Let’s start with a story about a leader named Blair, who realizes that her organization and team face many challenges. She knows that the changes will not go away. In fact, the number and pace of changes will only increase, resulting in more complex and unexpected changes to deal with. Blair is just starting to see the need to find a different way of approaching work.
Blair, a mid-level manager in the acquisition department of a large government agency, gets settled in her home office. Some days Blair works remotely to give her space for deep, focused work; other days she heads into the office for face-to-face meetings. To start her workday, she thinks about her plan for the day. She logs into email, checking to see which problems will likely consume her day and take her away from the project she’s been trying to launch. A message from her boss, Ms. Barton, catches her eye—it’s a memo to their department of about a thousand employees. Ms. Barton has just attended a virtual contracting conference and has decided that the department needs to become “more agile” to meet increasing demand for the department’s contracting services. Blair shakes her head, muttering, “Whatever that means!” Reading between the lines of the email, she starts to think about how this coming change will be just another way to squeeze more hours out of her and her staff. There certainly will be no increases to their budget, and her department is already understaffed, with several unfilled positions.
Still, she agrees with her boss; they do need to speed up the acquisitions process, because it’s the only way to meet the demands of the program managers while also responding to constantly changing program needs. Being new to this job—she’d held a similar role in another agency until taking this position a month ago—Blair hasn’t even settled into a routine yet. She’d heard that this department had challenges before she applied, but she’s finding that the difficulties are more than just annoyances. They are obstacles to any kind of predictable productivity. In addition to the layers of regulations they have to legally adhere to in meeting-acquisition requests, her team is dealing with a lot of turbulence. The agency programs that they support have needs that are different from those in the past. The team’s make-up is also changing, as team members now transfer from other parts of the agency instead of staying in acquisition for their entire career as they used to do. As a result, team members typically have less expertise in acquisition but also more understanding of the agency’s mission. Team members are now working from home frequently too, so they might need new technologies to help them be more productive. She’s even hearing about new acquisition tools coming soon that use artificial intelligence to draft contracts. But it’s hard to stay on top of every new tool that’s out there. And while it used to be a rare snowstorm that disrupted the team’s work for a day or two, now it seems their work is disrupted for more reasons than ever—political factors, social unrest, pandemics. Add in all of the changes in the agency—new policies, changing regulations, major and minor restructurings, leaders coming and going—and it feels like a constant swirl of disruption.
And now, her boss wants her to make this dysfunctional organization “more agile”?!
Like Blair, you might find yourself saying that you just need to get ahead of the curve or that, if things would only slow down, your team would be able to reach its potential. Maybe you’ve found time to create a plan to examine how your team is approaching its work, only to find that the situation is more complex than you realized or that there’s no time to put the plan into place because unforeseen events constantly pop up.
Sensing means noticing that something has changed, and interpreting refers to understanding what those changes mean for the organization. Not only are there more things to track than in the past, but all of those factors are also changing rapidly and probably in complex, ambiguous ways that make them hard to understand. The tools below provide different approaches to naming and exploring factors and trends so that you can start to identify the things that are affecting your organization or might affect it in the future.
To recognize what has happened, is currently happening, or is about to happen, you need to involve your employees in sensing. If they are not aware that something has happened, they can’t respond to it. For example, when organizations fail to pick up on new customer requirements or aren’t aware of new technologies that could help them work more efficiently, they are failing at sensing. Often, frontline employees have insight into these areas that those in management might not be as focused on.
In a traditional organization, sensing was usually done only by leaders, often in the form of updating an annual strategic plan; this approach worked well when things were more predictable. In an agile organization, however, everyone in the organization needs to sense what is going on around them. Of course, not everyone should be looking at the same things. People will naturally gravitate toward what they are interested in and perhaps to what they have expertise in. As a leader, you may want to learn more about what signals and information people are already paying attention to, so that you can identify any gaps and ask someone to look after those gaps. You might rely on your IT experts or engineers to sense new technologies or new ways to use existing technologies. Others may gravitate toward watching demographic trends that could impact your customer base or workforce. People in coordinator or liaison roles may already be aware of events happening elsewhere in the organization that could have implications for your work. Executives may talk to leaders in other organizations to find out what shifts and patterns they are concerned about. The point is that people at all levels of the organization should be able to get involved in some type of sensing.
As you start to gather all this information, you then need to interpret what it means for your organization. People often pick up on signals, data points, or other information that tells them something has changed, but they don’t always know what that change means. The signals and data points might need to be combined with other information in order to fully understand what it means. People with a wide range of expertise might be needed to interpret the signals—people with technical or functional expertise; leaders who can help interpret what the signals mean for the organization’s mission, strategy, or resources; staff members who have seen similar signals in other organizations; and long-tenured employees who have seen something similar in the past.
Just as with sensing routines, responding routines are everyone’s responsibility. Different people will play different roles, but everyone must help figure out how the organization can anticipate and adapt when changes happen. Some people may respond by doing their work a little differently in order to meet a customer’s unique request. Others may respond with a longer horizon, such as creating a plan to form a new division intended to meet a large increase in a specific type of work.
