Article by Dr. Stefanie Puckett
We observe nimble, innovative startups and look at large yet agile companies. They found a way to empower their people to deal with VUCA challenges, and it is grounded in their working culture. The three elements that determine their success provide an orientation for our own day to day work life.
Why we need to break the cage and free common sense
In 1966 a psychological researcher, Stephenson, conducted an interesting experiment with learned responses among Rhesus Monkeys. A quite popular tale emerged over the years that illustrates the findings: The researchers hung Bananas on the ceiling of the cage where a group of monkeys was living in. The bananas where placed high enough to be kept out of the monkey`s reach but a ladder was place right underneath. When the monkeys climbed the latter to get to the bananas, they were sprayed with water. To avoid that, the monkeys stopped climbing the latter and started to ignore the bananas out of their reach.
Now the researchers introduced a new monkey to the group. This new monkey saw the bananas and the ladder and made a move for it. And didn`t get far. The members of the group hold him back and prevented him from using the latter. Again, the group, including the new member ignored the fruit. Again, a new monkey was added to the group. Saw the bananas, saw the ladder and made his move. Again, the group prevented him from getting their. Including the monkey that had never been sprayed.
What had happened? Culture happened and formed a cage
The monkey story illustrates, how we operate in groups. And in teams at work. We gather experiences of what works and doesn`t work. We deduct a way of working that works best under the circumstances and collectively, build a norm. This is exactly what happened in our organizations over decades of operating in stable and predictable environments that allowed to focus on stability and efficiency. Today, our desks are placed within these perfectly smooth operating machines. Built in the past. We avoid risks, we don`t think too crazy and stay insight the box, we follow processes and keep building on to them.
Then VUCA happened
All of a sudden, so it seems, VUCA happened and disrupted our way of working. New ideas require new approaches. The need for innovation needs to connect knowledge and thoughts insight the company and outside, calling for silos to open and boundaries to give way to flexible and networked based operation. Connected solutions require connected people. The speed and intensity of disruption on the market calls for immediate responses. Complexity and customer centricity call for creativity, inclusion and collaboration on equal footing. Fast adaption and reaction to feedback calls for teams that are empowered to do so.
The Agile Culture Code that breaks that cage
Companies that managed to live up to the VUCA challenges, have three elements in their way of working in common, which are described in the TEC model Agile Culture Code (Puckett, 2020). The model shows: it isn`t us, that need to change, it is the organization. Since surprisingly, they mirror our common sense when it comes to achieving our personal goals.
When we think of a time or an endeavor in our personal lives where we were particularly satisfied and successful in achieving a goal or mastering a challenge, chances are, it was pretty "TEC-like.":
- We knew our way around and had all the information we needed to plan, set goals and make decisions (Transparency).
- We set our own goals, determined what we wanted to tackle, when and how, and made necessary adjustments along the way (Empowerment).
- We were not alone but had people around and with us who we could ask for advice, who we bounced ideas off with, who shared their knowledge, who challenged and supported us or maybe just gave us a hand (Collaboration).
To develop our skills to master VUCA in the workplace and in our own life, the TEC model can be a guide that supports us in setting ourself up for succes.
The TEC Model
Pillar 1: Transparency
Transparency promotes trust and eye level, as it enables the same level of information for everyone. Thus, it enables strategic thinking at all levels of the organization. It consists of:
- Information: transparency with information and data
What information or data will help me develop ideas, work more effectively, or meet customer needs even better?
What do I need to know, what should I be informed about in order to really act as an expert in my area of responsibility?
- Intention: transparency with intention and plans
Do I know what my company stands for?
Do I know the intentions and reasoning behind the company's strategic and operational plans and decisions?
Do I trust the decisions and am I myself able to find ways to implement the intentions?
- Effect: transparency with results and impact
How can I see how successfully and effectively I am working and how I can create even more value?
Do I know what concrete effect my work has - for the customer (internal/external), colleagues, the company and beyond?
Pillar 2: Empowerment
Empowerment enables employees to put their knowledge and ideas into practice. And they do so on their own responsibility. Executors become creators. Empowerment consists of:
- Freedom: freedom to adapt and create
Freedom to adapt and create.
Do I have control over my work?
Can I determine what I want to tackle, how and when?
Do I have freedom in how I organize my work - where and when I work, how we distribute and control tasks as a team?
Do we have the opportunity to get creative and try things out?
- Enablement: empowerment to take charge
Can I make my own decisions about all aspects of my work?
Find and set goals for myself and act strategically?
Can I initiate and implement change without having to ask permission?
- Ownership: ownership with a bias toward action
Is there the possibility to take end-to-end responsibility for a (perhaps even self-initiated) project? Can I be entrepreneurial within the scope of my employment?
Pillar 3: Collaboration
Agility cannot deliver its full business benefits in an organization full of silos or even lone wolves. Complexity and volume of available data can only be managed with multiple minds. Innovation and responsiveness need flexible and networked collaboration structures. The same goes for the learning organization. Three facets are necessary:
- Exchange: collaboration through exchange and sharing
Do I know what knowledge, experience and competencies are available in the organization?
Do I have access to it when I need it? And do I share my knowledge?
Do we exchange ideas to discover synergy opportunities and develop ideas?
Am I well networked with others?
- Contribution: collaboration through contribution and flexibility
Can I contribute my talents and skills where I can add the most value?
Regardless of the department, team or role?
Is this recognized and rewarded?
When it comes to speed in developing an idea or implementing it - can we combine forces quickly and efficiently?
- Learning: collaboration through learning and growing together
Do we talk openly about successes and failures?
Do we reflect together and look for ways to become better or adapt better to changing circumstances?
Do we develop a little further every day?
Do I support others and help them to grow?
Often, small changes make big differences. And every change, starts with us.
The book “The Agile Culture Code” provides further insights and hacks that can be applied by everyone who wants to make a difference at work or build up their own competencies to successfully master out VUCA world.
Puckett, S. (2020). THE AGILE CULTURE CODE – A guide to organizational agility. BusinessVillage.
Puckett, S. (2020). Der Code agiler Organisationen - Das Playbook für den Wandel zur agilen Organisationskultur. BusinessVillage Verlag.
Dr. Stefanie Puckett, psychologist, has lived and worked globally for several consulting firms, in management and global roles for a Fortune 500 company, and ran her own business. Agile transformation has become her passion as a consultant and executive and agile coach. Stefanie is co-author of “Agile Leadership – leadership competencies for the agile transformation” and author of “The agile culture code – a guide to organizational agility”