In an environment of complex decision making and ambiguity, competitive advantage is increasingly about time, agility and the ability to self-disrupt.
Agility and disruption: two buzzwords widely used and poorly understood, at least at a practical level. Thankfully, at the start of October, the Corporate Research Forum hosted a thought-provoking, energising and practical conference on what agility and disruption really mean.
Kicking off the event, Adam Wilson and I had the pleasure of showcasing our latest research into how senior leaders can disrupt their thinking to become future-fit. We weren’t the only speakers at the event though, and there followed a plethora of guidance on what organisations can be doing differently.
Distilling half a notebook of frantic scribbling, here’s three key messages that stuck with me:
“It’s one thing to tell an organisation to be fast, it’s another thing to be smart about it – that’s the challenge for leadership”
After Airbus announced it was launching a new fuel-efficient plane, Boeing rushed the competing 737 Max to market as quickly as possible. Airbus had invested a huge amount of time and money into designing new, larger, more fuel-efficient engines and finding a way to fit them with their old air frame. Unfortunately for Boeing, the new, bigger engines didn’t fit with their 50-year-old 737 plane design. However, afraid their buyers would not wait for whilst they discounted existing models and designed a whole new plane to fit 21st-century engine technology, Boeing leaders decided to put the too-big engines on all the same. The result was catastrophic, two crashes killing a total of 346 people. All of Boeing’s 737 Max planes remain grounded to this day.
A chilling cautionary tale of how agility isn’t all about acting fast and efficiently, it means knowing what not to sacrifice for speed too. From the outside this may seem an easy point to remember, less so when it’s your business teetering on the edge of extinction.
Key message: As Joe clearly articulated “it’s either about half the time or half the resources – so long as you don’t compromise on quality”
Key tip: when it comes to measuring agility, Joe recommended we use the analogy of sport. With athletes, agility is measured in terms of
1) physical agility (speed)
2) cognitive agility (scanning the field, anticipating the moves of others, making good decisions)
3) technical agility (ability to pivot and change direction).
“Think about the vertical backbone of your organisation”
The key to a nimble organisation? Unique layers and discipline.
As Amy Kates explained, designing for speed is the task of helping organisations make better, more timely decisions. Speed requires efficient scanning and acting on information, and this in turn requires hierarchy.
Putting forward a fresh and practical perspective on agility, Amy explained how “the two scarcest resources are time and attention – you don’t want everyone at the table trying to figure out what to do – it needs to be orchestrated.” Every level of leadership must be adding unique value.
Key tip: ask the question “if you brought this group together what would we want them to talk about?
Instilling discipline around healthy meeting habitswas also called out as a way of increasing speed in an organisation. Over the past 50 years, meetings have increased in length and frequency, to the point where executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours a week in them.
Poorly organised meetings with unclear actions, irrelevant or uninformed attendees and inefficient processes slow down organisations’ productivity: this comes as a surprise to no one. And yet, whilst poor meeting discipline is widespread and often complained about its also frequently overlooked.
Key tip: Satya Nadella, transformed Microsoft’s meeting culture, and his three-rule method for better meetings looks like this:
1) Listen more.
2) Talk less.
3) Be decisive when the time comes.
“Culture is yesterday’s wisdom”
If you’re reading this on your laptop, and that laptop is standard for the UK or US, you’ll notice it has a QWERTY keyboard layout. This layout of keys was designed in 1868 by Christopher Sholes, the inventor of the typewriter, specifically to slow typists down and prevent the keys in the first typewriters jamming up. Since then, the Dvorak keyboard layout has been designed. This layout is a far better solution, it’s designed to optimise human hand movement, maximise the most commonly used letters, and has been shown to significantly increase typing speeds in comparison to the QWERTY layout.
But, do we use it? No. We use QWERTY.
John Weeks certainly had me and the rest of the audience captivated as he brilliantly described how adults don’t change because we’ve learnt to type with QWERTY. And, we don’t teach our children to type with the DVORAK because no kid wants to be different, bringing in their special DVORAK keyboard to school every day.
The key point made was that “sometimes there are huge benefits to doing something just because everyone is doing it”. The problem is that often these collective behaviours, habits, rituals and ‘ways of doing things’ that have originated from “yesterday’s wisdom”.
When thinking in terms of speed and disruption, John urged us to look at our cultural habits and ask ourselves: “are these things that are making us successful or things that we are successful in spite of doing?”
Top tip: as the QWERTY example shows, identifying what needs to change is not the same as getting people to change to a better way of working. Encouragingly, John also shared the findings from the Asch Conformity Experiments, which show that when everyone else is doing something individual’s yield to group norms; but, if just one other person defies group norms then individual’s will also be willing to stand out from the crowd and behave differently. Consequently, it’s not only about identifying where “yesterday’s wisdom” is slowing you down but also engaging leaders and cultural champions to role model new habits and better ways of working.
If you’re interested in learning more lessons from this world-class event, check out the Corporate Research Forum’s retrospective summary