Agility Requires Recognizing People Are More Than Their Role

May 12, 2021 | By Donna Fitzgerald

According to the Oxford dictionary, the secondary meaning of the word agility is “the ability to think and understand quickly.” The question is: what exactly is quick thinking in a business context?

For the lack of a better term, I’d call it “intuitive problem-solving.” Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, would put this kind of decision-making in the same class as a master chess player knowing what move to make next. It’s highly-effective, fast-thinking based on both mental wiring and extensive experience.

Everyone has this skill. The problem, however, is that if the person learned the skill in a context other than work, many employers don’t even recognize it, let alone know how to effectively utilize it.

Reskilling versus replacing

Today, companies strive to create an environment where employees are willing to share their expertise. Of course, this is a two-way street — the company must also be ready to trust their employees to use those skills.

To make this possible, companies need to focus on a combination of culture and software. Why software? Because the software serves as the container through which the culture change can happen.

I recently read an article where someone from HR stated that the half-life of a skill was less than five years. The article said that companies should plan on replacing their current employees rather than reskilling because current employees were working too hard to have enough time to invest in training. Ouch.

This kind of thinking fundamentally reduces employees to their role. It assumes that people are only their skills.

Smart companies, on the other hand, realize that people are their greatest source of innovation. They also recognize that long-term employees can offer better ideas—ones that align with the company culture and that best serve the needs of its customers—than new employees can.

If this is true, then the right way for companies to get ahead is to get better at effectively upskilling and reskilling. These abilities will give them a clear advantage over their competitors.

A culture of visibility

The first step is to remove the manager from the critical path and put the employee in the driver’s seat. How can we do this without creating chaos? The answer comes back to software.

While we may not be in the world of smart software, we are in a world where software is learning, and software can take on functions we once required people to do. Software is now capable of acting as the guardrails around the human system.

Imagine a company where every employee can showcase their skills and competencies. Imagine a company where an employee can see the skill profiles that a company believes they will need in the future. This level of visibility fundamentally changes the culture.

If a function is going away, then reskilling and upskilling should be the visible alternatives. Some people won’t take them, but others will, and that’s what matters. Additionally, new professional opportunities will open up based on the changing needs of the company. Many employees have lateral skills that would make it easy to slide into these new positions. Fundamentally, it’s always cheaper to keep the staff (even with reskilling costs) than to continually turn your workforce.

People drive agility

Will more flexible job assignments, reasonable workloads, and skills solve the disengagement and burnout problem I’ve been discussing in the past? I hope so.

COVID-19 showed us that all was not well with the world of work. More flexibility around time spent in the office may reduce some of the stress, but working from home will likely create as many problems as it solves.

So, what will help?

I believe companies need to be focusing on the individual. What does John want, and how can he best serve his company? What does Mary want, and what new skills can she add to her mental toolkit to produce the best work possible? Allowing people to feel necessary is important, as is creating opportunities for people to experience a sense of completion. Having the right systems in place can create an environment where people are no longer tied to servicing a continuous stream of work and can instead find opportunities to make a unique contribution.

Technology has made it easier than ever to make changes in how we manage our employees. I’m betting that smart, forward-looking companies that see the benefit of using the combination of software and new work practices to enact cultural change will grab the first-mover advantage.

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