Responding can turn reactive if no one in the organization knows that something has changed until it has occurred. When something takes everyone by surprise, you have no choice but to rely on the commitment, hard work, and skills of your staff to figure out how to manage until an effective response can be prepared. Unfortunately, much reactive change often leads to stress, fatigue, and burnout as employees juggle their everyday responsibilities with the additional burden of a crisis. Reactive responses can also lead to a loss of trust in leadership, as people look to leaders to guide the organization to be more proactive.
Responding, ideally, should be proactive. If everyone is paying close attention to the environment in their sensing routines, then they can interpret signals and prepare an appropriate response. We recognize, however, that it can be hard to convince others that it’s worth it to be proactive! In chapter 8, we present specific actions that you can take to encourage these routines, become more proactive, and then demonstrate the value of proactivity. Responses might include putting in place previously developed contingency plans as well as testing out possible responses. We expect that new solutions will not work perfectly the first time, however.
Experimenting and piloting are two good ways to learn more about the problem, refine the solution, and confirm that the solution will work. Experimenting—running short tests to quickly learn more about a problem, test an assumption, or try out a potential solution—is an important part of responding because it helps create solutions in a timely manner and ensures that resources aren’t wasted on solutions that don’t pan out. Piloting is another alternative to investing in a full-blown plan or project; it makes sure that the important aspects of the solution will work and are implemented the right way.
You might wonder if every event can be anticipated. Sometimes, people don’t establish sensing as a routine behavior because they feel that it is not possible to stay aware of everything that could affect them and what’s happening around them. While it’s true that we cannot all pay attention to every stimulus in the environment, and there will always be some unknowns and changes in the environment that no one sees or understands, many events can be anticipated so that a response can be prepared earlier. And by preparing responses ahead of time, your employees learn more about the environment and hone their ability to innovate. If an event happens unexpectedly or differently than anticipated, employees who have been practicing their sensing and responding skills are better prepared to address it. They might save time by knowing which solutions won’t work. They may be closer to the solution than if they were starting from scratch. They may know which experts—inside and outside the organization—to consult in order to get to a solution faster.
A response to a known event—a situation, challenge, or problem—can be handled with existing, stable processes. When a previously unknown event happens or is about to happen, the organization’s flexibility comes into play. Small teams will need to come together to understand the event and its impact on the organization; these small teams should then conduct short experiments to find a response. For example, you might ask two or three team members to tackle a specific problem. That small team might start by talking to someone who has tried to address the problem before or to employees who have experienced the problem firsthand, to learn more about the problem. Then they might generate possible solutions that could be tested by one or two team members before rolling it out to a few others, refining the solution each time before making it the preferred way of doing things. Along the way, the team will likely try some solutions that don’t work, learn more about the problem and other possible solutions, and then finally develop a solution that actually solves the problem.
You may have heard about approaches such as rapid prototyping, design thinking, or other techniques intended to tap people’s creativity. These approaches are often run by small teams made up of the same people who sensed the new event and who have the best understanding of it. But a team might also need to add people who have specific expertise. In agile organizations, employees can self-organize to form these teams, keeping leadership informed; leaders may also take on the role of a team member if they have information and expertise related to the event. The teams can form, re-form (by adding and removing members as their understanding of the event shifts and new skills are needed), and disband when their work is complete.
Leaders can also direct teams to form. Agile organizations rely on a range of temporary and permanent teams, including task forces, tiger teams, and so on. Both self-forming and leader-directed teams should keep leadership apprised of their actions. These teams may need access to resources that only higher-level leaders can approve (yes, even agile organizations have hierarchies of responsibility). They may also need to rely on leaders to coordinate across the organization by connecting teams working on similar problems, reducing unnecessary duplication of efforts, and identifying others with relevant skills and expertise.
To enable sensing and responding routines, an agile organization approaches its work very differently from the way a traditional organization does. Leaders have seven so-called levers that they can use to support timely and effective responses to changes in the environment. These seven levers are as follows:
In subsequent chapters, we explore how you can use these levers to build your organization’s agility. Rather than devoting one chapter to each lever, we’ve organized chapters by concepts that show you how to enact change in your organization. As such, some chapters focus on a specific lever, while other chapters address several levers. In any given discussion of a lever, however, we want you to think about how all of the levers are interrelated; after all, it’s hard to address one lever unless the others are in place. For example, your team is not likely to share information if they don’t realize the role that information plays in making good decisions. And they probably won’t experiment with possible solutions if they don’t feel that it’s okay to form a small team to design and run an experiment. In addition, making progress on one lever can help you make progress on another lever. For example, you will see themes of psychological safety and team norms throughout the book. In order to make progress on levers, a team must have sufficient psychological safety as well as norms in place that support each lever.
Thus, the chapters appear in an order that we think will work intuitively for most organizations. We suggest that you approach your journey toward agility in the same order, but then refer back to the chapters, as needed, as you continue to learn and iterate.
Sometimes we hear leaders say that the timing is not right for their organization to become more agile because the organization does not have existing processes that work well. In our terms, these leaders are saying that the part of their organization that needs to be stable is not functioning well—processes are not well-defined and are not getting appropriate results.
