Agile people management in VUCA Environments



“Build projects around motivated individuals.
Give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done.”
Agile Manifesto Principle


Although the Davos Forum identifies “cognitive flexibility” as one of the 10 key skills for 2020, the reality is that most people and organizations find it very hard to change.

Broadly, cognitive flexibility is described as the ability to adjust the way of thinking to new situations, along with the ability to overcome our customary automatic responses or thoughts, and adapt them to the new reality. So if someone is able to leave behind old beliefs and old habits to adopt others more suited to the new circumstances, then we say that person is cognitively flexible.

One of the most obvious examples of a lack of cognitive flexibility is attachment to ‘planning’, as understood traditionally. This is what dramatically accentuates the existing gap between organizations functioning under different paradigms.

Organizations emerging in this new knowledge economy have mostly embraced agile approaches to management. At the same time, organizations suffering from a greater inability to evolve, for whatever reason, remain stuck in the old traditional management models.

Organizations that put agility in to practise, work in a realistic paradigm, fully aware that, whether they want to or not, they live in a VUCA environment, i.e. in a Volatile, Uncertain, Changing and Ambiguous environment. When this is understood, traditional planning —as in deciding today what I’m going to do tomorrow— ceases to have meaning. When forecasting what will happen tomorrow or in six months’ time is a simple matter in a relatively stable and predictable environment, then planning can be useful or, at least, inspire tranquillity and sense of control. However, when forecasting what will happen tomorrow or in six months is a pure guessing game, then this kind of planning is a waste of time.

When the environment changes at breakneck speed, then the paradigm must change and cognitive flexibility must be applied. Agile organizations already know well that the new way of planning is called review, which emulates our brain’s natural way of working: feedback control. Agile project management is based on establishing iterative do-review processes where we constantly check whether we are moving towards our goal. If we are, then we continue in this direction. And if we are moving away from it, we try something different.

Obviously in an agile organization, the way people are managed must also necessarily be agile. A traditional bureaucratic structure is incompatible with agility, to the extent that the “funnelling” that happens upon ascending the hierarchical pyramid becomes a bottleneck for all key processes within the organization.

That’s why one of the major challenges faced by organizations that still haven’t embarked on the path of agility —particularly their HR departments— is to transform the organizational culture, so people can learn to work agilely within the organization.

In a traditional structure, people expect to receive more or less specific instructions “from above” on what they have to do and also, more often than not, on how it must be done. These people have little autonomy and consequently a poorly developed sense of responsibility, as the ones “above” hold the ultimate responsibility, for better or worse.

The lack of cognitive flexibility among such people is observed in their difficulty in adapting to work with higher degrees of autonomy and the greater responsibility that comes with that. This lack of cognitive flexibility is the main reason why isolated initiatives for change, such as deciding to “flatten” the organizational structure, to collapse hierarchical levels, or to empower people more, often turn out to be resounding flops. This is because evolving organizational agility is a systemic process and must be addressed as such.

The key to agile people management is to apply agility itself to the process of change, i.e. to initiate an iterative trial and error process, in which little by little control is replaced by autonomy and infantilism byresponsibility.

This way, control must be gradually replaced by supervision, which should become increasingly lighter and more remote, as the person learns to work autonomously and responsibly, since an agile organization is one where people willingly and responsibly meet their commitments and accept the consequences of their actions.

The final stage in this evolving and maturingprocess, moving away from paralyzing control towards organizational agility through supervision, is management (including self) by feedback. This is a state in which people are able to reorient their performance based on all-round feedback they receive about their actions, not only from a superior (a notion that is anachronistic in an agile environment) but also from colleagues, customers, suppliers and, in general the entire environment with which they interact.

We can talk about “learning organizations” as addressed by Peter Senge, “organizations based on information” like Drucker’s, or simply “agile organizations”. In all of these, the key is adaptability to changes stemmingfrom the incessant flows of information which arecharacteristic of a VUCA environment. Collective adaptability comes from aggregating deep individual changes, which are only possible in a paradigm focused on people and agile people management.

Read more about Managing in VUCA Enviroments.

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