Practicing Systemic Agility©…..skating to where the puck is going to be

June 8, 2012  

Practicing Systemic Agility©…..skating to where the puck is going to be

In our previous post we pondered the future…how it looks for the leaders and managers of the world’s organizations, and how they are prepared to deal with it. We concluded that “the future is not what it used to be” and that uncertainty was causing indecision. Our conclusions were reflected in a 2010 study conducted by IBM of more than 1,500 executives around the world, which found that an overwhelming majority of seasoned leaders were not fully confident that they were prepared to respond effectively to rapid change.

Interestingly IBM has now published the 2012 update of this study. Called “Leading through connections”, it is based on face-to-face conversations with more than 1,700 chief executive officers in 64 countries. It offers some interesting reading. Two years on, and battle-tested, these CEOs are still concerned about the economy and the impact of the global financial crisis. Having contended with the remarkable range of economic risks that have characterized recent history, CEOs are becoming increasingly accustomed to volatility. Quite simply, they have come to expect unpredictability. As the report says, for these leaders of organizations, there is no “new normal.”

This is consistent with what our clients tell us, and we think it safe to assume that these views reflect those of many others – throughout the globe and from organizations of all kinds – doing whatever they can to manage their future. Increasingly, the driver of change and uncertainty is seen to be technology, the CEOs in IBM’s study ranking it as the number-one factor impacting their organizations, as it revolutionizes products, operations and business models, and enables collaboration at a scale – and potentially innovation at a pace – never before imaginable.

Usefully the IBM report does also shed some light on what organizations need to do to cope with volatility and uncertainty. Perhaps most interestingly, it highlighted that, when those organizations in the study that surpass industry peers in terms of revenue growth and profitability are compared to their underperformers:

  • 73% more excel at managing change, and
  • 84% are better at translating insights into action.

We should perhaps be careful not to read too much into these findings, which are largely based on the opinions of the CEOs surveyed, and which may therefore be subject to some bias. However, these findings are consistent with our own practical observations and research. The first of these insights alludes to the whole notion of systemic agility, which we think actually embodies but also transcends the more familiar concept of change management. Managing change may no longer be enough, if an organization is not continuously in tune with the world of which it is part and anticipating its future. Now the timing of the change is just as important as the ability to manage it.

The second insight – the focus on translating insights into actions – is in fact one of the ingredients required to graduate from an ability to manage change to a state of systemic agility, to ensure the timing of change is always right. It is part of what we call “Dynamic Detection”, which (developing the observation of the CEO’s participating in the study) can perhaps be thought of as the “capacity to rapidly translate predictive insights into purpose-driven action”.

To make full sense of this, now might be time to introduce the Systemic Agility framework©.

Rapidly translating predictive insights into purpose-driven action

Or, as the great ice-hockey player Wayne Gretzsky might put it, skate to where the puck is going to be, rather than to where it is. Another high-achiever by the name of Steve Jobs was also a fan of this philosophy, and Apple could now reasonably claim to be one of the most systemically agile organizations operating today. We expect the same will be true of many tomorrows.

“Skating to where the puck is going to be” conveys a level of alertness and an ability to read situations that can turn the capable into an outstanding performer – as the track records of Messrs Gretsky and Jobs testify. So perhaps all we need to do now is create some kind of formula that organizations can apply in order to become….well, systemically agile.

Here, the “we” doesn’t just refer to The Alliance in the narrow sense. Let’s face it – this isn’t going to be easy. In truth, even Apple likely doesn’t yet have all the answers (and apparently Gretsky had the occasional off-day) – and we don’t really expect to come up with a magic formula. But together – The Alliance and its collaborators – we should be able to identify what it takes to imbue an organization with systemic agility.

In our view, any attempt to define the vital ingredients must avoid being too prescriptive – this would likely be the antithesis of agility. However, based on our research and practical experience, cross-referenced to the work of other thought leaders, we have identified the practices that we believe are essential to sustained organizational health and performance, and the virtues – what we refer to as the “attributes” – that result from these practices. Together these practices and attributes, as defined below, comprise the Systemic Agility Framework©.

It may be purely coincidental that there are seven of each of the attributes and practices that are critical to organizational health – or maybe this is a vital feature of the framework. In any event it is important to realize that individual practices do not cause specific attributes. The Systemic Agility Framework© is holistic (one of its attributes), which means that it is concerned with the complete systems of which the organization is a part. All practices will need to be embedded in order to cause all attributes; and systemic agility is only achieved when all seven attributes are evident.

Organizations use this framework to assess their current health and to identify what type of improvements will be required if they are to attain the levels of agility that will be essential to their sustained success. It is a framework for exploration and learning, designed to inform leaders about what is truly important to their organization. And, in the face of the uncertainty that organizations face today, this exploration and learning is the vital first step on the Pathway to Systemic Agility.

As Paulo Coelho observed, “You drown not by falling into a river, but by staying submerged in it”. Understanding the practices of systemic agility will provide the essential buoyancy and, in time (and at the risk of mixing metaphors), the chance of swimming to where the ball is going to be. We’ll continue this exploration and learning in future posts, in particular to understand what makes an organization healthy and agile.

Ciarán Beary

Ciarán is a skilled facilitator and story-teller. Of our founders, he takes a keen interest in designing facilitative processes that work. His favorite quote is “Be all you can be”. Based in the UK, sometimes you can even find him there. More about Ciarán