The truth is that the reason the organization is not getting the results it wants is because the organization is not aligned to its environment. Things will never slow down enough to be able to fully define every process and get to a state of stability. When the work environment was more stable many decades ago, organizations could improve their outcomes by documenting most of their processes and having employees carry them out as defined. Today, the organization needs to figure out which processes should be well-defined and stable and which should be flexible in order to adapt to changes. In subsequent chapters, we explore how leaders can set the stage for agility, addressing both the stable and flexible aspects of their organization at the same time.
Some leaders we talk with say their organizations need complete stability, while other leaders express that their organizations need complete flexibility. The truth is that agile organizations find the right balance, or flow, between the two. You need elements of both stability and flexibility—the trick is finding where you need each.
In agile organizations, processes are examined in order to figure out where stability and flexibility are appropriate. And because needs change over time, those processes are continually examined and re-examined to figure out where stability and flexibility are needed. Previously flexible processes might become more stable due to the emergence of technological advances, a more skilled workforce, or increased risk. And previously stable processes may need to become more flexible if the environment affecting those processes has become more turbulent.
Evolving into a more agile organization is not a simple or prescriptive journey. When we started this work, many leaders and advisors asked us for a checklist of actions they could take to transform their organizations. Unfortunately, change is rarely that easy, and adapting to meet the demands of a complex environment often requires a robust approach. Fortunately, the skills you need to explore which levers will be the most impactful for your organization are the same skills necessary to meet future disruptions in your environment. As you start to use the levers, everything won’t go perfectly. You’ll need to learn what went well and what you will need to do differently, and then make adjustments and try the next iteration. It will help to focus on what you learned and why rather than on what didn’t go well. Along the way, you will learn more about agility and what it means for your specific organization.
As you read the following chapters, be attuned to the little experiments you can try with your team and what small tests you might embark upon to learn more about your organization’s strengths and opportunities to adapt to better meet the demands of your environment. But before that, in the very next chapter, you will learn the prerequisite to such experiments: you must enable employees to feel comfortable trying new things—by creating an environment that fosters psychological safety.
After catching up on her email, Blair finds that she has twenty minutes until her weekly team meeting. If today is like most, several people will join the meeting a few minutes early or stay late to tell her about their work problems. Maybe she could get a better handle on this new job if she made a list of everything that her team made her aware of.
She grabs a pen and begins to document all the items that come to mind, from slight changes to the regulations that her officers must follow, to new software that could automate part of her team’s work, to a couple of new programs that constantly seem to need something from the contracting officers. A couple team members also once expressed concern about entry-level employees who wanted the flexibility to work in different time zones throughout the year, making it difficult for their colleagues to meet with them, even virtually. While this last issue doesn’t seem pressing, if it becomes a trend, it could impact the team’s ability to collaborate and the way employees are supervised.
Blair, list in hand, thinks, “Maybe I should start the meeting by having everyone make their own list of things that are getting in the way of doing good work. We could even share our lists. It might help us understand all of the pressures we are facing and make a case that we need to find a new way to work.”
At the meeting, Blair asks her team to take turns sharing things that distract them from their work or keep them up at night. One person mentions a modification to a climate change law being considered by Congress; although this proposed law doesn’t directly pertain to acquisition, some of the provisions would significantly affect most of the agency’s contracts. Someone else mentions that one of the programs they support, the Bravo Program, has a lot more contracting demands than most others. Another team member says that the software they use keeps crashing. Blair starts with the obvious solution: “Do you call the help desk when that happens?” She then realizes that she knows how to address only one of the many problems her team is raising.
One team member, Barry, tells Blair that, two years ago, IT looked into the computer problem and discovered that the agency’s computers weren’t causing the problem.
“That’s good to know, Barry,” Blair says. “We just saved several months by not having IT reinvestigate this problem. At next week’s meeting, we can talk more about how to figure out what to do about this problem.”
After the meeting, Blair talks with Barry, who says, “I found it really helpful to think about all of the things that impact us. I wasn’t aware of the new regulation under consideration, and Leila didn’t know about the challenges I’ve been having with my customers in the Bravo Program.”
Even in her short time in her new role, Blair recognizes that Barry is pretty outgoing, so she isn’t surprised that he’s on board with sharing his thoughts. However, some of the quieter members of the team might take a bit longer to be comfortable doing this.
Blair starts to think that she might be onto something by facilitating team conversations. If she can have her team continue the conversation they started, then they might be able to figure out which changes are always catching them by surprise. It seems like some of her team members are more interested in examining big-picture changes, while others are focused on specific changes right in front of them—she will have to figure out how to help them see that exploring both kinds of changes are important. Although everyone is already putting in extra time and effort, she might be able to find a way to get out ahead of all of the changes that are happening. It will take focus and united effort, but she has a good team who would be up for the challenge. And the payoff would be great. Right now, Blair’s department isn’t the highest performing. But then that’s why Ms. Barton convinced her to take this job—so that she could turn things around.