Vacillation or Agility
Changing organizational-direction may feel like instability. Worse yet, some may think that leaders that adapt are weak. The end result is uncertainty among the troops.
Uncertainty drains vitality which leads to disloyalty and ends with poor performance.
“… Agility is less a matter of adapting one’s direction continuously and more a matter of being open to different ways to achieve the directions you have set for yourself. In other words, real agility isn’t about heading north one day and south the next; that’s vacillation.” (From, “Strategic Speed – Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution.”)
Frequently, what is perceived by others as changing direction is actually adapting methods, strategies, or tactics.
Organizations seldom change their True North. However, successful organization frequently adapt to changing circumstances in order to stay on course. When the wind blows against them, they reset the sails and begin tacking.
Course adjustments may destabilize organizations because it feels like they’re heading in the wrong direction.
Bringing stability into agility
Successful leaders always keep True North uppermost in everyone’s mind. Adapting methods can be a point of leadership-strength as long as organizational mission remains in the forefront and new methods connect with changing circumstances.
Don’t say, “We’re trying this new … ” Do say, “We’ll better fulfill our mission if we … “
Organizations that believe changing their methods is changing their mission (True North) die. They cling to antiquated, ineffective programs, strategies, and techniques.
However, organizations grounded in mission and committed to agility are more likely to thrive. An added benefit, adapting methods is perceived not as weakness but strength.
Have you seen others perceive changing methods as changing True North? What happened?
How can organizations learn the difference between agility (changing methods) and vacillation (changing True North)?
This post is inspired by Davis, Frechette, Jr., and Boswell’s book, Strategic Speed. I’m reviewing it soon.
This is another great question and in my experience, lack of certainty is one of the main reasons for interpersonal and organizational workplace conflict. I have seen staff react to change with great alarm regardless if the intention is to change True North or not.
Transparency- and well in advance of the actual change- about what, when, where, why and how is one of the key messages that I have learned about how to convey change and alleviate some vagaries of uncertainty that accompany it. Conducting a collaborative dialogue and gaining input from staff as much as feasible before contemplating strategies for change etc. is pivotal in my humble opinion.
Thanks for bringing up the idea that lack of certainty causes conflict. The opposite is also true. Certainty, strong proactive leadership, creates a safe environment where people can focus on the mission and not each other.
Great post and very, very thought provoking questions! I think that the only way an organization can learn agility vs. vacillation is by doing what might seem counterintuitive–having disciplined processes.One caveat–those processes have to have room for honest assessment and course correction.
The best way that it was explained to me was as follows:
Your goals and objectives are like hanging a target on the wall to shoot for. After you start shooting arrows at that target (assuming that you are missing) you have to honestly assess: 1) Is the target in the right place? If yes, then I have to shift my aim. If no, then I have to move my target.
If you don’t follow this process, the majority of organizations who struggle don’t, it looks like the following:
Shoot arrow at blank wall, draw a bull’s-eye around the arrow, and then defend like hell why you shouldn’t change.
Thanks for dropping in Michael. Love you comment. I agree that processes help organizations develop speed. They help people move forward with predictability.
Thanks for, “draw a bull’s-eye around the arrow.” Ka Ching!
Best to you,
Great analogy Michael…and if we don’t factor in the constantly vacillating winds of change, we will need quite a few sharpies to draw circles round the multiple arrows.
Fun topic, Dan.
True leaders don’t vacillate, and, they resiliently adapt. The two don’t even appear similar.
If “it feels like (they’re) heading in the wrong direction” – either they’re deaf from fear (fear has no ears), or no effective leadership is actually happening.
So glad you dropped in to share your perspective.
Fear has no ears… nicely said. Which suggests that leaders must create safe environments before communicating their message.
Best to you,
I love the tacking reference as it gives a great visual representation of what I consider to be good management tactics. I used this in a similar post on how I approach project management back in June: http://right-brainedpm.com/2010/06/30/tacking/ I like to look at the Kennedy moonshot as a great example of having a direction that everyone rallied around, but there was no change in direction as this vision was nearly fulfilled, so all that momentum was lost. Had a next great task been announced as that one was winding down, what else might have been accomplished.
Also, your comment about true north and changing circumstances is spot on. Firms that stick with tried and true tactics, when the weather has clearly changed, are sure to end up lost at sea.
Thanks for the thought provoking post!
I’m thankful you dropped in to share your insights.
Love the “lost at sea” reference.
Your affirmation is appreciated. 🙂
Adjusting the sails of life to the prevailing winds and still stay true to your core mission is to simply breathe consciously.
Thanks for joining in Dolly… cheers, Dan
Great Post Dan,
Vacillation in the face of uncertainty is a big challenge. One has to take calculated risks to move forward. Swinging from side to side does not move you. Talk about vacillation and uncertainty we in health care are in the midst of it. What will happen after Reform? Do we wait or do we run and be the early adopters? To me and I told my Board this, being from the Carribean, always like to have stored my hurricane shutters and not wait until the last minute to run to Home Depot and buy some wood. It is too late. Provided we stay on track with our vision, and don’t change our values, sometimes our mission is the one we struggle the most with as we navigate new seas. Detours need to be taken when roads are bad and all it means is that it will take us a little longer to get to our destination. Adaptability to a changing environment is a must and when to pull the trigger will always carry with it some fear. There is a Chinese proverb that says “Do not fear going forward slowly; fear only to stand still.” Have a great day Dan
Thanks for you kind encouragement.
