The Future of Work — Why Career Agility Matters

A series of articles and case studies on what it means to be agile in our life’s work. This article was previously published on the LinkedIn Publishing Platform.

Welcome to the Age of Career Agility

Agility is trending.

You may have seen some recent articles referencing the words agile or agility relating to a variety of topics: agile thinking, agile mindset, agile workers, agile career, learning agility, design agility, agile marketing, and agile research to name a few.

The use of the words agile and agility is on the rise. Like other words that have a history in technology development, “agile” can be applied to a number of business concepts and situations.

You might even think that an agile career or career agility translates to being flexible. And you would be right.

Flexibility as a career attribute, however, is only about 10% of the equation of what it means to be agile in our life’s work. Influenced in part by the characteristics of agile software development (dates back to 1980s), the word agile now evokes a number of additional traits.

Learning agility, for example, refers to the characteristics of high performance individuals. These leaders innovate, perform optimally under difficult circumstances, reflect on past learnings, and take risks.

As defined by Korn Ferry, a global company who specializes in leadership and talent development, the dimensions of learning agility are important in the discovery and development of high potential leaders in organizations.

Another example is agile software development that focuses on validated learning, customer-focused collaboration, being adaptive and iterative, customer discovery, flexibility, response to change, and many small experiments. Many books have been written about this approach to software development.

Why Career Agility? Why Now?

In my last article, The Rise of the Agile Careerist, I described the foundation elements of the agile career by establishing the definition:

Agile career: A self-reflective, iterative career path, guided by response to change, commitment to career segments as high performance projects, and designed to optimize creativity, a growth mindset, and happiness

The inspiration for applying agile development principles to career management was inspired by software engineers who created a product development framework (Agile Manifesto) that includes iterative development, collaboration, feedback, and response to change.

The creation of a series of sprints, rather than long development cycles led to a flexible way to design and launch software products. It turns out that breaking projects down into smaller development cycles with concurrent software testing reduces development time and results in more user-focused products. The benefits to this approach are numerous.

The critical insight is that small refinements over time fare better than big bets.

In our life’s work, agile thinking happens when an individual figures out that winning the next job, being happy in the current job, or planning for what’s next is part of a continuum of iterative and parallel efforts. Whether you work in a corporation or intend to start your own business, the career you have is subject to change and will benefit from being fine-tuned on a regular basis.

How did the Agile Careerist Rise?

The shift

We are in the middle of a massive shift in our economy.

In nature, when a geological shift happens, volcanoes erupt, tsunamis occur, and earthquakes happen. This creates an imbalance for a while and then the recovery begins. What also takes place is a human adaptation to the occurrence. Strategies are put in place to respond to future events.

The geological structure of the environment changes.

We evolve and adapt.

In the business of work, this economic shift has changed the way we think about our life and our work. Jobs and careers are no longer secure in the model of long-term employment with one employer.

Economic theory states that over time, workers will adapt to changing conditions. Some examples: they will retool their skills, move to job roles that have higher demand, retire a few years early, start a business, or provide consulting skills in their area of expertise.

Consider the evolution from the industrial economy to the information economy. It required a generational shift in how work is defined. Education played a prominent role in helping the population shift from predominantly blue-collar work to predominantly white-collar work.

A period of adjustment and evolution

Many variables contributed to a shift in our economy. These are the visible drivers that impacted our working population between 2007 and present time:

  • December 2007 Global Financial Crisis
  • Recession of 2007–2009
  • US Housing Bubble
  • Subprime Mortgage Crisis
  • High Unemployment (2007–2014)
  • Patchwork recovery (Labor Department numbers, September 2015)
  • Political uncertainty around the world

The shift part two

The other part of the shift has been happening for over 20 years. We went from the stability of the early 20th century to that of rapid change, driven mostly by the rapid pace of technology. Globalization and the information age have contributed to uncertainty in business and careers.

