Adaptive Leadership Mindset

More and more is being written about flexible organisations, particularly now as we are all having to reconsider how we, and our organisations operate.

While I completely agree with these articles that leadership mindset is critical for these changes, many of them propose that leadership needs an Agile mindset. This is where, despite being involved in Agile right from the beginning, I start to have concerns.

Agile and Scale

During large-scale Agile transformations, we often run into the mindset issue:

Figure 1 : Departmental Agile Transformation

One approach to easing this is to transform using end-to-end organisational slices

Figure 2 : Organisational Slice Agile Transformation

During the transformation leadership operates in a bi-modal form, having to switch between mindsets. If they revert to a fully traditional’ mindset they risk killing the flexibility delivered by Agile, but if they switch to a fully Agile mindset they risk killing operations which actually benefit from a scale, mass, product mindset.

Agile organisation’ theory would appear to say that the whole organisation should move over to Agile, which would mean that only one mindset would be needed. The problem is that this would appear to remove the possibility of scale practices.

If you need both Agile and scale, which mindset should you have?

Figure 3 : Agile or Scale

My suggestion is both.

This isn’t an either/or argument; Agile and scale are techniques to deliver value to be deployed as need.

Adaptive Mindset

I like to view Adaptive leadership as farming, not just because I come from a farming background, but also because it takes us out of the the Agile versus scale debate.

Why farming? What viewpoint does this give us?

  • Focus on possible value
  • Accept that the source of value may change over time
  • Take a long-term view
  • Accept you are not fully in control
  • Create and maintain the environment

Focus on possible value

Farmers have to be practical people. They look to maximise the value they gain from their farms, but have to recognise their constraints:

  • Assets : The amount and type of land, and their geographic location
  • Capability : Their knowledge and experience
  • Tooling : The equipment and buildings they have
  • Regulations : The regulations in place
  • Market : What will sell in the market
  • Competition : Where they can compete against other farms and imports

While farmers are always looking for ways to diversify to mitigate risk, they recognise the constraints whether natural or man-made. Importantly these constraints can be viewed as a source of value Other people can’t sell their cheese as Stilton because they don’t live in the necessary part of England’, not just negatives. In other words, they accept the constraints and focus on the best combination of products they can achieve.

Some of the possibilities would need large scale to exploit, wheat for instance, while others may be around differentiation, such as artisanal bread.

Another critical realisation that farmers have is that it can be good to lay land fallow, i.e. not producing, for long-term health. Not everything has to be operating at maximum output this season, to protect value production over the long term. There is value in protecting the long-term.

Accept that the source of value may change over time

As markets, weather and argricultural technology change constantly, farmers know that what they produce may need to change season-to-season and year-to-year.

Some farmers can change what they produce more easily than others, but they are always looking for:

  • New product lines : Creating value-add products from existing products, such as a dairy farmer making butter
  • New routes to market : Selling at local markets, or online, as well as to supermarkets
  • New technology : New technology may make in demand, but labour intensive, crops viable. Pest resistant strains of crop may make it viable to grow in areas where it previously was not
  • Different strains/breeds : As the climate gets generally warmer, farmers may be able to grow crops they couldn’t previously, for instance, vineyards are slowly creeping northwards in the UK. As winters get wetter they need livestock or crops which can cope with those conditions.

I would also argue that the restriction on this by large supermarkets actually puts the farmers themselves, and our supply chains, at greater risk. In their search for ever cheaper product in larger quantities, supermarkets dictate and lock-in farmers to long-term commitments. While making smaller returns for the longer term seems a low-risk strategy, if the markets shift, farmers can struggle to either make money from those agreements, or have the capital (or skills) to retool and switch product. The lack of flexibility adds risk.

Take a long-term view

Farmers generally have a different view of time from corporate executives, especially in the medium and long-term.

  • Medium term : While farmers, like all business people, have to deal with the day-to-day, they also have to keep an eye on the medium term - they need to be successful next year, so can’t mindlessly exploit resources this year to maximise near-term returns. This results in actions like leaving land fallow, or using selective breeding to improve livestock. Having everything operating at 100% is not sustainable.
  • Long term : Few farmers are in it for the money and quick returns; they are in for the long-term. Ideally they want to pass a healthy business on to their children. This life-long view adds pressure - as they know they will have to live with the results of their actions - but also allows for corrective action to be taken if needed. The decisions will be generally made with a view to the long-term health of the farm, not the farmer.

Accept you are not fully in control

Many business people, and politicians, believe they either are in full control of their business, or believe they have to project that view. Farmers are under no such illusion. They cannot command the sun to shine, the crops to grow, or their livestock to produce healthy offspring.

By being realistic they can put risk mitigation in place through diversification, investment in new technology and data from authoritative sources such as weather services. 
If they believed they could control the world then none of these would be explored and the farm would be much more vulnerable.

Create and maintain the environment

As farmers realise there are many things they can’t control, they spend more time on what they can control - creating the best environment for their crops and livestock.

If you are a dairy farmer you invest in sheds, maintaining grass land, milking machines, maintaining the health of your herd. Arable farmers will maintain the soil, invest in machinery and storage facilities.

Farmers don’t produce anything valuable, plants and animals do. By creating the best environment they give those animals and plants the best chance of success and therefore the best outcomes.

How does this relate to Adaptive?

Figure 4 : Adaptive includes both Agile and Scale

By stepping outside the Agile/scale debate, leaders can stop having to be an Agile or scale leader, and adopt an Adaptive mindset:

  • Focus on possible value : What is the strategy our company should follow? Where is the market and what can we do in that space? Where do we need to be operating at scale, where do we need to be more flexible?
  • Accept that the source of value may change over time : Are we looking ahead and examining the trends and our performance? Are we sensitive enough to detect and understand these changes? Are we flexible enough to adapt?
  • Take a long-term view : Are we looking ahead sufficiently? What are going to be the next possible markets and products? Are we continually improving? Are we investing in, and testing, future ideas now?
  • Accept you are not fully in control : Are leaders listening to the rest of the organisation? Is everyone being heard, including customers? Are we clarifying areas of doubt and uncertainty? Are we identifying and mitigating risks? Is authority sufficiently distributed to the people who need it?
  • Create and maintain the environment : Does our culture match our strategy? Does everyone have the physical and technical environments they need? Are people happy? Is the environment continually improving?
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