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ATD Blog

From Sluggish to Agile Business

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

To thrive in today’s dynamic workplace, agility and adaptation are our highest priorities. Organizations must be built for speed. Businesses need to thrive in uncertainty and support innovation and change. We need leaders who can adapt fast, learn well, and continuously transform. This requires a ‘change readiness’ capability that enables leaders to be resilient and energize others.

Unfortunately, many people lack the capacity to thrive in uncertainty. Fearful of change, we move too slowly, or get hijacked by it. We all need to get comfortable with the unknown and exhibit confidence and courage to excel in this world of impermanence.

There are three essential ingredients to building an agile business: start with purposeful missions, lead with people-driven transformations, and mobilize humans and machines.

Purposeful Missions

In the hybrid workplace, purposeful missions glue the enterprise together. Fortunately, people are hungry to work for a higher, compelling purpose. Yet none of this happens without purposeful leaders at all levels who champion and model the purpose and values of the organization. To achieve this, leaders must be self-aware, trustworthy, and values-driven. Authentic, ethical, and positive in demeanor, they are committed to something bigger than themselves. The problem today is we minimize the power of purpose, have trouble walking our talk on these principles, or find it difficult to scale them across the business. By personalizing the purpose inside the hearts and minds of people, organizations can achieve their economic and social goals.

It all starts with shared consciousness—getting everyone on the same page. From our experience, three actions must take place: people need to understand the whole business and how everything is connected. This helps people develop an enterprise mindset. People need to understand the needs of all their stakeholders. Without this appreciation, teammates will ignore or alienate colleagues, customers, suppliers, leadership, or investors. And people need to understand how value is created by putting the strategy on one page. By linking the company’s purpose, values, strategy, goals, and metrics, associates can see how their work affects enterprise value.

Here’s how leaders thrive:

Be the purpose of the organization. Today’s leaders must look inside themselves at the personal purpose that drives their work. This must be aligned to the purpose of the organization or leaders will feel out of integrity with themselves and their environment. Creating a North Star guides people’s behavior and holds the organization to its highest aspirations. Painting a compelling future and enlisting people’s commitment awakens their passion and sense of meaning. Being a champion of the purpose gives the leader much needed credibility. For some this is a nice thing to do. Today it is a requirement.

Develop a trustworthy brand. Trust is the essential glue in the new world of work. Since boundaries of hybrid work are more permeable, trust is the bedrock of healthy leadership. In my experience, trust can take a long time to earn and be lost in a moment’s thoughtlessness. Trustworthy leaders are credible, dependable, predictable, and emotionally safe to be around. It’s a kind of maturity: a trademark of leaders who have grown beyond the childish immaturity of constantly protecting themselves, and confidently knowing that other people’s interests often complement, not conflict, with their own. We cannot be an island of self-interest; we must be champions of the business’ conscience, promoting socially responsible and green business practices that help to build a healthier society.

Lead with constructive impatience. Leaders of the future must promote a culture of excellence and accountability. Being constructive AND impatient drives excellence in others. Being constructive involves building a physically and psychologically safe environment. Being impatient is challenging people to reach higher levels of performance. Leading with constructive impatience is a lot like pulling a rubber band. If you pull too hard, you break people’s spirits. If you don’t pull hard enough, you can alienate the high achievers and fail to maximize their potential. If you find the right tension, amazing things can happen.


People-Driven Transformation

Many large transformations fail to meet their goals. It’s generally because they put too much emphasis on process solutions at the expense of people driving the change: for example, they lack leadership direction from the top, put the wrong people on the wrong teams, lack clear decision-making, or engage in faulty empowerment. The best leaders instinctively know that every change must be a people-driven transformation.

Consider this:

  • Organizations reporting a toxic post pandemic environment were 16X more likely to indicate a lack of trust in senior leaders as a critical issue.
  • In 2016, 74 percent of employees were willing to change work behaviors to support organizational changes, but that number dropped to 38 percent in 2022.
  • In companies that involved all employees, change success was 14X more likely and people increased their desire to stay with the company by 19 percent.

People-driven leaders put people at the center of everything they do. Everyone understands and owns the company’s purpose, values, and strategy. Human empowerment is the rocket fuel that propels the organization forward. Often, people must learn new ways of working, and the culture must support them. Individual, team and organizational accelerators and hijackers foster and impede progress. Ultimately, it’s people who drive the success of the business.

Here’s how leaders thrive:

Transform yourself on a regular basis. Leaders must be transforming all the time—living and leading in the gap between their current reality and desired future. We must look reality in the face, and yet stay hopeful about the future. This is called realistic optimism. During these micro-transitions, leaders learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable and experiment with new ways of seeing, thinking, feeling, and acting. They also learn to be vulnerable, by making mistakes and managing through adversity. Having an inner reserve of energy and emotional equilibrium helps them remain calm and steady during continual upheaval.

