While the team is making good progress on both stable and flexible processes, Blair has a bit of extra time to reflect on what is working well and where she should encourage the team to focus next. They have developed a good understanding of all the factors that affect their work, but Blair thinks they are still a little reactive. She has started to detect a little bit of pushback from Barb and Vincent. In particular, Barb has made a few comments that suggest she thinks the sensing and responding routines could be a waste of time. Blair decides to strengthen the case for agility by focusing on how well the team has developed their skills and by showing them how their efforts have started to pay off. She decides it’s time to revisit the idea of sensing and responding now that the team is a bit more familiar with those ideas.
By this point, we hope that you’ve started to make significant inroads with psychological safety. You also may have started to use some of the levers—pushing decisions to the right level, promoting learning, adapting your leadership actions, and identifying processes and roles that need to be stable or flexible. Remember, however, that you won’t be able to make as much progress as you want with the levers if there is not sufficient psychological safety. So if you are not seeing progress, be sure to revisit chapter 2 on psychological safety.
Now let’s circle back to the environment and talk about how you can encourage sensing, interpreting, and responding routines. We use the term routines to convey that these are habits or recurring behaviors. When the environment is turbulent, it takes focus, energy, and force of habit to stay on top of changes—this is where sensing comes in. The situation has to be constantly monitored to know when something has changed or even if it hasn’t. When new information comes in, it may not always be obvious what, if anything, this input means for the organization, its mission, and its work. Interpreting now comes into the picture—people have to work together to make sense of the information and decide whether the organization needs to do something about it. A response may need to occur right away or one may need to be prepared for the future.
First, set a new norm that says everyone in the organization must get involved in the routines in some way. Because different people have different skill sets, interests, and perspectives, not everyone will or should get involved in sensing the same information or in figuring out a response to every change. Let your team know that you expect them to get involved but leave it up to them exactly how they make that happen.
You might provide ideas to get them started. Make sure they know how much time they are expected to spend on sensing and interpreting when it is not directly related to their job. Sometimes, people are already doing some sort of sensing and interpreting, and even responding, as part of their daily duties. Giving them concrete examples of the ways they are carrying out these norms will help it sink in that they are already engaging in the routines. Another way to help make these new behaviors stick is to hold daily five-minute check-ins with your team, which will give them a chance to quickly ask questions and get feedback and show that you’re committed to supporting them.
When you ask employees to play a role in sensing, you might point out that some sensing will be reactive—that is, they might sense a change after the fact—while other sensing will be proactive, intuiting change that is about to occur or might happen eventually. Both types of sensing are necessary, but most organizations will benefit by ramping up the amount of proactive sensing they are doing.
While some reactive sensing will occur, your goal is to minimize those instances and give your team as much lead time as possible to respond. While some events, such as snowstorms or power outages, catch organizations off guard, you can anticipate that these events will happen at some point. You might not know exactly when, but you can plan for a scenario in which people will be unable to work in your building. Even if a different event happened, such as a water outage, your plan would still apply, perhaps with just minor adjustments.
Similarly, you can prepare for internal events that you know will happen according to a regular schedule, such as the annual budget cycle, or at some undetermined point in the future, such as a data call or a new executive request to provide an introductory briefing about the organization’s work. Assigning a team member the role of watching for these events is another way to help your employees learn and develop, especially as that role rotates.
You also might need to allow for formal and informal interpreting. Again, both approaches will be needed to stay on top of a turbulent environment. Formal interpreting can be done by allocating time in weekly or monthly meetings to discuss changes that are happening or building in time as needed during project or strategic planning. Informal interpreting takes place when employees have impromptu conversations about what they are sensing, reinforced by knowledge sharing and learning norms and supported by a foundation of psychological safety.
As with sensing, employees should feel that it’s acceptable to spend five to ten minutes a day on informal interpreting. They should be able to reach out to their colleagues in other parts or at other levels in the organization. Effective interpreting often requires leaders as well as individual contributors to come together to figure out what a change might mean for the mission. Interpreting takes time, and interpretations may eventually change as new information comes to light, as new people are brought into the sense-making conversation, and as everyone spends time thinking through what the information means. So if an employee doesn’t immediately know what a piece of new information means, that’s okay! It might take time to make sense of it.
