Leading the Way with Agility

I belong to a peer group of executives hosted by Vistage. At a recent meeting, the speaker was Mike Richardson, a very accomplished executive who is now consulting companies on being more agile. To him, corporate agility is all about planning for future growth, while always keeping an eye out for potential disasters that lurk around the corner. Two take-aways from the talk resonated with me.

First, ... "The task of imagination is to do the work of crisis without the crisis." (Roberto Unger). Think about the implications of this as we near the end of a calendar, and maybe fiscal, year. For all the plans and perspectives we go through in thinking about the future, do we consider the downside and the potential for a crisis? Fundamental to this consideration is an open and searching dialog amongst a management team. 

Richardson pointed out the need for more, or at least, better meetings. While conventional wisdom these days says we are having too many meetings, it is precisely the meetings and the dialog that comes from these meetings that fosters proper planning and diligent assessment of the potential that lies ahead, for both good and bad scenarios.

The meeting leader should be conducting the meeting by asking questions, rather than making declarations. The way you avoid chaos is by listening to the quiet voices that are calling out warnings about what looms ahead. Not just listening to them, but seriously considering them. Roles in a successful organization differ as much as the personalities in those roles. Optimists are important and vital to a growing organization. So are the skeptics.

Often, the most important questions to be considered are the ones that are not asked because the momentum of the dialog doesn’t allow it. Therefore, it is vital to enable the skeptics to have a voice in the discussion, and it is also vital to give their concern due consideration.

This leads me to my second important, and related, take-away. What does it take to perform the strategic analysis and planning that can account for both scenarios concurrently? Do you do a “plan for the worst, hope for the best” approach?

What is required is a “plan for the best – and the worst.” Move toward the best scenario, but allow yourself the off ramp that you will need should disaster hit. Establish metrics that clearly indicate that the crisis is not reasonably avoidable. Then discipline yourself to listen to the indicators you established.

In many ways, we already do this. Austin’s safety and quality programs are designed to allow for effective progress in our work, while mitigating the risks associated with construction activities – we plan for the worst and put measures in place to avoid it. 

Business-wise it is the economy that represents the potential downside for our business. Whatever causes the economy to tank is irrelevant. We just need to be prepared for the downside. At Austin, we track what we call the “evaporation factor.” Some prospective jobs are won, some are lost, and some don’t happen – they evaporate. In 2009, 94% of our sales identified at the beginning of the year – the sales on which a good portion of our business plan was based – evaporated. Needless to say, it was not a good year. We could have done a better job planning and discussing what was happening and what we were going to do about it in a more proactive manner.

Industries, including the engineering and construction industry, have adopted a focus on Lean practices to strip waste out of project efforts. The motivation to be Lean on a project stems from a desire to deliver better results by engaging more people in the planning of the work they will do. Similarly, an agile organization is, by necessity, a Lean organization. Keeping the organization agile requires you to keep it Lean. Agility is the strategy. Lean is a required tactic to achieve that strategy.

Agility is a competitive advantage that grows exponentially when crisis occurs to an industry.

So, my take away here is to have an open mind. Give a voice to the optimists and skeptics alike. Be aware if the hard questions, the scenarios no one wants to happen, are not being discussed. If we are asking the questions, make sure we have answers we can act upon.

It is leadership, and it requires imagination and courage. It requires agility to keep your eye on the prize, but your ear to the rails in case the train of crisis is coming.

“Don't wait until you're in a crisis to come up with a crisis plan.”

Phil McGraw

“When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

John F. Kennedy

“Something good comes out of every crisis.”

Dave Pelzer