Change Agility: Leadership, Transformation and the Pursuit of Purpose

The author contrasts modern times with thirty years ago when predictability made it possible to apply a relatively mechanistic approach to the design and transformation of large organizations. Although many of the fundamental practices of change management are still relevant and need to be adopted, the volatility of the modern world and the global reach of large organizations make it impossible to have the same control over outcomes that was expected in the past. Complex adaptive systems are needed to cope with the complexity of modern organizations.

Kiran Chitta is the founder and manager of a consultancy specializing in organizational development and global leadership.  He has gained international experience during periods spent working in the USA, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Pacific Asia, and has spent much time helping clients around the world with the challenges that change has presented. He believes that change agility is essential in these uncertain times of global economic transformation, if business and government leaders are to cope with high levels of ambiguity and successfully make appropriate changes in their organizations. Chitta says that this is a leader’s guidebook to change based on both research and professional experience. He says: “We seek to offer a point of view, a model, and a method for the development of change capability for the busy executive leader.”

The book is divided into three sections, the first of which describes and deals with the importance of change agility. The second section gives a more detailed account of what change ability consists of and of the chosen model. Section three gives ideas on ways in which change agility creates a basis for leadership and also for team and organization development. Each section ends with an abundance of brief examples and real life scenarios which are mainly presented anonymously.

The complexity of organizational change

The author explains how complexity science has influenced our thinking about change and he says that an entire global organization cannot have its culture changed directly or overnight just by describing the desired culture. It is necessary to focus on specific issues related to the critical challenges that face the business and that can affect the culture. This is an action-oriented approach rather than a mind-set approach. 

Chitta says that VUCA is the backdrop for change in most modern organizations, VUCA being the acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. To facilitate an understanding of just how important VUCA is from a psychological point of view when leading change, definitions are given of each of its elements in a business context:

  • Volatility refers to the high speed of transformation and change in the modern globalized world of business
  • Uncertainty refers to the capacity for unpredictable events to upset the change process that is required to implement a business strategy
  • Complexity of strategy and change can result in chaos during the execution process
  • Ambiguity refers to the lack of visibility of all of the causes and effects in global business and government which makes it difficult to evaluate whether the actions taken will give the required outcomes

It is impossible to be in complete control at all times. The actions of competitors are hard to predict while changes are being made in your own business. There is more information available than can be absorbed, but it is not always the right information for the decision-making process. In fact the author summarizes statistics and gives us the disheartening fact that the data suggests that there is roughly a 50% chance of success with a major change in a large organization. Strategy deployment is nearer the top with a 60% chance of success, whereas technology and system-driven changes have only a 35% to 40% chance, with 25% of large IT initiatives being abandoned before completion. These are not encouraging figures given the positive intentions with which the initiatives must have started. 

Chitta blames the application of traditional change management methods, which are still frequently used in spite of their inappropriateness for dealing with modern complexity, for the high rate of failure in implementing change. He says that traditional change management practices taught leaders to think of the implementation of change as a journey from a current state to a desired future state which was probably several years in the future. The leader was expected to have a blueprint for the future based on a vision which he would realize with the help of willing and enthusiastic participants. A change in mind-set and behavior was usually required at various levels in the organization. Chitta explains the difficulties of this concept in modern times: “The lived experience of change in today’s world is that there is rarely a precise or predictable destination and that change is very dynamic, constant and multilayered, reflecting the amazing ecosystem that is the modern, global organization.”

From change management methods to change-agile leadership

The alternative to the controlled way of moving towards a conceived end point or outcome is to accept the dynamics of the situation and be change-agile, knowing that there is no fixed starting point or end point for change. It is “just a journey throughout which we pursue an external purpose or a shared mission in the world that transcends internal organizational boundaries.” The author says that we should not think of the basis for change as a “burning platform” from which we have to take a leap of faith into the future as our current positions are becoming obsolete or being destroyed. We need to be always exploring and looking for new platforms for growth and transformation: “Curiosity is the starting point for agile change and for leadership.”

Chitta tells us that leaders need to be open to experience since diverse experiences and exposure are essential to development and to continuous learning that is at the heart of change agility. He says: “A change-agile perspective on the old idea of the burning platform is that organizations need to move from strength to strength and from platform to platform, building new and better platforms constantly as they reach out into the world searching for value.” Change agility requires constant vigilance and adaptability, and the author says that the role of strategy is to help leaders to make constant choices and generate short-term advantages within the encompassing purpose of the enterprise. 