Just as sensing can be reactive and proactive, so, too, can responding. After identifying factors that have shifted or may shift, and after making sense of what that shift means for the organization’s mission and work, you’ll want to develop a response.
When we think about responding, we usually think about reacting to changes that have already happened and now need to be dealt with. Usually, you find out that you need to respond reactively when it’s too late or, at best, when you have very short notice. Obviously, this is not ideal, but some changes are difficult, if not impossible, to foresee. For well-defined processes, less impactful changes that have already happened can often be handled by senior experts; they can either address the unique cases or develop contingency-based job aids that give other employees clear guidance on how to handle new cases or requests. You may need to address more impactful changes with rapid experimentation aimed at quickly redefining a process; then once the new process is defined, employees supporting the process can be quickly trained.
Flexible processes are often designed to address minor contextual variations. Changes that have an unintended effect on a flexible process may also require a senior expert to mount a temporary or short-term response, while rapid experimentation finds a more permanent solution.
Even when a shift has been identified with sufficient advance notice, organizations do not always take steps to develop a response. This happens for many reasons—people are busy, for instance, or the resources needed to develop a response to something that may or may not happen are hard to secure, or leaders are focused on dealing with immediate situations and crises. Agile organizations, however, are highly proactive at figuring out responses in advance. Doing so gives the organization more time to test possible solutions and consult with experts. It also requires the organization to spend less on mounting a solution while incurring less risk. Even if the anticipated situation ends up not happening, proactively developing a response promotes learning and employee development and builds the capability for addressing future disruptions. Agile organizations often find that the solutions or capabilities that fall by the wayside become valuable when other changes happen in the future.
On-call teams are another way prepare to respond: designating specific team members to respond if an event happens. The team members would review and update the contingency plan and perhaps conduct a trial run, then agree to be available if the event occurs. The team members continue to work in their regular job while being on-call. Serving on such a team also helps your team as a whole to develop additional skills, especially when membership in the on-call team rotates, so that more people are prepared to respond.
We sometimes hear the concern that being proactive simply takes people away from their job, wasting their valuable time with little payoff. The truth is that being purely reactive ensures ineffective responses and stressed employees. When changes happen without warning, people have to scramble to figure out what to do. Employees supporting well-defined processes may continue to apply the process even when it no longer applies, resulting in low-quality products or services, dissatisfied customers, and disgruntled employees.
We are not suggesting that organizations devote a majority of their resources to prepare for unlikely events. What we are suggesting is that organizations devote some portion of their resources to preparing for future events, allocating more resources to likely events and at least a small portion of resources to unlikely events. Doing so will get the organization out of constant reactive “firefighting” mode. Although it can be difficult to emerge from a state of constant crisis, there are some ways to do so:
The sooner you can spot likely future events as well as those that are unlikely but significant, the more time you will have to prepare a response. Your vigilance will enable you to keep your contingency response up to date. If the event has become less likely, put it on the back burner; if the event pops up again, you’ll already have a starting point.
Some leaders tell us that they hesitate to try new approaches for fear that resources will be wasted if things don’t go perfectly. We’ve seen many examples of organizations conducting a full-scale pilot for a new program or process, only to revert back to the old approach when the pilot doesn’t go perfectly. The truth is that experiments and pilots should not go perfectly. If you already knew how to do something well, you’d already be doing it and the pilot would be pointless! The whole reason for conducting experiments and pilots is to learn how to improve a program or process, help employees build new skills, and build support for the improved approach.
An experiment or pilot should not be a full-scale program or process. Instead, start small and then build up as you refine them. Some organizations refer to the initial running of a new program as a pilot. If it goes well, then it’s continued with little change (if it’s not broken, don’t fix it). If it doesn’t go well, then the effort is scratched rather than refined, and the organization has taken on little risk. Try to avoid setting up your pilots as full-scale attempts at an initiative or program; instead, design them as a chance to test out essential features of the program. Make changes until the program has improved sufficiently. Only at that point should you pilot other aspects of the program, and even then, work as quickly and inexpensively as possible.
Blair continues to think about how to expand the routines into her team’s work even more. As she’s delegated more and more decisions to her team, they’ve become comfortable making those decisions, which is another sign that they have psychological safety. She doesn’t always agree with their decisions, but she always backs them up. And she’s been pleasantly surprised that their choices usually work out. A couple of times when things didn’t work out, Blair felt that backing them up served to retain their trust and ensured that they learned from the experience.
