Hen or egg: Agile people or agile processes
Agile transformation is currently on the agenda of many companies. It is not uncommon for management to say, „We need to become more agile because our processes are too rigid and are preventing us from growing!“ But if you look retrospectively at the companies where agile transformation has not worked, you will find one key factor: understanding the shift to agility as a pure process issue. If we are allowed to design and accompany the digital agenda 2025 at customers, but at the same time find executives who have their mails printed out and, in the worst case, write handwritten comments on these printouts, a certain conflict of goals is already obvious. Also, a patriarchal leadership culture with a high pressure to have every decision, no matter how unimportant, approved by a few executives does not necessarily increase the agile mindset.
Pandemic as an accelerator to agility?
If a company is now forced to make its processes more agile, if an increased degree of digital processes replaces the previously analog processes, and if new forms of collaboration such as video conferencing and an increased proportion of home offices are introduced at the same time, one could assume that this change to an agile mindset will now be anchored by necessity. Unfortunately, in the first few months of the new normal, we are seeing the opposite in many organizations: many executives are trying to revert to old behaviors as quickly as possible.
Personality profile of executives
How can this be explained? The Lüneburg Institute for Corperate Learning studied the Big Five of executives and came up with some interesting results. The Big Five is the standard model of modern personality psychology. They are five stable, independent dimensions that best describe human personality. The dimensions here are extravision, conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness and neutroticism. The personality profiles of the executives show a strong deviation from the agile mindset in three dimensions in particular. A strong expression in Conscientiousness is a normal expression in executives; this results in the demand for detailed, long-term planning and a disciplined, structured and systematic approach with a high need for control and low tolerance for error. This is in stark contrast to the demands in New Work, which call for flexible structures, quick decisions under uncertainty, and for dynamism and improvisation. In particular, however, it also needs personalities who not only tolerate mistakes, but see them as an opportunity for further development. Openness is a central component of agility. A strong expression with interest in new developments, visionary thinking, willingness to experiment and meet challenges with unconventional approaches and thus has the highest correlation to creativity. It also results in critically questioning encrusted structures. In other words, these are precisely the characteristics that can be expected of a modern manager. The investigation shows however that high-level personnel are pronounced here on the average and 30% tend even to the stability as counter part. Compatibility, i.e., a strong emphasis on cooperative behavior, compromise, and the priority of team thoughts over one’s own needs, and the understanding of the manager as a coach and sparring partner are essential in agile structures. Surprisingly, in this dimension the results of the study are comparable to those in the 1990s, which means a strong tendency toward the less compatible and competitive type, who also acts with elbows, enjoys the spotlight and cultivates a hierarchical, status-oriented habitus.
Corporate culture as a decisive factor
One can hardly expect a manager to change personality structure overnight and then become a New Work champion. And if key positions are filled with such executives, transformation projects are doomed to failure – no matter how sophisticated, the agile processes or innovative the digital tools. The human personality structure is considered relatively stable and cannot be easily reshaped or trained. So either appropriate personality profiles are selected directly during recruiting or, with an existing team, a selection is made at an early stage as to who should take a lead role. Every personality has its strengths and therefore does not necessarily have to be assigned to the highest form of agility and highest demands in innovation and change. Identify the right people and take them along on the journey. Cultural architects can be a key to success here.
Transformation to agility should always take both aspects into account both the processes and the people. Therefore, it is recommended to use professionals who can cover both sides. We work here with cooperation partners, such as Innodrei, who work on the digital mindset and thus enable us to implement agile processes and digital tools.
Rainer den Ouden
Partner. ADCONIA GmbH