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First be nimble: How leading companies adapt, innovate and perform in a volatile world


The business world has a new language. Instead of annual plans, three year strategies and sustainable competitive advantage we hear of disruption, uncertainty, speed and ambiguity.

Some call it a ‘perfect storm’; a mix of new technologies, financial crises, emerging markets and changing social values that confront companies like never before.

Many are struggling but some are thriving. Why?

From a year’s researching and writing a new book, my view is crystal clear: the winning companies are infusing agility and adaptability into their leaders, teams and business model.

The strugglers are clinging to old models of management hierarchy, technical problem solving, and protectionism that see them slowly wither and die.

Five principles describe what the leading edge is doing to create these nimble and adaptive businesses.

1. Co-create: think one team

While the laggards ring fence their companies and arrange their teams like ‘experts in silos’, the breakout firms scour their networks for partners with whom they can scale up and accelerate their businesses.

Some buy those partners like Foxtel acquired Austar, while others crowd source such as Coca Cola did to gather videos, illustrations and animations for their global “Energizing refreshment” campaign. All of them are ‘guns’ at one team partnering inside their businesses.

KEY MESSAGE: business is a team game, either you think ‘one team’ or you are out on your own.

2. Build to flex

Nothing slows down a company more than layers of bureaucratic rules and decision filters.

Agile organisations have always shunned lots of rules and instead have been guided by a simple game plan hardwired to core values and principles.

You can adapt fast when people know the game plan, have just-in-time information and are empowered to act.

KEY MESSAGE: Don’t mistake rules for discipline. High performers are incredibly disciplined but they don’t need a rule book.

3. Be brave, not busy

The curse of the modern business world is busyness.

Take a moment to find and read Mark Zuckerberg’s IPO letter. His message is ‘Focus on impact’ and the advice is sage: ‘We expect everyone at Facebook to be good at finding the biggest problems to work on.’

Nimble organisations move fast to make an impact. They accept heat from stakeholders, refuse to allow bottlenecks to slow them down and they challenge conflicting priorities.

KEY MESSAGE: Ask yourself twice a day: ‘What should I be doing to make the biggest impact?’

4. Leap, learn, adapt

The production line approach to innovation is over. It’s too slow, too ‘experts in silos’ to be a serious option in any business.

The leaders are constantly testing multiple ideas and running experiments. Of course that’s not just in new products but anything that can make the organisation (and the value chain) leaner and more effective.

And when you think innovation, look seriously at your business model, not just your products or services. Unfortunately Kodak didn’t get that one in time, but think Apple i-Tunes store or what Amazon has done to the bookstore (or what Kobo might do to Amazon?)

KEY MESSAGE: Nimble teams learn fast; they don’t wait for certainty.

5. Let go: welcome the squirm

Let me be blunt. I’ve worked in the big consulting firms that generate huge fees from change management programs. Bad luck: game over.

Nimble organisations instil change resilience by infusing ‘one team skills’ like partnering, collaboration and debriefing into their business. Why? Because nimble organisations are constantly in transition: ending something, exploring a few things and embracing the new.

In a nutshell, they are good at letting go and they know that endings make you squirm so being in a team speeds up the transition.

KEY MESSAGE: Nimble means change. Top businesses are investing in developing change resilient teams who let go and welcome the squirm.

Wow. There is a strategy!

A year of writing and researching made me decide to call the new book First Be Nimble. The reason is simple.

In a disruptive world the only sensible business strategy is to create an agile and intelligent organisation that can handle anything that the volatile business world throws at it.

Graham Winter is the best-selling author of Think One Team (Jossey Bass) and three-time chief psychologist for the Australian Olympic Team. Contact him and his team at Think One Team International www.thinkoneteam.com or [email protected]. First Be Nimble (Jossey Bass) will be available on September 1, 2012.