If your experience in the corporate world has been anything like most employees and managers with whom I speak, you likely work hard with amazing people and yet, at times, still find the organisation for which you work coming up short on success factors. Either the budget has blown out, the scope has changed, it is taking much longer than originally forecast to deliver, or you have the unmitigated joy of all these things happening at once.
The upside is the Bard had it right when he put into the mouth of Cassius:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our starsShakespeare, Julius Caesar.
But in ourselves.
This is a good thing because volatility is a feature rather than a bug in modern organisations. Yet, most employees and managers with whom I speak think their organisation is not adaptable enough to respond to daily shocks or future calamities. This is a major risk in an often volatile world.
Covid, for all its tribulations, did force the hand of many senior leaders on one thing: the need to be able to respond quickly to a changing environment. While pace of change is not new, it invariably comes industry by industry or, as with the Digital Revolution, takes decades to ripple through organisations. Covid, by contrast, necessitated change within weeks, and this proved a supreme test of operational resilience. Add to this mix that an organisation is nothing without its people, and it underscores why to talk about organisational resilience brings with it Mental Health As A Strategic Issue.
To successfully navigate volatile environments, organisations need to adopt a process mindset that creates a culture of psychological safety, breeds team cohesion, promotes adaptable leadership, and emphasises agility. All while apprehending the important distinction between having an agile strategy and making it up as you go. Oh, and I nearly forgot — all of this has to happen while Leading At Scale.
A Holistic Approach
Arguably the prime obstacle facing senior leaders, when it comes to managing volatility, is their mindset. By this I mean that many leaders will gladly launch into a spiel about how they emphasise preparedness for a changeable environment but dig a little deeper and it becomes apparent they are only doing so for a single aspect of volatility. For example, rather than tackling the volatility inherent in an adversarial cyber security landscape, a CTO will anticipate and address a specific and generally acute challenge, such as restricting administrative privileges, while largely neglecting backups, application control, patching operating systems etc.
Adopting such a monochrome view of the organisational landscape means that some will bounce out of a crisis, but they will generally fail to bounce forward. By that I mean using the momentum from the crisis to propel a new phase of development and innovation. Something that will only be possible from a holistic approach to volatility that enables the continual review of people, processes, and organisational structures. This latter aspect, organisational structure, is a key challenge in this space, as I outlined in A Challenging Time For Talent Management and Minding The Capability Gap.
When dealing with volatility and trying to engender a resilient mindset, adaptability looms large. As a trait, adaptability is something that can be strengthened, like a muscle. In psychology, major patterns of adaptive and maladaptive behaviour have been identified as affecting adaptability and have been respectively termed ‘mastery-oriented’ and ‘helpless’ patterns. The reason that helpless patterns are deemed maladaptive is because obstacles and challenges are an inherent part of almost anything worth achieving. Therefore, a mindset which puts up its metaphorical hands at the first sign of trouble is unlikely to succeed in a volatile landscape.
As an example, winning an Olympic Gold Medal is an incredibly hard task. A person with a helpless pattern approach will tend to think that winning or losing is the result of inherent abilities and that there is nothing they can do to improve their chances of success. Contrast this with a person who has a ‘mastery-orientated’ pattern approach, they will think they can train to be better and achieve their goals.
In organisational behaviour terms, think of these adaptive and maladaptive behaviours as creating a continuum of adaptability, with people who are high on helpless at one end and those who are high on mastery at the other. As Albert Bandura put it:
Perceived self-efficacy refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments.Bandura 1997, 3
Conceived of thus — mastery-orientated vs helplessness — and we can begin to understand how an adaptability continuum can flow through all interactions. Building on the research of Jennifer Chatman, David Caldwell, Charles O’reilly, and Bernadette Doerr, the following table gives a sense of what I mean by an adaptability continuum.
|Victim: Things that are beyond my control prevent me from learning and achieving my goals.||Agency: I can learn and overcome the challenges I face.|
|Fixed: I succeed or fail based on my inherent characteristics.||Growth: adversity is an opportunity for my personal development.|
|Known World: better to stick to the well-trodden path than risk the unknown.||Exploration: never knowing what the future may hold, I work each day to plan for the worst while striving for the best.|
|Expert: I should sit back and wait until I know the answers, only then attempting the challenge.||Curiosity: encountering something I do not understand is an opportunity to learn something new and strengthen my future self.|
For managers, the good news is that the above mindsets are not simply hardwired into employees at birth. Yes, everyone does have elements of nature as well as nurture in their character, but we also have a capacity for self-change — so long as we have chosen the path of mastery.
