Many teams and organizations operate on the boundary between complexity and chaos. Managing the dance between those states can be time consuming, yet without devoting sufficient time to manage this boundary, they default – consciously or unconsciously – to the habit of multiple quick fixes. The more quick fixes they apply, the greater the propensity for catastrophic systemic failure. It’s becoming a more and more common problem and it applies not just to IT systems or businesses processes, but to human systems as well. Indeed, it can be argued that human systems are the most susceptible.
The problem is that we spend so much attention and energy in coping with “business as usual” crises that we don’t leave enough in the resource bank to cope with the unpredicted and unpredictable.
An illusion, sometimes reinforced by simplistic approaches to agile teams, is that everything depends on speed, on ever faster reaction times. In reality, working at the boundary requires appropriate pace. This is primarily about achieving simultaneously quality of reflection/ insight and rapid implementation; but it also involves a third ingredient – wise experimentation.
Quality of reflection involves the ability and habit of stepping back from an immediate problem (or opportunity) and seeing it in the context of the wider system. What forces are in play here? How are they interacting? What are the knock-on effects of those interactions? Who (if anyone) is in control of what? Where are the gaps, where no-one is exerting or able to exert control?
High quality reflection always links back to team purpose. What are we here for? How is that evolving? It requires quality time – the scarcest commodity – and the habit of seeking and valuing different perspectives.
Rapid implementation is not the same as making a quick fix, although the two are often confused. Quick fixes are primarily spontaneous responses to a situation – an instinctive threat response. Rapid implementation requires careful assessment, followed by deliberate, planned action. It’s fast, because the potential implementation issues have already been thought through and the resources (especially time and people) put in place.
Wise experimentation addresses the unknowns in a situation. It aims to explore what works and to test the system in small steps that can easily be retraced. It can happen at any stage, from defining what the issue is, to testing adaptations to the system.
As a framework to support these three elements, teams and organizations can review regularly (say, every three months) what is happening within their environment. Useful questions to ask each time include:
- What can we predict with very high certainty? E.g. long-term trends showing no significant variation over the past three years.
- What can we predict with reasonable certainty? E.g. long-term trends showing mild but growing fluctuation over the past three years.
- What disruptive trends can we identify, where we can make some level of prediction about their impact?
- What capacity do we have to respond to these disruptive trends?
- What capacity do we have to respond to disruptive change we can’t predict?
Planning for the unpredictable typically requires a major shift in mentality and resources. In particular, it requires:
- Constant re-assessment of trends, not just in the immediate business sector, but far more widely. The most disruptive changes often originate in unrelated industries or disciplines. A few decades ago, trendspotting was the job of a strategic planning team. In a VUCA environment, that’s just too slow and too macro-level. Now, it has to be everyone’s role.
- A strategy that enables some team members to shift focus to respond to emerging trends, before they become disruptive. When the business model is lean, “all hands to the pumps”, no-one has the time to look up and see the giant wave approaching.
- Systems awareness as a basic management capability. It’s no longer enough for people to understand their own discrete part in the system. They have to be able to see how what they do affects others and vice versa. Moreover, they need at least some awareness of the interconnectivity with parts of the system that are not close to them on the formal organization chart.
- Flexibility in working methods and roles. The more compartmentalized the roles people take, the less aware they are of the system. In contrast, the more people understand each other’s roles and can stand in for each other, the easier it is to achieve collective awareness of emerging threats and opportunities.
- A more comprehensive perspective of the resources available to them, both within the team/ organization and within the system; and of how they may be unrecognised resources for other parts of the system.
There are many reasons why leaders at all levels may find this a difficult mental and practical transition. For example, flawed visions of what leaders do; and reward and recognition systems that give greater precedence to short-term, narrow outcomes than to longer-term, more sustainable ones. It is a sad reflection that the extensive lay-offs that have recently occurred in Twitter and other technology-based companies demonstrate how narrow and shallow the concept of agile has been in its application. Focussing on rapid micro-innovation blinded leadership teams to what was happening in the wider system, of which they are a part.
So, how to break out of this limited way of thinking? Whether it happens by leaders taking a coaching perspective towards the system and everyone in it, or by bringing in external team coaches to assist the process of learning and adaptation, a starting point is to break out of panic mode. Reflection time is like the air we breathe. If we don’t have enough of it, we suffocate. To continue the analogy, our lungs need the right mixture of gases – too much or too little oxygen can be fatal. The right mix of reflection balances attention to current, obvious and definable issues against emergent, opaque and less-well-defined ones. It requires discipline, led from the top, to create new habits; but once established, those habits should, like the act of breathing become instinctive.
© David Clutterbuck 2023