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Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity: Collaboration, Communication Are Keys to Organizational Agility

by Robin Gerrow

Like ballet dancers and basketball players, businesses must constantly work to maintain their agility.

Making agility a priority may be the key to helping organizations thrive in the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), according to new research from Dr. Benjamin Baran, of Cleveland State University and the consulting firm Indigo Anchor, and Dr. Haley Woznyj, of Longwood University.

The pair presented the results of “Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity: A Study of Trends and Agility,” at SIOP’s 2019 Annual Conference in April.

With a survey of more than 1,100 business leaders about perceived levels of VUCA, disruptive trends they anticipate, and the behaviors important to promoting organizational agility, the researchers found that employing effective communication and knowledge sharing techniques can be significant in helping organizations adapt in environments with high levels of VUCA.

“Fundamentally, agility is about creating the conditions within an organization for people to self-organize, solve problems, make decisions, and add value to customers,” Baran explained. “Because the world continues to change at an increasingly rapid pace, leaders who insist upon only using top-down leadership and management styles will find themselves and their organizations accelerating toward obsolescence.”

They found that if done correctly, utilizing communication channels and being transparent through knowledge sharing can be valuable in producing agility.

“Our study highlights the importance of effective communication, transparency about challenges and opportunities, knowledge transfer and learning, training, continual improvement, effective decision making, and leadership in promoting organizational agility,” Baran said. “All of these elements play a role in organizational agility. Underneath all of these should be a culture or climate that expects, supports, and rewards agile behaviors.”

Creating agile organizations is one of SIOP’s 2019 Top 10 Workplace Trends.

The researchers were also able to gain insight into what organizational leaders see as serious concerns, such as cyber security, economic cycles, the influence of government on business and big data. Being able to foresee the disruptive trends that will impact their organizations is vital to survival.

“Another important concept is that agility is not just about responding quickly to change—it’s also about anticipating change,” Baran said. “Agile organizations engage many levels of stakeholders in thinking about the future. In contrast to strategy development only involving the top management team, this allows for much greater insight and sensing of what’s going on within the industry and market overall. Also, an organization’s strategy must align across levels, functions, and systems. To use a simple metaphor, everyone must be rowing in the same direction while being able to turn the boat as needed.”

But he warns that becoming agile is a process and doesn’t happen overnight.

“No one magical solution will produce organizational agility,” Baran added. “Five of the top 10 disruptive trends have to do with workforce dynamics. This really highlights the importance of the human component in the changing nature of work. Dealing with these trends in workforce dynamics will require human solutions—all of our respondents’ recommendations for increasing agility had to do with changes in human behavior. Scholars and practitioners in the fields of human resources, organizational development, and industrial-organizational psychology are well-poised to help build organizational agility.”

Baran’s interest in VUCA and how agility can mitigate those issues dates to early in his time in the military.

“I’ve been an officer in the U.S. Navy since 2002, which has given me the opportunity to lead teams and projects all over the world in rather complex environments, from serving at sea in the Arabian Gulf to advising the Afghan National Police and government officials in Afghanistan,” he said. “These are situations fraught with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, and being effective in a VUCA world requires agility.”

He has been able to take that experience and apply it to civilian life as well, working with organizations to understand the implications of VUCA on their organizations.

“The world of work is changing,” he said. “Increasingly rapid technological advancement, globalization, and numerous other forces of change are requiring leaders in organizations to work in more adaptive, proactive, and creative ways. When I talk with executives, nearly all of them express the need for their organizations to increase their nimbleness and speed to remain competitive.”

As the idea of organizational agility becomes more common in the business world, Baran does have some concerns about how those concepts are approached and encourages leaders to be cautious.

“Executives and other leaders looking for assistance in this space should exercise additional due diligence in ensuring that all efforts and methods are based in organizational science,” he said.

“Becoming an agile organization is hard—yet it is highly rewarding,” Baran continued. “The renewed sense of meaning, purpose, and joy that we have seen in people we’ve worked with over the years is truly energizing. The world is better when humans flourish at work, and in this VUCA world, agility is becoming an imperative for that to happen.”

Continue reading Dr. Baran’s research on Agility in “Agility and Agile: An Introduction for People, Teams, and Organizations, “ a white paper he coauthored with Dr. Scott Bible, found at http://www.siop.org/Portals/84/docs/White%20Papers/Visibility/Agility.pdf?ver=2019-06-24-132107-237

Contact Ben Baran at ben@indigoanchor.com or www.indigoanchor.com. The SIOP Consultant Locator also has listings for industrial and organizational psychologists who can provide insight on a wide range of workforce topics.

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