This means that as our adaptability mindset strengthens, resilience will also improve because individuals and teams are better equipped to absorb shocks today and use the energy to bounce forward into sustainable growth tomorrow. Each time this process is rinsed and repeated, the individual, team, and organisation grows stronger.
In his 1985 book Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar Schein argued that culture can address the two main issues facing all organisations. The first being the capacity to adapt to external changes. Second is the capacity to facilitate internal integration, that is the ability of employees and teams to embrace the change. The trap is that organisational culture, much like the mastery and helplessness traits on the adaptability continuum, also functions on a spectrum and can have either positive or negative manifestations.
Contrary to the often negative connotations associated with organisational culture, for example that it exerts a homogenising influence, research has found that so long as an organisation’s culture promotes experimentation, risk taking, and flexibility, the result is the opposite of homogenisation. In that organisations promoting adaptability enjoy higher levels of divergent behaviour, and this freedom of expression tends to foster more innovative solutions to problems. The reason for this, from an organisational psychology standpoint, is that organisations with a cultural focus on adaptability are attaching social approval to creativity and new ideas. A powerful motivator for most employees.
Coming down from the heady heights of organisational psychology, and it begs the question: what can organisations do in practical terms to foster a culture of adaptability? As you might imagine, the answer starts with leadership. In that organisational leaders need to think systematically about their employees’ capacity for adaptability. This process will go some of the way to understanding an organisation’s resilience.
When assessing an organisation’s capacity for adaptability, I look at how an organisation is set up. What is the operating structure? What are the reporting lines? What are the processes and procedures? These are some of the elements which will determine an organisation’s adaptability and thus their resilience to market shifts or systemic crises. Steps to take which can ameliorate anti-agile organisations are:
- Tight Knit Groups: create smaller cross-functional teams which are delegated command and control authority, and a one line budget, to pursue strategic goals.
- Monitor For Success: ensure clear individual goals by Anchoring Teams Through Transformation and adjusting the performance review cadence to be more or less frequent — as individual success necessitates.
- Consistent Goals: enable people to focus on clearly defined strategic goals by creating a North Star. This manifests by keeping the goals few in number and by senior leaders establishing a broader objective and sticking to it! Constantly changing objectives only creates chaos.
- Success Factors: ensure that in addition to goals, there are clear success factors. This part of the strategic thinking process is often neglected and usually explains why teams are working hard and filled with talented people, yet the organisation is failing to succeed in its endeavours.
- Clear The Desk: get granular with teams. By this I do not mean micro-manage but do look at what they spend their time on and make a judgement call if that is driving the most value.
- Continuous Learning: lead by example and encourage others to think about their work, not just do their work. This can take the shape of centres of excellence, team training programs, external learning opportunities (be it university courses or LinkedIn learning) or having an exploration mindset (see Table 1 above).
As with most areas of management, adaptability and resilience goals do not work with a set and forget strategy. If a leader lacking in adaptability is put in charge of a team or organisation, or if the people involved are always reacting to events, then adaptability is missing and resilience will not be achieved.
Instead, adaptability and resilience require ongoing monitoring and managers who can coach their teams through the change process. Perhaps most importantly, this all must happen when times are good, and teams have the space to think about their approach. Leaving this process to when external pressures such as Covid or the changing organisational landscape is forcing change, and your organisation will be responding to crisis and likely becoming weaker by the day — rather than bouncing forward into a more resilient posture.
Good night, and good luck.
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