The Agility Paradox

I have spent many years in public sector service and I am convinced the singular factor limiting real and effective change is something I’ve chosen to call The Agility Paradox.  Agility – the power of moving quickly and easily is a desirable characteristic for those engaged in battles of all sorts.  Using the sports analogy, there are few physical skills as valuable as agility when two equally matched opponents take the field/court.  By virtue of your position as a leader you may very well consider yourself a leader engaged in battle or a competition.  Success in these engagements requires a flexibility and agility, in action and decision making, not often found in public sector work or many businesses.

There are few things quite as frustrating as watching the clock tick or calendar turn as an agreed upon decision begins to gather dust in the inbox of various people well above your pay-grade.  I call this The Agility Paradox because a number of times I have led or been privy to meetings where light and heavy decisions alike are made and the time-to-execute then becomes a barrier to instituting the concept.  How do you push through the paradox and ensure the agreed upon conclusion becomes reality?

Challenges abound through the development of new technologies; threats are increasing from many vectors and we sometimes cripple our ability to respond by getting caught in the paradox of decision coupled with inaction.  The common analogy we hear is the difficulty in turning an aircraft carrier around while heading under full steam.  There have been a number of times where meetings are convened to determine the course of action on a particular issue.  The meetings are productive, in theory, and usually conclude with all attendees being in reasonable agreement about the path forward.

Typically, because additional resources, like personnel, money, or the creation of new positions are required, the public sector machine begins to grind to an almost screeching halt, but not really a halt, its almost like a purgatory like pause.  You know its not going to last forever, but you have no idea when it will conclude.  There are many downsides to ignoring the flexibility required in strategic development (forward thinking) or even tactical engagement; the worst being the inability to institute new responses to issues as they are presented to you.  As a leader, its a difficult reality to stomach.

What steps can you take to ensure your project doesn’t die on the vine?

  • Outline the priorities on a checklist and divide the responsibilities among your key players.  There are few things as menacing as an unchecked box on your to do list (GSD Theory of Productivity – future blog).  Don’t check them off until the task is done.  Sounds simple, but I find it helps to move things along and sometimes motion generates momentum.
  • Periodically (read constantly) query your peers, whose assistance you require, regarding the status of their tasks.  Of course, you hate to be a menace, but there seems to be a stagnation that occurs when key components of a project are in the hands of other bureaucrats (be willing to take partial ownership of a task that belongs to someone else).  Conversely, when you are on the receiving end and assisting with a task try feverishly to complete your portion of the project early or on time!
  • Build it and they will come.  Begin to put the pieces of your project in place as they become available.  Do not wait until you have all the project pieces in place. Momentum is key to getting the project across the finish line.
  • Be a champion for the idea.  Sometimes ideas lose steam waiting in the gates.  Cultivate interest in the project or concept by frequently mentioning the benefits, if acted upon.

The paradox can be de-motivating at times.  Don’t let the slowness of action derail a project you know will increase the bottom line (productivity in this case).  Bureaucracies are by their nature built on levels of approvals.  This environment stagnates the competent execution of agile decision making.  There are some entities (military, companies with a flat structure) who seem to understand that some decisions should be pushed to the lowest levels.  Conversely, accountability must exist anywhere and everywhere.  Conceptually, this allows flexibility and agility to at least be a consideration when evaluating possible decisions or outcomes.

Agility is a skill set, when employed properly, that can mean the difference between countering an issue quickly and effectively or merely holding the issue at bay.  I liken it to the difference between a prize fighter knocking out an opponent in the fourth round, after adjusting over the course of three rounds, or simply lasting the full 12-rounds and leaving the decision up to the judges.  Sometimes your win by decision is not a win at all.

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