Agility Anathema: A Culture of Optionalism

WE ARE WHAT WE TOLERATE … is a core truism that tends to shape the culture (or at least the climate) as well as shape the spectrum of accepted behavior for societies as well as our organizations!  There are many iterations on this basic tenet including some strong quotes from the leadership guru, John C. Maxwell, or one of the motivation gurus, Tony Robbins among others.  The wisdom in this adage applies fully to each of us as individuals as well as leaders of teams, functions, units or the entire enterprise.  It is equally as applicable and relevant as we think about the dynamics in our families and other social relationships.  Collectively, it rolls up into the kind of customs, mores and codes of conduct that define us in all our communities, cities, regions and countries.

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One of the biggest issues we see in so many organizations -  is the need to dismantle the ubiquitous “culture of optionalism” that is a dangerous cancer growing and getting out of control!  In our work around the world with organizations of every description and industry, we are often having this discussion in our workshops on how overcome this hurdle as we strive to build greater organizational focus, speed and adaptability to compete successfully in this faster, more turbulent VUCA world.

Invariably, as we work with leadership teams to help them build clarity in their strategy maps and plot the pathways to Shape the Future, we find that “strategizing" becomes the “easier” part of the equation.  The really tough stuff comes as the leaders go back into their teams with the conditioned programming of an existing agenda and entrenched inertia of “the way we do things around here”.  To be an Agile Leader in this world, it takes great skill and commitment to marshall the energy and fortitude to lead REAL transformation and offset the tendencies that promote this insidious culture of optionalism.

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So, what are some of the symptoms and signs of this “optionalism” cultural virus?  Do you recognize any of these organizational behaviors:

  • Few people willing to step up to make decisions, own outcomes or initiate action without prodding
  • Decisions and agreements that are made in meetings rarely get implemented on time … without any corresponding consequence
  • Senior leaders tend not to communicate information actively down through their teams … resulting in many down the line folks operating blind … unaware of strategy or group priorities
  • Rogue managers who do not own or share the core values are allowed to continue … sometimes even recognized or rewarded
  • Functional agendas and priorities “trump" the group or enterprise priorities … without consequences or accountability
  • Team members are regularly confused and uncertain … is it that people come first, or is it customers come first or is it profit at all cost … what is it this week?

Focused, Fast & Flexible - these three simple words amplify loudly as the counterweights to a culture of optionalism.  Easy to say … hard to create and sustain!  Focus is the anchor for agility when it embodies the Why, How & What for your Agility journey.  The greater the clarity of these values, operating principles and success metrics - the less room there is for optionalism to exist.  Focus directs and informs where we must build organizational speed and flexibility - especially when allowed (or expected) to percolate at all levels within the organization.  Yes, we are what we tolerate and yet we can also be what you aspire to be … if you are willing to do what it takes and have the courage to be accountable to your vision and values.  There has been lots of comparable discussion in the national news this past week or two … I am hopeful we can all work harder on this in all aspects of our lives.  Our future and the future of our kids depend on it!

I would love to hear your experiences and perspectives.



Have you heard the phrase … “the race is often won or lost before it starts”?  Starting this weekend, we will witness several weeks of races and contests of many different varieties as the 2016 Olympics finally arrives in Brazil.  This phrase might even apply to the entire Olympics with as much controversy, uncertainty and potential drama that could unfold.  Whether your competitive landscape is 100 meters swimming or swimming with the corporate sharks on Main Street, there is one thing that is definitely true … MINDSET MATTERS.

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Most precision operators have checklists to insure that the critical activities, conditions, events and resources are in place, fully functioning and properly executed.  Would you want to fly on an airplane, submit to major surgery, live near a nuclear reactor or even drive your next rental car without the confidence that the responsible crew or team had not used a rigorous checklist to insure safe and effective operations?  Not me.  Checklists are essential whether you are NASA launching a rocket ship into outer space or a project manager looking to launch the next product improvement initiative.  The complexity and speed of play in today’s operating environment can be overwhelming.

We are in the season when many organizations are heading off to strategic retreats to hopefully stop the merry-go-around for a few days and reflect on three classic strategic questions to help them and their organizations get re-centered for 2017 and beyond …

  • Who are we and where are we today … really?
  • Where are we going?
  • How do we get everyone aligned and focused on what matters to get there?

Shaping the Future involves helping your leaders, teams and total enterprise to be focused, fast and flexible on the things that matter in your vision and strategy map for success.  Here are a few checklist questions you might use with your teams as you go to the mountain top for a few days or even just progressively pause for a few hours of meaningful, reflective discussion as a team – big or small.


  • What does that mean for you anyway – as a leader, team or total organization?  Maybe you have an aspirational vision statement that provides everyone meaning, purpose and energy – that’s great.  Maybe you don’t. As a true leader you can (must) help your team identify and understand the team’s mission, goals and roadmap for success.  The absence of this clarity results in many false starts and organizational collisions.  In the Navy SEALS, they call this clarity understanding the “commanders’ intent” – it helps guide decision-making down the line.
  • How do we translate this down the line?  Clarity must radiate beyond the senior leadership circle if any chance to become a truly focused organization … it must go top to bottom and across all functions.  Focus cannot be complicated, confusing or contradictory.  Those organizations who are concentrating on building understanding and skills in core “operating principles” are navigating better and faster than those organizations trying to be overly prescriptive and controlling.