Teach change readiness skills to others. In today’s churning world everyone must be a change leader. Tough, nimble, and mentally agile, we must develop an adaptive mindset that learns faster, stays relevant, and prioritizes growth and change. It’s the leader’s job to be a strong champion of change and teach change readiness skills to others. By helping people thrive in complex and uncertain conditions, people learn skills like agility, both/and thinking, and acting like an entrepreneur. By energizing and mobilizing others, leaders drive change with their teams and organizations. The problem is many of today’s leaders are reticent to overstress or alienate their people for fear of burnout or backlash.

Build an agile work environment. Building agile teams and businesses is the leader’s responsibility. This creates the right conditions and environment for change. Whether executing bold ideas, using lean processes, reshaping organizations, or growing existing ones, leaders must take charge in an agile culture. They must get comfortable with their own personal power and influence. So, start by getting up on the balcony, scanning the environment, making sense of the situation, and setting bold goals for everyone. Tomorrow’s leaders will unleash positive human energy by enlisting, liberating, and mobilizing people. Resilient energizers with a bias for action are the experts at building these agile cultures.


Human/Machine Workforce

I’ve been fascinated by the human-machine workforce and how it will guide the new world of work. Companies want to improve flexibility, speed, scale, decision making, and personalization. Their associates want better work processes, reduction of redundant work, and improved quality of life. Organizations that harness the power of humans and machines will be the ultimate winners. People are central to powering and empowering this new partnership. Machines are not human minds yet, but they are taking on more of the attributes we used to think of as uniquely human (reason, action, reaction, language, logic, and learning). Technology’s larger impact will be in complementing and augmenting these human capabilities, not replacing them.

There will be tensions along the way. Take Zoom or Teams, for example. Each one accelerates our connectedness in the hybrid workplace. They provide greater meeting efficiency, enhanced communication capability, and virtual connectedness. We get to know each other better as whole human beings with families, dogs, and daily disruptions. However, we also discovered new forms of stress and fatigue, the loss of physical presence, and intrusions into our private lives.

Artificial intelligence, digital assistants, and big data are central to innovation and enhanced service. New digital processes, platforms and businesses foster greater speed, agility, and acceleration, forcing humans and machines to work in harmony like never before.

I’ve seen many digital transformations underperform because people lacked the skills or resisted the change. This new way of doing business requires new mindsets and behaviors. What we need are leaders who excel at digital innovation and digital collaboration. The digitally savvy people think differently, are creative risk takers, willing to experiment with new ideas, make faster decisions, and engage in disruptive behavior. Tech fluency provides their competitive edge.

Here’s how leaders thrive:

Promote collaborative intelligence. We need to develop a stronger relationship between humans and machines. Accenture conducted research on this topic involving 1500 companies. Firms who achieved the most significant performance improvements were those where humans and machines work well together. Through collaborative intelligence, humans and artificial intelligence (AI) actively enhance each other’s complementary strengths: the leadership, teamwork, creativity and social skills of the former, and the speed, scalability and quantitative capabilities of the latter.

Activate fresh business platforms and processes. Big data, sensors and customer analytics are the new cognitive technologies altering the way people and companies do business. All leaders need to transform their business processes and accelerate new ways of thinking and working. Those who promote human-led, technology enabling work will build incubators that foster experimentation and fresh prototyping that will help us accelerate this transformation.

Develop digital bench strength across the business. Digital brainpower is the core capability required across the business. Everyone must be a student of digital business, automated work, and digital collaboration. Leaders need to teach their teammates how to effectively work at the human-machine nexus – learning how to delegate work to the new technology, combining their human skills with those of smart machines to get better outcomes, and to teach intelligent agents how to work more effectively. This helps to solve problems faster, discover new opportunities, and rejuvenate the culture. Taken together, purposeful missions, people-driven transformations, and human/machine partnerships accelerate change and reduce employee stress. This helps leaders stay calm under pressure and accelerate our transformations.

As we look across the horizon, one thing is certain: dramatic change is here whether we like it or not. Clearly, we have difficult challenges and exciting opportunities in front of us. The Humanity Revolution is just around the corner. We have the potential to truly reinvent our businesses, transform our leaders, and refresh our cultures. And we have real choices to make. Ask yourself: will our businesses be sluggish, or will they be agile?

Editor’s note: This post is excerpted from the Healthy Companies whitepaper Calm in Chaos: How to Thrive in the New World of Work.

About the Author

Bob Rosen is the founder and CEO of Healthy Companies, a global advisory and education company who has long been on a mission to transform the world of business. He is a trusted global CEO advisor, organizational psychologist, and bestselling author. A recipient of a multi-year MacArthur Foundation award to study healthy leaders and healthy organizations, he has studied and advised top leaders around the world. He is the author of eight books on business, leadership, culture, and wellbeing, including the New York Times bestseller Grounded and the Washington Post bestseller, Conscious. He is a global keynote speaker, media commentator, and designer of award-winning leadership programs.

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