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The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week 14 :: Strategic Planning :: Agility

I’ve probably used the phrase “survive and pivot” more in the last week than I have in the last 15 years. It’s the order of the day. This week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge is about agility – the skill that allows you to successfully survive and pivot.

Up until now, for most of us, our ability to be agile has been the difference between –

  • capitalizing on an emerging opportunity or missing out
  • quickly fixing an emergency operational problem or allowing it to linger a little too long
  • shifting staffing or methodology to meet a deadline or waiting too long to make a change and missing the target completion date

We might have been disappointed when we missed out on a couple of bucks or took some heat for missing a target, but the stakes are considerably higher now. Our inability to be agile now could jeopardize the future of our organization.

Agility isn’t a 30-minute exercise, it’s an organizational discipline that gets stronger the more it is practiced. So, the goal of this week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge is to lay the groundwork for agility. We want to introduce some attitudes, vocabulary and tools that you can introduce during team meetings (even on Zoom) and begin to utilize as you read and react to a business environment that is changing rapidly every day.

Face Reality – Jack Welch admonished us to, “Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be.” Get out the P&L, the list of receivables (by client) and payables (by vendor), and the balance sheet. No rose-colored glasses allowed. Make sure everyone around the table understands what they’re seeing. Call out the things that are good and the things that are troublesome. Talk frankly about people, products, service delivery and the future (as you know it today). Even the most sacred of the sacred cows should be evaluated.

Question Assumptions – All plans are built on assumptions – the number of customers that will walk in the front door, the products they will buy, the amount of money they will spend, that employees will show up for work, that credit will be available. Many of those assumptions are most likely wrong now. Create a new set of assumptions that you’re going to use going forward.

Embrace Ambiguity – Change is the new constant. The world is not picking on you personally nor on your business. Take in new information, test it (to see if it’s true) and then add it to your knowledge base. The best NFL running backs read and react. They see the holes opened by their offensive line (planned) and they see holes opened by defensive missteps (part of the changing environment) and run through them. In times of rapid change in the business environment, chart your course similarly.

Innovate Effectively – Use changing circumstances to supercharge innovation. We mistakenly think that the best innovation comes from freewheeling, wide-open, unlimited-budget brainstorming. Nothing could be further from the truth. The best innovation comes from very narrow constraints – How can we solve this problem with $1000? What changes to the customer onboarding process can we decide on before we leave this room and implement before the end of the week?

Leverage Existing Resources – What products or services could we deconstruct and sell separately? What products or services could we deconstruct and recombine to make new products more suited to the current environment? Who has existing expertise that we are not utilizing now? What underutilized inventory could we liquidate to invest in operations or in new inventory that we could turn easily in our new environment? If we are fiscally solid right now – what loans could we buy out and save money in the long run? what agreements for needed products or services could we strike with vendors now when they desperately need cash flow?

Think Broadly and Deeply – Agility requires the most effective cross-discipline work your organization has ever done. To paraphrase David Epstein in Range, “mental meandering is a competitive advantage.” If you and your team were afloat in a sinking ship, everyone would be encouraged to bail water, not just those with a job description that included “water bailing”. So it should be in an agile organization. Team members should be encouraged to contribute across departmental boundaries. Good solutions are the goal and egoless team collaboration is the methodology.

Make Small Targeted Investments – As new ideas surface, test them as cheaply as possible. Do things by hand at first until you know they merit having a process built around them. Go to market with a “minimum viable product”. Fail fast, iterate and try again. When you’ve finally, by iteration, hammered out a workable new product, service or process, begin to economically build systems around it. As Jim Collins reminded us, “shoot bullets, then cannonballs.”

Remove Cumbersome Bureaucracy – Organizations that are agile embrace entrepreneurial-style decision making – pushing down decision-making to the lowest level possible. When speed is a competitive advantage (and most of the time it is), layers of red tape hinder progress. Leaders should quickly “clear the path” for those creating or recreating a new product, service or process.

This week, deliberately introduce one or more of these agility-enabling tools into interactions with your team and encourage adoption. It can be one-on-one or in a group setting. Over the course of the next few weeks, keep introducing more of these tools.