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An examination of organisational agility

The business world is increasingly spoken of as being VUCA - volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous, so clarity regarding your staff’s motivations and drivers and how this affects the way they behave is more important than ever.

Corporate communication is often a minefield of unspoken innuendo, lack of clarity, misdirected assumptions and emotion. What people choose to share in their working conversations is often as much to do with their own preference for action and 'emotional escalation', which can create relationships that are ineffective and demotivating. And sadly, more often than not, it results in stagnation and a distinct absence of the type of action that makes the difference. So what can leaders do to rekindle organisational agility?

One approach draws on the spirit enshrined in the classic Johari Window (Ingram and Luft 1955), which considered relationships between self and others, but it also helps us navigate communications between different groups within an organisation to great effect. Most powerfully, it can be applied to 'leaders' and 'staff' to help un-stick organisations and promote agility where behaviours have become entrenched.

Given the strictures of e-zines, the Johari Window is best visualised as a two by two matrix with two axes, one for leaders the other for staff. Each axis can be split in half and labelled 'known' and 'unknown' information. The four quadrants are then; both parties are aware of knowledge, both are unaware, or one is aware but the other is not. The quadrant where the parties are both aware is known as the Arena, where both are unaware it is the Unknown area. Where leaders are aware but staff are not, this is the Facade, and where staff are aware of what's going on but leaders are not, this is the Blind Spot. The general wisdom of the original model was that the bigger the Arena, the better you would communicate and manage with fellow staff. The same applies to the corporate perspective, with the more information shared by both leaders and staff alike, the better.

The corporate model can be applied to the organisation using three successive lenses; knowledge, scope for change, potential benefits.

The knowledge lens shows what is in the Arena, and represents what can be openly and actively managed, communicated, discussed and negotiated in the normal course of business. The more there is in the Arena, the more open the culture, the more trusting the staff, the more efficient and effective the leaders.

The ability of leaders to change the organisation is to a large extent constrained by the next lens, Scope for Change. Leaders are unlikely to try changing things in their Blind Spot (they are unsighted on what's going on), but if they do they will lack credibility or authenticity and at best will be met with resistance. Likewise leaders trying to change things which they know about but staff do not, will look as though they are either acting on insufficient evidence or being Machiavellian and at best it will be met with suspicion, at worst with active criticism.

The third lens, Potential Benefits, highlights what sub-set of the Scope for Change can actually be acted on. The benefits realised can never exceed the scope of the originally envisaged change. In short, the bigger the Arena, the more leaders can drive change, the more agile the business. So, in order to create organisational agility, leaders need to enlarge the 'Arena' of common understanding.

Current focus, mindsets and practices often hold an organisation back from the very things it sets out to achieve. For instance, organisations generally do all they can to create and maintain a consistent and fair culture. They espouse open communications, open door policy, open mindedness so they expect communications to be good and to promote a positive culture. They actively engage staff when managing change. And yet....

We still find we very often have to tackle some tough communication issues when delivering change projects for our clients; some of the many approaches we take include:

Acknowledging the shadow culture

Exposing the elephants in the room

Driving out 'malicious obedience'

The shadow culture is the real values, habits and behaviours that determine how the organisation really works. We unearth this by applying our Agility Diagnostic. This looks at culture and communications; and highlights dissonance between the espoused and actual culture. Once articulated, the model allows leaders to address these. The result is that both parties know about it, both parties can act on it, both parties benefit.

Exposing the elephants in the room requires a diplomatic approach to airing them, careful facilitation of leaders' immediate response once they are known, and trust-building actions to encourage a more open culture in future. Setting the ground-rules beforehand is useful; having an amnesty on any criticism and grievances aired is one way of giving staff confidence to speak frankly. Often the tricky part is in curbing leaders' responses - the 'how dare they...' reaction.

'Malicious obedience' is the label of behaviour given to those staff who understand the organisational changes mooted, but have little energy for them. They are usually bright middle managers but disaffected and apathetic towards anything, which challenges their world. They are more dangerous than those who actively resist; (at least these peoples' energy can be turned into positive energy, sometimes to outstanding effect). Passive and unspoken resistance has to be tackled with a combination of approaches including using conflict management styles, influencing models, transactional analysis and coaching where necessary. There is no easy recipe; it depends on the organisation, the individual and the changes being proposed.

This has given a flavour of the many interventions that Berkshire Consultancy has delivered, including applying the Agility Diagnostic to unearth the hidden blockers. We have direct hands on experience of improving the Arena of common understanding in organisations; we have put the spotlight on shadow cultures, discovered herds of elephants, and helped more than our fair share of staff move away from 'malicious obedience'!

The benefits to the business are many, including:

  • Communication is higher on everyone's agenda, so more is understood about the challenges for leaders, and the issues for staff
  • Staff feel better understood, are then more engaged, and more productive
  • Leaders are more authentic, and are more trusted, so change takes less effort
  • Problems are surfaced more honestly and dealt with more quickly
  • Over time, the organisation is lighter on its feet, and becomes agile.

In short, the Johari Window can be used to cast light across all levels of the business to make it a brighter place for everyone.

Mike Robinson Berkshire consultancy