied on their power/ position of authority, expertise or charisma. There may have been focus on operational requirements and goals without consideration of the broader context such as socio-economic, technological, environmental and industry trends. Agile leaders focus on people, continuous learning, self-awareness, innovation and dynamic goals. Read more about the theory and behaviours of Leadership Agility here.
Measuring and developing agile leaders
In the early days, agility was measured solely by gathering feedback from the individual and others (360 feedback methodology). While this is useful to create awareness of self versus other's perception of performance for development purposes, it lacks the objectivity required for decision making. Fortunately we are now able to provide accurate, objective, norm-based measurement of agility using sound psychometric instruments. See our Learning Agility assessments page to find out more about the options available.
The short answer is that agility can be developed and coached over time. In more detail, there are essentially three elements that make up one's agility DNA, viz. the ability to be agile, the desire to be agile, and the demonstration of agile behaviour. While levels of ability may differ amongst individuals, the extent to which this ability is utilised is dependent on whether the individual is driven to be agile and whether the environment actively supports this. One may therefore purposively nurture a need to be agile, provide opportunities for reflection of innate potential and support the expression of that potential by modelling/teaching the desired behaviour.
I see no reason the fundamentals should be different for start-ups or SME's. If anything, I think they are in a better position to implement and embed agility as the culture is likely still developing. They also have the opportunity to entrench the requirement of agility in their recruitment.
Learning Agility is an important component in the development and succession planning of leaders and future leaders. Research shows that measuring and developing agility contributes to both effective potential and performance in leaders, and thus could help grow your pipeline of top talent ("stars"). Read more on the topic here.
Resistance to agility
Firstly, we cannot help someone who does not want to be helped. If, however, there is willingness and commitment to develop, the most useful first step is to allow the opportunity for the individual to reflect on their agility. Once there is acknowledgement and acceptance, we can then consider how to provide the support required for development. Another important element is knowledge, which can be tackled by educating the business and its leaders on agility: what it is, why it is important and what it looks like in practice. For more insight into developing Learning Agility, check out this online resource.
If there are a significant number of agile resistant leaders, it is very unlikely that there will be an existing agile culture, and it will be extremely difficult to develop one. However, we have seen situations where a single leader with sufficient authority acts as a change agent and drives the development of agility. When the culture shifts, agile resistant individuals will start to feel the dissonance in terms of organisational fit and will likely feel the need to leave of their own accord.
Most of us will engage in change when we see the need for it. There will always be a small number of people who are extremely averse to change, just as there are a small number of people who thrive on constant change. It therefore makes sense to focus on creating a good case for the need for change and then providing the necessary support for those less equipped to cope with it. Remember that change averse individuals can add value by highlighting possible risks.
Agile leadership in the remote workplace
While transparency, openness and communication play an important role in agile leadership, it needs to go hand in hand with the other important elements such as creating a shared vision, psychological safety, delegated leadership, autonomy and a culture of learning and reflection. As social beings, we are likely to feel somewhat curtailed in our communication without the benefit of physical interaction. Perhaps you could consider a focus on visual cues via video feed, and also ensuring free-flow of feedback in all directions. Other possible techniques could be regular one-on-one's with line managers and regular communication from leaders that reinforce the values and goals of the organisation.
Agile leaders are probably going to seek out opportunities for innovation, creation and experimentation. They will likely remain focused on achieving and will consider how the organisation needs to adapt its goals and the means to achieve them. Agile leaders are more likely to adapt effectively in the face of new methods of work (e.g. working from home), and encourage others to do so as well.
The widespread need for remote working has brought the need for agile leadership to the fore. It has created an opportunity for agile leaders to excel and thrive, and also to build the agility of their teams.