10 Things to help you Achieve Agile Change in Pressured, Chaotic and Uncertain Environments with Limited Capacity

by Brian Lawson

Over the last 9 months I have been involved in supporting the leadership and delivery of a number of rapid redesign projects in this context and I wanted to share my reflections on what helps leadership and change teams optimise their impact and influence in addressing these challenges.

1.Calibrating pace, fast and slow:

  • Be agile, not quick: Relentless pace and the expectation at once of instant results leads to setting out in too many directions with too many actions without sufficient guidance or oversight. What looks like decisive leadership often adds to the chaos and confusion. Some planning, reflection and completion of tasks is required. 
  • Be adaptive, not anxious: In these circumstances not everything can be controlled and more concerning issues will be discovered as a grasp is taken of a situation and a deeper insight is gained. A nimble, agile mind set allows us not to freeze, over-react or go on a fruitless search for blame if we are serious about sorting the issue out.

2.Have a there and now focus:

  • Know what we are trying to achieve: Time taken specifying where we want to get to and what it will look like and feel like when we get there is not wasted time. This lights up the lighthouse for us while we are navigating stormy seas and gives focus, purpose and direction to our actions.
  • Work to rapid prototypes and in sprints: Once you have a sense of destination and direction, trust yourselves to move quickly and adaptively. Create a shared sense of what will move you on from where you are in the desired direction, identify what can be created with the capacity you have in the context you are in and plan to get there in short sprints of focused activity which are relentlessly pursued. Sprints of 20 days’ work well in these environments, giving enough time for progress and offering flexibility to adapt and change as things emerge and evolve.

3.Focus beyond your frame of reference and dig into critical detail:

  • Work whole systems: Take your perspective beyond the immediate locus of the problem – what are the wider systems and processes which have caused and continue to recreate and sustain the issues. As fish have no sense of the water they swim in, we are often unaware of the cultures, fixed beliefs and assumptions we are working with.
  • Prioritise shared understanding and communication through dialogue and engagement: Wide engagement is crucial to understanding the critical, often hidden and unspoken, details which can derail your programme. In the rush to action we stumble about blindly in the dark. The biggest failure in these environments is not to take time to communicate what the problem is, why it is there and what is being done about it. Heroic effort is no substitute for helping people understand and bringing them with you.

4.Be structured and responsive:

  • Governance, programmes and workstreams: Some of this is necessary. In my experience there is often way too much or far too little. Make sure you can track your actions, that they fit into a broader programme which makes sense and that people with influence can unblock problems in the system, hold you to account and keep you on track.
  • Orchestrate activity: In these circumstances we are often dealing with wicked issues which are complex with a range of variables and dependencies. Someone needs to have their eye on the bigger picture and be able to respond and redirect and bring effect together as required.

5.Sustain and promote resilience:

  • Maintain a practical focus in relation to use of energy and time: Make sure these resources are being used wisely and well and that people take time to recover and replenish. Presenteeism and perpetual high energy are not the keys to high performance.
  • Keep your emotional resilience high by taking time to process difficult tasks and meetings: The military debrief after every contact and this has demonstrable impact on resilience in challenging circumstances. Taking time to process also promotes learning and understanding.

Remember nothing succeeds like persistence in the face of big challenges. Make sure you know the success and progress you are making as well as the processing the difficult lessons you need to learn to be resilient and the unwelcome views you have to process and deal with to keep moving forward.

Finally nothing is as practical as a helpful theoretical framework, recognising a VUCA Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic and Ambivalent environment helps and the Cynefin framework helps to focus on leadership and decision making.