Why your organization needs Systemic Agility

June 1, 2012  

The future is not what it used to be…

The rules of the game changed forever when the financial markets imploded in 2007, precipitating what many consider to be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Actually, this is probably only partially correct. Certainly the Financial Crisis created a whole new set of challenges for organizations across the globe, whether private, public or not-for-profit. If any leaders were content with business-as-usual when markets first started to collapse, they were dealt a rude awakening.

The danger is that this one – admittedly defining – development obscures the fact that the rules of the game were already fundamentally changing and for a host of reasons, all of which will remain relevant as and when the world’s financial markets regain some kind of equilibrium. There has been a huge shift of economic power from already wealthy to emerging countries. Globally, customers are simultaneously becoming more diverse and more sophisticated; the same is equally true of employees. Technology is changing how and where these employees work. And all the time technological development is accelerating the rate of change confronting organizations, offering powerful new tools that paradoxically often add layers of complexity to the world of work. Often changes are disruptive, abruptly transforming the behavior of any combination of buyers, sellers, workers, and investors. Consequently market opportunities now bloom, morph and die at alarming rates.

The French poet Paul Valéry expressed all of this rather more succinctly when he observed that:

“The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be”.

….but try telling this to some of today’s organizations

Given the dramatic and fundamental changes confronting them, it would be reasonable to expect similarly profound changes in the way that organizations function. Certainly there is mass of theory and advice available to leaders on what they should do to ensure their organizations are capable of surviving in today’s turbulent markets. Indeed, there are some organizations that are daring to find truly new ways to function, achieving market leading financial performance while at the same time creating fit and healthy living systems that will be able to sustain this. Inevitably most of these are relatively new, born into the world as it is; a few older organizations have found ways to transform themselves, seemingly through the adroit application of some of the more compelling theory and advice currently available to them.

But these tend to be the exceptions. The majority of organizations still operate largely according to principles and practices established 10, 20, maybe 30 or more years ago. Many of these have tried to adapt, most probably by modifying the familiar so that it looks a little more like the new order being advocated by thought leaders and pioneers. However, whilst these derivative forms might be enough to stay alive in the short term, they are unlikely to achieve much more than that. And many of the world’s organizational leaders are painfully aware of this. A 2010 study conducted by IBM of more than 1,500 executives around the world found that an overwhelming majority of seasoned leaders were not fully confident that they were prepared to respond effectively to rapid change. This begs the fairly obvious follow-up question of “what are you doing to ensure that you soon will be?”

Take positive steps along a well defined Pathway

Perhaps this concentration on survival tactics is understandable in the current financial climate, and whilst uncertainty abounds. But there is no sign of the fiscal squeeze going away any time soon, and no reason to expect more stability or less complexity in the global economy.

And perhaps the general inertia is to some extent understandable. After all, bringing about change is always difficult, particularly in large scale organizations with entrenched behaviors and practices. Creating organizations that are fit for tomorrow is undoubtedly a huge leadership challenge, and one that might seem overwhelming when we stop and ask ourselves how much we truly know and understand about the challenges ahead and how our organizations will work in the future.

Perhaps this is the crux of the matter, the reason for current stasis. For what may well be understandable reasons, many leaders seem to be approaching this as a transformational exercise – “we are in state A but we need to be in state B so let’s institute a change program”. If this is the approach being applied then this may explain why we are stuck.

We need to be clear that today’s challenge is not the same as change management, because change is now a constant and demands continuous adaptation. Today’s challenge is how to create an organization that will always be fit for tomorrow. Whilst born of a different era, the words of Winston Churchill come to mind:

“It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time”.

We believe that this philosophy should underpin organizational efforts to become more agile. Of course leaders must see the big picture and try to anticipate what the future will look like, but positive action should not be deferred. Organizations have to find NOW effective ways of improving their health and becoming more agile if they are to remain competitive.

We think Henry Ford was onto something when he said that “nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs”. This is why The Alliance has conceived the Pathway to Systemic Agility©, an approach that embraces complexity while promoting immediate action through persistent creativity, and that creates a holistic approach to organizational development at the same time as focusing on urgencies and priorities. The approach comprises a model and a set of tools that enable an organization to confidently define and travel along their chosen Pathway.

We will start telling you more about the Systemic Agility© process in our next posting. In the meantime we would welcome your thoughts and comments on what you think are the critical hurdles to the creation of more agile organizations…or, indeed, on any other issues raised in our blog.

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