The Three Habits of nimble, agile companies

by External11 Nov 2013

Does change ever ‘just happen’? Not necessarily, says author Graham Winter. He outlines how HR has the opportunity to regain control over change readiness and agility

One of Australia’s top HR leaders bemoaned recently how her organisation’s change agenda had been hijacked by what she called “project management specialists masquerading as experts in people change”.
She continued: “They think everything can be boxed into a project with neat milestones and end dates. Just when they think the change has finished, that’s when the real transition actually begins. We then get to pick up the pieces!”
Over the past two years, while researching and writing the recently published First Be Nimble and working with a number of Australia’s fast-moving enterprises, it became clear to me that the most nimble organisations don’t even talk about change management, let alone create a separate team to lead it!
These agile leading-edge enterprises are a generation ahead of the conventional ‘change should be managed by experts’ approach in the way that they infuse the capabilities and habits of adaptability and change resilience directly into front-line leaders and teams.
Three habits stand out in this approach, and they offer HR an opportunity to regain leadership over the whole area of change readiness and agility.
Most agile and adaptive organisations are arranged in a network of nimble, connected teams because this is the most responsive and flexible way to organise people and resources. To create this network demands a commitment to the value and philosophy of ‘one team’ and the access to shared tools to equip team leaders to lead, build and connect their teams.
A practical example is the Think One Team model that was originally developed in Australia and is now widely used because of its engagingly simple model and tools to guide everyone, from CEO to front line. It is based on five core principles:
  • Share the big picture (get above the agendas of the ‘experts in silos’)
  • Share the reality (open, robust conversations where people call it as it is)
  • Share the air (effective performance partnerships between functions)
  • Share the load (plan and prioritise the resource allocations collaboratively)
  • Share the wins and losses (infuse a debrief-learn-adapt cycle)
The Think One Team model focuses on accessible and shared tools for team leaders to use in three core activities:
  • Aligning their teams (within and with other teams)
  • Collaborating on problems and opportunities
  • Learning on the run
While conventional change management diligently maps its change plans and ‘stage-gate’ reviews, the nimble and adaptive organisation infuses intensive, relentless debriefing of task and people processes into the operating rhythm of every team.
Skilfully led ‘action debriefs’ develop resilience moment by moment and, in doing so, put the power to learn and adapt into the hands of front-line teams rather than a separate change department. 
This is in stark contrast to the world of change management project plans, which certainly have their place in planning the technical aspects of change but simply can’t cope with the impacts of disruptive change on people. 
HR can play a huge leadership role here, but only the leading-edge seem willing to roll up their sleeves, get some tools and work with the operations leaders to infuse learning into the everyday workplace.
Nimble organisations are constantly in transition: ending something, exploring opportunities, and embracing the new. In a nutshell, they are good at letting go and they know that endings make you squirm.
How do they learn to ‘welcome the squirm’? First, their leaders are trained to not rescue people, which means adapting their language and, instead of asking “How do I make people comfortable?”, they ask, “What is the optimum stretch that this team can handle?’’ Second, their day-to-day operating rhythm is built around collaborative problem solving and debriefing practices so they learn and adapt together, not to the beat of a change management drum.
HR can help itself here, too, by challenging the current reliance on broad-based engagement measures that can limit the acceptance of ‘squirm’ as valid to organisational growth. It’s important for HR and the organisational psychology field to become more specific about measuring (quantitatively and qualitatively) what’s happening inside and between those nimble teams in real time as they experience the emotional rollercoaster that is disruptive change. 
The vast majority of agile and adaptive organisations have leadership teams that promote a one-team philosophy and are organised into networks of nimble, connected teams.
The leaders of those teams are equipped with the tools, skills and support to guide their teams to align, collaborate, debrief, learn and adapt on the run. Instead of resistance, they welcome the squirm that comes from new experiences and, tellingly, they are a generation ahead of the mainstream who still sit like experts in silos waiting for the change management team to tell them when it’s time to move.
The organisations that best adapt to change aren’t those who manage through it, but rather those who first develop the resilience and adaptability to handle whatever the world throws at them.
The HR profession can be front and centre of this new frontier, but only if it is prepared for a little squirming from the traditional change management experts who don’t take kindly to the suggestion that they’ll be all but extinct within a decade.
Graham Winter is the author of “Think One Team” and “First Be Nimble” (Jossey Bass), and director of Think One Team International. Contact him at or

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