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How to Build and Sustain Organizational Resilience

By Andy Cleff | Oct 01, 2020 |  Leadership,  Team

This image is of a pine tree growing off the side of a cliff. It symbolizes organizational resilience.

After reading the Gallup Group’s article “Remote Agile: Sustain Performance While Working Remotely” a few things floated up in my mind. To keep those things from bouncing around too much, I thought I’d write them down and share them out.

In case you haven’t read the article, here are Gallup’s key points and recommendations for sustaining performance for remote and distributed teams at a glance:

  1. The need for remote Agile happened overnight amid the pandemic
  2. Build trust through relationships to combat anxiety in agile remote teams
  3. Focus on four key actions to bolster a successful new way of working:
    • Maximize the use of virtual collaboration tools for remote teams
    • Replicate agile rituals while working remotely
    • Build trust in a remote work environment
    • Get closer to your customers

The Elephant in the Room

While there are some interesting (and debatable) points in the article, I think Gallup has missed a larger and more significant issue.

The issue is not about performance through tools and rituals. It is about building and sustaining organizational resilience–at individual, team, system and organizational layers–in the face of a VUCA* world, cranked up to eleven.

What is Organizational Resilience?

The dictionary definition–the capacity to adapt to stress or loss healthfully–provides a starting point. Daryl Conner, in a blog post expands things by providing a set of five “change muscles” that are needed to realize a capacity of organizational resilience:

  • Positivity: seeing possibilities in even the most discouraging of situations
  • Focus: knowing what’s important, and having a clear sense of priorities
  • Flexibility: in the midst of ambiguity, complexity, and chaos, the ability to generate a wide range of options and ideas
  • Organization: building plans, creating systems and structures to work effectively, and use their energy efficiently
  • Proactivity: ability to carry out experiments with less than complete information

Mind the Wall

Based on what I’m sensing, hearing, and experiencing, many of us are at the equivalent of mile 18 or 20 of a marathon. Our surge capacity has been depleted. After running this far, we still have another 6 to go! To make things worse, there are no cowbells from the crowd to cheer us on and the finish line doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. In fact, I’d swear someone keeps moving it out.

In these times, we are dealing constantly with the opposite of Conner’s capacities: negativity, lack of focus, rigidity, disorganization, reactivity. We are facing “the wall” with prospects of burnout, as individuals, cascading to teams, and eventually hitting the entire organization. 

Luckily, there are several approaches to addressing burnout in our topsy-turvy world:

  • Individual plans (decentralized)
  • Team and Cross-Team agreements (decentralized)
  • Organizational policies and practices (centralized)

Levels of the organization with the Path to Agility framework

Start with Simple: Self Care

Individual plans are perhaps the simplest to get going. I’m experimenting with the following elements, both for my own resilience training plan as well during 1:1 coaching that I do:

 

  • Routines: establishing a base of predictability in each day
  • Grace: operating under the assumption that everyone, myself included, is doing the best they can given current circumstances
  • Hobbies: Now that we “live at work” we need to make sure we’re not all work and no play
  • Connections: Planned serendipity with friends, family, colleagues, walks outside without screens/earbuds
  • Boundaries/Constraints: Pomodori, WIP limits, one quarantini, not two or three, the ability to say “No.”

A few nice things about the above “me, myself and I” components: they don’t care about which branch of the org tree an individual sits on, and they can scale to team and system levels.

Team Working Agreements: We Care 

When’s the last time teams reviewed their working agreements to align with the new normal… especially taking into account the human elements? 

One very powerful practice at a team level is to have check-ins.  At the start of every interaction ask, “How are you doing?”–and when asked, provide an honest response.

Another: Express appreciation. What the person has done doesn’t have to be a huge thing. In fact, it could be one of those tiny, everyday occurrences that may seem relatively insignificant yet made a difference to how the day, or even the past hour, went. For you, for the team, for your customers. Read more about recognition, see: “Take 5”

And a third (the power of three): Collective identification and mitigation of the thieves of time— becoming aware of and addressing the drag in the system.

Leadership Agility: Shaping the System

More than ever, leaders at every level need to remember that embracing Agile is not going to make all the problems go away; instead, it will shine a light on them. Those problems will still need to be dealt with.

Team Empowerment

Leadership agility unlocks the capability for many of those issues to be solved at the team level by ensuring teams have control, competence, and clarity. (For more on the topic of team empowerment, listen to our conversation with David Marquet about Intent Based Leadership)

Policies and Practices

Leaders also need to examine and re-shape organizational policies and practices to enable teams to better handle adversity with resilience and grit. These include HR policies around benefits, time off, flexible working hours, and more. For example, at Agile Velocity, we have expanded our vacation policy from one month to unlimited time off.

Developers of People

Agile leaders also need to shift in how they work with people, especially those who report to them. A key aspect is to create the conditions for success and guiding the development and growth of their staff. 

Now more than ever effective 1-on-1’s are needed. Leaders and their staff need to pause and think about what they’ve accomplished, to share how they perceive the world around themselves, and discuss what they have the potential to achieve. For more info, see Ponderfy – “Mindfulness Hacks for Busy People”

The Right Focus

Instead of a focus on sustaining performance, think about nurturing healthy environments that enable people to work through the tough problems that come with the complex (and chaotic) domains they travel daily. 

If you focus on creating the conditions for a culture rich with organizational resilience, then higher levels of performance – (any way you define it: Employee Engagement, Customer Satisfaction, Quality, Speed, Predictability, Innovation, Market Responsiveness, Productivity, Continuous Improvement) will follow along for the ride.

 

*VUCA (volatile, unpredictable, complex, ambiguous) 

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