Nurturing adaptive capacity – Learning need #2

What managers must learn in order to nurture adaptive capacity in their organisations – Learning need #2

Engagement levels in organisations are on the decline. Yet the cry for high engagement, responsibility and intrapreneurship on the part of the workforce uttered by managers and owners alike has never been louder. While young people enter organisations fresh and full of energy, after a short while they become bored and jaded, infected by the prevalent misanthropic attitudes around them.  They either adapt and wilt, or drop out to found their own start-ups. There they work twice as much for sometimes half the money and three times the risk. What is going on?

The command-and-control model of leadership – even if officially declared dead and dysfunct – is still alive and kicking, exerting it’s damning influence on the work-force. Managers feel superior and entitled, their egos must be considered at every turn, even if they know much less than their staff members and simply do not have the information or experience to take sensible, well-considered decisions about the many issues that come their way. Decision-power at the “right” level is essential for organizations to be as nimble and adaptive as they need to be in this day and age.

What would be a better approach towards nurturing adaptivity?

The answer is not hard to come by and has been given many times. How many decades have we been hearing about empowerment, inspirational or transformational leadership, silent or humble leaders, or the leader as a host? Maybe the message was said too often or too loudly, or maybe it was couched in over-generalized terms. It is time that it were finally heard.

Leaders still suppress the voices of the very people on whom they must rely to deliver their visions. They show little genuine respect and the higher up in the organisational echelons we go the worse this attitude can get. Feedback for the manager? Only in theory, or maybe tentatively once a year.

Instead, these managers could be critically asking themselves: “How effective am I in enabling my team to deliver in the best possible way? What can I do to make my team lively and engaged? How can I bring out the best in my staff members?” And to go one step further and ask: “What can I learn from my team members? Who can I ask to lead us today? How can I listen better to gain valuable information and insight?”

What could adaptive leaders do differently?

Adaptive leaders know when to step back to let their team members shine. They have a sense of self with enough maturity that allows them to do that. They have won the fight against their egos, and become true coaches for their people. They can be humble and accept learning from everyone. Through this they inspire the full contribution of the people they work with.

This is what Georgine, cellist in the New Zealand National Youth Orchestra, writes as a feedback to her conductor Benjamin Zander:

Mr. Zander,

Your shine has inspired me to believe that I have the force of personality to power the section from wherever I sit and I believe that I led that concert from the 11th chair. Thank you for helping me know that. From this day I will be leading every section in which I sit – whichever seat. Stone Zander, Rosamund and Benjamin Zander (2000): The Art of Possibility. Harvard Business School Press. 

If this feedback is possible in a profession normally renowned for it’s tyranny and vanity, it must be possible also in other, less hierarchical organisations.

Learning to act upon the following sentence is what will make a real difference in organizations in terms of adaptive capacity.

Everyone is a leader. – Chris Iveson

What if everyone departed from this assumption? What if all – or at least many more – opinions were heard? What if people had the feeling that they were being truly listened to? What if….

=> Learning need #2: Give the people the baton!

Agile and adaptive capacity in organisations – Learning Need #1

What managers must learn in order to nurture agile and adaptive capacity in their organisations – Learning Need #1

What challenge are we facing?

At present organisations are struggling as much with their external VUCA (volatile – uncertain – complex – ambiguous) environment as they are with the pressing internal need to re-invent themselves. More agile processes are being called for. The difficulty is increased by the fact that organisational re-design has to be carried out in such a way as to ensure the uninterrupted, optimal delivery of business operations. Managers surmise that successful start-ups, which are eating away at their profits, hold the answer. Many learning journeys are being undertaken to Silicon Valley and other innovation hot spots in order to understand what these start-ups are doing differently to make them faster and better able to deliver customer value.

Let´s all be agile! – Agile as the new lean?

Agile is the (not-so-new) catchphrase: agile teams are supposed to steer themselves and deliver phenomenal products. Agile organisations are supposed to uncover blue ocean products and services. Agile leaders need to be inspiring everyone so that the workforce is highly engaged and goes that extra mile in full self-organized responsibility. Yet the question I hear the most from both leaders and workers alike is: What does agile mean? I usually ask back: What does it mean for you?, believing that each organization needs to identify its own version of what is the most fitting degree and interpretation of this broad and multifaceted term.

