Business Agility - Explorers of the future

25 January

The world has changed. Instant digital transformations have occurred to almost every industry, business, and government. No one had a choice in 2020. Thank goodness we were ready. We had the tools and the techniques and we had the mindset. People were already prepared to be working online. We'd already made the shift from being co-located to being geographically distributed in a lot of organisations and we were used to working a little bit remotely. 

But still, we had to go suddenly remote and instantly remote. How did that happen and how do we get it done? 

How can we then translate the learnings from the mammoth mindset shift and massive organisational and operating model changes made, almost instantly, almost overnight, into how we can work in the future? 

That's where business agility comes in. The ability of an organisation to pivot, to change, to learn, to adjust, to react and respond as quickly as possible to whatever is happening in the market – that's what business agility is all about. But it doesn't happen by magic. 

A lot of what happened in 2020 happened because we had to. There was no choice. If you're looking at growing your business and if you're looking at changing the direction that your business goes in, usually we are not backed into a corner like we all were in 2020. Usually you have a little bit of leeway, and you're looking at how to change in a structured, controlled, and considered manner. That's where business agility really comes into play. 

We need to harness the knowledge that we have gained so far, but also think about how we can gain and use new knowledge. Where can we get our new information from? How we look at the world through different eyes? The best news about it is that there is a structure to it. Like all agile processes, it's not a freeform poetry, and it's not making it up as you go along, agility is about considered, focused thinking, where you pay attention to important things and minimise the impact of the unimportant things. 

Like all strategic thinking there are key considerations, such as understanding stakeholders, dependencies, supply chains, fiscal impact, risk profiles – all of those really important things. business agility is not a make it up as you go along approach. 

To harness the approach that your organisation took to being resilient, and responsive and, importantly, becoming part of the “new normal” that is 2020 and beyond you can adopt numerous frameworks for thinking.  One of the things I like about business agility frameworks, is they take you in a stepwise, structured, controlled, and considered fashion through some thinking styles. A framework I use a lot is about seeing, understanding, experimenting, and then learning. This allows you to really focus on the key considerations that you need to have when you are going to or looking at making a change. 

“Seeing” is being honest and transparent and truthful to yourself. It's all about removing your biases and blinkers and being objective. That’s very hard to do when you're in business because you're so focused on your passion. We need to add the degree of objectivity to see reality, how the world actually is and how our world actually is, as opposed to how we would like it to be. 

The purpose of seeing the reality is that you actually grow your understanding of the problem statement, the current condition, where you are.  Once you've got that understanding of your current state, then you can actually start to consider what are we not seeing, thinking about how we can make the invisible visible. 

What are the invisible elements that I'm talking about? They can be culture – that's a big thing that we're all leaning into at the moment because our workplace cultures have changed drastically with our suddenly remote mindsets. Or priorities; have we got the right priorities in place? Are they visible or are they hidden? Have we got transparent agendas? Have we got end-to-end alignment of the work that we're trying to do? Do we understand value and what is valuable to our organisation? 

Being able to really get a clear lens and clear insight into those things really help us to orient ourselves to what is our actual start point. 

Once we have figured out where we are, we've got to figure out where we're going, what’s our destination. There is no use us planning a change in direction unless we know what the destination is. Every explorer always knows exactly where they're going, they just don't know how they're going to get there. That's where the next phase of exploration comes in. 

In this exploring and discovering stage of your journey, you really do need to think about being comfortable with not knowing  – not knowing the path but being confident that you can figure it out as you go. This requires the courage of being an explorer. I often talk to organisations about being explorers of the future. We're going to have to experiment our way into the future. We need to find a way of navigating ourselves through our journey. 

Every explorer uses a compass because they know if you can relate yourself to a known point (north) then you can make informed decisions about where you want to go next. In business there is no true north, we need to be thinking about what our equivalent of true north is, and that tends to be value.

How can we, as an organisation get clarity about what our value proposition is and then use that as a way of orienting our activities against that value proposition? There are tools and techniques we can use  to discover, describe and articulate what value means to an organisation. 

The important thing about your exploration or discovery mode when you're in that phase you've really got to be thinking strategically. What are the big ticket items that we need to have in place to achieve our value proposition? For instance, what is your digital strategy? What are the changes that are happening in technology field? What sort of capacity management workforce planning do we have in play? What government regulations need to be considered? How will we be working in the current COVID environment or whatever environment comes consequent to this? 

So we've got to be thinking strategically with a holistic and long-term view,but we do also have to think tactically, and this is where we have to really have the discipline to change our perspectives. We need to go from the meta or the mega into the micro, and then back again. 

One of the tools that we use here, and it may sound counterintuitive, is design thinking. Design thinking is an incredibly powerful tool to allow us to move between those two paradigms (macro and micro) and allows us to think big think, strategic, looking at the long term, and then bring it back down to the tactical, what can we do next. When you're thinking about exploring the future this is what explorers do. Explorers always conquer the impediment directly ahead of them. Once they've got that impediment under their belt, they look forward to the next one, and the next one. 

Once you've got a roadmap planned out, and you can orient the organisation against that roadmap, then you can start to experiment tactically and see whether or not your roadmap and the tactical elements on your roadmap, are actually right. This is the experimentation phase and this is where you put things into action. You do things and you build rapid feedback loops to see whether or not you are able to turn your theoretical concepts into reality, do they actually play out as you expect? The focus here is action. We're out of planning phase we're into the doing phase. The whole point is testing our hypothesis. Is this the right path to take? The explorer always has to go down many wrong paths before they find the right paths. So how do you do that? How do you capture meaningful information that allows you to determine if this is the right path? One of the things that I really love to use is the idea of A3 Thinking and the A3 canvases. These canvases allow us to collate information and then make sure that we are reflecting and thinking about that information as well, because that's the last part of the journey; reflection, analysis and learning. 

Every explorer, every organisation, anyone who's changing things really needs to take the time to learn from the activities they've just completed. In my experience in any organisation, it's one of the most poorly done activities, and this is where we do need to have the discipline to stop, pay attention to what have we just learned, we need to reflect on what happened and how it played out. Then we need to analyse it and say, what were the successes that we had. Then, what were the activities that didn't work. Then even lean further into it and say, why didn't it work? We need to apply critical thinking skills and we also need to use our metrics and measures and we need to understand, using data, rather than hypothetical or hyperbole that comes from the results of a situation. We really need to adopt a stance of curiosity. What happened and why? This is a very powerful stance and a phrase that I learned this week thanks to some great peers that I have, is “turn your assumptions into questions”. When you're in your learning phase, stop making assumptions about what was right and what was wrong and turn your assumptions into questions and ask yourself, how did we do these things? Why did this thing happen? Who was involved in this activity? When was the optimal time? 

The key is when you are moving to make your business more agile, more responsive, more resilient, and able to deal with whatever the future brings to us, we really need to be prepared to be proactive. It's scary. It's complicated, and it can be a little bit risky, but if you follow a structured way of thinking about how you approach your future agility, you'll find that you can actually adapt, develop, grow, and change within a safe and supported structured environment that helps you manage your risks but also allows you to keep visibility and orientation on where you're going. 

Guest post by Sharon Robson


Future explorers and those seeking the skills to be great explorers, can find a myriad of tools, techniques, frameworks and much more in our Business Agility Accelerator course.

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