August 2017

7 Keys to An Agile Team

By Ed Ruggero

The roots of my interest in Agile Leadership go back to a call from a frustrated colleague.

“We have smart people who developed a great plan, but then the circumstances changed dramatically and, instead of adjusting, we're spending all of our energy trying to force the original plan.”

Volumes have been written on why it's hard for people to adapt to change. Yet there are organizations whose ingrained approach to operations emphasizes agility in thinking, planning and execution.

What situations demand agility?

A manufacturing company has a detailed plan to ramp up production over a period of eighteen months to meet expected demand. When the price of natural gas—a key resource in the manufacturing process—drops precipitously, demand skyrockets even as the cost of making those products falls. Re-tooling the plant would take a major push, but there is a terrific opportunity at hand.

In one twenty-four hour period, the leaders of a complex supply chain must deal with A) a train derailment affecting twenty percent of the product moving that week, B) a fire at a key supplier's manufacturing facility that threatens to disrupt the just-in-time delivery of critical parts, C) a new set of trade regulations imposed by the nation where one quarter of new products are assembled, and D) the resignation of two key R&D scientists, who may or may not have taken trade secrets to a competitor.

Both of these scenarios demand agile leadership, the ability to adapt when challenges or opportunities arise, or to shift a plan because of changing circumstances. After several years of studying organizations whose success and even survival depend on agility, my colleagues and I have distilled our learning into these Agile Leadership Principles.

  1. Have a clear vision: Paint a picture of the desired effect. Tell people what to do; let them figure out how. We call this “the leader's intent:” a clear picture of the desired end-state. If the team knows what the leader wants to have happen—and if the team is technically proficient—team members can create a new plan to get to the same goal.
  2. Delegate: Use the talents of the entire team. Reach beyond the immediate team, if possible. Additionally, team members must know that they are empowered and expected to reach that end state, even if that means tossing aside the outdated plan and coming up with a new one. Sometimes this means operating with imperfect information and no further guidance.
  3. Go Slow to Go Fast: Do a thorough analysis of the landscape and update it continuously. This requires mental discipline. First, because many teams want to jump to the part where they're coming up with solutions to be applied to a problem they don't yet fully understand. It also requires a disciplined approach to planning: the process does not have to complex, but it should be standardized.
  4. Think Two Moves Ahead: Anticipate shifts in the environment. Identify ahead of time those indicators whose change announces the need for adjustment.
  5. Fall in Love with the Problem, Not the Solution: Create multiple courses of action; don't just settle for the first one that comes to mind. Develop contingency plans and know the triggers for launching them. Keep in mind that the time spent creating a plan that is now outdated is a sunk cost: don't stick with the old plan just because of the hard work expended in creating it.
  6. Move Fast, Heads Up: Watch the horizon and respond rapidly to the need for change. World War Two's General George Patton said, “A good plan today is worth more than a perfect plan tomorrow.” Do not give in to “analysis paralysis.”
  7. Learn Continuously: Win, lose or draw, always conduct after action reviews. What were you trying to accomplish? What actually happened (this is a facts-based analysis, not an opportunity to fix blame for failures)?

In our Agile Leadership Workshop, we support these principles with the use of specific tools developed from our research into planning practices at NASA, in the US military, and among Arctic explorers. Participants quickly learn how to apply the tools to create with plans and contingencies, and then react to changes that require new plans. The planning and analysis tools are easy to learn and, with a little practice, easy to apply.

If you would like us to bring this Agile Leadership Workshop to your organization, contact Dennis Haley of Academy Leadership, or contact me directly at ed@edruggero.com.

Ed Ruggero is the creator and facilitator of The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, in which participants visit the site of the Civil War battle to learn how to better lead modern organizations.