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  • Renata Lerch

Leading Through Change


Originally published by Boardroom Publications


Organizations around the world, for-profit or not, are adopting agile practices to enable speed to market and competitive edge. Forces for transformation and innovation have hit businesses from all corners, pressing leaders to make important decisions quicker than ever while dealing with immense complexity. Agile organizations are much better prepared in times of frequent changes.


Studies have shown evidence that the difference between laggards and winners in organizational agility stems from primarily a few distinctive characteristics: a leadership with an agile mindset, customer centricity, a culture of learning and team empowerment, and a supportive organizational system.


These key features are actually not new to any progressive management theory, for example Peter Drucker, decades ago through his books and lectures, was already emphasizing the power of customer centricity and learning cultures.


Leadership with an agile mindset


It shouldn’t be surprising that it all starts with the leadership. A recent research from Forbes revealed that over 80% of C-suite executives researched globally cited an agile mindset as the most important characteristic of today’s C-suite, and almost 90% of respondents viewed CEOs as the biggest champions of organizational agility.


Starting top down with the right organizational system in place creates the ideal environment to promote sustainable change. Leaders are role models for new behaviors, and can nurture a culture of conviction, enable mechanisms of positive reinforcement, and craft focus on important skills that embrace uncertainty and trust.


Also, many dependencies and impediments that hold back execution progress require executive support, funding, and time to remove. A great example is how some global associations are quickly pivoting in the events space as a result of COVID-19. Leadership is adapting to the speed at which business is moving, quickly allocating resources to digital channels, nurturing new playbooks and partnerships, and enabling experimentation, which means faster event launches, and iterations based on real-time attendees’ feedback.


As a leader, your intention should not be focused on just nurturing speed, but instead on aligning a system that allows your organization to respond steadfast to market changes and disruptions, resulting in better business outcomes.


Supportive organizational system


When agility is set as an operational process only, not preceded by the right mindset and reinforcements across the organization, it stales quickly, and can have the reverse effect, causing employee distraction and frustration. It can be perceived as yet another process.


Managing an ever-evolving supportive organization system isn’t inconsequential. It requires continuous reflection to remove impediments and interdependencies that don’t add value. It also requires a considerable amount of engagement from all employees to constantly and intentionally revisit the status quo.


Organizations are living systems with often conflicting internal agendas and context. People have different mental models and tend to make assumptions that could wreak havoc on alignment. It is important to understand the significance of creating organization-wide consistency through constant communications, strategy, vision and purpose.


Transparency is a very powerful leadership tool to hold systems together, nurturing them with the right set of goals, rewarding rules and overall reinforcement mechanisms that support the changes employees are being asked to make.


Customer and Member Centricity


For the ones unfamiliar, agile practices came from the Agile Manifesto created twenty years ago, originally focused on software development. It’s based on 4 values:


Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

Outside the software industry, Agile has embodied principles and a mindset around two main areas: an obsession with delivering value to customers, and an interacting network of teams across the organization, working collaboratively in short cycles to constantly infuse customer insights and increase innovation.


The core element is the alignment of the whole organization to systematically reduce bureaucracy and structural barriers that get in the way of creating customer value.


Members, customers and stakeholders are the centre of associations as consumers and influencers. More and more associations are seeing the benefits of these agile values and partnering up with them to co-create through daily interactions, not only occasional research.


A fantastic asset for associations is their member volunteer force, ideal for both co-creation and market awareness. Note that the most successful YouTubers and Instagrammers, with millions of followers, are individuals like your members. Their influence and market pulse are a knowledge asset for your system.


As an association leader and consultant, I have created multiple marketing and product development teams. In one of the associations, in the certifications industry, I carefully recruited a diverse pool of external trainers and certificants to discuss their diverse perspectives together. We met monthly, and new participants rotated quarterly. The insights we obtained were priceless as we could get real-time reaction from our audience. And the experience was fantastic for them too, testing and prototyping products and services. It consistently increased the speed of campaigns and product launches.


Culture of Learning & Team empowerment


Lastly, if the expectation is that employees are responsible for creating innovation and bringing cutting-edge expertise to teams, the environment needs to encourage knowledge and curiosity.


Agile organizations nurture a learning culture where employees feel motivated to experiment, and safe to potentially fail. It entails tolerance, time for reflection, and the right discipline to select experiments on the basis of learning value. Employees are also encouraged to explore alternatives that may sometimes differ from their leaders.


Agile organizations like Amazon and Google adopt what is referred to as decision velocity, where goals are outlined from the top, but all employees are empowered to make decisions that align with those goals. This sense of ownership and trust inspires staff to bring their highest level of expertise and engagement, vital to solve today’s complex problems.