Companies that have failed to adapt include Nokia, Motorola and Blackberry, all of which achieved success, but failed to sustain and build on it by adapting to new circumstances and demands. Competitors adapted more promptly. Brand loyalty is important, but can lose its power if new concepts are created and taken up by competitors. Another example tells of a large retail company that undertook a complete transformation program that was too complex for any one person to design and oversee in its entirety. Chitta says: “The process of change was naturally collective, with ownership for the process widely distributed across a very wide delivery organization.” The change process did eventually achieve success. Clients did eventually receive benefits following a rebranding exercise and an overhaul of the entire customer experience, and the company saw a positive turnaround in market share, revenue growth and profitability, but the process took ten years.

Comparing traditional change management with change agility

Whereas change management seeks to reduce disruption due to change, agility helps individuals, teams and organizations to move away from being prone to disruption due to change. Chitta says: “An agile approach to change helps people move toward being not only able to withstand the negative effects of constant change but to turn it into a constant source of benefit. Effectively they go from being fragile to agile, learning how to harness change through several cycles of change.” He adds that in a highly adaptive, change-capable organization people feel less attachment to their roles, plans and current work than to the underlying mission or purpose of the organization. 

The following table is adapted from the book and compares and contrasts change management with change agility:

Change Management Change Agility
Leader driven: top-down Distributed: top-down and bottom-up
Visionary and transformational leaders determine a future that other stakeholders need to understand and embrace Purposeful and collective leadership has a range of possible and potential futures informed by a diverse organization
Resistance to change to the status quo has to be overcome A sense of status quo is removed
Stakeholders are engaged to commit to the change The change is stakeholder driven and owned
Benefits are realised after implementation Benefits are realised from the beginning of implementation
The project is managed and implemented in stages The project is rapidly prototyped, tested and iterated
A team of change agents drives the change Temporary, self-forming teams enable experiments that will bring about transformations
It is necessary for participants to think themselves into new ways of acting Participants act themselves into new ways of acting

Gaining competitive advantage from complexity

The author says that leaders who demonstrate their practical curiosity and are interested in what is happening in the world at large are more likely to benefit from VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) rather than become victims of it. Rather than ensuring stability as in the past, institutions need to be agile by design. Curiosity with clarity of purpose helps organizations to gain from uncertainty, and the workforce needs to be focused on the need for a clear sense of responsibility in everything that is undertaken as well as a change-ready and agile mind-set.

What we experience in an organization is permanent instability or impermanence that is reflected in people’s jobs and their careers as well as in their organization. Chitta lists features of complex systems with their relevance to change leadership:

  • Benefit comes from disorder and growth occurs because of unpredictability
  • Natural adaptation to changes in the environment occurs through sensing and responding to immediate stimuli
  • Exploration of the environment uncovers clues and data that will lead to growth
  • Complexity results in a tendency to be self-organizing at all levels, both micro and macro
  • Not having a fixed blueprint for the future enables a constant move toward overarching mission fulfilment, one step at a time

The agile leader

The author says that change agility requires high quality leaders and a corporation culture committed to winning. These leaders must be able to cope with the operational pressure that prevails in high-growth areas. They need to be able to achieve transformations while at the same time still delivering results every quarter. Chitta says: “The role of leaders in shaping and enabling successful transformational change in any complex operational environment is to accelerate the journey toward realizable benefits – to stop the train from derailing and ensure that the right people are on the train at every point.” Leaders need to be comfortable with ambiguity and they need high levels of resilience.

The requirement for a holistic approach to uncertainty is manifest in the way managers harness their energy. Chitta says that agility operates in the behavioral, rational, emotional and spiritual domains of human performance, each of which has a different kind of energy input. He adds: “Harnessing all of these types of energy simultaneously can improve performance during times of change or uncertainty.” Behavioral or executional agility enables leaders of change to mobilize resources and keep up the momentum within a changing and volatile environment. Rational agility that revolves around thinking, decision making and reasoning is critical for dealing with organizational tensions and managing them on a continuous basis. Emotional agility, encompassing both self-awareness and social skill, is essential for rallying people round a common cause even if their basic perspectives are different. Spiritual agility enables the leader to keep in mind, even during volatile times, the cause or values that gave rise to the organization’s core mission or purpose. It gives the clarity to enable the sharing of the common purpose with all stakeholders.

Readiness for change

Four levels of energy are outlined with reference to change:

  • Change-agile people are curious, open, and enthusiastic to embrace collective leadership responsibility. They have an appetite for active experimentation and want to change
  • Change ready people are energetic and willing to change because they understand why it is important to try out new ways of working. They are ready to change
  • Change cautious people are open to becoming more energized, but want to see that there is something in it for them first. They do not want to take the lead, but might be led into change
  • Change averse people are wary of change and have had negative experiences with change in the past. They perceive change as a threat that must be avoided or resisted

Particular attention is given to turning negative energy into positive energy for change. The author insists that whatever form resistance takes it is feedback and as such should be heard. He suggests that leaders engage and listen to resisters and also that they differentiate between willful or tacit resistance and genuine concern. Visionary leadership can encourage resistance because of the disempowering effect of a vision that belongs to only one individual or a small group. Chitta believes that participation and involvement in change are important, not only to overcome resistance, but also to lead change authentically as a collective, shared aspiration. As a last resource persistent negativity may have to be dealt with in a robust manner.

