One of my career goals is to build a lean and agile organization…from the ground up. There is a certain appeal to the prospect of moving faster than your competitors and adapting seamlessly to the changing marketplace and the customers in it. I also see agility as not only a fiscally responsible endeavor, but a pursuit that also drives employee satisfaction. For an organization that perpetually moves forward and invests itself in the right things is one that strong candidates will pursue.
As things stand today, the prospects of me living my dream are promising. Stay tuned.
My journey through the process of studying agile leadership is fascinating. There is a wealth of content out there, much of which is shaped into models and graphics, my favorite being this one I relate to the most:
(Source: Trail Ridge Agility Workshop)
Not surprisingly I’m criss-crossing through many common themes and methods practiced by the best leaders. But where my mind begins to focus is not on these sort of task-oriented modules but instead the internal wiring required to even consider being an agile leader. Sure we can learn the practice, but the practice itself is evolving and difficult to keep up with. To compensate and to be successful, we must be made of the right DNA that allows us to transform our own methods as our environment demands. This in addition to quickly learning and incorporating agility techniques at the outset.
This idea is not unlike my post about the beautiful mind of an entrepreneur. There, I point out that you can’t simply read books or otherwise tap into top business talent for guidance on how to create your own success. You yourself need to have a beautiful mind that synthesizes marketplace data to identify the right opportunities, address your key success factors or create a strong product-market fit. You can’t just collect opinions but you have to process and filter them to forge your own path with a voracious appetite for decision making. Without that ability, your direction will not be sure and your success may ultimately depend on luck.
Similarly, if I wish to be a true leader of an agile company, I need the right wiring. It’s like being left handed or right handed – an orientation. Sure you can learn to write with the other hand but it’s not natural. And in a natural state, the agile leader would be instinctively consumed by the following beliefs/tenets:
- Time is money.
It should bother you more to waste an hour of labor than it does to get crappy ROI on a dollar. Why? Because it’s easier to add a few bucks to the budget than to hire another person or create a 25th hour in a day. Why? Because every minute that goes by that you aren’t driving action to cause a new and exciting outcome means you’re losing ground in the marketplace. You rarely get a 2-3x return on a dollar but if you have time to strategize or ideate, the results of those processes can be monetized for years at substantial rates. If you’re not thinking that way, you will ultimately find yourself to be at the helm of yet another bloated organization collapsing under the weight of its bureaucracy, once you’ve scaled up.
I highlight some of the key time wasters in my post on Three Culture Strategies that can Transform. We all know the big ones, emails and meetings. But for me I zero in on information management as the biggest time waster. Think about how much time companies take to compile info from a series of legacy systems, format it, make sense of it, develop insights, turn it into PowerPoint and then gather by the tens in stuffy meetings to read to each other. The goal should be to query what you need to know and then do the value added tasks of optimizing, deciding and acting. We have a long way to go to get there.
It should eat away at you that this is what your team spends the bulk of its time doing. My criticism of the Gen X management style is that we don’t care; we act like labor is infinite and if processes or systems aren’t perfect the teams will just work harder (longer!) and in unnaturally ingenious ways to rectify conflicts on their own. As long as someone is reading them a nice Powerpoint deck to answer all the questions they have, when they want the answers. I could write a book on this problematic (not to mention archaic) way of thinking.
I would check out a woman named @AnnLatham on Twitter. Not a ton of followers but she has the right message. Those ‘-ing’ org tasks such as reporting, updating, presenting etc are non-value-added tasks. Minimize or eliminate them and develop a bias for action. You will accomplish three things: a. spend less on labor b. respond to the market quickly and c. upgrade your level of team happiness because this kind of manual labor is soul crushing and lives at the core of the complaint about why employees don’t get to do enough that’s meaningful.
Anyway, if your brain doesn’t live in this setting – to seek and destroy time sucks — you are hugely behind the 8-ball and will forever need to read books and listen to podcasts to teach yourself the right daily behaviors.
- Caring is strength, not weakness.
I guess a little humanity is in order to be any kind of leader and the case is no different here.
But it follows from the first point above that if you don’t actually care that your team is wasting time doing soul-crushing work, you’re already an extended step behind everyone else. And, like I said you shouldn’t have to read a book or check your notes to remind yourself to care; it should just come naturally. If you’re a guy, do you buy flowers for your partner on the regular ‘just cuz’ or do you need a frying pan to the head in the form overwhelming marketplace reminders just to get the job done on February 14th? That kinda thing. It’s all about what’s your default? is what I’m saying.
Caring is also about being self-aware and humble. To be able to move forward you need to connect to your teams and seek feedback from them. If you let them, your teams can hold a mirror up to your leadership style which in turn can help you understand if you’re truly being effective and getting the most out of your people in positive ways.
In one of my earliest posts on being the best boss, I point out that I insist on feedback from my direct reports as a part of their performance review process. I warn them they cannot leave the room without giving me some insight on myself. Most managers do not seek input from below in part because they have an inflated sense of how good they are, in part because they don’t want to have to work on something else to improve, and in part because deep down they just don’t really care what you think. If we think about it at all, we dismiss the idea of encouraging complaining, so we rationalize it away. Sad.
And being a fantastic leader is one sure-fire way to keep your performing employees and maximize productivity overall.
