Agility: mindset makeovers are critical

September 27, 2019

Agility: mindset makeovers are critical

unsplash-logo Farsai Chaikulngamdee


In today's dynamic markets, leaders need very different mindsets from those used to manage traditional organisations in less-demanding times.

The divisional general manager looked at me quizzically as we discussed characteristics of agile organisations. I could see the manager, who had led several thousand people over two decades, was struggling to process such notions as autonomous teams, rapid experimentation with unknown risks, and inviting customers into “backroom” design discussions.

In today's dynamic markets, leaders need very different mindsets from those used to manage traditional organisations in less-demanding times. We find that three primary mindset shifts are required to lead agile organisations designed for innovation, collaboration and value creation.

Innovation: from certainty to discovery

Traditional organisations operate through detailed linear planning and control. This works well in a known environment where leaders can foresee the future. This mindset of certainty is about playing not to lose, being in control, and replicating the past.

But today when the future largely is unknowable, detailed planning can be a hindrance. The focus must shift to innovation, continually experimenting, testing, and learning. This mindset of discovery is about playing to win, exploring unknown territory, and creating a new future.

At Illinois Tool Works, a leading diversified maker of specialized industrial equipment, a mindset of discovery has been central to its sustained success over decades. A prolific innovator with over 17,000 granted and pending patents, many of ITW's product innovations emerge from engineer-to-engineer discussions with customers, each focused on developing an ingenious solution to a specific customer problem.

Collaboration: from authority to partnership

Traditional organisations are designed as siloed hierarchies based on a mindset of authority. The relationship between leaders and teams is one of superior to subordinate. People lower down the career ladder defer to and comply with the wishes of people at more senior levels. In return, leaders protect and reward their people.

Designed for collaboration, agile organisations employ networks of autonomous teams. This requires an underlying mindset partnership, of managing by agreement. Such organisations strive to tap into ideas, skills, and strengths through freedom, trust, and accountability, which requires peer-to-peer relationships based on mutual acceptance and respect.

This partnership mindset is central to the success of Morning Star, the world's largest tomato processor. It empowers autonomous teams to operate without formal leaders, reflecting a deep commitment to freedom and collaboration within and across teams. Every year, colleagues negotiate a “colleague letter of understanding” with their stakeholders that formally commits to partnership, accountability, and reciprocity.

Value creation: from scarcity to abundance

In stable, slowly evolving markets, companies seek to maximize their share at the expense of others to boost shareholder value. The underlying premise signifies scarcity; limited opportunities and resources, and a win-lose approach. This mindset is about maximizing share of an existing pie.

Today's markets, however, evolve continually and rapidly, offering unprecedented challenges and opportunities. To deliver results today, leaders must view their markets and businesses with a mindset of abundance that recognizes the unlimited resources and potential available to their organizations. They must grow a larger pie, by continually seeking win-win options that deliver value simultaneously to all stakeholders.

What Apple did after Steve Jobs' return demonstrates this shift to abundance. Instead of continuing to do everything in-house, Apple launched iTunes and then the App Store, inviting what became tens of thousands of partners to co-create an unprecedented ecosystem. By sharing and massively expanding the supply pool in this way, Apple unlocked enormous demand and value potential, enabling it to become one of the most valuable companies in the world.

The traditional mindsets of scarcity, authority and certainty no longer fit today's ever-changing world. They cause us to focus inward and backwards and lose sight of amazing opportunities. Making the three fundamental shifts to mindsets of abundance, partnership and discovery let us look outward and forward, unleashing the full potential of our people and organisations.


This article was originally written by Carolyn Dewar, who delivers large-scale performance-improvement programs that foster culture change and counsels senior executives making leadership transitions; Sherina Ebrahim, who helps consumer goods and medical device companies grow through transformative approaches to strategy, sales and marketing, enterprise agility, and organizational design; and Michael Lurie

Helps global organizations accelerate growth and performance through enterprise agility, top-team leadership capability building, and organizational transformation. Full credit goes to McKinsey, who published this article over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.

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