Agility: elusive, but essential and the key to thinking differently

3rd March, 2019
Simon Boucher, chief executive, the Irish Management Institute Pic: Robbie Reynolds

Agility is an easy word to write on a page. Anyone keen to learn about what’s current in leadership development will see the word jumping out from magazine covers and website banners.

Easy to say and easy to write, ‘agility’ trips off the tongue, allowing the writer to solve a great deal of problems with a single stroke. And there are a lot of problems to solve.

Close to home, Ireland’s business leaders face a sea of complexity in 2019. As I write this, Brexit is just weeks away and there is still no concrete roadmap for future relations between Britain and the EU.

Given the complexity of Britain’s exit from the EU, Brexit has rarely been referred to as an agile process, except perhaps in the negative.

Brexit appears so complex; people are looking for a deal that will put it all in a neat box, giving us rules to follow and structures to implement.

This kind of complexity affects us as individuals, forcing leaders and professionals to contemplate what they will need survive in this new economy - and the impact on executive development is utterly transformational.

Like riding a bike

We have long moved away from the ‘talk and chalk’ philosophy of imparting knowledge, towards an interactive and personalised approach that aligns learning with strategic aims and organisational roles.

But even as this becomes the new norm, we need to move forward once again. It is no longer enough to define the characteristics or develop skills needed for future-fit leaders.

Agile mindsets are needed to apply these skills and characteristics in a complex environment. Again, an easy statement to write on a page, but how can it be achieved?

Developing an agile mindset is as much about the process as it is about the ‘product’.

This means densely packing educational programmes, from short executive courses to diploma programmes, with information for participants to draw upon and apply to their own experiences.

Case studies and frameworks are the kinds of tools we use regularly. And they work - except when they don’t.

This style of information transfer, even when it’s applied to real tasks, is limited in its ability to permanently change behaviour.

We are all familiar with going to a fantastic workshop, feeling we are going to change the way we work, and then barely applying one or two of the learnings on a regular basis. Months after the workshop, we hardly remember it.

Of course, when we are exploring new territory, lessons from case studies and rigid frameworks may no longer apply and it becomes apparent that new ways are required to make our leaders future-fit.

The kids are alright

Ironically, in the world of executive development, we can learn a lot from the kids around us. Children come to new challenges without preconceived notions; hence the endless ‘but why?’ questions we parents have come to dread.

With modern executive development, the first thing that is required is to disrupt thinking patterns that have become ingrained within us.

By opening up our minds to new thinking, new thinking might actually occur.

Simple, one-off interventions are rapidly fading away, replaced by developmental journeys (or ‘experiences’) that deliver habit forming changes.

No longer will professionals attend a one or two-day programme and be expected to apply all their learnings immediately.

Instead they will be empowered by bite-sized advice that is reinforced at regular intervals while they do their work.

We can imagine that artificial intelligence and machine learning will better equip us to engage with these interventions at the exact moments they are required, and we’ll also become more agile in tailoring best-practice advice to each unique challenge.

This process will need to be repeated constantly throughout a career, flexing those agile brain muscles until dealing with the next complex task is the new normal.

Because if there is one certain truth about developing agility, it is that, like everything else, it takes practice.

We need to consistently challenge our brains to think differently, to not retreat into our shells and old habits, and to realise that as the possibilities around us are expanding, so are the solutions our mind should reach for.

Agility is certainly an easy word to write down on a page but, as the various negotiating teams trudging between Brussels and London will tell you, a lot more challenging to apply in the real world.

Simon Boucher is chief executive at the Irish Management Institute (IMI)

Last year, IMI became the highest new entrant in the prestigious European Business School rankings, while also becoming the only Irish provider to be listed simultaneously on both the customised and open executive education rankings, as published by the Financial Times

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