The Agility Challenge

Many organizations talk about the need for agility, and it’s not really a new concept. People have been talking about this for a few years, increasingly recognizing that the rapid pace of change is the new normal and companies that cannot operate in that kind of environment may not last very long. The difference between a “market leader” and “market wannabe” may be only a few percentage points of profit, so every advantage that can gain you those points is an advantage you need to consider.

Different people will discuss agility in different ways, but at its heart it comes down to a workplace culture that embraces innovation and collaboration. Both in the structures you have in place, and in the mindset of your employees, you need the ability to have people work together to quickly develop new approaches to challenges and opportunities. Given that there is great business value to be gained from this, why doesn’t every company develop an agile workforce, especially here in Asia where there is so much potential for growth?

Every workplace culture is going to be shaped by the people in it, and their past experiences will affect their approach to work. The policies you employ, both formal and informal, also affect people’s perceptions about how they should be working. While every country in Asia is unique, there are some cultural elements that seem to be pretty common, and that can affect employees’ ability to be innovative and collaborative. You need to understand the how those elements have shaped perceptions in order to understand how to overcome them; in other words, you need to diagnose the root of the problem before you can fix the problem. Some of these include:

Educational Background Many students in Asian countries come up through an educational system that values memorization over analysis, and accepting what the teacher says rather than challenging or questioning ideas. There is the correct answer, and then there is every other answer that is wrong, which stifles innovation. Students are typically graded on individual work rather than on their ability to work together, so collaboration is discouraged. Spending 12-16 years in this environment teaches people to be individualistic and stick with the proven answer, and giving them a coffee mug that says “INNOVATE!” is not going to change that.

Traditional Workplace It’s not just recent grads who are shaped by their past environment. There is a traditional style of working that is common in many parts of Asia that also limits agility by reducing the ability and the incentive to be innovative and collaborative. Any workplace where the senior person talks and everyone else listens without questioning; where performance reviews have quotas for each rating; where employees are punished when something they try does not work; and where promotions are based on seniority rather than results…these workplaces actively discourage innovation and collaboration, and sharply limit the company’s ability to even see changes that are coming, much less address them.

Functional Barriers Whether through informal agreement or actual policies, many organizations put up walls between the different functions and business units throughout the enterprise. Not physical walls, of course, but limits on communication. If the only people who talk between departments are the department heads, then the front-line employees never share ideas, never know what other departments need or can provide, never get to bounce new ideas off of each other, and they will likely miss the kinds of major changes that only an enterprise-view gives you. very rarely is there a real business need for preventing different functions form cooperating, but we seem to do it anyway.

These are general concepts; you should look at your own organization and see how they manifest themselves in your situation. Smaller organizations will usually have fewer problems, but as companies get bigger, they generally get less agile, so try to figure out how bad the challenges are for you. Addressing these obstacles will take come work on your part, and considering how deep-seated the non-agile attitudes can be, you’re going to need to create an environment that counters them strongly. You cannot go back in time and change your employees’ educational and work experiences, so you will need to create an environment that sets new expectations and new requirements for them, then give them some time to adjust. The only way to fix the problems is to first understand where they come from, then set up a system that pushes people in a better, more profitable, direction.

(Designing Leaders offers seminars on creating an innovative environment and building a collaborative workforce)

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