"Regardless of the forthcoming storm, we have a choice as to how we tackle the climb ahead"
With The Light and Fast Organisation, Patrick Hollingworth has written a wonderful book using inspiring mountaineering stories outlining how this sport has changed with the advent of alpinists. These stories provide wonderful backdrops and, coupled with Patrick’s use of individual and organisational theories and practice, provide great food for thought for individuals and organisations seeking to transform themselves to ensure their ongoing and future sustainability.
The Big Idea
Rethinking how we think about change
"Rather than trying to manage change in a workplace, you and your organization need to move with the change."
Patrick outlines the globally shifting landscape, identifying that we are living and working in a world in which Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA) are the norm. It is interesting to read about the variety and number of global events which indicate the need for us to look at new models and approaches in running and structuring our organisations. It is noted that existing organisational structures and approaches to change are outdated and will not serve to support organisations sustaining themselves for success in the 21st century and beyond. Currently, many of us are spending too much time trying to control the changing environment with old fashioned methods. Patrick highlights the importance of needing to adapt to and change with the external changes we are facing. To do this he suggests we need more flexible structures and employees who have a ‘who dares wins’ attitude which is developed through encouraging all our employees to have greater opportunity of being involved in meaningful work. It was interesting to read that employee engagement has flat lined at 30% globally and this a threat for organisations seeking to succeed in a VUCA world. This is partly due to a lack of trust in organisations between employees and their leaders. For me, this was another example of how important it is for us to rethink how we think about change and seek to empower and encourage everybody to step up and pull together as a team in helping their organisations achieve success. For Patrick this is analogous to moving from a mountaineering style to alpine style organisations. A key aspect to achieving this requires leaders to recognise that their people are critical to helping them attain success and it requires increasing the degree to which their employees are:
- Engaged – enjoy what they do
- Inspired – love their job
- Destined – born for it
Embrace experience and working with others
"The alpinist is heavily reliant on their own and their partner’s experience which have been developed over a lifetime’s commitment to the mountains…the alpinist has practiced for 10,000 hours."
A lot of people I meet and a lot of organisations are talking about the need to increase their agility. One of the messages I loved in this book was that to be agile one must have developed expertise, that it is this expertise which enables us to be agile and consider changing environments differently. Again, many talk about the need to be and to build resilience in managing and coping with change. Patrick suggests that to become an alpinist it is critical to develop anti-fragility. He defines resilience as being robust in the face of change and bouncing from it, i.e. not changing or adapting. Anti-fragility is defined as changing and improving as a result of the change that is being experienced, which is what defines the alpinist approach as opposed to traditional approaches to change. An additional requirement to be truly alpine is to have the ability to partner, to collaborate with others in striving for success. A transformation model is presented which identifies five stages to becoming an alpine organization. The stages are:
- Unaware – lack of awareness (of self, others, external environment)
- Reactive – focus on self
- Dependent – recognition that others can help
- Independent – self-reliance and responsibility, understand the outside world cannot be controlled, it is how the individual chooses to respond
- Interdependent – collaborating with others at this level, keep checking on themselves, others and the environment
Take time to decide what to do next
"We have a bias for action and for getting started on things straight away… But that approach will no longer serve us if we want to thrive in the VUCA world. We need to go back to the box, get out the instructions and sit down and read them… we need to slow down before we can speed up."
This was another great message in a book full of great takeaways. Sensemaking is an important activity to support effective decision making, it also requires more attention being paid to our environment rather than relying on our intuition or other heuristics (biases) to reach quicker decisions. Patrick points out that our biases can mean that we ignore factors and thus our decisions could be improved by taking more time to make sense of our environment and what is happening in it. For me, the other takeaway was that the process of sensemaking requires the ability to collaborate and work with others in testing our assumptions based on the facts we have considered. I do think it is this that encourages our agility as we are not forming decisions in isolation and then feeling unable to change them based on feedback from others. Patrick references the work of Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) who found that our bias is for fast thinking which makes extensive use of our intuition and biases, and that the brain is reluctant to use slow thinking as it is rational, deliberate and steady. Yet it is slow thinking that is best for complex problems and thus critical for adapting to and succeeding in a VUCA world.
The stories and Patrick’s writing style have stayed with me since reading his book. He has cleverly interwoven many complex and different approaches to create his view of things and developed simple and pragmatic models for individuals and organisations to help them in remaining viable into the future. This was a hard summary to distil into two Insights and I do believe there are many others that other readers would find interesting. For me, I am excited to review how we do change, looking at how to enable organisations to move through the steps towards becoming an alpine organization, and acting with deliberate decision making rather than feeling that making speedy decisions is the only option for agility in a VUCA world.