How to be more agile (and less reactive)

The impact of change around us 

Gary Hamel, considered the "world's most influential business thinker" by the Wall Street Journal, observed "the world is changing faster than CEOs can become resilient."

In Australia today, the domino of insolvencies now occurring are a brutal reminder of how correct Hamel's comments remain. Not only does change constantly occur, but significant causes of business failure include poor or slow response to problems caused by change.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of business failure is magnified for smaller businesses, who typically lack the luxury of time to get a 'response-to-change plan' absolutely right, nor can they afford to risk moving forward in haste when potentially off course.

When a business is under pressure many leaders also have a tendency to become reactive. Whilst this is not unexpected, particularly in high-stakes situations such as when a business' survival is at risk, reactive, emotional behaviour is often confusing, highly destructive and leads to a breakdown of relationships with important emplyess, suppliers and customers.

On the flip side, whilst being reactive undesirable, being agile, and therefore able to intentionally and frequently pivot and capable of navigating around problems is highly desirable. In fact, agile businesses are not only better able to navigate around problems or undesirable consequences of external change, they often exploit them to seize market share. 

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
Charles Darwin

In this article we consider four simple but overlooked philosophies smaller businesses can implement to help improve agility... and lessen reactivity.

1 – Enrol your team

For most people under pressure, pausing to reflect upon 'feelings' is the last thing they consider. However when a business is under stress it can be disastrous to overlook them. Why?  Inevitably, it is people who will drive whatever change is needed to fix an underperforming or stressed business. And people are feeling based above everything else. If your team don't 'get' your change vision, or feel you don't 'get' them, progress will be minimal, irrespective of how determined you may personally be as a leader.

At the very least, find time to put yourself in their shoes. Consider how would you feel if you were a team member rather than leader. Consider their perspective both in terms of the change/vision you are looking to achieve (is it inspiring, purpose driven or realistic?), as well as the stress they are already experiencing (do they have capacity to help you change in the first place?)

2 – Understand where you really are

In general, constraints within a business reduce its resilience and can cause it to spiral quickly from underperforming to stressed when unexpected or stressful ‘events' or 'situations' occur. And there is nothing like a little stress to trigger reactive, emotional behaviour! 

With this in mind, ask questions about your business to identify precisely where you stand. Start by considering constraints. For example, do you have a shortage of time, supplier support, cash, or personnel? Or do you face less obvious issues such as a lack of customer patience?! Also consider opportunities available right now, such as to increase sales, leverage alliances, benefit in other ways from investors, supplier arrangements, existing IP, or areas you could renegotiate.

Answering good questions improves our understanding of “where we really are” as a business. Truthfully answering allows us to also identify and plan  "where we are going next"  as well as to create contingency plans for 'as yet unknown' challenges we will face.

Not sure? Consider, how your team & business responded during the first COVID lockdown? Are the lessons learned during that period already helping your response to current challenges such as staff shortages, decreased sales, or supply chain issues? If not, why not? No doubt, 'as yet unknown' challenges are lurking and your ability to respond to them is proportional with the quality of understanding of your business.

HD&U tip – To make sure you don’t sugar coat the truth, engage independent experts who are sufficiently distant to ask tough questions. Your level of honesty in answering is directly correlated with both identifying opportunities and surviving whatever predicament may arise.

“Success is the ability to move towards your goals in spite of total disaster.”
Winston Churchill

3 – Lead with vulnerability

Achieving positive and sustainable change during a stressed situation is only possible when your team choose to follow you. If they do not, improvements made are likely to be limited to whatever you generate from either personal effort alone, or as a result of your micro-management. In both of these cases you become a (tired) bottleneck and changes are seldom sustained. So how do you ensure your team follow you?

At risk of oversimplifying a fascinating subject and life-long passion, I consider my success as a change CEO to have been largely due to an ability to become trusted. Quickly. 

If you are not already trusted as leader, here are two sure fire ways to change the narrative. Firstly, park your ego and set about connecting with your team in a human way. Be prepared to be vulnerable. Let people know you don't have all the answers and also that you may not be the solution. Secondly, take 100% responsibility for all business problems. Personally conceding blame I need be. Most of your staff probably already know the real cause. 

4– Keep moving. Keep learning

In the 1930s and 1940s, statistician W Edwards Demming published theories we now know as "continuous improvement". In laypeople's terms, these theories go roughly along the lines of Hollywood movies Groundhog Day or The Edge of Tomorrow. In other words:

Step 1 - do something
Step 2 - reflect
Step 3 - adjust
Step 4 - repeat

In the 70 years since, these simple yet powerful philosophies have led to unrivalled success for those who have embraced them (case in point, Japanese automotive manufacturing post WWII) and heartache for this who were slow to adopt them (case in point, US automotive manufacturing post WWII). Their key concept also causes perfectionists' heads to spin. That is: don't wait to 'get everything perfect', simply start, reflect and improve.

With this in mind, it is important to ask yourself how you and your business reflect, adjust and improve: not just every now and then, but every week, day or hour? If your'e stuck, start by measuring what matters and then set aside time to consider the data produced - its as good as any basis for reflection.

The faster, or more frequently, your teams repeat this do something-reflect-adjust-repeat process, the more agile your business becomes.


Related Articles