Top 5 Obstacles to Change Agility (& How to Overcome Them)

March 2, 2022
5 Minute Read

The ability to adapt to change is more important than ever—as we’ve seen during the macro events of the last couple of years—but rarely easy. Although some companies embrace disruptive change as an opportunity to innovate, too many other organizations wait till there’s a “burning platform” or revenue at stake to respond to the new reality. What enables some organizations to thrive, while others struggle to survive? And what obstacles and fears get in the way?

To find out, RGP conducted extensive research into the benefits and obstacles associated with organizational agility, incorporating feedback from more than 200 C-suite leaders and employees from 117 Fortune 500 companies. Among the many challenges identified by study participants, the top five had one thing in common: the human element.

Here’s a closer look at those top five obstacles to change agility and the characteristics of human agility that make it possible to overcome them.

1. Changing Employee Expectations

Of all the obstacles uncovered in our research, the most prevalent—by far—is keeping up with changing employee expectations, especially for when, how and where they work. It can also be one of the most challenging to navigate. Beyond the need to adapt the technology and physical workspaces, leaders have to shape their employees’ expectations. And it doesn’t happen overnight.

One research participant likened it to the old saying about leading a horse to water, saying, “You lead people to the water, show them what’s available and why it’s important, and put it into the right context. But at the end of the day, the individual has to really own it and have a passion and believe that this is going to be beneficial for them.”

2. Communication

Another key obstacle to responding with agility is poor communication. People need to clearly understand where the company is going, why it’s important, and what their individual role will be in that journey.

Communication has to come from the leadership and ensure that it’s driven all the way down to the lowest levels of the organization, said Doug Groves, CFO, Iteris, Inc. And it has to be consistent. “Over time, most people understand it and generally are excited about it.”

“It has to be a constant drumbeat. It can’t be just a biannual company meeting with the CEO giving a speech.”

Doug Groves, CFO, Iteris, Inc.

3. Executive Leadership

As businesses adopt more flexible hybrid workforce models and begin to emphasize productivity and outcomes rather than just being present, traditional leadership approaches can get in the way. The old command-and-control approach to leadership doesn’t work during large and sudden change events.

As David Solomon, Executive VP and CFO, Young’s Holdings, succinctly put it, “You have to give control to get control.”

According to our research, companies that distribute leadership are more adaptive when faced with these events, realizing more benefits and experiencing fewer obstacles. “You’ve got to trust and enable your people. That’s going to require a different kind of management style, which includes being more empathetic,” said Aly Sparks, Global Head of Talent, The Adecco Group.

Now of Work obstacles

At the same time, executive leadership drives the work culture, which in turn determines your organization’s change readiness and change adoption. “It all starts at the top,” David Solomon said. “Executive leadership has to put a stake in the ground and say what’s important and what’s not. If it doesn’t, you will have confusion amongst everybody and everything. And when these events happen, the executive leadership has to give absolute clarity to the rest of the employees as to what needs to be done.”

That includes creating an environment where failure is OK from time to time, not catastrophic. Encouraging people to take risks can foster a culture of innovation. And our research found that organizations encounter 16% fewer obstacles when their leaders embrace innovation.

4. Work Culture

Culture has always been a critical factor in organizational agility—but especially now, as companies scramble to recruit and retain the talent they need to compete in a changing world. If you have a negative or inflexible culture, people will leave.

On the other hand, companies with a deep-rooted culture of innovation, fueled by an agile workforce managed with empathy, are 15% more likely to experience benefits from macro events.

“I think at the heart of a lot of this is the culture and the leadership of the company,” said Doug Groves of Iteris. “Companies that view all of their people as leaders, regardless of what their title is or where they sit in the organizational hierarchy, can react to change a lot faster and usually get better results than those that don’t.

5. Change Readiness

It’s nearly impossible to create predefined response plans for unknown events, but you can develop the behaviors and mindsets needed to quickly coordinate, effectively communicate, and rapidly decide on appropriate actions to stay a step ahead.

This is the very essence of Human Agility: keeping your finger on the pulse of your employees, customers, competitors and the world at large, and being ready to nimbly adapt to changing conditions.

To do this successfully, you not only need strong situational awareness, empathy and executive intelligence, but also data to inform the right response—especially now, when so much of the human interactions are happening remotely.

For Aly Sparks that means having a global view into the workforce. “If we as an organization want to move fast when deploying our workforce, it’s really hard to do that because we don’t have that data,”

Research participant Eric Lesser, an analyst specializing in workforce strategy and analytics and the future of work, also emphasized the need to access and analyze organizational data to make the right human capital decisions. He described it as “talent intelligence,” saying, “The underlying culture of flexibility is important, but that flexibility has to be rooted not just in an individual’s insights, but also in the data that people can use to guide those insights.”

Continuous Listening Holds the Key

Continuous Listening holds the key to this data. By bringing together multiple channels both inside and outside your company, you can extract the value at the intersection of “inside-out” and “outside-in” perspective.

The core ingredient in our Human Agility Model, Continuous Listening enables organizations to gain valuable insight into what employees truly need and want. And it allows leadership teams to tap into diverse voices and capabilities that can help their organizations overcome the biggest obstacles to change.

While the pace of change in today’s environment is unprecedented, organizations that see change as an opportunity are better positioned to thrive during periods of heightened uncertainty. Explore our research to see how your organization can adopt this model for Human Agility—and develop the characteristics that will enable you to thrive in the face of the next disruption.

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