Developing Organizational Agility | Valley Cares
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July 29, 2016 By Gary Larcenaire, CEO Valley Behavioral Health

My wife and I have been married 23 years this month, and as our careers progressed, we moved about 8 times. I always dreaded selecting a new home. I have always appreciated the ability of someone to see a living environment for what it CAN be. To see the potential, and then with some colors and fabrics, transform something ugly into something beautiful. When it comes to aesthetics, I simply lack any gift in this area.

“I know ugly when I see it, I just can’t seem to do anything to make it better.”

My Google search of the term: “organizational agility” resulted in almost 170,000 “hits”. The WebFinance, Inc-owned businessdictionary.com provides as good a definition as I have found anywhere: “The capability of a company to rapidly change or adapt in response to changes in the market.”

In my experience, many leaders understand this concept instinctively. My colleagues and teammates seem to understand that their systems MUST have this quality, can generally recognize when it is lacking, but like me and home decorating, simply can’t seem to do anything to make it much better. I have been fascinated with the concepts of organizational agility and organizational learning since 1997 when I came across Peter Senge and began my study of his book “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization”.

In 1997 I was working for a medium-sized, behavioral health system of care with a newly appointed Executive Director, who was struggling to improve the performance of his inherited organization. Expectations were changing, and we needed to change with them. We struggled and made mistakes while applying the concepts of Mr. Senge, but we ultimately left the company far better than either of us found it.

Since 1997, I have led a few successful system transformations, but have always struggled to provide leadership with a simple, easy to remember summary of what organizational agility looks like, how to recognize it, AND how to make it better. The gift to recognize ugly, AND do something about it! I hope to do that here and to distill my learning into a very brief, easy to remember format: Babies, Baseball Players, and Bikers.

Babies

If you have ever been fortunate enough to watch a baby earn their first steps, you witnessed the most uncomfortable aspects of organizational agility. Let me try to break down the parallel: a typical baby begins the process of learning to walk at 4 months and is walking independently around month 16. That is a LONG time relative to a baby life span to develop a skill!

Page two of “The Road to Walking” by Adolph and Robinson contains an excellent illustration of the various skills which must be mastered for a child to transform into a toddler.

But any observant parent or seasoned caregiver can attest to the following: babies have a clear goal in mind, it doesn’t happen overnight, there are more failure and frustration than success at the beginning, they frequently wear themselves out trying (are found asleep at their “place of business”), and they wildly celebrate incremental success.

Make an honest assessment, watch for evidence of your team learning to walk. Does each team member know the goal? Are they ok with frustration and failure? Do they learn from each mistake and wildly celebrate incremental successes?

“it doesn’t happen overnight, there are more failure and frustration than success at the beginning, they frequently wore themselves out trying, were found asleep at their “place of business”, and they wildly celebrated incremental success.”

Baseball Players

If you have ever played baseball or watched it, you understand a “stance of readiness”. If not, study the picture above. The player pictured is David Wright. David Allen Wright is an American professional baseball third baseman who serves as captain for the New York Mets of Major League Baseball (Wiki 2016).

As you can see, Mr. Wright is hyper-focused, and his body is positioned to be able to react to the uncertainty of the play. This is the mental stance your team needs to have at all times.

Like Mr. Wright, the players who guard the infield are the physical manifestation of organization agility. No one knows where or when the batter will connect with the ball. No one knows where the ball will be hit. The possibilities are infinite.

But each player knows what to do “if…”. There is always a plan. “If this, then that.” If the ball goes between someone’s legs, there is a backup plan. The goal never changes. But the tactics must adjust immediately when new information is observed.

Every defensive player knows the ultimate goal is an “out” and every defensive player knows how they fit into that larger goal. Each player’s contribution to success or failure is carefully documented and is fed into the post-game coaching curriculum for prompt follow-up and skill development.

Team members have measurable goals, clear roles, and are empowered to make the play. Coaches provide meticulous measurement and follow-up coaching based on real-time player performance.

“Team members have measurable goals, clear roles, and are empowered to make the play.”

Be honest now: Do your players know their jobs? How they fit into the larger picture of success? Do they know what “plan b” is for any given play? Do they receive prompt feedback when they do well, or fall short? Do you measure and use what you track to reward or coach the performance of each player?

Bikers

Anyone who has led, or ridden a motorcycle, understand three things acutely: joy, fear, and paranoia. Riding my cruiser in the country was always one of my most relaxing pastimes. Truly joyful. But, I never approached a corner without looking for sand or gravel.

I never came across a deer or animal in the road without assuming it would dart in front of me. I never lost that burst of adrenaline when something unexpected happened and I needed to take quick action. I found an ability to enjoy the ride while always expecting the worst to happen. And so it should be with leading.

Again, be honest, are you sufficiently paranoid that things are not as clear to your teams as you might believe? Are you positive that your teams are using the data you are tracking in a positive way to promote learning? Do you prepare for the unexpected without paralysis? Can you still enjoy the ride? Can you embrace the joy of the experience and project that joy outwardly while still on alert for a potential catastrophe?

If you read this blog and scoffed, shaking your head with dismissive certainty that your environment embraces everything I’ve outlined, you may not be sufficiently paranoid. Something to keep in mind.

“Anyone who has led or ridden a motorcycle understands three things acutely: joy, fear, and paranoia.”

Once you have built a company inspired by babies and baseball players, try to enjoy the ride. It can be a joyful and rewarding experience. But do not get complacent! Stay alert, and maintain a healthy level of paranoia.

Humble offerings from my desk to yours.

Best,

Gary Larcenaire,
CEO Valley Behavioral Health

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