ProQuo Provokes: The Importance of Agile Leadership

Posted on December 3, 2020

Updated on December 4, 2020

2 min read time

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The pandemic has accelerated the need for organisations to be able to move or change direction quickly so that they can respond to these unpredictable times, says Dr Simon Hayward, author of several books including The Agile Leader and founder and CEO of Cirrus, a leadership development consultancy.

Speaking to ProQuo AI's CEO and Founder, Nadim Sadek, on the ProQuo Provokes podcast, Dr Hayward says that this speed and responsiveness requires an agile leader, who can create the kind of workplace where the right actions can be taken quickly and decisively.

Agile leadership is about creating an environment where people feel safe to challenge, to experiment and to take risks, and where the leaders respond in a way which is receptive rather than being defensive or critical. It relies on there being a high degree of psychological safety within an organisation, where people are not afraid to speak up if they feel that something is wrong or is not being done in the right way.

For the business leaders themselves, being an agile leader means setting aside any ego, or defensiveness, or protectiveness of how something is done, and instead adopting a different kind of language – an agile leader will say, tell me more, how could we make that work? What would you need to do to achieve that breakthrough? Without that, an organisation is never going to be able to be agile; it will always be driven by risk aversion and fear.

Dr Hayward says there are several things an agile leader can do to create an environment where the organisation can be really bold, agile and flexible to the changing circumstances in which they operate. These include creating a collaborative, team-based workplace which is built around the idea of constantly learning, thinking disruptively about the way processes and customer interactions work, and being ruthless about focusing on doing a few things well, rather than trying to spread too thinly.

He points out that when the inventor James Dyson started out, for example, he conducted 5,000 experiments which did not succeed before he managed to invent the cyclonic vacuum that led to his first product success and turned Dyson into a worldwide phenomenon. That willingness to experiment to make mistakes, to learn and to focus on solving a customer problem demonstrates agility at its best.

Another example is the technology company Apple, which has an ability to focus on doing a few things better than anybody else, with the customer in mind all the time. Apple refuses to use the value of their brand to sell cornflakes or cars, for example, and has remained totally focused on doing a few things brilliantly.

Boeing, however, is an organisation that is seen as being much less agile. Its 737 Max plane caused two fatal air crashes in a six month period a couple of years ago. The view is that there was a cultural problem within the organisation which meant that people were not willing to speak up and challenge, because there was this sense that they had to do as they were told and just get the product out there as quickly as they could. And that had fatal consequences, with hundreds of people killed.

Dr Hayward says that agility is first a mindset and then a set of practices that turn that mindset into a relentless focus on improvement, on breakthrough thinking and on doing things differently for the customer. The danger is that the larger the organisation and the more legacy it has in terms of its systems, contracts, and mindset, the more likely it is to have ways of working that really hampers agility.

That's because the biggest challenge to real agility is risk aversion, which is embodied in the legacy of many businesses, and that takes some pretty radical thinking and action to change. But it's only in taking those steps that real agility within an organisation can occur.

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