What is Leadership’s Role in Aligning an Agile Organizational Culture?

I often encounter work-related initiatives to improve a client’s product development and delivery. One is the agile or lean approach. I was invited to speak to the Agile Leadership Network of DC by my friend Manjit Singh, who is also the co-author of The Lean Playbook. While I am not an expert in all things agile, I spoke to the group about the importance of understanding the context in which they work, that is, the organizational culture.

It takes a disciplined and creative mind-set to adopt and promote agile or lean processes, but key to success is working within an organization that values inclusive and purposeful communications that is able to manage change and ambiguity, and consistently demonstrate commitment to quality and integrity as core characteristics. It means more than adapting new practices, and includes building one’s emotional intelligence, and moving from models of how to do work to how we value work.

Business agility is “distinct qualities that allow organizations to respond rapidly to changes in the internal and external environment without losing momentum or vision. Adaptability, flexibility, and balance are three qualities essential to long-term business agility.” Of course, part of this is the capacity to use data and technology to quickly and flexibly respond to new market information, hence AGILITY. The LEAN organization uses fewer resources, teams (preferably small), and timelines to get results.

Duena Blomstrom says that “To be agile is a transformative new way of looking at how we do things. We are asking humans who have been indoctrinated in a very different way of work to forgo what they have learned and used before with varying degrees of success and understand there is a vastly different way of doing things that will enable them to do more, faster.”

This tracks with our work in organizational change and change management, which is about enabling people to adapt new behaviors related to their work, in dealing with others both internally and externally, and to implementing more efficient and effective work and communications protocols.

 It all begins with clearly defining the company’s vision and strategy, and this is where leadership is vital. This simple illustration shows the relationships among the various components of an organization’s culture.

A company’s culture reflects the vision/mission, strategy, values, cultural norms, and behaviors of the company; while the employees bring along the sum total of their idiosyncratic, professional, and life values that define them. Integrating all of these within the context of an agile initiative is challenging and complex.

It is my contention that agility is critical for the collection and feedback that enables this model to be sustainable and innovative. If the work is not sustainable, then why adopt it? This is where the role of leadership begins and continues.

It is not uncommon that a company’s culture is perceived as the main obstacle to introducing and managing change, in this case the utilization of agility principles. This is culture beyond ethic, national, gender, and other stereotypes. It is how people feel about the work and their expectations.

Ira Kaufman, the guru behind entwine digital, first introduced me to the notion of the transformational mindset, which begins with purposeful leadership, that quality of recognizing that digital transformation begins at the top and incorporates values, behaviors, and a strong sense of community, both internally and externally. The central role of values is evident throughout his work, and emphasizes collaboration, empathy, good will, shared purpose, clarity, consistency, and commitment to change, values that MUST be modeled by the organization’s leadership.

It is apparent that without leadership at all levels committed to the transformation of business practices, agility will not drive the changes in processes, production, consumer relations, and quality control that enable the agile eco-system to thrive. This is as true for business and industrial entities as for agencies, NGOs, and any group that serves a client/customer/membership base. Those who have not yet adopted this approach to managing change often lack access to the data that drives teams looking for solutions.

Thoughtful leadership knows, as Peter Drucker is alleged to have said, that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Leaders who ignore building a dynamic culture will fall back on acronyms, electronic messaging, and the overuse of consultants as substitutes for appreciating how a diverse organization nurtures and sustains deliberate and inclusive change strategies.

I used the word sustainable before, a term not common in the agile literature. Yet, it is essential. To succeed, beyond being perceived as another development tool, the agile mind-set, internalized in the company’s DNA, encourages traits that are desirable in any setting: collaboration, focus on results, short-term delivery, and customer focus. The agile approach is sustainable.

The key understanding is the connection between being agile as a tool and attitude, how it translates into an organization’s communications protocols, and how it is expressed as a function of the organization’s culture. Leadership is essential to enabling and awarding agile teams so that the culture supports a sustained practice of being agile. It starts at the top.


Leading in an Agile World – Can We Usefully Redefine Leadership?

A colleague of mine recently circulated an email asking several of us to respond to his juxtaposition of leadership and catalyzing, reflecting the notion that the former is passé and the future is ‘catalyzing’ as the key concept. The response was quick and definitive…although “Concepts of leadership are evolving to keep pace with the disruption, transformation, and agility demands of today’s organizations,” as I noted in my last blog, most respondents believe that leaders still need skills grounded in experience while integrating catalyzing skills  for existing and future challenges.

This I believe is the core of agility: recognizing, mobilizing, enabling, empowering, and sharing leadership throughout the organization so that the culture reflects a blend of human and digital capacity geared toward innovation and collaboration. Now the challenge comes in several forms: the first is that not all companies are equal, in size, complexity, structure, and business model. Some are client or customer centric and have high brand recognition. Others offer specialty products that require strong R&D components to be competitive; while others are service-providers to emerging niche markets. Mixtures of bricks and mortar and virtual POS and distribution are not uncommon.

So while the structures and operational priorities may be dissimilar, the missions and goals can be reduced to “make money, keep customers happy,  stay happy.” This core of profitability and satisfaction are at the center of how leadership, whatever styles are effective, is exercised. Why “styles?” We learned ages ago that leadership defined by functions can range from directing and evangelizing to coaching and coercing, and at least a dozen more characteristics.

Leadership is a shortcut to conflate those traits that enable leaders in whatever context to lean forward, lead from behind, and construct and organizational culture that emphasizes continual innovation, adaptation, and a competitive edge, mirroring Jack Welch, former CEO of GE’s mantra of change leadership.

