We are Greater than Me: Building an Agile Organization

Late last year I attended two major talent and leadership conferences in Stockholm. At these events I had the opportunity to meet with various HR leaders at Electrolux, Ericsson, Logica, BT, Maersk, Grundfos, Unicredit, Bertelsman, and others. What I learned is something important that we are building into a broad research framework I plan to launch at our IMPACT 2012 research conference this year.  Let me present a preview here.

Building an Agile Organization

Over time, if you look at all the businesses that thrive and compare them against those that fail, you find one thing in common:  it is the “agile” companies that succeed. Why did Kodak declare bankruptcy? Why did Nokia lose so much of its market share in mobile devices? What happened to Digital Equipment Corporation and Compaq? And how is it that Microsoft, a company that many think has passed it’s prime (I disagree), continues to reinvent itself in the face of amazing competitors like Apple and Google?

It all comes down to one thing:  agility.  The word “agility” is complex:  it refers to strategy, leadership, management, and learning.  Agile organizations evolve their strategy but deepen it where they have strength. Their leaders drive execution but they also empower people. Management is thin, hands-on, and highly engaged. And people and teams are constantly learning.

All these things are easy to do in a small company, but they get harder and harder as the company grows. This is why “elephants rarely dance” and new, smaller organizations frequently disrupt major players.

What I learned in Sweden (and I will be sharing much more on this topic at IMPACT) is that these “agile” organizations have many things in common.

1. They deliberately and forcefully empower first line people. At Grundfos, for example (one of the world’s most profitable, growing pump companies), the entire leadership model is based on the role of individual contributors. “Leaders” fall into three categories:  innovators, specialists, and leaders. There is no “ladder” upward – people work in teams and the HR organization focused on the competencies of all three groups with equal levels of vigor and investment. If you want to be a leader, that is your choice – but certainly not the only way to get ahead.

2. They operate as a unit. They understand that “we are greater than me.” At AP Moeller Maersk, for example (one of the world’s most global and successful diversified enterprises), there is a philosophy and deliberate attempt NOT to highlight the role of the CEO in the company. They consider their CEO “one of the team” – and he is not widely celebrated as a hero. He is just part of the team. (This is a very different culture than in US companies.)

This intense teamwork focus is far more profound than we in the United States totally understand. There is a Nordic philosophy (and I talked with Electrolux about this as well) that it is actually distasteful for you, as an individual, to think of your goals and needs above those of the organization. So unlike the “rugged individualism” promoted in our western culture, these companies expect and coach people to think about the organization above themselves. In other words, “it’s not about you, buddy.”

At Accenture they call this “stewardship.” The L&D executive there once told me “my goal is to teach every Accenture employee to walk out the door at the end of the day leaving Accenture just a little better than it was when they came into work that morning.” This is far different from the strategy that individuals drive performance and that your goals, your achievements, and your deliverables matter above all else.

These organizations are also very “non-hierarchical.”  As I will present at IMPACT, they may have top-down organization charts, but in reality these charts are not very useful representations of how the company works. People work with their teams regardless of level, and every person is a hands-on worker. There are no managers who “sit behind desks.”

3. They greatly value and measure execution. Finally, these companies have very clear goals and objectives – but they are not “top down” rigid goal alignment organizations. While all these companies have clearly articulated financial and operational targets, they create goals and objectives at a team level – and they vigorously and aggressively track and manage them. At Microsoft and GE they create this environment by creating very independent, highly aggressive, business units – each of which creates its own aggressive path into the market.

Combined together, these three attributes are coupled with a culture of learning to create agility. And we have “written the book” on learning culture.

It turns out, as we continue this thread of research, that HR in Agile organizations plays quite a different role than it does in more traditional hierarchical organizations. And what we are going to do at IMPACT 2012 is help you understand this important role. Stay tuned for much more, and sign up now to join us. Bring your entire team: our agenda this year is the best-ever, and the conference will sell out.