Agile organizational design as an answer?

The focus of everyone’s attention in finding the answer seems to be on organisational design: the structures and processes needed in order to gain maximum flexibility while still keeping chaos at bay. Managers are quoting from Frederick Laloux’s “Reinventing Organizations”, struggling to implement Robertson’s “Holacracy” or John Kotter’s “dual organisation”. Some try to copy Spotify’s tribes, chapters and guilds, others try to emulate Burtzoorg’s, Zappos or alternative well-known organisational models that have caught the headlines of business magazines.

However, in management’s quest for the “right” agile organisational design many important pieces of the puzzle are missing. The concentration on processes and structures is understandable, for this is what can be decided upon and controlled. In addition, new managers who are hired in the hope of effecting the required change, can also be controlled to a certain degree. Very often all this ends in frustration and in a generalized call for a new culture and a different mindset where the workforce takes over much more responsility and is more engaged. The opposite is usually the case. Why?

What is missing?

Let us consider what pieces of the organisation puzzle might be missing and what are the most pressing learning needs for managers in order to ensure that all the building blocks for rejuvenating and adapting their businesses are in place.

Learning Need #1:

What very few organisations realize is that they collectively need to put their thinking hats on in order to come up with their own unique organisational design that fits their particular situation and meets their need for agility. In order to do this EVERYONE – and I mean all organisational members from the CEO to the cleaning staff – needs to be engaged in a communication process about which organisational design is best suited to their customers and their own needs. That does not mean that every proposal will and can be implemented, but every voice should be heard in order to harness the wisdom of the many.

This of course necessitates a dramatic mindshift, for organisational design has typically been the exclusive prerogative of the top echelons of management. Everyone usually has an opinion about what makes sense and what does not in their area of expertise. But organisations are not used to reflect on their own design, which thus becomes a de facto constitution, at a broad level. Top managers must learn to share the authority to design agile organisations, thus gaining the workers’ sense of responsibility for the future of the organisation.

=> Learning need #1: Find a language and a format for broad and continued organisational dialogue on the topic of agile organisational design.

Read more about this topic and about learning need #2 on this site next week!

Tips to Succeed in Selections

I am currently working on a project for EPSO, the European Personnel Selection Office in Brussels, which is conducting all the competitions and selection procedures for the European Commission. As external expert for the selection of a high-level leadership position I have the great opportunity to cooperate with two very senior and experienced heads of unit and learn from them. EPSO has to cope with a great volume of applications 24/7 and is renowned for its extremely high professional standards and above-board ethics.

As part of this particular application process all three of us had to scan approximately 1000 pages  of applications in two days, score them, and come to an agreement whether the candidates reached the pre-defined criteria or not. One of my colleagues wrote to me before coming to Brussels: “Be prepared to forget the sun for two days.” And I did, but this was not because it was not shining…

Scanning documents for clues of resources is an arduous task, and my conclusions from it, which I want to formulate as tips for anyone who is applying for a job, a project or writing a profile, are the following:

Keep it simple!

I cannot emphasize this enough. Aim for simplicity both in structure, content and language. Create an easy-to-follow outline. Don’t confuse your readers with too many details. Describe concisely and pragmatically the stations of your career and what you have achieved in which function.

Show that you speak the language of the field.

Scanning docs under pressure often means that you need to look for key words that signal to you that the writer is familiar with a field. This is much like writing for a webpage. It  does not mean, however, that you should overwhelm your readers with acronyms that are understandable only to a few experts.

Write something fresh and original.

Do not repeat yourself. The details of the CV do not belong in the Key Achievements statement, for example, or the Motivation letter. Use each part of your application as an opportunity to communicate something new about yourself. Give them a clue to your personality and unique set of experiences.

Point out how you can compensate for gaps.

If you do not meet the criteria set up for a job, do not hide this. If the Selection Committee is in doubt, it will tend to fail you. Instead, a much better strategy is to directly address this gap and point out the ways in which you might compensate for it. The Committee is usually looking for your good points, so make it easy for them to find them. If you do not meet the required 5 years of leadership experience, for example, say: “I have been in an official leadership function for only two years, but have been leading teams in projects for x years…etc.”

I am sure I could do with a bit of my own advice as well in my profile! Anyway…

Good luck with your applications and profile writing!