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2016 was been a brutal year for businesses both locally and globally. Corporate shake-ups, political revelations and global economic instability have turned predictability into chaos. This is the new normal and whether we like it or not, it is never going to go back to the way it was. In 1925, William Butler Yeats wrote:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

It’s as relevant now as it was almost a century ago, and even more important. This new “world order” of relentless change has primarily relegated organisations into two categories – those that pursue a strategy of “Handling" change and those that are “Harnessing" change.

“Handling” change

Organisations with this mindset typically look for ways in which to handle or manage changes that buffet them. What this means is that they look to systems and process (and great change initiatives with seamless change management tools) to navigate change. A noble ideal if change is perceived as cyclical and inconsistent.

"Harnessing" change

Organisations with this mindset actively look for ways to exploit disruption (a term made famous by Clayton Christensen in 1995). What this means is that they look at opportunities to either create or disrupt an existing market or value network and displace established market leading firms, products and alliances. They look to a combination of market analytics and disruptive personalities in the organisation to embrace and harness change.

Consistency in the chaos

In both “Handling” and “Harnessing” organisations, the aim is to create some internally predictable or stable measures in relation to a constantly changing external environment.

“Handling” organisations tend to notice shifts in consumer sentiment, emerging technology, falling market share or revenue loss. In response, costs are cut, support services are (usually) culled, and belts tightened. Survivors are subjected to a plethora of change management programs (Kotter’s 8 steps, Bridge’s transitional model, Roger’s Technology Adoption Curve, The Change Curve, Prosci’s ADKAR model, etc.) and released back into the system to carry on with business as usual. Unfortunately for “Handling” organisations, the change has already happened and the response is a reactive one. In the best case scenario the organisation manages to navigate the fallout and survive, and in the worst case scenario shuts its doors and drops out of significance. Do you even remember that game-changing message service called BBM?

In contrast, “Harnessing” organisations recruit, retain and develop staff that have change personalities and then leverage these holistic qualities to drive the business forward. Unlike “Handling” organisations, “Harnessing” organisations proactively move towards the change armed with a key ingredient inherent in its people - learning agility.

Harnessing change through learning agility

Learning agility is the ability to quickly develop new, effective behaviour based on new experiences. Simply put – how quickly can you learn effective behaviours in new and unfamiliar situations? The question you have to ask yourself is, “In the face of disruptive change, does my workforce possess the optimal traits and motivations that are necessary to harness change?” This question goes beyond simple resilience in the face of disruption – it talks to the balance of drive/motivation and performance that makes up the fabric of the organisation. This agility is the unique and stable pattern of psychological characteristics and behaviours of an individual (person or organisation). It follows then, that if you plan to harness change and turn it into an opportunity, then employ, retain and develop talent that thrives in an environment of change. This workforce becomes your stabilising factor (that is able to thrive in and embrace any change) despite constant upheaval in your environment. If your workforce is predisposed to harnessing change you are more likely to be fit for purpose in a new and ever-changing world of work.

How do I know if my organisation is agile?

Having an optimal balance of “change-agile” personalities in the workplace to drive and harness changes is the key to success. The agility of the organisation is determined based on a number of specific personality traits, motivations and behaviours inherent in your people and because of this, the good news is that you can measure it.

Assessing learning agility can be done at the individual, team or organisational level and will accurately tell you whether you are a “Harnessing” or “Handling” organisation. It’s quite important to strategically decide how you want to go about your analysis. If you want key leadership to drive change and innovation, then start your learning agility assessments with leaders in the organisation. This will not be enough to cross the tipping point, but it’s a good place to begin. However, entire teams may need to be “agile” to ensure that change can be exploited to foster new markets or value streams. If you have an Innovation team or R&D team it stands to reason that they would all need to possess learning agility.

Developing a “Harnessing” organisation requires assessment in concentric circles. Assessments done on individuals should then move onto team assessment and expand outwards until what you are left with is a robust and objective measure of overall organisational agility.

What can I do with this knowledge?

If you find that after assessing your workforce you are potentially a dinosaur in the making this is your chance to save the situation. Build learning agility assessments into your recruitment, reward, performance and development processes. In this way, you are able to strategically shift the prevailing workforce culture by bringing in and reinforcing behaviours consistent with a “harnessing” mind-set. The key thing is that this is a proactive and ongoing process, not just a response to change when it happens. Ironically, what you’ll also discover is that the change “handling” processes discussed earlier are likely to be more effective when implemented because you’ll be dealing with a proactive audience open to the process. Whether you’re a non-profit organisation or a global multinational, the new world of work will have a massive impact on your existence.

The key question is: which side of the changing world of work will you be on?

The key answer is: measure it and then you decide…

By: Brandon Gillham