- Status quo is a danger zone.
A lot of lip service is paid in the U.S. to the desire and predisposition to innovate…and when we look at that startup scene we see it’s definitely happening. Yet, when it comes to agility and efficiency, we’re a little behind the times.
I remember recently watching an online TED talk from a Swedish innovator who was chuckling at how the U.S. is the only country that still pays him by check for his speaking engagements. We have ways of doing things over here that are downright archaic. And when it comes to business processes especially we lag other countries and we lag the rate of innovation we experience in the processes of our personal lives.
Sure we have incorporated smartphones and email over the last decade or two, but we still gather in conference rooms, we still transfer information by reading to each other (we call it ‘presenting’ to make it seem more professional), we still spend endless amounts of time compiling data that we should simply be able to query. Crazy.
Inasmuch as we champion the need every cycle to market or sell our products we must with the same intensity look at how we work. We need to be relentless about finding ways to do at least the support tasks much faster to shift our focus to the action items. But to get there, we have to value time…and we have to care.
- Productivity must be drive by infrastructure as much as people.
And then of course we need systems and processes. How we select them constitutes culture as much as does catered lunch on Fridays and team-building offsite sessions. Because the soul-crushing work caused by an inferior infrastructure impacts organizational performance and employee happiness as much as anything.
So much so that in my post about the org chart of the future I recommend a lead exec to oversee infrastructure, which includes culture. No, this is not necessarily the part time job of HR but a real line function, worked on every day and not by special, one-off committees. Any machine needs ongoing maintenance, and companies are one big ol’ machine. What’s worse, organizations quickly get out of alignment when strategy or general direction changes, and we don’t at the same time adjust our reporting, performance evaluations and other connected systems. Yet today, most of us place little importance on this critical exec function in favor of simply demanding more out of our people. That strategy has ever-declining impact on performance.
- Less is more.
This concept becomes increasingly important as companies scale up. It’s counterintuitive thinking and therefore most leaders head in the opposite direction.
We see it everywhere. Meetings that are important are longer and have more people in them. When we have big problems, we deploy ever more people onto the team to solve them, thinking that more ideas and more thinking deliver better more timely solutions. Because organizations get bigger with much more going on, we naturally tend to communicate more.
Our management orientation is in fact accelerating the bloat in bureaucracy that grinds companies to a halt. Contained meetings deliver quicker solutions. I stop having meetings to share information (other than, say a monthly all-company update on the big stuff) and instead I make all information accessible and transparent so that employees can update themselves whenever they want. You start to move from a culture of “you didn’t tell me” to one of “you didn’t ask”; you demand engagement and stop being directive in everything you do. That’s one of the awful by-products of over-communicating – the tendency to become directive.
In general, it’s of paramount importance to think small as you get big.
- Be less and less about the day-to-day.
As I discussed in my article comparing a founder to a C-level executive, the role of a leader changes as a company grows. In the beginning everyone is doing everything, and then as a company scales up, tasks begin to have owners. What’s important for department heads to understand once the company is big is that you pay your teams to deliver on this cycle’s results, and that includes short term decision making. Your job becomes to tend to the machine; coach your teams, deploy motivational tools and rewards, collect feedback, and instill the skills and values of the leadership teams so they can behave like you when you’re not around.
And for gosh sakes, stop going to all the meetings. Alphabet just went this way as a part of their decentralization restructure. Teams became much more empowered and had to learn to go on with meetings and projects without any involvement from above. Leaders are learning to focus on what they should be focusing on and that is not only perfecting the infrastructure but refining the company’s vision and planning for future growth. I would say most leaders never make this transition, as they continue to obsess over what the shareholders are going to see this quarter.
- Results matter.
One of the reasons why there is little momentum behind efficiency is that few know how to metric it…or at least bother doing it. This is one of the reasons why many expensive productivity platforms don’t find their way into big companies; no one can quantify (expected) impact.
Similarly, few companies think through how to deliver better return off their fixed expenses. One of the ways is by better process. Or systems. If you have ever worked for a big company, think back to the work you do during the business planning cycle. Those annual plans you work on for 3 months, present them and then toss them out. Try to guess how many corporate labor hours go into this exercise. We know business planning is an exercise of limited value but seriously add up the hours. Thousands. If leaders actually saw the number on paper, their heads might explode. And they’d likely be more inspired to attack this metric so that it can be reduced for the sake of redeploying human resources to more value added (not to mention inspiring) tasks.
Agile leaders should have efficiency metrics. Time invested in meetings, time invested in major processes, return on investment in systems…a bunch of stuff. Pick 4-5 things and add them to your dashboard. You just might see material movement in the traditional top line metrics as a result of focusing on how you invest your most precious resources of people and time.
Everyone has their own unique set of natural thought patterns. We see things differently, we process things differently, we do certain things naturally while other behaviors are taught and learned.
The more you need to learn to approach business in the ways I have described, the more disciplined you will need to be in how you study and apply leadership principles. If these approaches to leadership are more instinctive for you, not only will you more easily create agility for your company, but you will be able to adapt your leadership style to invent new and better agility initiatives before they are perfected by others. And that’s what agility is after all about – moving at the speed of light and before everyone else.