August 01, 2014

Why Today’s Leader Needs the Agility of a Downhill Skier

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Read any recent white paper on leadership, and you'll see numerous references to agility as a key area for development.  From learning agility to innovation agility, it's clear that leaders need to focus on how to go fast but stay graceful.  

Prior to my recent talk on this subject at a leadership conference, I conducted research to uncover why agility has become so critical to success.  The answer was quite simple: The time it takes for a new business concept or technological innovation to disrupt and industry is compressing ... fast.  What took a decade to wreck and industry in the 60's takes a little more than two years today.  

Think about how fast smart phone apps have disrupted various industries that manufactured one-off devices (guitar tuners, navigational devices, watches, video cameras, cameras, and so on).  Think about how fast Uber has disrupted transportation.  How fast has AirBnB disrupted hospitality?  This is why I call today's leadership a downhill ski-sprint where one must go fast, stay on their feet and not crash too many gates.  Even in non-tech industry like consumer packaged goods, we've seen concepts like GMO-free products take hold in a fraction of the time it took for organic-and-local to achieve traction.  This is what life for a leaders looks like today:  Slide1

To survive, the leader must be on the ready to move his or her enterprise in a novel direction to capture an opportunity or defend their customer base.  But the risks are high, when fast-to-market is the paradigm, so often times people talk about being nimble but still hold steady until it's too late.  I believe that agility is a capability we build up through practice, just like a champion skier perfects their ability to make it down the hill in record time in one piece.  Here are a few ways you can boost your agility: 

  1. Read Voraciously About the Future - Readers are more agile leaders, especially when they widely expand their knowledge base every year.  If you commit yourself to reading one book every month cover-to-cover that outlines the future of your industry or technology related to your industry, you'll find yourself more confident and inspired about change.  You'll also develop key insights, which can help you create solutions faster and implement them better. 
  2. Develop Habit of Brainstorming When Faced With a Challenge - To often, our first instinct is to look for safe/proven off-the-shelf solutions to business problems.  Agile leaders start with brainstorming to consider novel approaches.  Over time, the more you make that your first response, the easier it will be to let go of the status quo when the writing's on the wall. 
  3. Protect Your Psyche - Being a change agent is like playing Whack-A-Mole ... where you are the mole!  You'll receive criticism and ocasionaly crash in an attempt to take a corner quickly.  Don't be defensive as research indicates that will get you lower marks from your managers or board.  See every piece of criticism as a gift that gives you valuable information about the person delivering it to you or in some cases, about the quality of your ideas or execution.  
  4. Create A Sprint Culture - This starts with meetings.  Cut down 2 hour meetings to 40 minute sprints.  Replace long lunches with Ted-Talk length speed-round sessions (18 minutes).  Reduce the time you give your team to implement project deliverables from 90 days to 2 weeks.  Conduct hackathons (all nighters) to compress a few weeks work into a single day.  All of these actions will drive speed into your collective psyche and make it easier for you and your team to run faster over time without falling down too much. 
  5. Invest An Hour a Week Reflecting On How Your Ideas Play Out - Be an objective person when looking back at market or organization reactions to your new ideas.  Objectify failure, because it's not really a reflection of your nature or character.  The more you think this way about the agile you, the better you'll adjust your plans to develop more finesse.  That's the key to passing through and not over the gates of innovation.  

I'd love to come speak on Leadership and Agility at your event.  Contact me for more information or suggest me to your speaking bureau agent.  

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