Corporate Survival

There is one universal question that is asked in every business school, and across corporate boardrooms, particularly in these times of uncertainty:

Q: “What is the main goal of a publicly-owned company?”
A: “To maximize shareholder value.”

The arguments are strong for and against this statement.

Phrases like corporate greed and excess profits come into play in disagreement with this perspective when weighing the needs of the individual.

On the other hand, a company must sustain their success and profits to provide jobs for people who want and need them for their own survival.

The employer-employee relationship resembles that of a relationship of convenience, rather than an emotional bond.

Agile Careerist Response

As corporations optimize profits, workers need to consider a similar question,

Q: “What is the main goal of the individual in the world of work?”
A: “To optimize financial compensation, happiness, and personal well being.”

Employees or business owners can respond in a powerful way by reflecting on their own individual needs and aspirations.

Bonus: the efforts on the part of the individual to optimize her circumstances will lead to higher engagement in the workplace.

With only 31.5% of U.S. workers engaged in their work (Gallup Poll), everyone loses. Engagement is defined as the way that employees care about their work and feel connected to the company goals.

The implication is that corporations will win when the individual is connected to corporate goals. Happiness and satisfaction typically accompany this emotional connection to the company. For business, this translates to increased productivity and a better culture, to name a few.

Employer/employee behavior trends

The employer-employee relationship has changed.

The definition of workplace loyalty needs to adjust to present circumstances rather than a long-held belief that security comes from longevity at a job. As companies optimize their circumstances, the employee will benefit from doing the same.

An enlightening body of work was researched and published in the following HBR article: The employer-employee compact has changed (HBR: Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh)

First observed in the high-tech startup companies of Silicon Valley, the authors of the study and article suggest that the career escalator has vanished. Career paths are non-linear and external forces often interrupt career progression.

Hiring for tours of duty that resemble 2–4 year projects is a pattern for success on the side of the corporation and the employee. According to Reid Hoffman, CEO of LinkedIn, this is how they develop much of their talent. If you make progress on your project within a specific time period, you earn the opportunity to advance to another tour of duty. The reasoning is that two years is typically long enough for a product launch cycle.

The tours of duty can also be framed as engaging projects that can be launched and achieved prior to moving on to the next project or role.

Think about the benefits. Productivity and passion are typically present at the beginning of a new job or at the start of a new project. This is good for the employer and employee. High productivity and motivation are joined by management satisfaction.

Both sides benefit. The upside of a new relationship can be sustained, if the progression of a career is managed productively on both sides.

The idea of harnessing enthusiasm that is more present over a 2–4 year project captures an effective equation for the optimization of creativity, growth, and happiness.

What’s next?

There are a number of strategies to consider in response to these trends. A few of these strategies can be done concurrently:

  • Change your perspective on employment — Choose a project, rather than a job
  • Become a free agent — join the movement
  • Chart of path of individual mastery and build your personal brand, thus creating value for you and your company
  • Build more expansive personal networks
  • Adopt agile principles where you work to open up more opportunities

In Summary

Employment is not permanent or guaranteed.

Workers that adapt to the changing landscape and corporate priorities will secure their position in the workplace over the next several years. Those that do not will struggle.

The online economy and abundant business models have made it possible for people to create positive work experiences and optimize the return on those experiences.

Agile careerists will thrive in a dynamic situation, as they know how to accommodate the changing landscape and will adapt over time. And small changes over time make a big impact.

Next in the Series:

Agile career principles, actionable steps to explore agility, and case studies on what it means to be agile in our life’s work

© 2015 Konstant Change™, Inc. All rights reserved.
www.konstantchange.com 312–933–0101

About the Author:

Marti Konstant is Founder and Growth Hacker at Konstant Change, a demand generation consultancy, where the development and expansion of the sales pipeline takes center stage. Her role as VP of Marketing at Open Kernel Labs, a mobile security company, resulted in an acquisition by General Dynamics in 2012. After spending a year in Silicon Valley in a digital marketing role for Samsung Mobile, she is now focused on the Agile Careerist Project, an exploration of career path agility and career optimization.