Are organisations and agile transformation like elephants on tightropes? Why workplaces must embrace the agile paradox





Agile transformation seems to be the new world of work. Embracing agility is to be applauded, but used alone it can’t deliver everything leaders want – a new paradox is at play.


Heard about the large organisation that decided to effectively blow up its traditional way of operating and replace it with an agile model? About how this was simultaneously amazing and confusing for both people and the organisation, triggering a minefield of complexities? And about how leaders are aware of the conundrum agility brings but feel they can’t always challenge it for fear of being seen as ‘not on the journey’?


Let’s cover off a few facts. The new world of work is here, it’s now, and it’s not going away. With disruption, technological change and an avalanche of start-up competitors, established organisations need to work not just faster, but differently.


A recent Google search on ‘the future of work’ showed 1.56 billion results on the topic, with an ever-increasing army of ‘experts’ offering their view. There’s an enormous array of opinions on the topic, and a great deal of uncertainty about what it practically means. All leaders know this, and they know more change is coming. What they don’t always know is how difficult that change will be, how immediate, and in what order it will come.


“Because strategy itself is changing too. As leaders plan for the increasingly unknown, the very purpose, meaning and rhythms of strategy is evolving.”


Strategy is changing

One thing is certain and can be witnessed everywhere: strategies have shifted in the last few years. Business models are now less about internal efficiencies and more about innovation and leveraging partnerships across the value chain. Organisational cultures are more focused on collaboration and less on hierarchical decision-making. And strategy development cycles are shorter, with zero-based budgeting increasingly the norm (strategy cycles are now sometimes so short they’re not worth the screens they’re shared on; they are enormously reactive).


Yet organisations still need longer-term vision and purpose. In fact, to pursue extreme short-term agility and flexibility, leaders need to be more long-term in their thinking, to have a more secure bedrock upon which agility can thrive. It’s a long-term strategic outlook to enable short-term agile responses.


Because strategy itself is changing too. As leaders plan for the increasingly unknown, the very purpose, meaning and rhythm of strategy is evolving. 


Recognising the Agility Paradox

Today’s organisations and leaders operate in what I call the ‘Agility Paradox’: constantly choosing between competing tensions to meet multiple, divergent demands.

There’s the need to balance long-term vision and planning with rapid reaction to emerging opportunities. There’s the requirement for stability to focus on achievement versus keeping pace with the market. There’s the need to explore new opportunities versus the necessity to exploit them. 


And there’s more.


From a sector perspective, collaboration and competition are at odds, particularly with the rise of collaboration between rival firms. From a brand perspective, public perception of organisations as employers collides with the shift to a cost-competitive model of on-demand talent. And from a leadership perspective, the contradiction is dealing with a high degree of ambiguity and complexity while providing clarity and focus for the organisation and teams.


Finally, from an organisational perspective, in a context where spans of control are now growing less important than spans of influence and support, HR questions to be answered include: How is work done? How do our people work together? What are our networks of collaboration, support and trust?


To me, together these contexts create the Agility Paradox, a new reality of tensions and potentially contradicting workforce demands. 


Embracing the Paradox: Two other words that matter 

Against this backdrop, I think it’s very clear that what’s needed today are systems that allow for a higher degree of ambiguity and flexibility. Because what we need now is both structure and the capacity to dynamically change; stability and agility. It's not 'either/or' anymore, it's 'and'. We need both. 


We live in a world of fluidity, where we’re asked to be principled yet highly adaptive, gaining control by releasing control. As workplaces and jobs become more fluid – and that’s a good thing – the challenge is to ensure equity, fairness and focus for people. Yet to avoid confusion, how can you have fairness, equity and contribution in an organisation that is seemingly completely fluid?


You build yourself an organisational framework. A robust one that hums away in the background, holding these fragments together and providing a structure without constraining new ways of working. It’s a framework that, if you like, replaces structure. Because you can take old workforce management structures away around careers and jobs – but only if you replace them with alternate, thoughtful and consistent frameworks. The output and day-to-day scenario may appear fluid but in the background is a clear and strong system around careers, capabilities, contribution and people. 


This is where two other words come into play: Careers and Contribution.


To prepare for the future of work, Mercer has developed the Mercer People Frame. A workforce architecture with strategy at its centre, it is built on three bases: Capabilities (which produce agility), Careers (which are based on structure) and Contribution (which delivers performance).


The power of the framework lies in the alignment and integration of all three elements. It also lies in acknowledging that you don't need to resolve the Agility Paradox; what you need is a framework that helps leaders manage and navigate the employee narrative in organisational change.


There is a lot of noise out there around agile, but also a lot of uncertainty around how agile will benefit organisations. In my view, the great opportunity for leaders today is to create an architecture that allows for agility and performance while at the same time ensuring stability to drive strategy in a time of change.


Ephraim Spehrer-Patrick is a Partner at Mercer Australia, and leads the Talent Strategy and Organisation practice. He specialises in helping leaders to build high performing, resilient organisations and to embrace the future of work.


Move to or thinking about agile? Reach out to us and see how you can embrace the agile paradox through the Mercer People Frame. 





Mercer Australia
Workforce and Career
Mercer Australia
Workforce and Career

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