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Future of work: Is it time for a Chief Agility Officer? Part 3 – Performance

When we think about increasing the agility of our people and our organization one aspect we might consider is how we manage performance.

In fact, employee performance is a topic every leader has an opinion on. Countless dollars and company time is absorbed with conversation focused on increasing performance. Some gravitate toward increased accountability and discipline. Others gravitate toward intrinsic motivation and opportunity. How many are discussing the impact and potential of their organization’s structure?

Let’s consider an example. In the last few years quite a bit of research has indicated that teams can be more productive than individuals, and there is a lot of focus on increasing organizational teams’ ability to work together. Team building became a popular approach to increase performance.

For a while, off-site trust-building ropes courses were popular. When people had fun but did not see an impact back at the work site they began to fall out of fashion. More leaders started offering personality workshops for their teams to understand each other better with the belief that if we can understand each other better, we’ll work better together, and our performance will improve.

Even more discussed today than personality differences is psychological safety and its impact on our ability to collaborate together. And yet after all the investment into team building we’ve done we continue to look for that potential performance improvement, not seeing the impact we hope for. Perhaps it’s because we haven’t yet discussed how our organizations are structurally designed to facilitate individual performance instead of team performance?

Let me be clear – personality typology workshops are great for your team when they increase individual self-awareness, capacity for other-awareness and facilitate a discussion on how to create a work environment that works for everyone. (In fact, I’d be more than happy to offer one to your team!) And psychological safety is critical for collaboration, learning and innovation.

And yet, neither of those two concepts can overcome an organizational structure that’s not built for teams. This is where an Agility department comes in. In today’s work world no single manager or leader (or even group of managers or leaders) has the capacity to not only ensure they understand the nuances of the research but compare to and adapt for their organizational context. That’s a full-time job.

What are the critical nuances in this example? First, the definition of team used in the research. In the research, teams are interdependent collections of people with shared goals and distinct boundaries. In organizations the word “team” is often used very differently. It’s used to describe a collection of people who do similar work independently, who have individual goals, and whose boundaries can change easily (e.g. all the area managers in a particular region, the bank tellers in a particular branch, the night-shift vs the day-shift of bakers for a specific product.)

Bringing in training designed for interdependent people working toward a shared goal with distinct boundaries and applying it to a group that is, in essence the opposite - highly independent, have different goals depending on their role with the company, and who might be a different combination of people any given day, will not produce the results you’re looking for.

The second nuance here is that more often than not organizational structure is built for organizational work groups. We create departments or business lines around a function. Those with similar jobs and contexts are combined into a group and supervised by someone with the necessary technical expertise. Their performance is rewarded on an individual level and there is limited awareness of other departments or their work. Further, goals for each department are set individually and may impede teamwork across the organization (e.g., collaboration goals between departments that are uni-directional, individual compensation rewards that differ between job functions, etc.)

The third nuance here is that not all work benefits from teaming! A lot of work is best done by individuals or functional work groups and the extra effort invested into learning to team better together is not only wasted but detracts from the actual work that needs to be done.

This is too much to sort through for any leader trying to improve the performance of those they supervise. This sort of nuanced, customized application of research, that has potentially organization-wide application, is one of the many potential roles of an Agility department.

What roles and deliverables might we see in an Agility department?

Organizational Effectiveness Specialist– while employee engagement surveys are valuable sources of information, they cannot be the main thrust of your organizational effectiveness initiatives. Skilled organizational effectiveness practitioners can partner with other departments to shape the organization (more teams? less teams? compensation structure shifts?)

Futurist – Keeping a pulse on what is coming will be more and more critical in staying relevant and competitive as a company

Workplace Strategist – attention to the physical workspaces and their impacts are critical. How are they shifting and changing in current context with working from home, working remotely, and working globally?

Organizational & Leadership Psychologist – Organization design, strategy, leadership styles & competency, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice, change management, and an emphasis on the people side of work are unavoidable in today’s environment.

Coaches – encouraging customization of and extended learning from organization wide trainings, increasing capacity for an agile mindset in individual contributors, functional groups and teams.

Economist, Social scientist, political scientist, environmentalist – identifying trends and challenges on the horizon within the organization’s footprint is an integral part of the work.

Historically we’ve expected the CEO and perhaps the leadership team to provide the vision for the organization. While that may not change, the complexities that CEO must consider are multiplying and there is a real need for an Agility department to keep abreast of political, environmental, social contexts, their potential impact on the organization, and innovate organizational approaches to incorporate them into the organizational strategy and design. Successful companies of the future will be those that are agile.

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