Agility over Size

“It’s not the big that eat the small; it’s the fast that eat the slow”

This was one of the key messages delivered by HR Thought Leader, Dr. John Sullivan, at the Australasian Talent Conference 2012.  The “New Normal” is the idea that tomorrow’s environment will be different, but no less filled with opportunities- and it is the most agile businesses that will anticipate and react to these opportunities.

In the business world, creating the level of agility and innovation needed to compete and adjust to the new normal means anticipating and reacting to VUCA. This military term originated in the 1990’s, but has found its way into management’s arsenal of business vocabulary. But is this just another paltry platitude or a powerful principal? VUCA means:

  • Volatility –  The type of and speed of change
  • Uncertainty – Lack of predictability and awareness of events
  • Complexity – The difficulty of  navigating threats and opportunities
  • Ambiguity –  The indeterminate nature of markets and relationships

Reacting to this quadrumvirate requires agility – agility to react quickly when assumptions change. Corporate natural selection, you say? Indeed – those who adapt will survive.

One way we can manage VUCA is with talent strategies. A workforce arrangement with the ability to react quickly to the new normal will ensure that an organization does not become an antiquated monolith, where the ability to change is hindered unflexible employment agreements. So how do we manage VUCA with talent strategies?  Dr. Sullivan recommends the following:

Things That Talent Management Must Start Doing to Meet the VUCA Environment

Talent management leaders must prepare for disruptive problems and opportunities that cannot be predicted. Some of the action steps that you should take to prepare for complete surprises and the VUCA environment include:

  • Agile employees — Develop as a primary goal a focus on the hiring, training, and retaining of employees and managers who are agile, who thrive in a VUCA environment, and those who have the capability of acting effectively in unforeseen and unpredicted situations.
  • Agile processes – Require agility, flexibility, and a rapid change capability as an essential component in all current and new talent management processes and programs.
  • Self-obsolescence of processes — Require all talent management programs and processes to include a component that continually “self-obsoletes” its own current practices and replaces them with updated ones.
  • Training to solve unanticipated problems — training and development must create the capability to prepare employees and managers to identify and effectively handle previously unknown problems. A high volume of scenario training and simulations can make an employee more comfortable and confident when they encounter a completely new situation. With repetition, employees can eventually develop skills and their own processes for handling “brand-new” volatile and complex situations that are full of uncertainty and ambiguity.
  • Focus on innovation — Prioritize talent management so that it focuses on innovators, game-changers, and pioneers who are essential for success in a VUCA environment.
  • Rapid learning — Develop systems to increase the speed of individual and organizational learning.
  • More internal movement — Develop process to proactively speed up the movement of employees internally to where they can have a greater impact.
  • Contingent labor — Use contingent labor as a significant percentage of the workforce, in order to increase your capability to meet sudden upturns, downturns, and new skill needs.
  • Rapid increase in talent — Develop the capability for rapid hiring for sudden needs through poaching, with pre-identifying talent pools and by building professional communities.
  • Rapid release of talent — Develop the capability for rapidly releasing surplus and inappropriately skilled workers.
  • Fluid job descriptions — Develop continually evolving job descriptions and hiring standards that reflect the continually changing work.
  • Outsourcing for flexibility — Use outsourcing to fill sudden needs and overflow work.
  • Competitive advantage — Develop talent management processes and programs that provide a continual competitive advantage over other talent competitors.

Be innovative to be agile. Creating an innovative idea almost inevitably means being laughed at – if people just nod in acceptance it’s probably been done before.  Being a leader means sticking out; it means being the first person to do something unpopular. How about this for unexpected lesson in leadership:  A “lone nut” creating a movement in all of about 2 minutes…

Let’s recap – the business world is unpredictable and assumptions change. An agile and innovative workforce solution will help manage, react and anticipate this change. How will your talent strategy help or hinder you when change is on your doorstep?


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