With fine views outside of the river Thames at its most placid, we enjoyed the exchange of fascinating views inside on how best to respond to a volatile future.
Our Digital Leaders Salon event at 58VE on 15 March brought together senior leaders from across the private, public and not-for-profit sectors to discuss how best to organise enterprises to deliver in the face of volatility.
The discussion was led by senior consultant and expert coach at IndigoBlue, Mike Robinson, and independent consultant with clients ranging from multinationals to government departments, Greg Mitchell. IndigoBlue’s Kate Mayfield facilitated the discussion as Chair.
Mike began by proposing that in the face of volatility, it is agility that gives organisations the ability to respond to the future at the rate it arrives. To do this, Agile organisations deliberately shape their work, their structure and the future itself.
He explained that change is nothing new. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “No man steps in the same river twice” – the river has flowed on and the man himself has changed. Change is a constant as much as it ever was, but we can respond to it in new ways. In the face of volatility, we need to create a strong position and generate options. To gather the intelligence that supports this, we need our delivery teams to act as ‘sensors at the edge’, passing feedback to the core.
Greg added that the context in which organisations work is continually changing, some obvious examples being the need to respond to new regulations and legislation. An Agile approach enables you to respond effectively to change, but too often it exists in islands – what’s happening at the ground level does not extend to the strategic level. To respond effectively to change, the Agile approach should extend to the whole organisation.
The wide-ranging group discussion that followed coalesced around some core themes.
Are things really becoming more volatile?
While the advent of digital gave people the impression that the rate of change had accelerated, there was some scepticism in the room that this was the case. While some felt that the apparent volatility represented a new tempo, a new normal, others felt that there had been an accelerated rate of change since the middle of the last century.
The view was expressed that the internet may even have had a stabilising influence, rather than increasing volatility – helping to increase communication between people, disrupting old structures and informing new ones.
There was agreement that there is now an opportunity to work differently – to gather intelligence in new ways and respond quickly to opportunities to improve products and services for customers, continually learning from their feedback.
Greg recommended an experimental approach – testing hypotheses, validating or invalidating them in a quick turnaround, feeding the learning into the next hypothesis. While there was some concern that there would be resistance to an experimental approach in the public sector where taxpayers’ money is utilised, the view was shared that experiments needn’t be costly – a lot could be learnt from tools like paper prototypes.
Mike added that such resistance can be overcome if you can demonstrate that the experimentation is occurring within an overarching plan for the service – a roadmap – and not in isolation; and, importantly, that there is the explicit opportunity to stop if the results of experimentation reveal that to be the best option.
Technology as an enabler of positive change
The discussion was framed around volatility but returned again and again to people. Finding the right response to the volatility generated by technological change should not be focused solely on strengthening an organisation’s position, commercial or otherwise. Organisations need to be open to engaging more, to listen more deeply and to think more deeply, at a human level.
The use of AI in customer services is increasing to the extent that speaking to a human may soon come at a premium – or indeed become a competitive differentiator. In the government sector, experiments are being undertaken to use AI not to replace human knowledge but to enhance the decision-making of civil servants with a wealth of knowledge and experience.
“We may be watching Tubeway Army at the moment,” said one delegate. Back in the 1970s, the synthesiser seemed to be the future of music, but it wasn’t long before people returned from the imitation of traditional musical instruments and human voices to the real thing.
The experience of volatility is not uniform
The pace of change was experienced differently by different people. Some people may not be keeping pace with the rate of change and some choose to reject the change, but still have needs to be met and it was incumbent on government to use digital technologies more creatively to this end.
The group discussed whether the received wisdom that age was a core driver of digital engagement was true, and views were mixed. Some interesting points were made that young ‘digital natives’ may have been trained to have commercial awareness and to keep pace with change, but at the expense of mental wellbeing and self-knowledge. And it was important not to forget the role of different backgrounds – young people from different backgrounds have very different experiences of today’s rapidly changing world.
There was a strong, shared view around the table that those making strategic decisions about how best to shape their organisations for a volatile future were doing so in a bubble of corporate life – and from a perspective that fast-moving, digital transformation was shaping everyone’s world to the same considerable degree – at a major remove from the reality for many people of different ages and different backgrounds whose experience can be very different.
How to shape the organisation
Many around the table had experienced volatility first hand, having worked for organisations which had experienced a fatal disruption to their business model. One who was experiencing such disruption now said that, in hindsight, he would have moved more quickly to adapt in the face of the coming change. Organisations need two-year plans, not five-year plans. It stands to reason that the further away your planning horizon, the less likely it is your forecasts will prove to be accurate.
Organisational cultures needed to change. Mike shared a definition of organisational culture as “the way we make decisions here”. Too often, organisations still make decisions in a ‘command and control’ way, without transparency, cascading those decisions down pyramidal hierarchies. Greg explained that in his consultancy work, he tries to get leaders to experience services first hand so that they engage emotionally and gain a better understanding of the experience of their customers and their delivery teams.
Having one point of command is not only inefficient, but can be dangerous – Mike cited the work of David Marquet who makes this point brilliantly. Organisational leadership needs to provision, not give permission. Delivery teams need to be given the space to operate more autonomously, but also be equipped to do so with the right skills, knowledge and business intelligence – otherwise, they will be set up to fail and organisations will revert to command and control.
There is clearly a huge challenge ahead for organisational leaders, but those who do it well will succeed. In summing up, Mike returned to his starting point while drawing on the insights gained in the Salon discussion. To respond to a volatile future, organisations need to take a strong position and generate options – and that strong position should be a shared platform with people sharing the same values.
We'll be sharing more of our views here soon on how to organise for a digital future, in a new white paper.
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