“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” — Edward Deming

As change facilitators, we are just as vulnerable as any professional to becoming so focused on the tactical trees in front of us that we lose sight of the forest. Compare this with the orthopedic surgeon who diagnoses the stress fracture but dismisses repeated migraines, or the urban planner who develops his piece de resistance in one small section of town, but ignores expanding decay in surrounding areas.

We run the risk of being so focused on helping organizations with their individual change endeavors that we don’t take into account their ability to address change from a generic standpoint. If we are riveted to the initiatives at hand, we can fail to help prepare our clients for changes that haven’t even been identified yet. When this happens, we unintentionally keep them in a strictly reactive mode instead of helping them also address the preventive side to execution…helping them get ready for ongoing disruption, not just for the next project that has been announced.

Beyond the implementation of specific change efforts, practicing our craft should also deal with fostering nimble organizations. The question is—are we paying sufficient attention to this aspect of our work?

The marketplace is extremely turbulent, and there are no indications that it will become any less so in the future. No sector is immune—public, private, governmental, and non-profit must all contend with this turmoil. In such an environment, success is only possible by rapid, masterful responses to shifting external pressures/opportunities and internally driven initiatives. The organizations that will survive—and thrive—will be those that demonstrate agile execution.

Execution Aptitude: Two Types of Organizations

Over time, organizations show patterns of mindsets and behaviors that reflect how well they can adjust in order to remain successful. These patterns provide insight to an organization’s location on a continuum that runs from constrained to nimble. Few organizations fall at either extreme of the continuum. Most are somewhere in the middle, but clearly demonstrate a strong leaning toward one or the other pole.

The Constrained Profile

Constrained organizations pursue change, but thwart their own efforts to implement. Some consciously avoid as much change as they can. Most see the need for some key transitions, but can’t execute them.

Here are some of the symptoms of a constrained organization:

  • Bewildered and discouraged behavior when faced with unanticipated problems or opportunities
  • Ineffective responses when dealing with persistent disorder
  • Over- or under-reaction to unfamiliar pressure
  • Senior leaders seldom show a unified front around critical issues
  • Slow and hesitant movement through the adaptation process, which lags behind the implementation speed of competitors
  • Success measured based on energy expended and/or what gets installed, rather than on delivery of promised results
  • Bias toward being overly flexible or overly restrictive in operating style; no balance between the two
  • Multiple change efforts are approached as separate endeavors; the interdependencies are overlooked
  • Human, physical, technical, and financial resources take a long time to redefine and redeploy following a disruptive change
  • Can absorb a single major change, but are typically overwhelmed when faced with multiple, overlapping initiatives with significant implications

Here are some characteristics of the people who populate constrained organizations:

  • Display a low tolerance for ambiguity and a high need for assurances
  • Tend not to engage effective problem-solving activities when faced with sustained uncertainty and ambiguity
  • Become immobilized with fear and anxiety (sometimes, even panic) when surrounded by turmoil
  • Feel victimized by change and unable to influence their own destinies
  • Feel overly restricted by the organization’s rules, policies, procedures, and power structures
  • Are often preoccupied with internal struggles and are unable to focus effectively on identifying and meeting customer needs
  • Become engrossed in office politics, resource-ownership scuffles, petty bickering, and narrow-minded turf wars
  • Engage in exaggerated and inappropriate conflicts
  • Espouse what their boss wants to hear rather than expressing their true opinions
  • Do not believe they are important to the organization’s overall viability and often feel disassociated and disengaged from the individuals or groups with whom they routinely interact
  • Have little enthusiasm for contributing to the operation’s ultimate success except to the extent necessary to stay out of trouble or remain employed
The Nimble Profile

In contrast, nimble organizations consistently succeed in unpredictable, competitive environments by quickly and effectively modifying their operations when necessary.

Here are some characteristics of nimble organizations:

  • Can successfully orchestrate multiple (overlapping or simultaneous) initiatives while maintaining productivity and quality standards
  • Demonstrate a superior capacity to deal with unanticipated problems and opportunities
  • Are led by executives who share a common understanding and sense of urgency about critical issues
  • Are alert, agile, and responsive when dealing with constant irregularity and disorder
  • Are quick, graceful, and resourceful when adjusting to unfamiliar pressures
  • Are able to move through the process of adapting more efficiently and effectively than the competition
  • Are malleable within their existing boundaries of operation while remaining capable of redefining those boundaries, if necessary, to succeed
  • Operate in a manner that balances the need for structure and discipline with creativity and flexibility
  • Approach multiple change efforts with a portfolio view to ensure interdependencies are addressed
  • Rapidly redeploy their human, physical, technical, and financial resources following a disruptive change
  • Measure change success by how close what is delivered comes to what was promised

Characteristics of people in nimble organizations:

  • Show strong resilience when faced with unfamiliar and challenging circumstances
  • Expect, on a frequent basis, that whatever status quo exists will soon become prohibitively expensive, driving new changes into the system
  • Function within flexible interpretations of their existing roles and assume that they may face completely new job responsibilities on a periodic basis
  • Accept frequent reassignment and reordering of their priorities as the norm
  • View a continuous flow of unplanned activities as the inevitable price for competing in volatile markets
  • Think it is normal to deal with constantly evolving initiatives and an abundance of diverse ideas
  • Are accustomed to working in synergistic, cross-functional teams
  • Refuse to be trapped by past successes or current pathologies
  • Want to be involved in helping guide change projects but also expect their input will result in fast, insightful, and definitive decision-making by management
  • Focus on the company’s ultimate success rather than the discomforts they may experience in getting there
  • Recognize and resolve or escalate problems quickly
  • Think it is only natural for associates to engage in uninhibited dialogue, straightforward feedback, and open, constructive conflict
  • Tend to show a desire to experiment, and display a high tolerance for ambiguity
  • Are multi-skilled and strongly motivated, and challenge authority appropriately
  • Want to strengthen their identification with the company and attempt to parallel its success with their own
  • Rely on their personal and team resilience attributes to accommodate the disruptions they face more quickly and effectively than the competition

Next: Between Bedlam and Calm—The Nimble Zone