Change agility success factors

The author says that leadership and culture are the key drivers of a company’s long-term financial performance and adaptability: “A robust finding in research on organizational culture and performance is that companies that strengthen their ability to adapt, by applying specific leadership and cultural practices, substantially outperform those that don’t.” Such companies are able to change and respond well to external market dynamics and even shape market movements. 

Three change agility success factors are discussed: aspiration, alignment, and acceleration. Aspiration is about building collective clarity of mission and turning uncertainty into opportunity by being:

  • purposeful and creating clear, short-term and long-term goals even without a blueprint to work from
  • integrative and creating polarized perspectives that overcome personal and cultural biases, and reconcile dilemmas in pursuit of purpose
  • inclusive by creating a collective clarity of mission and a sense of unity across cultures and groups.

Alignment is about seeking leverage from diversity and building readiness for any kind of change by being:

  • constructive by creating deep connections with and between others to harness diversity
  • creative and using both personal intuition and rigorous analysis in problem solving and handling seemingly conflicting data
  • versatile and working through networks, but also putting in place streamlined controls, high-quality risk management, and robust decision making processes.

Acceleration is the success factor that builds momentum and generates a sustained response to collective enterprise challenges by being:

  • responsive using both formal and informal processes to take action and achieve goals working across boundaries and mitigating risks
  • adaptive with the ability to shift personal style, communication, behavior and mind-set to deal with new information or needs in the organization
  • resilient, with the emotional capacity to learn from failure and face challenges without faltering, and able to respond to sustained pressure and see opportunities in crisis

Growing change agility

The final part of the book aims to help readers to apply the ideas put forward in the first two parts. The author says that there are many existing models and tools and his purpose is to give his point of view on change leadership in a VUCA world and the way it affects development of leaders and of the wider organization. He adds: “Making the shift towards change agility is itself a path that is unlikely to be simple or linear but complex and iterative.” In giving his point of view Chitta covers much of the ground already covered in the rest of the book, but does so in a way that enables leaders to assess how far they have progressed with their own agility and that of the organizational. There are three major sections which represent three levels of agility: me, my team and my business.

Change agility through personal leadership

The starting point for growth in change agility is clarity on the core purpose of the organization and what it means to the leader, to the team and to peers across the business. A short self-assessment, based on the three major agility success factors, is given to enable leaders to assess their competence as change agility leaders. This includes such questions as:

  • Am I truly committed to the core purpose of the organization?
  • Are my personal aspirations connected to the purpose?
  • How able am I to lead change?
  • Do I integrate different perspectives to manage complex issues, even if I initially disagree with some of those perspectives?
  • Am I adequately inclusive as a leader and genuinely appreciative of diversity?
  • Am I versatile enough in my style to handle ambiguity?
  • Do I constantly help others to align around the need for change?
  • Do I take action with speed, tenacity, courage and commitment?
  • Do I respond appropriately, decisively and sensitively enough to the needs of my team, stakeholders and the environment?
  • Do I adapt sufficiently to both short-term and long-term priorities and changes in plans when needed?

The self-assessment is followed by tips for maximizing change agility based on the four domains of human performance (behavioral, rational, emotional and spiritual). Behavioral agility can only be maximized if leaders are physically active and in good health. They need to prioritize work, reduce unproductive meetings and find time for personal relationships. Rational agility is essential for making decisions, but Chitta says that rational energy should not be overused to the detriment of the other energies and complex challenges should not be overanalyzed or overcomplicated. Minds need a rest sometimes and instincts may point in the right direction. Emotional energy is a source of power for motivating and driving our performance, but emotions must be managed and regulated. The author recommends mindfulness as a discipline and practice to help gain more control over oneself and one’s emotions. Spiritual agility involves having a connection or a sense of purpose beyond oneself and one’s career. It helps to keep things in perspective.

