My fifteen year old son is a goalkeeper. During lockdown, his training has been via zoom calls and has involved setting up ludicrous obstacle courses across the living room, so that he can practise changing direction in a fraction of a second, or leaping from a standing start onto a high box. He is working on his agility – the first thing to go, apparently, if you don’t practise for a while.
I can attest to that. I read somewhere that this past year, physiotherapists have been seeing younger and younger people present with hip and back problems, after months spent working at home. When I get up from my desk at the end of a day of calls, I find myself hobbling and making ‘oof’ noises like my granddad used to make. I’ve never felt less agile in my life!
I wonder if some of that loss of agility is also creeping into our psyches, into how we lead, and into our organisations? At first blush, you’d think not. Haven’t we all been congratulating ourselves on how well we adapted to working from home? Haven’t we all done a great job of mastering the tech? Aren’t we all looking forward to embracing our new hybrid working models, our hotelified offices? Look how many conferences you can attend online! You can go the virtual theatre, tour virtual art galleries and museums, order dinner from your favourite restaurant to arrive at your door.
And yet. We are So Damn Tired, are we not? In so many of my interactions, I feel a collective burn-out and a sort of synchronized flinching at the thought of being required to grapple with any more change at all.
Around us, the world moves on. All those paradigm shifts in societal and business models, the mushrooming of data, advancements in technology, the need to respond to a climate crisis that is no longer looming because it’s here right now, all those pressing issues of social justice, equity, inclusion … all those things, in short, that persuaded us of the need to be agile in the first place are still here – more pressing than ever, and accelerating by the day.
So what shall we do? There is so much to be done. We need as businesses and leaders to be more agile than ever, and yet we’re in no shape with our stiff and aching psyches to be leaping coffee tables and deftly navigating the sofa.
The research suggests a number of components of agility for leaders and organisations, including a clear ‘north star’, in the form of a common purpose and vision; dense networks of aligned, empowered and accountable teams; rapid decision and learning cycles; and a way of working that engages and empowers people. Let’s consider how we can lean into each of these in turn, bearing in mind our current condition:
- North Star– I risk sounding like a broken record, because this again comes down to leaders and organisations having a really clear purpose, both overall and in relation to whatever the particular change being contemplated is, and then being able to communicate that in an authentic and compelling way, through stories. It also requires leaders to be able to elicit from their people what their own purpose is, and then to be sense-makers in helping to stitch those different perspectives together into one big messy picture. This is hardwork, but it’s also generative: by tapping into our purpose, we’re tapping into where our life and energy are. It’s good work to do while tired!
- Networks – Not just talking for talking’s sake – we’re too tired for that – the research shows that effective networks are both highly cohesive (shared purpose), and highly diverse, well bonded, and can swap between command and control and collective decision making as the situation requires. Leaders can help to build and support networks in times of fatigue by bringing clarity around the more structural parts (where do I fit in? what is my job? who decides this thing?) and by focusing on helping people to stay bonded to one another in myriad small ways – celebrating personal events and work achievements, creating opportunities to come together socially, sharing ideas and learnings, role-modelling connection and authenticity.
- Rapid Decisions and Learning – I think this one is maybe the toughest while tired, because it requires us to be able to create and iterate and embrace the new and challenge our assumptions. This is hard at the best of times, but particularly so when we are under threat and living in our animal brains. We are, in short, afraid – and fear is the archenemy of creativity and generosity. So, what can we do as leaders to support this? Create safe spaces to try new things. Ask questions. Actively enlist help and elicit ideas. Remind people that pain and frustration and bad ideas are not some kind of aberration but a vital part of the process. Focus on the people and the process and on nurturing a strong team, more than on critiquing the ideas or outcomes.
- Engaged and Empowered People– this is the secret, isn’t it? And also an enormous topic. For now, perhaps the key areas to focus on are – keeping your people aligned to, and excited about the purpose; supporting their emotional conviction that the time and love and effort they’re investing means something; and showing them where they have agency and autonomy and inspiring them to use it. Again, there are no shortcuts here sadly, but this is also life-giving – it’s about meaningfully engaging with your team, listening, and telling stories.
Think of these as stretches and agility ladders and box springs – they may hurt a bit at first, but they’ll reawaken the leadership muscles and reignite the leadership spirit, and have you navigating the new world with ease in no time!
You can download more practical tips for leaders to support agility here.