Transforming with an agile mindset: 3 ways to succeed in a world of rapid change

three skydivers in linked formation

Keeping ahead of change in business is a consistent priority among CEOs around the world. Yet the pace of change continues to increase exponentially. It takes constant attention, a vivid imagination and informed insights to imagine the ways work will evolve.

Fortunately, envisioning this change and helping our clients prepare for the future of work is what I’m both inspired and rewarded to do. My colleagues and I observe on a daily basis how work is transforming, and what that means for the companies and people involved. We’ve learned – through our research, our thinking and our clients – that effective transformation often requires a radically different way of thinking. This often presents great risks while offering the opportunity for truly extraordinary results.

Change itself is changing

A few years ago, the most successful companies – those that adapted and evolved as a matter of doing business – generally followed the Wayne Gretzky model of “skating to where the puck is going to be.” They thought beyond the daily rhythm and operation of their organizations to foresee global trends and events. They anticipated how those changes would impact their customers and they evolved, usually before other organizations even saw or appreciated the risk. That prescience led to some of the most competitive and successful companies in our global economy today – companies that impact how we purchase and receive goods, how we travel and how we connect with each other regardless of language or location. Many of them continue to thrive.

But today’s approach requires a different mindset.

Today, we see five new forces driving the future of work, as conceived by CHREATE, The Global Consortium to Reimagine HR, Employment Alternatives, Talent, and the Enterprise, including:

  1. Social and organizational reconfiguration
  2. An all-inclusive, global talent market
  3. A truly connected world
  4. An exponential pattern of technology change
  5. Human and machine collaboration

These forces make work more democratic in that it can be accomplished through many different means, most of which require new skills and a diverse array of talent. Many organizations are not prepared for the many disruptions, such as machine learning and 3D printing, which in a short time have made the unthinkable routine.

Futurist Bob Johansen, author of The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything, suggests that while it’s too late to “catch up,” it’s a great time to leapfrog. It’s true – successful organizations are thinking in terms of innovation and disruption not knowing the questions, much less the answers. So, how do we begin?

3 ways to thrive, even as the stakes are changing

While many factors impact an organization’s ability to adapt, we have three recommendations that can positively influence a company’s experience with transformation. None of these are new or radical, but their relevance in today’s business climate cannot be overstated.

1. Embrace change with an agile mindset

Many of us still see change as an event rather than a constant state. We also tend to acknowledge its inevitability when it happens to others but resist change when it impacts our own reality. Many of us who grew up in traditional business, project management or supervisory roles came to understand the pace of change in our organizations, and played a role in supporting and communicating that change. But to thrive, we need to think less deliberately and more like Wayne Gretzky.

The concept of agility, which originated in software development but has unmistakable parallels to other types of work, suggests that we must value individuals and interactions over processes and tools, collaboration over negotiation and responding to change over following a plan. If you’ve worked in this way already, you know how uncomfortable it can feel. Many of us value a detailed plan, with clear milestones, that takes us to a defined destination. Yet we may have experienced some of our best output and productivity as a result of thinking differently.

2. Understand that the future is about talent and the technologies that support talent

Our own Future of Work research reinforces that work will continue to be accomplished through a plurality of means – robotics, Artificial Intelligence and freelance and contractor members of the gig economy, who our research suggests are just as likely to be committed to an organization’s success as full time employees.

Indeed, most contemporary organizations are widening their lens to include all types of workers from traditional to virtual. The value proposition is unique for each, and managing the various streams of talent toward a collective goal feels much like conducting an orchestra, requiring varying levels of focus, interaction and feedback at key moments.

3. Get comfortable with discomfort, and use it to power and reward constant transformation

Many people treat organizational change or restructuring as a discrete event to be executed, completed and moved on from – and something that makes them anxious. It’s a fair point; our colleagues can feel personally threatened by changing roles, responsibilities and leadership. At the same time, change can refresh, invigorate and energize. While difficult at any given moment, change has afforded me my most significant growth opportunities throughout my career, taking me places and enabling experiences I would never imagined at the start of my journey.

When colleagues are uncomfortable about change, leadership can play a critical role. Bob Johansen suggests that leaders need to recognize that we can’t provide certainty, only clarity. One way that I interpret this idea is that leaders must approach change with transparency and insight. In an environment with increasing disruption, and in which answers can be uncertain, providing people with context to help their own change process can be valuable.

Johansen also believes that in agile, distributed organizations, leadership will come from the edges. A key consideration for our own organizations is how we cultivate and develop that new leadership, both in terms of individuals and styles. It’s a thoughtful point, as it’s safe to expect that the role of the leader will evolve as our organizations do.

At the same time, our 2017/2018 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey shows that employees value security and stability, and we know intuitively that transformation can shake these concepts to their core. As an organization that works with organizations around the world to help them build success through people, we firmly espouse the importance – perhaps more than ever before – of the talent value proposition (TVP). A talent value proposition is fluid and consistently being challenged as the world around us evolves. This does not make the need for a TVP less important or relevant – in fact, it is quite the opposite. TVPs need to constantly change and adapt, not as a sign that the TVP is ineffective but rather reinforcing the evolving mindset from which it arose.

Moving forward

The need to approach business transformation with an agile mindset is perhaps the greatest opportunity that organizations have to gain competitive advantage from the way they get work done. Building a culture that anticipates and accepts disruption can keep companies one step ahead – in productivity, engagement and ultimately, bottom line results.

About Doug Friske

Doug Friske is the Global Head of the Talent and Rewards Business at Willis Towers Watson…
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