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Posted by on Jan 24, 2012

Agile, or Fragile?

Ed Frauenheim has written a tremendous blog on that everyone who feels busy should read.

To be fair, he is actually summarizing work done by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, who wrote in the January issue of the McKinsey Quarterly. But he does a nice job, and here is what he (and they) are saying:

Organizational life, work, pace and culture have stumbled into a condition that they call Strategic Attention Deficit Disorder (yes, SADD). It is characterized by leaders careening from one priority to another, always jumping to the next thing. In the process, they demoralize the workforce and “kill meaning” at work.

This only matters if you care about motivation and people feeling that what they do makes sense. If you don’t mind low morale and employee perceptions that work is meaningless, then you can disregard the piece.

Here’s the kicker: What seems to be driving at least some of this is one of the latest, recycled buzzwords of “agility.”
Who can argue with being agile? We all have to be this way – at times.

The problem is that it has become code for constantly shifting priorities that confuse employees, and who learn to see the pattern of “here today, gone tomorrow,” as the organization grasps for the next new thing. Maybe it will be operational excellence. Or customer-centricity. Or core competency.

Seriously, we can go back in the literature and pull these things out at any time – although it is best to wait until most of the organizational memory is erased around the initiative. (The one that still has not been dead long enough to remove the memories is TQM, and its key word: “empowerment.” When you use those terms with a government group, there is usually a groan, and this dates back to the 1980s.)

The desire for the silver bullet – that one, key linking piece that will forever resolve all the problems, anxieties, confusion and pain – will never go away, I suspect. It’s why a bazillion books have been written on leadership and organizations. Everyone is looking for The Answer.

It also speaks to how our brains work. We are hard-wired to notice what is bright and shiny, something exciting and new. We want to be sure we don’t miss the boat, or incur a threat. So we give a lot of air time to whatever is new, even while not really following through on what is already in place. So agile becomes fragile.

My friend Katherine McGraw calls the age in which we live “global speed-up.” I believe a symptom of the age is SADD, and wise leaders will recognize the problem and perhaps slow the ever-accelerating merry-go-round to ask some new questions.

One of those might be how to get the workforce really behind and supporting whatever the new initiative is. The answer? Engage them in the process. This creates a commitment that makes change efforts more likely to succeed.

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