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Flexibility, Agility, Innovation (Part 1)

Flexibility, agility, and innovation are qualities most leaders and organizations want to acquire or amplify. Since these dimensions are not labeled as such in Leadership Circle Profile reports, it may seem that our assessments are not as effective as they might be at helping leaders and organizations make significant improvements in these areas.

Quite the contrary.

The Context

Leadership and organizational flexibility, agility, and innovation are a key focus in organizations today, and with good reason. In the most recent 2010 IBM CEO study, which is based on the interviews of over 1,500 CEO’s worldwide, two primary themes emerged that had not appeared in previous studies. The first theme was managing complexity and the second was developing the creative capacity in the organization to innovate in response to the shifting marketplace demands—in a world of escalating complexity.

Leaders have been talking about the increasing rate of change for years, but escalating complexity is a new and emerging trend. Simply put, not only is the rate of change increasing, but so is complexity. Escalating complexity results from rapidly shifting marketplace dynamics in a global business environment of increasing uncertainty, ambiguity, volatility, and market disruption. The IBM CEO study stated that, “Most CEO’s seriously doubt their ability to cope with rapidly escalating complexity.”

The ability to thrive in an increasingly volatile world depends on the second theme that emerged in the study. CEO’s worldwide are asking the question, “How do we develop the creative capacity in our leadership and throughout the organization to respond to rapidly changing marketplace demands and dynamics?”

These emerging themes and trends place a premium on the very thing some of our customers ask about—flexibility, agility, and innovation. Leaders need to design organizations so that they are flexible and agile in responding to constantly changing markets. Beyond creating new products and services, the organization’s capacity to reinvent itself demands an emphasis today on the kind of flexibility, agility, and innovation that will determine the organization’s success.

The Leadership Circle could not be better positioned to help leaders and organizations develop the kind of leadership called for in the CEO study. The future (we are already in) requires leaders to not only be able to manage complexity, but lead their teams and organizations through it. A future of escalating complexity requires leaders who can innovate on behalf of the organization, redesign the organization so that it is fit for its purpose in this new global landscape, and develop the operational agility to implement change and execute on strategy. The CEO study called this kind of leadership “creative leadership.”

This is precisely what The Leadership Circle assessments are designed to develop.

We need to approach the question around flexibility, agility, and innovation in two ways.

1) Explore how the unique dimensional structure of The Leadership Circle is ready-made for addressing innovation, agility, and flexibility.
2) Demonstrate how The Leadership Circle assessments are designed to enhance the leader’s “Operating System” for the kind of creative leadership for which the CEO study is calling.


How do we help leaders create a more innovative organization when there is no dimension on the Leadership Circle Profile circle called innovation? Simply put, many of The Leadership Circle dimensions are foundational elements of innovation.

For example, consider the Summary Dimension in all of our Profile reports called Achieving. The heart of this dimension includes all the research and theory on high achieving leaders going back to McClelland’s research on Achievement Motive in high achievers. It includes research that has been done in the area of Success Literature. It also includes Robert Fritz’s seminal work on the Creative Orientation. In short, the Achieving Dimension is the heart of the innovative or creative process as described by Fritz and others. It starts with an abiding and purposeful focus on a vision. That vision is distilled into strategy and results, which drive decisions. This is the Achieving Dimension, and it is all about innovating and creating the future. An organization characterized by high Achieving is naturally innovative.

There are many other dimensions of our assessments that contribute to the innovative capacity of the organization. For example, Teamwork and Cooperation are required if ideas are to come to fruition. Courageous conversations are always required in the midst of significant innovation and change. If there is a breakdown in any of these dimensions, innovation can be quickly undermined. In summary, the top-half of our assessment report comprises a whole set of competencies that support innovation.

Flexibility and Agility

Tasked with more than innovation, these same leaders must develop flexible and agile organizational systems—systems that can adapt quickly to rapidly developing trends and changing market conditions. The agility of an organization is primarily a function of organizational design. Are the processes that translate your organization’s strategy into execution designed for rapid change? If not, then the organization lacks flexibility and agility.

For this very purpose, our assessments include the System Awareness Summary Dimension. The focus in this set of dimensions derives from years of leading-edge research and thinking by Peter Senge, Marv Weisbord, Russ Akoff, Bill Adam, and others who have pioneered the field of system thinking and organizational design. An agile organization is designed very differently than one that is slow to respond to changes in the environment and the System Awareness Summary Dimension helps leaders develop the awareness and capability to reinvent the systems that determine organizational performance.

Again, the dimensions in the top-half of Leadership Circle Profile reports combine to form the foundation for flexibility and agility. For example, the dimensions, mentioned above, that contribute to innovation, also contribute to leadership and organizational agility. If an organization can innovate, and its system is designed for that purpose, the organization will be agile. By the same token, if the system is not designed for agility, an organization is unlikely to be able to innovate at the pace of change and escalating complexity.

Reactivity Interrupts Flexibility, Agility, and Innovation

In the bottom-half of our Profile reports are a set of dimensions called the Reactive Dimensions, each of which, if too strong, interrupt the creative, innovative process and leaves the organization less flexible and less agile. For example, when a leader or an organizational culture is defined by Complying, rapid innovation is simply not possible. Complying results in too much caution, bureaucratic thinking, conservative strategy, and stuck action to allow for innovation. The same can be said for Controlling leaders and cultures. The more over-controlling a culture is, the less open, flexible, agile, and innovative the organization becomes.

To sum up, each of our assessments comprises a complete set of dimensions for developing flexibility, agility, creative, and innovative capability in individual leaders and within the leadership system of the organization.

Recently, I was asked to consult to the top team of a global manufacturing organization. The issue that they needed help with was simply put, “We have reached a ceiling in our sales and have been unable to punch through it.” After a year of working with that team, which included the use of the Leadership Culture Survey, the Leadership Circle Profile, the Authentic Leadership workshop and coaching with each member of the team, the organization increased sales by 20%. Their Leadership Culture Survey results jumped from the 50th percentile (the industry standard) to the 75th percentile. In my last meeting with the CFO, he said, “Let me tell you what is different about this organization from a year ago. We just completed discussions about the acquisition of a business that would have doubled our size. As you know, the CEO (the owner of the company) wanted this to go forward in the worst way. He wants to retire and leave a legacy of having grown a very large and successful company. But, when I looked at the numbers, they just weren’t there. This made for a very delicate and politically sensitive conversation. In the end, we decided not to acquire this business and we all felt good about the decision. A year ago we might have made the same decision, but it would have taken months and it would have been a painful process. We did it in three days and it was fun. That’s what’s different.”

Needless to say this is a much more flexible, agile, and innovative leadership culture than was in place a year earlier.

This is the first of a three-part series on how the Leadership Circle can be used to create a more innovative, flexible, and agile leadership culture in an organization. The next Leadership Quarterly will include Part Two on this topic – a case study example of how The Leadership Culture Survey describes precisely what is needed for a specific organization to be more agile, flexible, and innovative. Part Three will explore how The Leadership Circle assessments are designed to embed this higher-order capability into the consciousness of the Leadership system of the organization—to enhance the complexity-of-mind of the leader, and the organization’s leadership system, to be well matched to the complexity of business challenges.

Douglas Day

Author Douglas Day

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