How can you be planned and consistent, yet also agile and responsive?
It wasn’t until the middle months of the pandemic that I started to notice more and more charity leaders using the word “holding”, to describe how they, and sometimes their senior teams, were valiantly trying to insulate the rest of the organisation from the increasing unpredictability of their environment.
As in: “I’m having to hold all this uncertainty right now so that they can just get on with their jobs.”
But it’s something I’ve been hearing more and more ever since. And it’s not surprising – the level of volatility we’ve experienced in the last couple of years has been breath-taking, and most people like certainty, predictability, “plan the work then work the plan”, as the saying goes.
Or, at least, that’s what most people have been conditioned to expect in a work environment. And for some, that will always be the case. But others might surprise you… and expectations exist to be challenged.
So how do you go about changing those expectations?
How do you bring your people into your zone of uncertainty in a way that doesn’t discomfort them, but instead gives them perspective, insight, and confidence in the decisions you will be making together?
How do you help your people develop confident planning and responsive agility?
The metaphor that I often use with clients to describe how a modern organisation needs to operate, is the human body. Bones, flesh, mind, heart, and soul.
The soul is your organisational purpose, and the heart is its values. These sit at the centre of everything: one defining your strategic goals, the other how you will carry yourself on the journey to reach them.
The bones are the fixed part of your strategy: the plannable things. But how much really is plannable these days?
I’ve written before here about how you can use scenario thinking with “plausible extremes” as an experiential exercise for teams, and it’s incredibly relevant here because it achieves two things.
First, it helps to expand their thinking and awareness, to not only understand the uncertainty, but to work through it; to recognise the options and pathways, the decisions that will need to be made not now but later, and above all, it helps them develop their own flexibility of thought.
But in addition, it also helps you and them to identify those things you will need to do or build, pretty much whatever the future may hold: infrastructure, key capabilities, major relationships and so forth, all will emerge as the bones of your strategy, the details and timescales of which may evolve and flex, but the fundamentals are unlikely to change.
Then, around those plannable bones you will have the flesh of the strategy: the areas you need to explore, innovations you need to develop, choices, preparations and contingencies that you will need to navigate your way through as you go.
These are not plannable pieces of work in the traditional sense, they are “learn as you go” and “change as you need”, where next month’s plan will depend on last month’s results, but for the right people, in the right environment, with the right governance, they can be inspiring, invigorating, and transformative opportunities to redefine the future.
Which finally brings us to the mind: the organ of coordination, observation, and learning.
My instinct is that those leaders who have been “holding” all the uncertainty, do it because they feel they need to be the mind of the organisation, which inadvertently frames everyone else as the hands, arms and legs. But everyone in your organisation has a brain, and everyone is capable of making agile decisions.
Tune them in to the heart and soul. Let them help to define the bones and shape the flesh. To paraphrase Simon Sinek, give them the “why” and let them work on the “how” and the “what”.
Because strategic agility is not about the leadership team going into a darkened room and coming out with new plans and instructions every few months.
Strategic agility emerges when people throughout the organisation develop new expectations of themselves; expectations that they will spend, say, 10% of their week reviewing and learning from what’s happened and what’s happening, so they can flex their plans and adapt their approach while staying resolutely fixed on their strategic goal – a goal they understand and feel they own.
Neither does empowerment come from leaders holding the uncertainty by themselves; it comes through sharing the uncertainty and embracing a collective ability to find solutions as you go.
So, if you’re finding yourself “holding” all this stuff to protect those around you, ask yourself are you really helping them or merely disempowering them? And how could you safely bring them into your zone to develop their own agile plans?
By the way, if this is a topic that interests you, or has perhaps provoked questions and thoughts in your mind, I’ll be running an evening seminar exploring this topic in much more detail on Tuesday the 28th of February. All the details are here. Drop me an email if you’d like to join us.