How to Practice Agility

     Established organizations count many advantages, including the ability to turn the market forces they leveraged to get there into strengths. They become very good at optimizing processes up and down the value chain—from product enhancements to go-to market strategies, to the use of automation tools to be ever more efficient.

    Proven processes, efficiency, and automation help a business scale.

    But in a world that is constantly changing, well-oiled machines also tend to become very resistant to responding to shifts. When momentum becomes inertia, we don't challenge assumptions as much, and stop being curious about “what-ifs,” critical to innovating. We tend to pay attention most to the things we're working on. Rewards, incentives, and our physical working conditions (including the very structure of the organization) become a natural barrier to exploration.

    Startups are on the other end of the spectrum. Their challenge is to be around long enough to start making calls about growing, and scaling.

    Entrepreneurs know this maxim well—work in the business too intensely and we forget to work on the business. Growth and sustainability depend on the ability to keep looking for ways to do what we do best (our strengths) and create the support structure around us to take on the rest. This is were we have a hard time hitting the sweet spot on when it's the right time to build out our team.

    Constant experimentation helps nascent businesses zero into delivering a superior experience, but it can be addictive.

    The illusion that we can keep up with the rate of change of evolving markets gets in the way of establishing processes and a structure that can help us grow into what's next. When we don't ground the business into a strong vision and a strategic plan to go from where we are to where we want to be, we run the risk of it not taking off properly or at all. What and how we pay attention to what's going on makes a big difference to working on the business.

    In both cases, our decisions depend on many variables. We rely on experience, skill, and our support networks to find and analyze leading indicators that something important is happening in our market, industry, and/or business and we should pay attention. It's our call to decide which thread or advice to follow, and which to take with a grain of salt.

    But we should keep in mind that decisions are a means to an end.

    This is where creating structure around how we make decisions is helpful. For example, shifting from trying to predict the future as if it were a point, to looking at it as a range, a spectrum within two bookends—a dire scenario on one end and a rosy one on the other. With the caution that when we bookend our options we should not be too extreme, just consider what is likely to happen. As a deliberate process book ending prepares us for what could go wrong.

    Finding someone who has solved the same problem also works well. Because we're are better at giving, than taking our own advice. At a personal level, the actions we choose and the opinions we share are influenced by biases, emotions, reason, and even memories. In business, we'd like to think all our decisions are rational, made after weighing pros and cons. But that is not always the case.

    We could also be focusing on the wrong things. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky say, Our thinking gets befuddled not so much by our emotions, but by our 'cognitive illusions,' or mistaken intuitions, and other flawed, fragmented mental constructs.”

    Kahneman “points out two ways in which focusing on the wrong thing can skew” our choices:

First, there's a gap between your real life and the stories you tell yourself about it, and you're apt to fixate on the latter. Stressing the importance of this divide, Kahneman says, “Attention both to what you choose to experience and what you choose to think about it is at the very core of how I approach questions of well-being.”

    We are thus split into two kinds of selves that pay attention to different things. Our “experiencing self” is the one that thinks in the here and now, our evaluative “remembering self” looks back at what happened, the emotional high points and outcomes to create thinking. The latter is not always accurate—we recall the highlights and not the low moments.

    One area where we could use more practice is agility. What many organizations want is the ability to be more nimble in how they process information in the form of stories and data, and how they adapt to respond to market conditions. Even within established businesses, we have the opportunity to get timing less wrong, for example.

    When we're able to bring ourselves to bear more fully into that conversation about market, timing, product and people mix, we start experiencing a different kind of inputs we can use to make our services more responsive, for example. Playfulness can help us stay with the problem or the question, and opportunity more fully long enough to defer decision-making and explore more creative angles.

    The Second City is a company and a creative space that has launched the careers of many comic performers like Tina Fey and Steven Colbert. They've also produced award-winning experiences. Their work explores improvisation as a process co-create through dialogue, give ideas a chance to be acted on (“yes, AND”), experience reconciling the needs of individuals with those of the team, be unafraid to speak up, include failure, take turns in leading, and listening.

    The process is a framework where we learn to experience the moment and carry it forward creatively. In Yes, And The Second City Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton say:

We are at our happiest and most successful when we are working as improvisers. When we are fiercely following the elements of improvisation, we generate ideas both quickly and efficiently; we're more engaged with out coworkers; our interactions with clients become richer or more long-standing; we weather rough storms with more aplomb, and we don't work burdened by fear of failure.

When we are in full improviser mode, we become better leaders and better followers; likewise, we hear things that we didn't hear before because we are listening deeply and fully in the moment.

    Because we worry less about who is doing what, how we do things around here, and focus more on what is happening and how we can keep moving it along. Curiosity drives the process, commitment makes it work, and confidence is a desirable outcome. In this sense, conversation is also a tool we can use to practice agility, the ability to learn to turn to each other for help and support, and the understanding that we're working together to create better answers.

    The simpler the rules, the more flexibility to find better ways to do things.

    Qualities such as “the ability to process on the fly,” a “willingness to relinquish power,” “ease with creating space for others to contribute,” and “individuals who can learn how to learn from failure” can be learned:

practicing improvisation is like yoga for your professional development—a solid, strengthening workout that improves emotional intelligence, teaches you to pivot out of tight and uncomfortable spaces, and helps you become both a more compelling leader and a more collaborative follower.

Even better, these qualities are fully transferable to your life outside the office. The benefits of improvisation can extend to your personal relationships, whether with your partner, your family, or your friends.

    Listening is a big part of using conversation as a tool. It's critical to many parts of business. From their experience with improvisation, Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton say:

Many of us believe that we are good listeners, but there is a huge difference between listening to understand and listening while waiting for a chance to respond. One enriches and broadens our perspective; the other feeds our need to be right and in control of the conversation.


most of the world operates in the listening-to-respond mode. 

    We engage different processes when we listen to understand—where we involve our cognitive abilities, and listen-to-respond—which is more behavioral and subject to bias. It's hard to appreciate the difference when we spend so little time practicing the two side to side, and even less practicing the first one.

    Agility is a muscle we can exercise through practice. It's something we can decide to do more of, which has big impact in how we relate and learn. Organization size or longevity have less influence on our decision to adopt this process than its culture.


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See also why lucky people are not straight-line strugglers.


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