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Agile leadership in a VUCA world

Photo by Mark McGregor on Unsplash

The problems we solve in Government are rarely simple. We operate in complex environments. We live in a VUCA world with different and unfamiliar challenges happening every day. COVID-19 is an example of the unexpected challenges that Government needs to undertake. VUCA is an acronym that stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity [1].

Volatility is the speed of change in an industry, society, or the world in general. The more volatile the world is, the faster things change.

Uncertainty is the extent to which we can predict the future. The more uncertain the world is, the harder it is to predict.

Complexity represents the number of factors affecting the change. The more complex the world is, the harder it is to analyze.

Ambiguity is the haziness of reality. The more ambiguous the world is, the harder it is to interpret.

Operating in a VUCA world demands organizational agility. Organizations need innovation, empiricism, and adaptability to thrive in this environment. Finding new ways of working is one of the critical enablers of organizational agility [2].

Teams have better odds of success than individuals, addressing the challenges organizations face. Complex challenges often need cross-functional and multi-disciplinary teams to resolve them. Multi-disciplinary teams of teams are not rare. A team is more than a collection of people working together. A team has the following characteristics:

  • It is a small group of individuals
  • Team members have a common purpose and shared goals.
  • Team members need each other to achieve their collective goals.

In a VUCA world, we rely on Agile teams to achieve the business agility it demands. An Agile team has two more characteristics:

  • Cross-functional: Includes all disciplines required to solve a problem. Dependencies from the outside are minimal.
  • Self-organizing: The team’s ability to manage their work and make their own decisions.

Some leaders worry about the self-organization of teams. Agility is not anarchy. When a team is self-organizing, it seeks alignment with the business and user goals. This alignment requires constant communication and feedback with business areas and users. The more alignment a team has, the more autonomy they can obtain.

Agility does not stop at the team level. Agile teams, although resilient, need the proper environment and supporting culture to flourish. To achieve business agility, organizations change at different levels. It is no longer enough to get “buy-in” from the executive. Business agility requires shifting significant cultural aspects of the organization. What we need is active leadership engagement.

For over a decade, I have observed leadership behaviours that support business agility. Some of the most critical behaviours that leaders need to model are:

Walking the talk: Be a role model. Leadership teams in organizations need to model agile values and principles. This congruency sends a powerful message. Leaders need to be agile themselves. In the words of Simon Sinek, “What we do is a reflection of what we believe” [3].

Being mindful of challenges: Be present and empathetic with your teams. Be there for them and support them to overcome the tough challenges they face.

Provide meaningful work: Maximize the team’s sense of purpose with an inspiring vision. Give the team significant challenges that benefit society, the organization, and colleagues.

Provide a safe environment: Trust the teams and respect their decisions. Foster an environment that supports healthy conflict. Create a space that allows innovation and creativity to flow.

Consider teams as units of knowledge: Teams reflect and build knowledge. They don’t only do work. Help teams identify knowledge gaps and give them time to up-skill. Help the team develop the business understanding they need to solve their problems. Business acumen transforms team members from order-takers to problem solvers.

Promote healthy teams: Support the diversity of culture and thought. Trust and support teams to self-organize and self-manage. Create an environment conducive to experimentation and demand rapid-cycle learning. Be supportive and celebrate intelligent failure. Learning from failure is essential for creating new knowledge and producing innovation [4].

In summary, Digital transformation requires teams with an Agile mindset. Agility does not stop at the team level; it requires engaged and active leadership. Leadership needs to show several behaviours that help develop business agility. Business agility helps organizations inspect and respond to the challenges. Business agility is critical for an organization to thrive in a VUCA world.

In your organization, how does your leadership support business agility?

Author: Jesus Tapia-Hernandez

[1] Jeroen Kraaijenbrink, “What Does VUCA Really Mean?” Forbes, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeroenkraaijenbrink/2018/12/19/what-does-vuca-really-mean/

[2] Harbott, Karim, “The 6 Enablers of Business Agility: How to Thrive in an Uncertain World”, Berrett-Koehler, 2021

[3] Simon Sinek, “How great leaders inspire action,” TED Talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action

[4] Edmondson, Amy C. “Teaming to Innovate.” San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2013.

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