When the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near. ~Jack Welch
The Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus) is a very remarkable creature. Not only does it thrive and survive in the Arctic, where no other rabbit species can, but it is supremely adapted to radically different environments. In the summer it looks like a normal, gregarious rabbit, with mottled brown fur that blends in with the rocks and grasses.
However, during the arctic winters its fur turns completely white, allowing it to blend in with the surrounding snow. A perfect camouflage.
To me what is even more remarkable is that the fur begins to turn white before the first snows. Somehow it seems to anticipate the coming change in the environment and gets ready early!
I use the example of the Arctic Hare to illustrate an important concept of corporate culture, and that is agility, the ability to adapt easily, quickly and in response to external requirements.
Much has been written about the concept of Agility in business. There are a multitude of articles on learning agility, leadership agility, personal agility, professional agility, organisational agility and cultural agility. Basically the concept is that personal agility is a mindset that causes the individual to be curious and adaptive along several dimensions:
- Mental Agility: Thinking critically to penetrate complex problems and expanding possibilities by making fresh connections.
- People Agility: Understanding and relating to other people, as well as tough situations to harness and multiply collective performance.
- Change Agility: Enjoying experimentation, being curious and effectively dealing with the discomfort of change.
- Results Agility: Delivering results in first-time situations by inspiring teams, and exhibiting a presence that builds confidence in themselves and others.
- Self-Awareness: Being reflective and knowing themselves well; understanding their capabilities and their impact on others.
Korn-Ferry has conducted research showing that those executives with higher scores in the five agility dimensions are promoted faster and deliver better performance results than those with lower agility scores. And there are even a few studies correlating high agility scores among the senior team with better business performance.
And now a few of the culture consulting firms are beginning to talk about “Cultural Agility”: developing a corporate culture that can shift its ways of working to adapt to changes in the marketplace. And they use training workshops to help people become more agile in the way they approach business.
I have a problem with this simplistic approach to reshaping culture! Not with the concept that agility is a good characteristic to have in a company in order to survive in a changing business landscape. That I can agree with.
But there are more determinants and drivers of corporate culture than just how people behave, and training courses have proven to be poor vehicles for culture change. In order for a culture to be called agile, not only must people possess the agility mindset, but the internal business processes and procedures must adapt to new conditions as well.
Few people understand the significant impact that internal work policies (HR policies, promotion processes, hiring practices, compensation policies, expense reimbursement policies, customer service policies, etc.) have on shaping the corporate culture by fostering certain types of behaviour in order to comply with these policies and practices. A classic example is how the bonus and compensation policies, along with the hiring practices in large investment banks has fostered risk taking behaviours and a culture of profit-making above client service. Another example is the customer service policies of Ryan Air that created a culture of indifference to customer requirements.
However, if senior management is willing to shift the internal policies and work practices to drive new behaviours, then culture can more rapidly shift to better match the changing business marketplace. Cultural agility is more than just a few training workshops!
The other ingredient for a truly agile culture is the ability to sense upcoming business changes well before they arrive. Like the Arctic Hare is able to sense the coming of winter and change the colour of its fur before the snow arrives.
However, most traditional approaches to culture change are “after-the-fact” responses. Suddenly management realises that there are new competitors or new technologies that are disrupting their traditional markets, then they launch on a culture change project. But by then the new marketplace changes have taken hold and the culture change project is more an act of desperation than an effective response.
What is required to have a truly agile culture is a robust process for strategic foresight and a constant attention to the subtle shifts occurring in customer preferences, technology, and the global economy.
A culture of agility is not easy to develop or sustain, but can be worth the effort, especially in our rapidly changing business world. It’s better than constantly playing catch-up!
John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
PS: John also writes thriller novels