“If I have done any deed worthy of remembrance, that deed will be my monument. If not, no monument can preserve my memory.”—Agesilaus II
Leaders at the very top of organizations—and by this I mean board members, CEOs, EVPs, and SVPs—have a very rare opportunity. They shape the destinies of their organizations and those of the people working for them, not to mention people in the communities they serve and the economies in which they operate.
Through their corporate strategies, they leave their fingerprints on the future of their organizations in the short term (which is always under scrutiny by Wall Street), but also in the long term.
Can leaders build organizations that outperform the market over 18 years or longer? Where should they start?
In this series, I interviewed Daryl Conner, who has long been a thought leader in this space. We looked at his very precise definition of “nimble” in the first post, and how important it is; and in the second post, why it must be driven by the most senior levels of the organization. Here, we look at what leaders can do.
We often see start-ups praised for their entrepreneurial spirit. Some relate this to being naturally agile or nimble and suggest that we need to capture some of the attributes of start-ups and embed them in our more established organizations. Is this where leaders should look for inspiration or is it an illusion?
Be careful not to get seduced into thinking nimbleness is as simple as replicating the pliability and energy levels seen in start-up environments. It is often an illusion that they are nimble.
If you ask most people what nimble means they will say, “flexible, agile, lots of improvisation.” And, of course, start-ups have to be those things or they won’t survive.
Nimble has more sustainability to it. I’m not talking only about whether the organization survived this quarter’s chaos. To be nimble, an organization’s personnel, frames of reference, perspectives, systems, and processes must be calibrated for ongoing transformation.
That’s different than the entrepreneurial energy directed toward creativity and making things work. Now, are flexibility, agility, and improvisation important aspects of nimble? Absolutely—it’s just that they are necessary, but not sufficient, criteria.
What about start-ups that want to embed nimbleness? They seem to reach an inflexion point where they need to transform into a more mature stable organization. Do they keep the attributes that have brought them this far?
Again, we need to be careful here…today’s flexibility can quickly become tomorrow’s rigidity.
Is flexibility important in turbulent environments as start-ups face survival and growth challenges nearly every day? Without a doubt. Now look at what happens in these fledgling enterprises with things that work … they get institutionalized—a bureaucracy is set up to make sure they perform the same way every time. Now the organization has something that may still be perceived as flexible that really isn’t.
Nimbleness reflects a paradoxical relationship between structure and flexibility. An organization must have enough structure to replicate success, but it must also constantly challenge itself so as not to become locked in to rigidity. If an organization doesn’t have nimble ingenuity and infrastructure then it has just one option left to get through ongoing transitions—luck.
Consider this scenario: An organization’s leaders think they were lucky to have hired Wendy because her natural personality is to constantly and constructively challenge the system. As a result, the organization has done pretty well over a certain period. The vulnerability is that the success is personality-driven—if Wendy leaves, the organization will likely lose the ability to push itself against its current boundaries of convention. The organization is agile as long as Wendy has the helm. If it were nimble, however, key leaders could come and go and it would remain flexible and responsive to new demands.
And that’s why nimbleness should be a board-level issue.
We see many strategies promoted lately that are supposed to improve the adaptability of organizations. For example, we see employee engagement getting a lot of airtime and, likewise, talent management. Where can leaders begin to create the nimble organization?
There are many places from which to begin and all are valid.
It is important to start with a game plan, though—a roadmap of all the components of being nimble—and to review priorities. That way, as the organization progresses, leaders know they are building toward a complete picture.
Also, perhaps something they are already doing is leading them in a nimble direction. That’s great. They can keep doing that by:
- Looking at their current leaders and building their capabilities,
- Building nimble filters into their hiring criteria, and
- Building nimble mindsets into project engagements and enterprise execution.
All of these will yield progress.
However, the organization must be careful not to get lost in the tactics themselves. Each of these tactics can be challenging.
They still need context. An example would be regular check points to review progress against the higher design for the nimble organization and against realization objectives.
The most important thing leaders need, in addition to the deep resolve that the enduring success of the organization is important to their legacy, is a multi-year roadmap and a process for leading it.
I want to thank Daryl for sharing his deep knowledge and experience so candidly. I hope that you have found our conversation interesting and useful. I especially hope that the leaders reading this will be re-energized to build nimble capability into their organizations.
Recently, Richard LeBlanc, a renowned thought leader on board issues, published his “Outlook 2014: 10 Trends in Corporate Governance.” I was pleased to see, at #6, “Focus on longer-term value creation.” Here is how he describes it:
“Expect asset owners to exert pressure on directors and asset managers to develop long-term metrics commensurate with the product and risk cycle of the company. Pay metrics, such as health, innovation, culture, R&D, etc. will drive long-term investment. Look for “integrated” reporting and metric maturity in 2014 and 2015, making it easier for corporate boards to direct long-term non-financial incentive pay and investment.”
I see “nimble,” and, in particular, its mindsets, as an important foundation for this work. Let’s hope that we will see it get traction at the board level.
Want to get started? Do check out “Leading at the Edge of Chaos: How to Create the Nimble Organization.” Even while Daryl continues to innovate his firm’s approach, the core principles of the book have stood the test of time and still stand out as a meta-design for “nimble” in a sea of important tactical components. Also, check out the series he published last year, “Nimble Organization.”
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- The strategic imperative of the “nimble organization” and why it seems to be a mirage. Interview with Daryl Conner, Chairman, Conner Partners. Post 1 of 3
- What is leadership’s responsibility for driving and sustaining a nimble organization? Interview with Daryl Conner, Chairman, Conner Partners. Post 2 of 3
- The fight of our lives: innovation leadership
- Longing for the endless immensity of great leadership