  • Where must you have strategic speed? This question can create important and provocative conversation.  More likely than not, it will lead you to some discussion about cross-functional collaboration of one sort or another.  In some organizations, this often naturally leads to fingers getting pointed in several directions.  Just as dysfunctional are those organizations that operate in benign neglect for fierce conversation.  Strategic speed has a dependent relationship to this notion of being focused which is why we ALWAYS talk about being FOCUSED, fast and flexible – with focus first.
  • How do you get and stay FAST? This is often the tougher question – how to change the metronome standard in your organization.  The speed of play is getting faster all the time – how does that play out in your organization?  Are you using the same age old cadence and expectations for product development e.g. it normally takes us three years to launch a new product?  The key is getting all the stakeholders to up the tempo together just as talented jazz or bluegrass musicians are able to do in a jam session.  It doesn’t work if only part of the team is willing or able to step up the tempo.


  • What does flexibility mean for you?  Flexibility is a strategic capability for agile organizations, teams and leaders.  Really does start with a leadership mindset of positive adaptability and possibilities.  The simple leadership realization that “there is more than one right answer” is powerful and liberating as National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones shared in his video on Everyday Creativity.  The paradox to be effectively navigated is how to create clarity in strategic direction and operating principles AND to be open to idea diversity and new possibilities.  Agile leaders polish, feed and grow this capability as they continuously inform their capabilities to anticipate change better and faster.
  • How do you get and stay FLEXIBLE? Agile organizations are oriented to operating principles of speed, fluidity and synchronicity among others.  Those factors that are constraints to those principles also limit flexibility.  Each is an opportunity for teams discover the “next right answer” that doesn’t sacrifice on your customer centric value equation.

Yes – the magic comes from the ampersand … when we are Focused, Fast & Flexible then we are well on our journey to making Agility a real advantage while creating the kind of organizations where talent flourishes and grows.  These are but some of the key questions that might be on your checklist.  If you would like to explore more, you might check out our book FOCUSED, FAST & FLEXIBLE.  You can acquire from Amazon or click here to get copies for your whole team at our bulk discounted rate.  It will help equip your team for some provocative discussion about some critical success factors for Shaping Your Future in 2017 and beyond.

Want to Communicate Change? Do THIS.

 Want to Communicate Change? Do THIS.

“Undercommunicating the vision by a factor of ten” is one of the reasons why organizational transformation efforts fail according to John Kotter, a prolific writer on various facets of leadership and organizational change and professor emeritus at the Harvard Business School (Kotter, 1995: 63). 

And as we all know—and as Kotter acknowledged—“Communication comes in both words and deeds, and the latter are often the most powerful form” (Kotter, 1995: 64).

Namely, actions speak louder than words. 

So if you want to communicate change in your organization,

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The Gig Economy: A Human Resource Agility Fitness Challenge

The Gig Economy:  A Human Resource Agility Fitness Challenge

This is the era of UberAirbnbTaskRabbitHandy. All of these firms are examples of the “gig economy,” and human resources (HR) professionals are being pressed to update their approach to talent management as a result.  

The gig economy will continue placing pressure on HR leaders, HR policies and HR processes to become more agile so that they can accommodate the kind of turbulence now being created by contingent workers as a growing element of their talent pool.  

The word “gig” has its origins in the

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This Week in Agility Research: Oct. 26, 2015

Here are a few items of new agility-related research that popped up on our radar this week. 

Using Science to Identify Future Leaders
By: Kenneth De Meuse

A recent influx in assessment tools being developed and utilized by consulting, firms for the measurement of learning agility, has sparked research interest regarding the construct of this concept. Learning agility in itself is considered in its infancy compared to other theories within the field, and is identified as one’s ability and desire to learn, with a willingness to utilize the acquired knowledge for leadership challenges. While several consulting agencies utilize measurement tools for assessing and predicting learning agility for leadership potential,

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The Agile Startup Week 4: Marketing, Publicizing, Evolving

The Agile Startup Week 4: Marketing, Publicizing, Evolving

The continued marketing push appears to be yielding results for the nascent startup GILD Collective, which just finished its fourth week as members of the Cincinnati-based startup accelerator The Brandery. That’s important because getting the word out about your product or service is a top priority for any startup. And what most people who haven’t dealt with or been a member of a startup don’t realize is that marketing often occurs simultaneously with actually creating one’s product or service. It’s part of the reality of startup life that makes agility so important, as startup leaders must be able to sense and respond rapidly to their market.

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This Week in Agility Research: July 3, 2015

Here are a few items of new agility-related research that popped up on our radar this week. 

Strategic agility of Korean small and medium enterprises and its influence on operational and firm performance

H Shin, JN Lee, DS Kim, H Rhim - International Journal of Production Economics, 2015

Abstract This study explores the nature and role of agility as a strategic intent and its 
influence on operational and firm performance. Combining field interviews with the literature 
review, we develop theoretical connections between strategic agility of Korean small and ...

 How Jihadist Networks Maintain a Persistent Online Presence

A Fisher - Perspectives on Terrorism, 2015

... After identifying three elements which underpin the Swarmcast—Speed,Agility and
Resilience—the article concludes that future policy to counter the dissemination of Jihadist content
must challenge the Swarmcast on a strategic level. ... Swarmcast: Speed,Agility, Resilience. ...

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