The weekly team meeting has become an effective forum for decision-making, especially when the team knows which decisions need to be made and has the relevant information before the meeting. So Blair decided to run an expanded sensing exercise. With her team’s and Ms. Barton’s approval, Blair also invited Mrs. Banks to attend the next team meeting so that she could see firsthand how differently the team is operating. Blair’s delighted that Mrs. Banks accepted the meeting invitation and joins the virtual room just as the meeting begins.
After welcoming Mrs. Banks, Blair starts the sensing exercise: “Back when we listed all of the things that affect our work, we were amazed by how many things we came up with. I don’t think any of us knew how much is changing. Now I’d like to circle back with sensing and even dig a bit deeper.”
This time, however, she doesn’t ask them to individually list the events and circumstances that affect their work—because she’s sure they’re ready to tackle the discussion together. She pulls out a large pile of sticky notes and asks them to start writing down all of the things that have affected them in the past, are affecting them now, or that might affect them in the future. As they start writing, she draws three columns on the whiteboard and asks them to place the sticky notes in one of the columns.
As Vincent places his items on the whiteboard, he exclaims, “I see that someone wrote down that Congress could choose to change our entire agency’s mission, which of course would affect all of our customers’ contracting needs. I hadn’t thought of that before!”
Blair advises the group to add a checkmark to others’ sticky notes if they agree with it. Once they’re finished, Blair says, “We need to make sure we monitor these, but we also need to get work done. Which factors do we think are more likely? And which factors would have the most impact to our work if it did occur?”
Mrs. Banks even weighs in: “You know, I get frequent updates about what’s going on in various congressional subcommittees. I’d be glad to pass along any updates that I think are relevant. I didn’t realize how forward thinking you’re being and didn’t know that you need advance notice in order to figure out how to adapt your work without bringing work to a halt. That seems like a better approach than what I had to do back when I was in your role.”
After some discussion, the team starts to organize the factors into groups of likelihood and impact, which naturally leads to a conversation about where to focus their sensing and which factors merit preparing a response.
Barry says, “This is starting to make more sense now. We should spend a little bit of time on the things that won’t affect us much or are unlikely. And we should spend a lot of time on things that will really affect us or are pretty likely. It’s hard to predict the future, which means that we should revisit these things from time to time. We might need to up our focus on something that looks like it will really happen after all or spend less time on something that is going away.”
“That’s exactly right, Barry!” Blair says. “Let’s look at these checklists of sensing and interpreting activities to get us thinking about the things we could be doing to stay on top all of this change.”
The team begins to assign specific topics to different team members so that they can coordinate their sensing. They talk about how they could take turns giving five-minute “sensing updates” each week. They then ask Blair if they can spend another few minutes talking about what the observed signals mean for their work, which would help them plan experiments.
A couple weeks later, just when Blair feels that her team has a good grip on all of the factors, a bunch of unanticipated events happen all in the same week. A couple of her team’s largest customers have a sudden change in direction, requiring some quick-turnaround contracting just when they’re getting ready for several new solicitations. At the same time, a new, highly visible program kicks off, requiring significant contracting support. The team is struggling to keep up when all of a sudden several highly experienced team members need to take personal leave.
Blair is adamant about not simply expecting people to work extra hours, so she reaches out to other contracting teams for help. One team provides an experienced team member who just transferred from another agency and didn’t have a permanent assignment yet. Another team sends two high-potential team members who are looking for opportunities to learn about other types of contracts. Several of Blair’s team members step up into temporary roles that they had cross-trained for. It is clear that the new process, although a few kinks are still being worked out, is making them much more efficient. Blair thinks, “This was a long two months, but it could have been so much more stressful. My sensing about being able to use other teams was beneficial because of the relationships that I established with them; I know that my team will pay them back while also benefitting from the expanded experience. We actually came out ahead from this unanticipated stress test by allowing people to gain experience in new roles, and they did wonderfully because the whole team shared their expertise and supported them. The rhythm that we started many months ago also paid off; we were ready for this challenge with our streamlined meeting format and delegated decision-making. And all of this was possible because I worked at building up their psychological safety.”