The accelerating rate of technological advancements and growing amount of information available today are driving unprecedented levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity — otherwise known as VUCA — in organizational environments. We have more knowledge at our fingertips than previous generations could have imagined, and yet the sheer volume and velocity of information can be overwhelming.
However, those that fail to keep up with the rapid pace of change risk falling behind the competition. Innovation is no longer optional but table stakes for high-performance organizations. So the question is, how do business leaders position their companies for success in this constantly shifting setting? The answer boils down to agility and adaptability.
Consider these four principles for developing highly Agile and adaptable organizations that will thrive in a VUCA environment:
- Embrace the discipline of collaborative planning.
As the former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” When facing uncertainty, it’s less about what you’re planning for, and more about who you’re planning with. A disciplined collaborative planning process creates a shared information baseline that will allow your team to rapidly adjust and maintain a competitive edge during change and uncertainty.
To lay this foundation for agility in your organization, focus on:
- Leader’s guidance: When leaders explain exactly how to do what needs to be done, it disempowers employees, stifles creativity and delivers sub-optimal solutions. Instead, communicate what needs to be accomplished and why, as well as how you define success. Then, step back and let your team figure out the solution.
- Courses of action: There are multiple ways to address problems in a VUCA environment. Enlist two or more teams to consider an issue from different perspectives, provide multiple solutions and determine the best course of action. The only requirement is that the solutions should be distinguishable from each another and actually feasible.
- Contingency planning: In the military, it’s said that no plan survives contact with the enemy. In business, no plan survives first contact with your competitors, customers or chance. It’s critical to have contingency plans so your team can immediately change course to address risks and opportunities, staying one step ahead of the competition.
- Foster an innovative culture.
Culture is a key driver of innovation — and the most innovative organizational cultures thrive in an environment characterized by:
- Psychological safety: As Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull noted in “Creativity Inc.,” innovation isn’t just an “ah-ha” moment, but rather the result of a painful, disciplined process based on candid collaboration and brutal honesty in a psychologically safe environment. Make honesty the norm on your team so members feel comfortable being authentic, sharing differing opinions and sharpening each other’s ideas.
- Teamwork: We often associate innovation with a solitary creative genius. However, it’s actually a team sport. Create a sense of community in your organization that prioritizes the fruits of collaboration over individual accomplishments and welcomes diversity of thought.
- A willingness to embrace risk and failure: Teams that are willing to embrace risk and capitalize on the lessons of failure are better positioned to innovate new approaches and remain competitive. Assure your team that failure is simply part of the process — as long as they fail quickly and learn from their mistakes.
Underpinning all of this, ensuring your team has a common purpose and shared values will support a culture of candid collaboration, teamwork and fearlessness that powers innovation.
- Build an adaptable team.
Volatile environments demand adaptability. In addition to developing a shared information environment through collaborative planning, concentrate on these three areas to build an adaptable organization:
- Organizational agility: Instead of structurally static, hierarchical teams, design task-organized, cross-functional teams tailored to accomplishing your mission.
- Decentralized decision-making: It’s impossible to provide direction for your team during uncertainty if all you’re doing is focusing on the day to day. Push decisions down to the lowest practical level and empower leaders within your organization to operate, pivot and call audibles without you.
- A culture of trust: Trust is what brings diverse talents and perspectives together in pursuit of a common goal. Commit to leading with integrity, keep your abilities sharp, and setting a calm and composed tone to earn your team members’ trust.
- Align your communication to drive change.
It’s human nature to stay in our comfort zones — that’s why it’s essential to instill mechanisms that drive support for change within your organization. To create and sustain a culture of change, align communication at these three levels:
- Company leadership: Because change can be so uncomfortable, members of your organization need to hear from top leadership why they must change in order to embrace it. Create a compelling change vision that communicates the purpose of your change effort and clearly defines success.
- Mid-level influencers: Identify the most credible, trustworthy members of your organization and recruit them for your change team to inform your strategy, contribute solutions and gain mid-level buy-in.
- Frontline workers: Develop champions at the grassroots level by helping frontline employees understand the importance of the change effort — and, perhaps most importantly, what’s in it for them.
In addition to cascading your change vision down to the front lines, you’ll need reporting systems to keep top leadership informed and embed the changes into your organizational systems.
The chaos driving today’s VUCA environment isn’t likely to let up any time soon. Instead of reacting to crises as they occur or scrambling to stay ahead, the most successful leaders will develop collaborative, innovative, adaptable and change-oriented business cultures built for success.