Reading your comment gives me knot in my stomach. If there is an area more turmoil than medical care, I couldn’t name it.
On a positive note, turmoil may be opportunity. Easy for me to say isn’t it?
Thanks for the fear quote…”fear standing still.”
You can read Dr. Diaz’s bio at http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/al-diaz
Thanks for the fear standing still quote Al, am updating the signature page on emails, think I will ‘adopt’ it for our changing environment.
I think you are right on Doc. I will probably do the same. Regards, Al
A very interesting thing to learn on the basic difference between ‘agility’ and ‘vacillation’. Both are essential and would help to attain the desired success. However, successful leaders always keep their Vision intact and share it with all stakeholders to get their conviction and support. They simultaneously design and modify their Mission Statements to adapt to the changing business needs from time to time.
The execution strategies are part of tactics used to attain success by following the organization philosophy and values. The leaders play again a good role to direct the team, register a steady progress and strengthen the company’s overall image to benefit.
Dear Dr. Asher,
It’s always a pleasure seeing that you’ve dropped in to share your insights.
As I read your comment I thought about how advances in technology might cause one to modify their mission statement. If your mission is putting a manual typewriter on every desk, you might need to modify the mission.
You can read Dr. Asher’s bio at http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/dr-asher
This is a challenge, for sure, and it takes a competent leader to help those (s)he leads navigate changes and keep them in context. Here in Tallahassee, since we are the capital, most of the “state” agencies are headquartered here so being a “state employee” is common. Working for the state government presents even more obstacles to keeping “true north” in mind – the agencies must fight every year for funding for their agency, meaning sometimes agencies feel pressure to demonstrate “accomplishments” that preserve their existence but don’t necessarily keep them closer to “true north.” When I worked for one of of these agencies in the early 90’s, there seemed to be a clear distinction between people who had been there long enough to hear several different campaigns about what the agency (education) would be
and those of us who were new enough to think we would always be [blank] (whatever the latest catch phrase/leadership plan/mission was).
In the state government example, I honestly think the issue may have been not knowing what true north was to begin with. Each and every day, though, I am sure that someone was tinkering with the methods in an attempt to keep the agency “on course”!
I’m a bit of a skeptic so when I read your comment I skeptically thought that True NOrth for many government agencies isn’t that noble. True North might be simply to get funding and keep the job. Sorry I’m so negative on this one.
Thanks for joining the conversation.
Best to you,
You can read Paula’s bio at http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/paula-kiger
I think you are both right Dan and Paula. Not to be wishy-washy and to not ‘lock on’ to state government, any large organization that has been established for a while experiences these pocket cultures…just may be a bit more overt with state government as that is ‘my’ money they are spending. Certainly could apply the federal government too. It is funding, it is who is at the top, were they appointed or did they go through a real hiring process and really, what are their intentions…VMV.
The translation of intent faces entrenchment with any established organization, how leaders work with that issue does require agility and ‘trench-level’ acceptance, knowledge, and confidence, otherwise it does appear to be yet another leadership flavor of the month and if we wait it out, there’s a new boss same as the old boss coming along sooner or later.
Shaking negative entrenchment has to start with VMV and focus on the true customer, positive entrenchment probably is another post!
Dan, I don’t think your comment requires an apology. If a state government agency has, as many do, adopted as their “true north” “getting the funding and keeping the job,” then I really don’t think that’s much of a true north. I would be sad to work for an entity like that.
Effective leaders create how out of almost nothing. Out of what they have available, often out of other ‘leaders’ castoffs.
I believe effective leaders give up on ‘how’ something gets done for the sake of ‘what’ needs to be achieved.
What I’ve learned – this allows space for others to volunteer to help with what they can contribute.
Conversely, leaders who insist on ‘how’ something will be done too frequently alienate and de-friend others, including those who can effortlessly help in their own ways, even if that way can’t be envisioned by the leader.
I see too many tacticians in the role of leadership and create nothing but failure.
I just blogged about this lesson at http://bit.ly/9Cc3MT
Great topic –
in our organization, we essentially equate ‘agility’ with ‘versatility’ – but striking the proper balance of action & understanding for those teammates at various stages of their own personal development is the challenge for leaders in order to avoid the perceived uncertainty and instability. Anticipating and adapting are keys for success – personally and professionally.
Don’t say, “We’re trying this new … ”
Do say, “We’ll better fulfill our mission if we … “
The first says, “I don’t know, let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes.” (not the best leadership in most situations).
The second says, “We know WHOSE we are, and what we must ACCOMPLISH and what we must AVOID.”
Great post and thanks for quoting from Strategic Speed.
In the book, we talk about three people factors necessary to speed — clarity, unity, and agility. The interesting thing is that we found there’s a “correct order” to those three: clarity has to come first. I like your metaphor of True North … an organization first needs to be clear on where True North is, and then they can (and probably should) try many different methods and paths to get there, as circumstances demand (agility). But *without* that clear, shared sense of direction, unity is often nothing more than group hugs and rah-rahs, and agility turns into wandering here, there, and everywhere.
“The day is committed to error and floundering; success and achievement are matters of long range” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe