Agility is fun. For many organizations - though - it’s the process of acquiring agility that’s not fun. Along the way, we have confused the process with the outcome.
Agility is an outcome, not a state of grace. It’s the capacity for movement, for behaviors, for capabilities that enable our organization to achieve what’s next. It’s something we have one moment, and less so the next.
It’s time for us to stop. Step back. And ask ourselves, “Where have we lost the fun?”
CEO, The Institute for Leadership and Management
John Williams is a problem solver and strategist with a career that spans UK, Europe, Middle East, and Far East. He is a passionate advocate of cognitive leadership, and deeply curious about emergent strategy, predictive analytics, punctuated equilibrium and other baffling business things. John is a Global Advisory Board member of the Commonwealth Enterprise & Investment Council, and has been a consultant to the UN International Trade Centre. He has founded two businesses and is an in-demand speaker and writer, seeking always to ask – and answer – the questions that everyone else avoids. John has been CEO of the Institute of Leadership & Management since September 2020.
Hello, everybody. Can everybody hear me okay? Yes. Everybody see me okay, yeah? Okay, cool. Good. I have to say, I start by saying I don't have a deck. You have no idea how much punishment I took from that table for not having it. How are you going to be taken seriously? You don't have a deck. I quickly put together a piece of paper. That will be my deck. Okay. Are we having fun yet? The reason why I thought about this as the title for this session, I was having a conversation with a very serious business person and he was telling me he runs a... Well, he's on the board of a very large corporation and he said, "I need your help." He said, "We've been doing this agile transformation and we're about half way through now and we've become about stagnant." Yeah, halfway, halfway. I said, "Well, how long have you been going?" He said, "Four years." Halfway? In four years? What are you trying to achieve? I couldn't help it. I said, "Well it sounds pretty good. You haven't any fun yet." He looked at me as if I was completely insane. "Why would we be having fun? This is an agile transformation." I thought, actually, you know what? This is what's wrong.
We heard earlier on from Evan and Laura and Ahmed, something has gone awry with agility over the last 20-something years. We have allowed the process to become the outcome and we focus all on the process. I thought I'll just talk very briefly about three things, really. I'll start with the purpose of agility. I'd like to thank actually Evan and Laura and Ahmed for saying everything that I'm going to say in the next 20 minutes in the session earlier on. I'm going to pretend that I'm just reinforcing what they said.
Okay, what's the purpose of agility? It's not to become agile. We know that actually. What is the purpose of agility? Purpose of agility achieve a better outcome for our customers, for our teams, for ourselves. It reminded me of a game. I used to play ball. I bet you can't guess what type of ball I used to play. Okay. We were having a game once and we were bouncing this ball around and all that sort of stuff. I don't know how many of you have ever played ball, a basketball, certainly in one of those, whether it's the corner of a parking lot or it's behind a building and the rules are a bit flexible and all of that other stuff. But there's usually quite a lot of that goes on amongst the group. We were playing ball and stuff like this, and we got into an argument about a decision that had been made by the non-referee because there wasn't one. We got settled down in the end and I said to the guys, "Look, okay, okay, okay, just calm down, guys. Let's just do this. Come on. Where's the ball? Give me the ball." Quick as a flash, one of the guys in the group said, "Never mind the ball. Let's just get on with the game." I thought, "Wow, wow."
When you think about that, it takes a minute to sink in. You think, actually, you know what? That's what we did with agility. Never mind the ball, let's get on with the game. Never mind the purpose of this. What does the methodology tell us that we should be doing next? Okay. We have to have stand-ups at this time on these days. We have to have this stuff happening regularly and frequently. That didn't sound terribly agile in a lot of ways, really. Let's forget about the game for a moment and let's think about who's got the ball, what is the ball, what's the purpose of agility? Think about outcome for the customer, outcome for the team, all of that stuff. I'll just consult my deck on what I'm going to say next. Okay. One of the questions I always start with, except for today, of course, is a definition. What do we mean by agility? We saw the definition before.
Freedom, flexibility, resilience. What a great definition. I say that with all sincerity. It is a great definition. There will be people, no matter where we are, who can't relate to that definition. We all do because we're all professionals in this business and we all understand the significance of those three elements to achieving agility. We'll come on to how we achieve it shortly. But actually, there will be people who can't relate to that. We need to think of other ways to describe what agility is. I was thinking there are some things that don't lend themselves easily to a definition. Some things have to be almost defined by an example. I thought, "What is a good example of agility." I remember thinking one day I had a map, a road map, and... Are you having fun yet? Okay. I had a roadmap. Roadmaps are great, fabulous things, roadmaps because they tell us where we should be going. Very clearly. As long as we can, you know, we know where we are on this map. We know where we need to go on this map. Actually, this tells us the way to get there. What happens if where we're standing isn't on the map? You know, there's a lovely cartoon I saw once of a guy standing in front of a road map and he's got three labels on it. It says, you are here. You thought you were here. You should be here. I thought, I feel like that sometimes with certainly with transformations from an agile perspective and stuff. Road maps are great as long as where we are and where we want to get to is on the map.
Is there a sort of agile version of a roadmap, something that would remove the necessity to be on the map? A compass. A compass is an agile road map because it doesn't matter where you are standing. You can determine from what that compass tells you which direction you need to go in. The perfect example of a road map that gives you freedom and flexibility and resilience. No matter what the context, that compass, assuming that you're not standing somewhere on another planet, that compass will tell you where you need to go. A definition of agility for me is whatever analogy my brain needs to allow me to achieve what a compass can achieve for me. If you can think about in the organizations in which you work, the organizations you consult with, the organizations you teach, what's the equivalent of a compass in terms of helping them determine how to get to where they want to go? There's a bit about purpose of agility, a bit about the definition of agility. How do we get it?
To be honest, I can pontificate up here all-day about what it is and why we do it and stuff like that. That isn't going to help do exactly what Evan and Laura and Ahmed were saying before, which is change people's behavior. How do we do it in such a way that we get behaviors from people which will achieve that outcome that we want from agility? I, because I'm a sporty type, okay, But I play ball stuff like, not now, of course, that was like 40 years ago. I, about 30 years ago, I decided it was sooner anyway, I decided that I would like to be a sports massage therapist. Has anybody ever succumbed to the tender ministrations of a sports massage therapist? Yeah. Come on. Anybody signify if you have? Yeah, yeah, yeah. The question "Are you having fun yet?" really doesn't play there at all. When I went to be this therapist, the guy who was actually teaching us, he was brilliant. I spent a year at this school learning how to be a sports massage therapist, and he said right at the start, he said, "There are two ways that I can help you become a sports massage therapist." He said, "I can teach you that you get a patient there on the table and you do eight strokes in that direction and eight strokes in that direction. Squeeze twice and charge him 50 bucks." And he said that will work. In a lot of cases, that will work. There are people out there that would accept that. He said that isn't what we think of as sports massage therapy because that's a methodology that doesn't actually allow for the context. That's a methodology that says everybody's leg will respond in exactly the same way to eight strokes in that direction or eight strokes in that direction and squeeze twice. He said, "Alternatively, I can teach you a little bit about human anatomy and physiology. When you get a patient on the table, you can put your hands on that patient and you can feel in the musculature of that patient. Where is the the congested tissue? Where are the pain spots? Where are the things that need to be fixed in order for that patient to feel whole again?" The beauty of that difference is that the first one strokes this way and that one's squeezing and stuff like this didn't and would never give any understanding about not only the outcome, but even the purpose. Because until I know where that patient hurts, where their muscles are stiff and congested, I don't know what I should be doing as a therapist.
