Thursday, April 26, 2018

Developing Inner Agility

Admission: Inner agility is not one of my strongest suits.  I am a recovering control freak.

To state the obvious – we are living in a time of increasing complexity.

Much of that complexity is of our own making.

  • Additive processes.
  • The cult of “more.”
  • A bias towards “growth” and speed.
  • Access to an overwhelming amount of information
  • Increasing demands for attention from ALL corners
  • More diverse things connected with and dependent on each other

In 2011, Gokce Sargut and Rita Gunther McGrath, in the Harvard Business Review, observed:

It’s harder to make sense of things, because the degree of complexity may lie beyond our cognitive limits. And it’s harder to place bets, because the past behavior of a complex system may not predict its future behavior. In a complex system the outlier is often more significant than the average.

If you remove the wrong variable in your environment, you wind up with the Tacoma-Narrows Bridge.

No wonder people (leaders and employees alike) are paralyzed and overwhelmed.

Choose the wrong variable…and it feels like disaster is imminent.

In a recent article, Sam Bourton, Johanne Lavoie, and Tiffany Vogel at McKinsey call for a recognition of the cognitive and emotional load that this complexity can cause. For everyone.

And, naturally, at times of intense stress, it’s easy to fall back into survival patterns.

It’s hard enough when you are an employee.  As a leader, if you fall back into old survival patterns – the negative impact can be that much greater.

“At the very time that visionary, empathetic, and creative leadership is needed, we fall into conservative, rigid old habits.”

And with the desire to move faster and faster and do more and more with fewer resources, no wonder transformation efforts, of any scale, fail.

It’s not a simple fix.

It requires individuals to practice the opposite of what the culture demands, how many of us are schooled to act, and how our brains prefer to work.

To spot opportunities—and threats—in this environment, we must teach ourselves how to have a more comfortable and creative relationship with uncertainty. That means learning how to relax at the edge of uncertainty, paying attention to subtle clues both in our environment and in how we experience the moment that may inform unconventional action.

This relaxation at the edge of uncertainty is the key to inner agility.

The McKinsey consultants’ recommendations to develop inner agility:

  • Pause to move faster – ie, stop to look at the map occasionally. Are you still headed in the right direction?
  • Embrace your ignorance – Be a beginner. Ask questions. Learn from others. Good ideas can come from anywhere.
  • Radically reframe your questions – It might be worthwhile to ask at a higher level.  Ask people you know will disagree with you. Question your assumptions.
  • Set direction, not destination – Having a north star to provide context to your destination helps.
  • Test your solutions, and yourself – Allow for “safe to fail” experiments (this is what pilot projects are supposed to do). Do this for yourself too.

How much resistance did you feel when you read those recommendations?

Thing is, these are some of the behaviors that will help stop the insanity.

I feel we’ve hit a point where we need to start making hard choices about our direction, the things we focus on, and the activities we undertake.

Opportunities are abundant. Time and energy may not be.

It may be time to stop, look at the map, and make sure you are headed in the direction you expect.


Leading with Inner Agility – McKinsey

Harvard Business Review – Learning to Live with Complexity

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