Slogans of the times are always meaningful. There is an old French saying: “Literature always develops in the cracks of societies”. In other words, we talk a lot and write a lot about our unfulfilled aspirations. When it comes to management, today’s word is “agile”. Organizations should be agile in order to adapt to an on-going changing environment. People should be agile and multitask without difficulties. So many clumsy PowerPoint presentations preach about agility. There’s so much talk about this that I can only conclude that organizations are not agile at all. Far from it. But they claim it’s critical and they worry about it.
So how can they become agile for real?
I think that agility is about people much more than about organizations. The image that comes to my mind is circus performers. Not the circus “organization” but the people who perform those amazing, risky and magical things on a small and sandy arena, in front of audiences who hold their breath and suddenly burst out with laughter and applauses.
Now here’s something that might sound obvious when it comes to a circus: this agility doesn’t just happen. No one can tame lions, juggle with five flaming bottles or fly from one trapeze to another without hours and hours of focused, hard work. And no circus is worthy of its name if it does not invest in supporting, developing and celebrating these exceptional performers over months and years. In fact, a circus is only as good as its performers!
But when it comes to companies and how they allocate priorities, how come this investment in developing the most highly skilled people suddenly seems a lot less obvious?
So let’s dig into the circus metaphor and then see what this might mean for companies:
Circus performers do things that very few people can do. They are exceptional in what they can do and exceptional in going beyond their limits. Any organization’s dream. But the circus, unlike companies, always focuses on its performers, because without them it is nothing. A circus constantly worries about things like “Are our Talent Management policies really effective? Do we have exceptional people? Do we attract them? Do we keep them? Do we create the stage on which they can perform? Do we recognize them for their exceptional performance? How? Do we really address the expectations of new generations?” So how does your company go beyond your products and projects and shareholders and share the total preoccupation with your people that the circus has with its performers?
When you get home tonight, try juggling with five bottles of champagne. You will probably have to wash your floor afterwards. The gesture has to be perfect, and that implies hours and hours of on-going training and practicing. That is the daily routine of circus life before the evening performance. And now, for companies: How does your organization enable each and every person working in your company to develop the perfect “professional gesture” for what she or he has to do? Have you actually defined the “perfect” gesture? How do you recognize it? How can you improve it? How do you transmit it?
Magic doesn’t mean “mystification”. A circus is not about truth or untruth. It’s about bringing beauty into action and creating an emotional reaction that liberates enthusiasm and energy. Although humans are not birds, people flying from one trapeze to another are truly flying. How does your organization bring this magic into its business? How do you introduce this emotional spark? Who is your hacker? Your inventor? Your magician?
A circus performance has its own well-practiced tempo. Horses come, dance and go, and we’re already on to something else. No one would still be laughing if the clown act were ten minutes too long! Tempo is at the core of music, dance and life. What’s the tempo in your organization? Too fast? Too slow? Just right? How can you find the right tempo? No one would still be investing in your company or buying your products or services if your people take two weeks to do what they could do in two days! The world is moving fast. People have to match the tempo. Your organization has to enable that. Does it?
The question is: what can we draw from this metaphor? A multinational company is not a circus, after all—although sometimes that’s what it feels like! But most of our clients seek for agility and ask us to support this cultural change. After some time accompanying leaders in this process, we have realized one important thing about how to increase agility: IT’S ABOUT SMALL GROUPS OF PEOPLE! Like a circus. Developing agility within a 150,000-people organization does not make sense unless the objective is implemented at the level of manageable groups, say less than 150, led by empowered leaders. In the face of bureaucratic complexity and global instability, the most powerful way to develop agility is to have people excel at defining, understanding and interacting with their own and limited ecosystem.
Those who do are ready for the show!