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To build agility, engage your organization one team at a time

Help your employees respond to COVID-19 and future crises by focusing on the established groups at the core of your business.

For some time, the leaders I work with have known conceptually that they need greater organizational agility. They talk often about the increase in VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), and the capabilities required to respond. But these conversations have sometimes felt a bit abstract or theoretical. Now, in the context of the novel coronavirus and its economic, social, personal, and political reverberations, such detachment seems almost absurd. How do you lead well amid such turbulence — whether such turbulence stems from the near-term challenges of the pandemic or from the need to tackle ongoing global issues such as reworking our energy infrastructure, managing cybersecurity and privacy, and expanding opportunity for all?

Thankfully, leaders increasingly prioritize people. They recognize the need to communicate proactively and to support employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders in staying healthy, productive, and engaged as the world around them changes. Yet champions of change often view their organization as collections of these individuals. Given mounting pressure to act, they combine macro-level organizational policies with micro-level support for employees to access on their own. For example, the company may organize a town hall or a training program and provide helpful guidance, but provide less support for integrating the ideas into day-to-day work.

Imagine a company providing stress management training related to the coronavirus. Employees get tips on how to cope with their anxiety, but it’s not clear how they can act on those practices in the work teams they are part of, because the team is also under stress. This is a missed opportunity, because in my experience, intact work teams are the place where real momentum is generated — or lost. (By intact work teams, I mean the ongoing organizational units at the core of your business, as opposed to the ad hoc project teams or task forces focused on a limited deliverable or time period.) What if the aforementioned stress management training had been rolled out team by team, with time allotted to address key questions: How do we need to change how we work to apply these practices? Which are realistic for us? What else can we do to manage stress as a team?

Although it is important to communicate openly with all employees, the place where changes come together is in the intact work team.

At this point, the conversation integrates the message with people, their goals, and their work. By definition, a team represents a combination of these three elements. And when leaders support the alignment of these elements, individuals can drive one another to improve, remove roadblocks to change, and translate broad organizational objectives into locally relevant behaviors. This is why agile organizations invest in well-functioning teams and keep them together, rather than assembling and reassembling individuals — if leaders leave team alignment to chance, collaboration becomes the constraint on an organization’s ability to execute.

Now, as the coronavirus global health emergency continues to unfold, leaders are likely managing multiple changes in parallel: training employees to work remotely, adopting new safety and social distancing measures, installing new equipment and software, revising budgets and forecasts, and figuring out how to keep customers or spin up new products and services. Although it is important to communicate openly with all employees, the place where changes come together is in the intact work team. Today, and the next time your business is facing VUCA, don’t let these teams become an afterthought. Here are five strategies that will help intact work teams evolve and adjust in a coherent, integrated way.

Support one another as people. Because team members typically interact more with one another than with outsiders, teams are a natural place to deepen relationships, trust, and mutual support — but the process sometimes needs a boost. Encourage team members to check in with one another, especially as they work on new habits. Consider using a trusted instrument, such as personality or behavior testing, to help people learn about their strengths, preferences, and motivations. The right tool becomes a shared language for the team to discuss collaboration strengths and weaknesses, individual needs, and how each person can contribute more effectively.

Agree on guiding principles and new ways of working. Compared to collections of individuals, teams are more likely to be able to make decisions as a unit. As teams discover new options for collaborating — such as how to come together remotely — invite them to make a joint decision about how they will revise their ways of working. Review these agreements over time and eliminate what doesn’t work.

Revisit shared purpose. A compelling purpose is both practical and inspirational. It offers a reference point in uncertain times, helping teams focus, make decisions, prioritize, and adapt. And it tells people why their work matters, connecting them to one another and with the organization as a whole. As teams in your organization gain some stability, invite them to consider, for example, how they can most contribute as a unit over the next two (or three or four, and so on) months.

Realign priorities. Rather than repeatedly revising detailed timelines or abandoning planning altogether, teams do better to maintain a short list of critical priorities that continuously evolve. Using their newly clarified sense of purpose plus a broad review of all the changes underway, teams can establish a new set of priorities. In times of uncertainty, these can be limited to things that need to happen in the next few months. As priorities are revised, remind teams to renegotiate commitments to other groups clearly and explicitly.

Create a cadence for continuously learning and improving. Borrowing from agile methodology, teams can regularly reflect on their experience, locking in what is working and anticipating what might change next. Metrics and targets are often already established at the team level, which can make it easier to see if a team’s new practices have moved the needle. To support teams in this function, invite them to set a schedule for review (say, every month for a quick check-in and quarterly for a more in-depth refresh). These regular check-ins can include an overall review as well as a deep dive into an area to improve.

These five strategies will give organizations a system for staying balanced and focused as things change. With a flexible but coherent working plan, teams are better able to support individual members through times of significant upheaval, and, as groups, to partner with other functions, which minimizes the impact of disruptions on key customer accounts or supply chain relationships. At the organization level, these practices enable leaders to increase agility and resilience, at scale.

Elizabeth Doty

Elizabeth Doty is a former lab fellow of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, founder of Leadership Momentum, and director of the Erb Institute’s Corporate Political Responsibility Taskforce at the University of Michigan.

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