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Changing Direction

The agility to change direction is a culmination of the other six dimensions:

  • • to innovate is to change direction;
  • • to process faster requires a change in normal practice;
  • recovery from a mistake means changing direction;
  • continuous improvement is about altering the way something is done;

customer responsiveness is usually about shifting priorities to cater for

the need of a customer; and

problem-solving is often about thinking outside the box.

Agility is ultimately about changing direction in some form.

Even so, I felt it important to separate the dimension of changing direction from the other six. Operating in a climate of accelerated change and uncertainty, being able to change direction is critical to performance. All enterprises need the agility to change direction rapidly in response to unanticipated changes in the marketplace. These variabilities may involve the emergence of a new market, such as building a housing estate to accommodate an influx of miners to an area next to a new mine site. Or, it could be a change of government and new priorities and laws, such as reductions in immigration intakes. Or, changes in economic conditions, such as a sudden downturn in economic activity, can have severe and sudden impacts on revenue in the tourist or entertainment industries. All of these ups and downs require companies to reassess their strategic direction and make agile adjustments in riposte.

Without an agile direction shifting capability, a business faces two serious problems: First, the firm misses a potentially lucrative, passing opportunity that suddenly emerges because it’s too slow to capitalize on the sudden opening—or worse, not being able to change at all. Second, a company entrenched in its customs—perhaps too comfortable in its existence—will become redundant in no time. Consider the following examples: Kodak; the local independent hamburger shop; and the local butcher. But being flexible and maneuverable isn’t quite as easy as it might sound; like the other six forms of agility, there are obstacles.

Take for example the belief that leadership is about offering certainty and clarity to those they lead. This common conviction can be a problem when dramatically altering a business’s direction is necessary. Because it’s so deeply engrained in our psyche that leaders are there to provide clarity and certainty, managers look for ways to emulate this belief. Leaders continually strive to develop and communicate a comprehensive strategic plan, for example, to offer “certainty” to employees and shareholders.

But the concept of the five-year plan is an artefact of the twentieth century. Apart from being completely unrealistic, the strategic plan makes it tough to rationalize taking a different route. The manager—having invested considerable time and thought in the initial plan—finds it hard to let go of it; the strategic plan then becomes “a rod for the back” of the organization.

A sudden, unplanned direction change implies that management has miscalculated the strategic route in the first place—which is probably the case. Managers lose face by contemplating a direction about face. Not wanting to admit fault or appear incompetent, the manager may be tempted to stay the original course. So a golden opportunity may pass by.

A more suitable leadership approach is shifting from linear planning to a strategy of adaptive leadership.8 Divergent thinking or opening up the array of possible futures is the essence of modern leadership. Contingency planning is more suited to the transformational marketplace. Preparing for multiple scenarios can replace the illusion of certainty that strategic planning used to offer. Linear planning, at any rate, is the antithesis of agile direction change.

This brings us to the end of Chap. 3 and Part I. I’ve covered the seven dimensions of agility that make up the organizational agility model. Agility is the new way of evaluating organizational performance. There are, however, several people management practices that make enterprises clumsy rather than agile. These obsolete practices need to be overthrown to accommodate agile performance. A complete rethink of performance is warranted.

I intend to discuss these performance roadblocks in detail in Part II, and offer some practical alternative solutions. More specifically, Part II of Performance Management for Agile Organizations deals with eight management myths we have entertained for a 100 years, many arising from the scientific management movement beginning in the early part of the twentieth century. These eight myths are both pervasive and constraining for the agility needed for work in the twenty-first century.

Chapter 4 considers the first myth—Job specification improves performance.

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