How teams become agile How teams become agile

7 levers for more agility

The biggest levers for agility in your hand: Adjusting your identity and making step-by-step changes in the systems. Give people the best chance to reflect and develop.
6 mins read

Yesterday's Futurework20 confirmed it again. The need for more flexibility and agility is very high. Germany has to catch up. A graphic by Andrew McAfee from the MIT Sloan School of Management showing the global distribution of Unicorns illustrated this beautifully.

It needs a change of mind and a new attitude. Old recipes no longer work. New ones have to be found and proven. That is not easy.

Change doesn't happen overnight. New "agile" structures of tribes and squads, as ING's HR Director Harrer calls them, do not fit everywhere. Microsoft Germany CEO Bendiek, for example, refers to the ability that has always existed in American companies to quickly set teams on opportunities. Extreme organizational reconfiguration - as is the case at ING - is obviously not useful at Microsoft. Every company must find its own way.

Known issues with agility

On the way to more agility or digitalization, well-known problems are emerging:

  • the difficulties of anchoring a new understanding of the role of middle management,
  • the acceptance of a new value system and a new identity,
  • the elimination of career paths and opportunities for long-term (almost predictable) salary increases,
  • the removal of status symbols, or perceived power,

Ms. Bendiek has nicely described the new (or correct) role of a manager: She says: "A manager is someone who takes responsibility for employees". This shows the gap that needs to be bridged.

What enables or accelerates the change of mind?

1. Update the identity

The desire to become more agile is a little like the desire to lose weight. Everyone understands something different. Agility is also hardly measurable. The results are measurable. But was it new and increased agility or another circumstance that led to the results?

Actions are guided by routines, rituals, and habits. And these in turn shape the self-image, the identity.

If something seems too rigid, it is time for a retreat with identity. The conscious choice of an updated identity promotes the introduction of new routines, rituals, or habits and reduces resistance.

Identity exists on different levels: for the whole organization, for a team, or as a leader.

The identity contains different elements (see attached table). As a small exercise, fill in the cells in the table to become aware of the desired change. You can search for answers for your organization, your teams, or yourself. Do not be too radical. You need a bridge between old and new, for yourself and also for your customers.

2. Change the system and not the people

Often a guilty party is sought in case of errors or problems. It is similar when you try to change the behavior of employees. It is very likely that there are reasons why they are the way they are. And it is important to understand these reasons if you want to make lasting changes.

As a modern manager you better ask yourself what you have done or failed to do that such a problem could occur. Or how has the system in which you or your employees work influenced their behavior or decisions?

The context and the system have a strong influence. For example, your behavior in a soccer stadium is different than in an opera house. The task of the manager and the teams is to change the context and the system step by step to allow for greater flexibility or agility.

A strong lever is, for example, when you as a manager admit your own mistakes and explain which feelings and learning effects were triggered in you. In this way you create the space for openness in the context or system. Colleagues can admit mistakes or point out dangers early on.

3. Renounce control and strengthen autonomy

Renouncing control and strengthening autonomy are important levers for system changes.

Yes, everyone has a need to know how things stand. However, "observing" leads to employees becoming more dependent because they feel insecure or do not want to make mistakes.

So you better ask yourself which decisions you really need to be involved in. Can you create a framework and gradually expand it by letting decisions be made at the level where the best assessment of the situation is available?

Can you satisfy the need for control in another way? Firstly, you can create an overview of activities with a system that can be viewed by everyone (e.g. Kanban Board). Additionally, you can replace the need for control with the need for support. Go into a regular exchange and find out how you can support the employees or improve the system for the employees. You strengthen the employees and keep an overview of the issues. Only this has to happen honestly and sincerely.

4. Get a little bit better every day

Since you or your organization will not become more agile overnight anyway, you accept the approach in small steps. If you take a small step every day, you will have made a big step in a short time. You need new routines, rituals, and habits that fit the desired agility.

Take stock of what things you run on autopilot. Be it behavior in meetings, how you react to emails, or how you conduct employee meetings. Try to discover the triggers and reactions for the behaviors. Can you interrupt the automatic trigger and reaction of an unwanted behavior or replace it with a new, desired behavior?

5. Visualize the path to agility

Look back on past successes. Did they happen overnight? What has led to them? What pain was there in between?

You can also look into the future in the same way. Like top athletes, you can visualize the process leading to success in terms of agility. This prepares you, your employees, and teams better for new things. And it takes away everyone's fear because they know what ideas they can build on or what support they can rely on.

6. Update the system of goal setting and performance appraisal

Very often, systems for goal setting and performance assessment from past times are continued. In times of agility and teamwork, annual rhythms and exclusive individual goal setting (without regard to team goals) are poison in the system. By shortening rhythms and introducing other goal systems, you can promote agility and teamwork.

The decoupling of remuneration and individual goal achievement is a sensible step here, just as it is practiced at Google. It is clear that remuneration must be based on value for the customer or the organization.

Remuneration (bonus) based on individual achievement of objectives leads to rivalry and secrecy. Therefore, you might consider how you can gradually introduce a team bonus as well. One that is linked to team success and that arrives regularly yet unexpectedly.

7. Maintain a feedback and data culture

An annual rhythm for feedback in the form of a performance review is insufficient for agile work. Rapid developments require regular and frequent feedback. The learning curves are then correspondingly steeper.

Not only the rhythm but also the content of the feedback is crucial. Many employees have a poor sense of their own strengths. Often strengths go unnoticed. Things fall easy or are not worth mentioning. A conscious use of the strengths is missing.

Many employees unnoticed prefer difficult "challenges" that promise "growth". These challenges then do not necessarily build on the strengths. With feedback on strengths, you know better what they are good at and what you can rely on in the future. You can then design your activities accordingly.

Colleagues may also have ideas about which development steps or new skills suit you and your strengths.

It's the same with feedback from customers. Get it regularly and often, that's the only way to know if you're on the right track.

Also, try to reduce subjectivity by letting data instead of opinions speak as feedback - where possible and meaningful. With data you can make many a discussion superfluous.

Conclusion: There are certainly many more things you can do. You now have the biggest levers in your hand: Adjusting your identity and making step-by-step changes in the systems. Give people the best chance to reflect and develop.


To update the identity: Make the ALT-NEW comparison for the nine elements




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