Michael Hamman and Michale K. Spayd put it this way in their White Paper, “The Agile Leader.” “An organization’s agility is not a function of “‘scaling’ current team-based delivery practices…Simply put, agile leadership entails a move from driving to results to creating environments that generate results.

Agile leadership is no accident. There is a clear methodology for enacting agile leadership.” They use the phrase ‘enterprise agility’ to express their assumption that “At the heart of sustainable enterprise agility is an adaptive, agile leadership.”

To value leadership in both its complexity and its simplicity, it is vital to remember that at the heart of leadership principles are, at least for now, human beings who make assumptions every day about how to succeed in a fluid and competitive environment. Back to Hamman and Spayd, “Fundamentally, it is as much about the interior—of individuals, of organizations—as it is about the exterior. It is as much about developing people as it is about building systems. It is as much about creating an agile culture as it is about adapting structures and processes.”

Catalyzing in this context is about aligning talent, resources, systems, objectives, and expectations to support agility, so that a catalyzing leader is an agile leader dedicated to mobilizing a coherent, consistent spirit of innovation shared by company teams that have transparent, respectful, reliable, and valued communications with their counterparts in- and outside the organization.

One could argue that because of the impact of technology and the yet to be understood tsunami called ‘AI’ that leadership is more difficult in today’s environment. On the other hand, it is also reasonable to point out that leadership in the past did not have the data, modelling options, robust algorithms, and highly developed technologies as learning aides. The uncertainty, complexity, and fluidity of today’s competitive environments, at all levels, demand a differently tuned skill set, which is why sometimes the strong survive, and sometimes they don’t. Change management has to begin within the individual, which is why companies have to seriously invest in driving agility throughout their organization and its processes and relationships.

The difference I believe is enabling the agility of leaders, teams, policies, communications, and the workforce to recognize, embrace, and capture change capabilities in order to survive and thrive. For success, mindsets need to be rewired to accept the inevitability of change and the acquisition of skills required to master its impact. These skill sets must extend beyond their particular silos and empower staff to collaborate across boundaries – and be rewarded for it. As employees recognize and accept agility as a means to mobilize and execute, they then become team members whose communications with others both assume and reflect the cultural values of the organization.

So for me, this is the role of leadership at all levels: to build consensus and collaboration around company strategies and communications that build agility internally and in its external relations.


Is There Ever a Typical Organization?

This is the first in a series of posts linked to articles on my website that look at contemporary issues in organizational development (OD). Although the term organizational development has been around since the 1960s, the last century, its focus on expanding the capabilities of people within organizations to effectively manage change and performance is always relevant. According to a UPenn citation, “OD is a process of continuous diagnosis, action planning, implementation and evaluation, with the goal of transferring knowledge and skills to organizations to improve their capacity for solving problems and managing future change.”

Among the various types of OD interventions are: Survey Feedback, Team Building, Sensitivity Training, Managerial Grid, Management by Objectives (MBO), Brain-storming, Process Consultation, Quality Circles, and Transactional Analysis. While this is not a complete list, it does highlight the need for at least three phases: diagnosis, solution development, action implementation. Today, concepts such as Organizational Agility capture the need for speed and effectiveness given that technology drives change with rapid and sometimes unpredictable results.

Of particular interest to me is working in the space of Organizational Culture. This concept focuses on the deeply seated norms (accepted guidelines for interactions), values, and behaviors shared by people in the company or organization. At AbiNader Advisory Services (AAS), we work with clients to consciously develop a direct link between commonly accepted communications behaviors that characterize how employees interact to the company’s vision/mission, strategy, values, and culture, as in this diagram. The key process outcome is to enable participants to speak to basic factors that cannot be observed – mission/vision, values, strategy, and culture – except through observable and measurable behaviors – in this case, their communications. Importantly, in today’s context, it also provides a platform for discussing key agenda related to diversity and implicit bias. There are a variety of training modalities that can be used in the process, from scenario building and survey instruments to analyzing tactics to breakdown silos and accelerate information distribution.

It is essential for management to recognize that the deeply seated norms, values, and behaviors their employees share derive from more than their current employment or assignments. Their individual cultures are the sum of their many personal and professional experiences. And from this recognition, leadership can work with designated teams to identify, cultivate, and promote an organizational culture aligned on five elements:

  1. A consistent, shared, and sustained commitment to the company’s vision and mission
  2. Transparent and effective communications throughout the organization regarding current and future goals and objectives that cut across teams – the company’s strategy
  3. Shared values expressed in both organizational (e.g. efficient, results oriented) and interpersonal terms (e.g. inclusion, acknowledgement) – these describe the company’s culture
  4. Agreed behavioral norms that define desired behaviors both vertically and horizontally – your culture working for your objectives
  5. Agreed behaviors and expectations of behaviors among employees, teams, departments, others

Concepts of work forces have changed as a result of advances in technology, shifts in the makeup of economies, and greater interest in direct customer contact. Labels such as “Gen X, Millennials, disruption, transformation, etc.” do not really add clarity to the continuous re-definitions that are occurring. What is clear is that a nimble/agile organization must be aware not only of how employees are evolving along with their roles/assignments, but how the shifting nature of their aspirations requires rethinking and redefining relationships from the board room to the operations floor.

Next time, I’ll look at leadership being redefined since it all begins at the top, for better and sometimes for worse…