Building winning teams with change agility

In highly agile firms senior management teams do not allow decisions to be dominated by one or two individuals. Chitta says: “The right executives with the right experience are always able to step up and manage the challenge facing the organization. Those senior team members are self-aware enough to know when it is time to lead and when it is time to follow. They understand that each member brings a complementary skill-set to the team and how to leverage the diversity of skills across the team.” Different skills and energies need to be harnessed to build a really great team. The self-assessment for the team includes such questions as:

  • Does my team have a clear understanding of the organization’s core purpose and is it shared across the team?
  • Do we purposefully drive toward this aspiration?
  • Do we as a team have a shared aspiration?
  • How connected is the aspiration with the wider organization’s purpose?
  • Do we integrate different perspectives across the team?
  • Are we inclusive and appreciative of people and views that challenge our own paradigm or views of the world?
  • Does the team have creative ways to address complex issues?
  • Do we have the versatility to help the organization win?
  • Are we as a team able to take action with speed, courage and commitment?
  • Do we adapt priorities when needed?

The author believes that shared purpose is the single most important factor in driving team performance, and this can only be achieved by a sense of clarity around a common purpose or goal that is connected to the common purpose of the whole organization. People in the agile team feel able to express their feelings and opinions constructively without fear of judgment by other team members, and members with different perspectives work together to reconcile dilemmas and manage complex problems. Once agreement has been reached action must be taken with conviction and team members working as one. The author concludes by explaining the place of each of the four domains of human performance.

Building winning organizations with change agility

In an agile organization everyone at every level in the hierarchy contributes to the development of a winning organization. The author says that change agility touches on every aspect of business including strategy, structure, quality of human capital, incentives, tools, technologies, processes, partnerships and locations. He does not believe that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to the design of an organization, but he lists seven areas in which an organization benefits from the ability to reconcile dilemmas and resolve tensions that get in the way of agile performance. These areas are change approach, business planning, risk controls, development of products or services, work style, decision making and priority setting. 

The self-assessment for the business, department or division includes the following questions:

  • Is there a shared aspiration?
  • Are we purposeful as an organization?
  • Do we integrate different perspectives?
  • Are we inclusive and appreciative of diversity of thought?
  • Are we emotionally and practically aligned with a joint plan of action?
  • Do we encourage creativity in how we solve problems?
  • Are we versatile enough to stay ahead of our competitors?
  • Are we responsive to the economic environment and to the market?
  • Do we adapt our strategies and plans when needed?
  • Are we resilient in the face of practical challenges and tests of our courage?

Planning, joint problem solving, and thinking about the business should feel like fun. There should be no feeling of dread at any level and the author says that although the work is serious it does not have to be formal. Less formality can bring out new ways of thinking, higher aspirations and more complex solutions to the company’s dilemmas. Several short-term wins during the course of the pursuit of the main mission give encouragement, and shared hopes and fears and personal stories can help to build empathy. The usefulness of controlled, measured and consistent matrix structures is acknowledged, but Chitta says that sufficient room must be allowed for movement, growth and creativity. People need to be exposed to a variety of problems and business environments to give them flexibility of response. Staying always in the same role can lower the ability to adjust quickly to changing demands. Leaders must show that they care about their clients and colleagues in meaningful ways and maintain ethical standards and human ideals within the organization. 

Conclusion

The author presents a good detailed explanation of the concepts of agility, but the case studies and scenarios at the end of each section of the book tend to be so brief that in many cases they present the results of agility without examining how agility was used to achieve those results. Fewer examples given in greater detail may have been of more use to leaders seeking to introduce agility into their companies. Each example does, however, show agility working within a context, and the author highlights specific aspects of agility in a way that could point leaders in the right direction or prompt them where things might have been overlooked. There is no index and the contents page is minimal.

In his concluding pages the author reiterates that agility is the defining attribute of high-performance organizations in the current era and he suggests that leaders use three personal insights to ensure their continual growth:

  • Reflect on your preferences around change and know your strengths and what you contribute to the organization
  • Relate your experiences of change and your own reflections to the experiences and reflections of others and discuss them with other leaders in the organization
  • Reinforce the behavioral changes you would like to make for yourself, your team and the organization, and identify the key areas where progress could be made. Share these ideas so that others can help you try them out

A climate for change is created by building a shared aspiration to include the core purpose of the organization, integrating different points of view and promoting inclusiveness and diversity. Alignment comes through encouragement of others to engage with each other, be creative, and demonstrate versatility, and acceleration comes from adaptive behavior that drives momentum and produces a sustained and visible response to collective enterprise challenges. Employees respond to being treated fairly, with respect, and as active partners in change.

Abstract

This book review is one of thosuands of pieces of content that make up our curated virtual content offering, Virtual Ashridge. 

The author demonstrates the importance of agility in leadership. Only with extreme agility will leaders be able to introduce and sustain changes needed to meet demand before their competitors can overtake them, and at the same time satisfy shareholders with the desired quarterly results. He explains how leaders must adopt a holistic approach, and how they can acquire agility in their leadership and introduce an agile culture into their organisations.

Reviewed by Ruth Tarplee

Change Agility: Leadership, Transformation and the Pursuit of Purpose by Kiran Chitta

Change Agility