We spent a year learning not how to do that and that, although we practiced quite a lot of that and that, we spent a year learning about what goes on inside here. That for me is how we do agility. Did I just say how we do agility? Well, okay, you know what I meant anyway. But this is how we achieve agility in organizations. We go into those organizations or we work in those organizations and we don't say, "Everybody standstill. I'm going to do eight strokes in that direction, eight strokes in that direction." We say, "Actually, where do I lay my hands upon this organization? How do I palpate these muscles?" And most importantly of all, "What should they feel like?" "What should they feel like? Because I can feel somebody's leg." Okay, I'll say that differently. I can. I could start to do the stuff that massage therapists do, but actually, if I don't know how it's supposed to feel, I might think that it's a bit of a lump in your quads there, actually. It would be fine. Don't worry about it. It will be okay. We need to understand what it is that good looks like. We heard this morning already. Think about what good looks like. Then have a look inside the organizations and measure the gap. You can do that because actually, you are professionals at this. This is what you do for a living. Interpretation, analysis, understanding of organizations and what needs to be done in order to make them become that bit more agile for a purpose.
Okay. Is there anybody here... A little survey. Anybody here who doesn't want to have any fun? That's really risky for anybody who wants to do anything other than keep real still, isn't it that. Yeah. There is nobody here that doesn't want to have any fun. We all want to have fun. You know, when you wake up in the morning, you give yourself a real big stretch. I won't do this because I think my hands will go through the ceiling, probably. You do a real big stretch. When you stretch in the morning, momentarily, your body feels young again. Really? Okay. What? You're all young, right? Okay. I didn't mean it the way it came out. All right. Thank you very much for pointing that out to me. Okay. That's at the end of my season in New York anyway. Your body will feel really rejuvenated and full of life. Just momentarily, because it loves that wah! That is your body feeling agile. That's your body feeling, I can do anything that needs to be done now. Think about how you replicate that feeling inside your organizations. I don't mean get them all to stand in rows in the morning and do this sort of stuff things. You can analyze the way your organizations work. Think about how you can help them to feel rejuvenated, refreshed, energetic, free, flexible and resilient, agile, and then you can apply with them the methodology necessary to do that.
Now, I'm going to end on the methodology bit because there's a great question. It's a Zen question in a lot of ways, really. Somebody said to me once, "How are you going to get, how are you going to achieve happiness, John? Everybody wants to be happy. How are you going to achieve happiness?" My answer goes, "I haven't got a clue." But he said, "Okay, I'll give you an idea. First of all, you need to decide really clearly for yourself. What is happiness? What does happiness mean for you?" I said, "Okay, fine. I can probably sit down longer if I can do that stuff." And then he said, "You have to decide what you're going to sacrifice to get it." I thought, "That's quite interesting," Not what I'm going to do to get it, what I'm going to sacrifice in order to get happiness. Think about agility. It's a bit like happiness, really. What are we going to sacrifice in order to achieve agility in our organizations? This is where I come back to methodology. I have this thing about even the word methodology because there's an inherent rigidity about it. Methodology. This is how you do it. This is eight strokes in one direction and eight and the other one and squeeze it twice. And you have a unique position in the world in this context, because you not only understand the difference between methodology and sports massage therapy, the ability to analyze and understand. You also know how to apply the techniques that will help people change their behaviors.
I get into big trouble about this, really big trouble about this from all the people who work for... Well, anybody that produces a methodology, actually, to be honest, because I say your job as professionals and experts in agility is actually to cherry-pick from all those methodologies, to look at the body that's lying on the table before you to palpate those muscles a little bit and then to say, "You know what? What it needs here is it doesn't need a bit of squeeze in there. I need to do a bit of stroke in there. I might have to get my elbow out and lean on a couple of things there." Cherry-pick from the methodologies, the bits that make the difference that you see necessary. Because not only will that produce the outcome that you want, it's more fun. It's much more fun than following the methodology. Did I say that? It's true. You know it's true. Come on. We're talking about agility. Opposite of agility. Rigidity. Don't be rigid. Allow for everything. When somebody says to you, "Are we agile, yet?" You can say to them, "Are you having any fun yet?" If they say, "No, we're not having any fun yet, agile yet," then for sure. Because when you are agile, when you have acquired this freedom and flexibility and resilience, you are having fun. Thank you very much indeed, everybody, for listening.
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