The Power of Agility: Pivoting and Thriving in a Time of Uncertainty

‘Agility is the ability of an organization to renew itself, adapt, change quickly, and succeed in a rapidly changing, ambiguous, turbulent environment.’

Mckinsey & Company

In a matter of weeks, our world was turned upsidedown. And, rapid change became the new norm. The covid-19 global pandemic altered the world’s socio-economic context. It created uncertainty for everyone and made all of us question our way of life. No one is immune, a reminder of how small our world has become, and how interconnected we are to one another as a global community.

Overnight, businesses, organizations and institutions of all sizes in every industry – from technology, travel, healthcare and retail to nonprofits and public agencies – entered a period of existential crisis. To keep their day-to-day operations running smoothly and ensure their future survival, most (if not all) are now pivoting and changing their strategic direction. They’re also adopting new ways of working and re-organizing their teams.

Becoming More Agile for the Future

What we’ve learned so far is, the world is unpredictable and fast-moving. But, one constant remains. We’re all in this together. This is the time to use our collective strengths to help one another. And, as leaders, we must help our teams do the same. Above all, to move past this crisis and position ouselves for the future, we must all become more agile so that we can continue to adapt rapidly to the challenges that lie ahead.

And yet, a global survey by the Business Agility Institute found that 71% of the companies surveyed thought they had low business agility.  Put simply, the vast majority felt they weren’t well equipped to pivot and change strategic direction rapidly. And, while most companies want to become more agile, most felt they didn’t have the culture to support this. And so, in this article, I’ll outline ways we can begin building organizations that are more agile for the future.

Pivoting with Purpose is Key to Survival

In an effort to adapt to the new context, organizations are achieving extraordinary feats of agility. Companies in hard hit industries like travel are figuring out how to stay afloat. While others, in industries where this crisis has given them a springboard for growth, like Zoom, are trying to scale up rapidly to respond to the unexpected increase in customer demand.

Similarly, a number of companies are pivoting quickly in the race to fill the urgent need for critical medical supplies. Dyson, for instance, created a design for a medical ventilator in only 10 days. And, automaker Ford retrofitted their Michigan plant to manufacture 50,000 ventilators in the next 100 days.

At the same time, companies in the chemical and beauty industries have repurposed their operations to make hand sanitizers. And, several labs are racing to develop a Covid-19 test that can be conveniently used at the home.

Leveraging our Strengths for the Common Good

Meanwhile, companies driven by their core purpose are creating initiatives to help combat the pandemic. Airbnb, is providing free housing to 100,000 healthcare workers. And, Apple released an app and website that lets you screen yourself for symptoms of Covid-19. Apple has also made donations including 10 million masks for healthcare workers in the US and Europe. Similarly, electric automaker Tesla donated more than 1200 ventilators.

What do Agile Organizations have in Common?

Agile organizations have environments wired to support fast decision-making, experimentation, a learning mindset, empowerment and effective cross-functional teamwork.

Agility Survey (Gallup, Jan 2019)

A recent survey by Gallup of over 5,500 American and 4,000 European workers, identified the key elements that create a culture of agility. Above all, agile organizations are early adopters of technology and they have systems and processes that drive simplicity, innovation, collaboration, rapid decision-making, knowledge sharing, empowerment and experimentation.

And, according to Mckinsey, agile organizations don’t have a traditional top down pyramid organizational structure. Instead, they have fluid networks of empowered cross-functional teams that collaborate easily and make decisions quickly. In addition, they have a people-centered culture focused on cultivating a growth mindset and continuous learning.

Ways to Build a Culture of Agility

This is a time of re-invention and transformation. And, in order to create a meaningful and lasting change within an organization, we must focus on changing culture. Culture is the DNA of an organization. It’s the belief system that drives how things are done within an organization. And, to change culture we must take a wholistic approach. It’s about redesigning and implementing organizational structures, systems and processes that will drive the desired change in behaviors.

Start with a Culture Assessment

How agile is your organization today? And, what do you need to change for it to become more agile? Knowing the current state of your organization is crucial. Why? Because, this will help you pinpoint your starting point and the areas you will need to focus on. Most importantly, with this information you’ll be able to create a roadmap for change based on the needs of your organization.

Start by analyzing your most recent workplace data, like the results of an employee engagement survey. If you don’t have this on hand, you can run focus groups and individual interviews. Or, you can conduct an employee survey. Another way is to use an online assessment tool like the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI).

Change the Way your Teams Work

Putting it simply, an organizational structure lets us organize and distribute work inside an organization. It maps out how different parts of an organization relate to one another, so that individuals and teams can effectively work together to complete their tasks and activities.

This is why having the right organizational structure is crucial to an organization’s success. And, because it drives the behavior of individuals changing an organization’s structure is a must in creating a culture shift. But, this isn’t enough. We must go one step further. According to author Siobhan McHale, HR leader and author of The Insider’s Guide on Culture Change, changing and realigning the roles within an organization is key to creating a lasting culture change.

As you look at increasing agility in the the way your people work together, think about implementing an agile organizational structure that is simple, flat, promotes empowerment, collaboration and quick decision-making.

Invest in Developing Agile Leaders

A recent global study by Korn Ferry International found that to succeed in an increasingly uncertain and volatile world, leaders must have a number of key qualities – openness, authentic listening, and adaptability. Above all, they must be able to navigate through ambiguity and create clarity for their teams. And, they must be able to make sense of unrelated information, make quick decisions in the absence of complete data and come up with innovative solutions.  

Start by identifying the key competencies your leaders need to become more agile. Then, provide the necessary training and development activities, like an online training program.

Provide Better Tools and Ways of Working by Adopting the Right Technology

Now more than ever, we’re realizing that having the right technology is not only a competitive advantage but essential for survival. And so, conduct an audit of your current systems, processes and tools. Are they working together to make your teams more effective? Do they improve the work environment? Above all, does the technology you use in your organization drive organizational agility by helping your people do their work faster and better?

Most importantly, take the opportunity to streamline and simplify your systems and processes. For example, decide if you have too many working tools. For example, if your teams use Slack, do you also need Google Hangouts as an office chat tool? On the flipside, if you don’t use any technology in your organization, this is the right time to decide what your teams need in order to work better and become more agile.

How are you and your teams coping? Please feel free to connect with me, for more advice and guidance during this time of crisis and uncertainty. I’d love to help!

About Irlana Ho

I believe that by helping organizations leverage diversity, we can build a more inclusive world where every individual’s uniqueness is respected, valued and embraced. For over a decade, I’ve worked in global companies in industries such as aerospace, telecommunications and fashion retail. Within these diverse business environments, I’ve enabled leaders and their teams to excel and make their mark, by helping them implement remarkable people management strategies, talent development programs and solutions. I’ve seen that when the right organizational culture is in place - a culture of true collaboration, synergy and inclusion - a diverse multicultural team can thrive and be unstoppable at achieving great things, and even the impossible.

1 Comment

  1. Oisika Chakrabarti on April 8, 2020 at 10:55 am

    Really thoughtful and analytical piece! Thank you!