Write your own agile story

Interview with Professor Herman Van den Broeck and Professor Barney Jordaan, authors of “The Agile Leader’s Scrapbook”

How do you become an agile leader – really? “You need to develop an ‘and-and’ mindset, because right from the start you are confronted with a double challenge: identify and build on everything that (for the moment at least) is relatively immune to the impact of volatility in your operating environment, while simultaneously experimenting with new systems, ideas, products and processes wherever possible. For this you need a high degree of collaboration from people in your organisation. And that, ultimately, is down to the trustworthiness of your organisation and you as a leader.” With their scrapbook, Professor Herman Van den Broeck and Professor Barney Jordaan want to help leaders find a “sweet spot” – not necessarily a perfect balance – between stability and agility, between roots and wings, or what they term “rooting” and “soaring”.

“Agility” is the talk of the town: all organisations should be agile nowadays. Why did you decide to write a book on agile leadership?

Herman: “Back in the nineties, ‘the agile organisation’ was a nice add-on to management practices that clung to linear thinking. For more than 200 years, companies had been used to having the time and the money to create a stable, hierarchical, power-driven environment. Strategies were based on ‘rooting’, driven by the illusion that everything is predictable. But we now live in a VUCA world – a world that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous – in which organisations have to cope with the enormous speed of innovation on the one hand and globalisation on the other. If leaders want to keep up, they must be prepared to explore and adapt quickly: they have to embrace a ‘soaring’ attitude. Leading organisations combine strong roots with adaptability to soar: that is, being agile. With this book, we want to help leaders ask themselves pertinent and challenging questions to rethink some of their long-held beliefs, or so-called ‘managerial logic’.”

“Leading organisations combine strong roots with adaptability to soar” Professor Herman Van den Broeck

Barney: “Indeed, this is a very special and unique ‘Guide to Agile Leadership’, giving answers you’ve been looking for but also raising questions for the readers and leaving space to put down their own thoughts. Answers are easy to find, yet questions, especially the right ones, are often hard to come by. That’s why it’s a scrapbook: in the end, you should get out of it what works best for you. We were inspired for this question-based format by a cartoon, where a collector of answers and a collector of questions are sitting on a bench discussing their collections. When the question collector says: ‘Questions stay relevant forever’ – I can very much relate to that.”

“This is a scrapbook: in the end, you should get out of it what works best for you” Professor Barney Jordaan

The book is structured around eight agility challenges. What’s the logic behind them?

Barney: “Every organisation has its own path to greater agility. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. The eight challenges and related questions serve as touchstones for leaders to check where they and their organisation stand and where change might be needed.

“Each management team (boards included) should go through the challenges and make sure their answers to the questions we raise are explicit. All too often teams play the game of window-dressing when it comes to their underlying managerial logic and reduce the quality of the decisions taken, which is a very expensive business (direct costs, loss of time, client dissatisfaction and unethical behaviour).

The Agile Leader's Scrapbook

“Agility depends on decision-makers getting access to the best available information (about the environment, changing customer preferences, what the competition is up to, trends, etc.) and responding to that as quickly as possible. This information, which is often informal but innovative, is normally available right through your organisation, but for various reasons it’s not always passed from those sitting with the information to those ultimately making critical decisions. It’s often filtered (good news is shared, bad news is not) or locked in a silo (to be used selfishly against those in the next silo, for instance). Organisational climate and ego-driven leadership styles are often the cause of this. Getting that information is one thing, but you also have to be able to react to it quickly and be able to influence your environment.

“This means that everyone shares the responsibility to make decisions appropriate to their level of authority. As a leader, you have to create simple decision-making principles that will allow those who, for example, deal with customer complaints to take important decisions themselves the next time they’re faced with a complaint, without hierarchically having to escalate the issue. As such, the organisation gains an enormous amount of time. And in agile environments, speed is of the essence.”

What’s the hardest part to accomplish?

Barney: “The shift in mindset, without a doubt. As a leader, you first have to realise that your current mindset won’t get you where you need to be. Usually, that realisation comes when you’re confronted with the consequences. Then comes the hardest part: you have to stretch the managerial logic that you’ve adhered to all your life and on which your entire organisation is based. You have to ‘unlearn’ this and adopt a different logic.”

Herman: “Take the reward policy. Traditionally, we reward successes. As an agile leader, you should be able to reward failures as well, provided the failure is not an ethical failure and something is learnt from it. Another difficult aspect of the agility process is the larger timeframe. Gone are the days when, every budget year, you could simply take decisions based on figures you received from each department and move on. If you take an agile decision, it’s not so much the quality of the decision itself that counts: it’s the quality of the ripple effect of your decision inside and outside your organisation. And often that can only be measured after two to four years.”

“As an agile leader, you should also be able to reward failures, provided something is learnt from them” Professor Herman Van den Broeck

One can imagine not every leader feels comfortable with the idea of a less structured and less controllable environment…

Herman: “The moment you feel uncomfortable, you’re probably learning. Also, a shift in mindset is not synonymous with a shift in character. But you do have to set up a collaborative environment representing enough diversity to look at things from different perspectives.”

Barney: “Exactly. As a leader, you need the ability to adapt. First of all, you have to be able to adapt to a different mindset. Secondly, you have to be capable of creating a trustworthy environment, in which no-one – not even people at the lowest levels – is afraid to make suggestions or share knowledge and is aware that they can ‘fail wisely’. Thirdly, you need to have the right co-creation skills set. In the book we describe these skills at length.

“And yes indeed, if the leadership is not able to adapt their mindset and lacks the skills and qualities that you need for an agile environment, you might have to get rid of it. Remember: a fish rots from the head down.”

“A fish rots from the head down: sometimes you have to get rid of leaders that are not able to adapt to a mindset that favours collaboration.” Professor Barney Jordaan

When it comes to agility, where does the average Belgian leader stand?

Barney: “The concept of agility is certainly making its mark. But in the field, we too often see managers thinking that agility means doing everything more quickly. Agility is not about speed alone; it’s about co-creation. And that can take time. According to an African proverb: ‘When you want to go fast, go alone. When you want to go far, go together.’”

Herman: “Another mistake that’s often made is that leaders want to introduce agility using their rooting systems. But that doesn’t work. As an agile leader, you should build a bridge between the rooting, stable part of your organisation and the soaring, agile part. When we tell that to a lot of leaders today, it comes as a shock. But once they realise it’s the only way to go, they’ve already taken a major step forward.”

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