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The Flipside

by Gaye Clemson


Agility Gets you to the starting line – Adaptability wins the race!

In a recent article in Forbes magazine, Steve Denning, a leader in agile management, leadership, and innovation, persuasively argues that only the agile will survive. He suggests that COVID-19, which we all agree is now the mother of all disruptions, will accelerate a new way of working, playing, learning, leading and even living. Denning views business and strategic agility as the largest differentiators for the future. In my view, agility just gets you to the starting line. Adaptability wins the race!

Adaptability emanates from leaders, is propagated by an effective brand voice, and empowers teams. Paraphrasing speaker and author Robert Ferguson, who helps companies build differentiating values, adaptability helps teams shift and remain effective even when everything around them is changing. Adaptability is a feeling, with a core set of attributes, that teams manifest working together.

Adaptability is much like sailing, where success can be described as the art of being able to read the wind and scan the horizon simultaneously. Regardless of how agile a team is, it won’t be effective without this constant reading and scanning of the environment based on actionable intelligence.

How sailing pros adapt to win

Use the right language

You can’t be an effective member of a sailing team unless you know the language. If you’re a sailboat passenger, you can watch, but can’t really engage in the experience if you don’t know the bow from stern, port from starboard, main sail from jib or spinnaker, and boom from tiller.

Likewise, you can’t actively contribute to or lead an adaptive team without knowing its language. The language of adaptive leadership is one defined by sharing including ideas, power, risks, resources, and decision-making. Adaptive teams are emotionally intelligent, self-aware, mindful, iterative learners, and ultimately transformative. In adaptive environments, business language standards like organizing, planning and managing or command and control are heard much less often.

Understand roles and execute workflow with great agility

You can’t contribute to the sport of sailing without training and hours of practice in the roles and workflow of a sailing adventure. Roles such as skipper, tactician, grinder, sewer man, or pit boss involve specific duties and require skills to participate. Sailing workflow processes such as being in irons, coming about, jibing, tacking, beating upwind, and running free must be initiated and executed flawlessly with great agility by team members. Here’s a sample training video describing the skills needed to flawlessly tack in a single-handed boat.

Similarly, an adaptive team must appreciate that there are multiple interpretations of actionable intelligence. They also must be willing to learn iteratively, orchestrate conflicting or competing factions, and support experimenting while working on the edge. In addition, successful adaptive teams adopt trust-based collaboration and meeting management, and support the creation compelling, purpose-driven stories. In this excellent 4-minute infographic video, Adriano Pianesi from John Hopkins University provides some insight into what adaptive leadership in action is all about.

Read the Wind

What makes sailing, especially competitive racing, a dynamic, thrilling sport is regardless of the agility of the team’s skills, you can’t win unless you can effectively read the wind. If you fail to read the wind, three things can happen; you can get stuck in ‘irons,’ meaning the sail is left flapping, taking you nowhere, you can get smacked in the head by the boom and fly out of the boat, or, you can capsize the boat by heeling over too far. Any one of these mistakes is cause to lose the race.

Adaptive sailing in five steps

  1. Keep an eye on the intended destination. Make sure to lookout for key landmarks and references along each leg of the course to determine when course corrections are needed, such as coming about, beating, running downwind, breach or broad sailing. And, you must decide the how much time is needed for each correction.
  2. Sense the wind, and pay acute attention to its speed and direction. Small wind shifts need small changes or adjustments using sail or tiller. Disruptive changes, like the wind dying or gusting, may need wholesale adjustments or an instant change in direction.
  3. Set the sails properly. Decide how to set the sales based on the desired direction of travel, such as close hauling @ 45° when sailing into the wind, or running free when going downwind and all points in between. Adapting the sails requires testing, adjusting, learning, and then repeating the cycle until you get it right.
  4. Balance the boat and keep it trim. Calculate crew weight to stay at the right tilt depending on your point of sail. When the boat is balanced, the water line shape stays symmetrical around the boat, drag can be minimized, and the boat will not be slowed down by moving toward the direction of the wind.
  5. Ensure the centerboard is the correct height. This will stop the boat from slipping sideways.


Adaptive leadership in the same five steps

  1. Reinforce the established purpose and continually remind the team where they’re at on the journey and what’s needed to complete it. Recognize the journey not as a straight shot, but one with many twists and turns. When greater shared risk or recombining skills are needed, leaders must share their own and acknowledge the team’s vulnerabilities.
  2. Use actionable intelligence sensors and situational metrics. The ability to sense, read, feel and intuit is critical to understand what’s going on in real time with customers, partners, markets, and employees. When there’s little or no data, intuition and experience help teams adapt to the impact of political, social and environmental influences.
  3. Engage in continuous experimentation, learning, and course corrections. Being, sensing, learning and leading methodologies and best practices are in put in place when an Agile Strategy Execution Framework™ and Attentive Leadership© are used.
  4. Balance the system with trust-based transparency and authentic knowledge sharing. This makesteams feel safe, and members feel like they belong and can openly share their perspectives, fears, dreams and their innovations.
  5. Communicate consistently with a strong, clear, and true brand voice underpinned by shared values. A clear brand voice prevents the organization from working at cross-purposes, but also help team members personally identify with the collective vision of the change the future holds, as my colleague Jeannine Vaughan continually reminds me.

Magic happens with adaptability

As with competitive sailing, adaptability doesn’t just happen, it requires constant training and retraining, especially when new members join the team. When all these elements are aligned, magic happens. The organization can feel and see the impact. Innovation flows, assumptions are questioned and revised without angst; elephants-in-the-room are identified and resolved together; and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Most importantly, the team wins the race!

Today’s disruptive environments require constant strategy changes. Most organizations are fairly good at defining the language and artifacts transformational strategy change requires. Organizations also do a reasonable job creating the roles, processes, and workflows needed to be agile. However, few organizations know how to collectively and adaptively read the wind and keep teams focused on the destination, sense and balance the system, and invest sufficiently in continuous learning, all of which are needed for winning races in complex, interconnected business environments.

P.S. For a live example of sailing adaptability in action, check out the last race of the 2017 America’s Cup between the Aussie’s and Team USA. The Aussies read the wind precisely and bested Team USA to win the cup in the last race of the series.



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