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The Secret Key to Performance: Inner Agility

Organizations strive to optimize their products and services, to perfectly cater to their customers' needs, and surpass expectations when possible. To this end, they set change objectives, tune work processes, and reconfigure the architecture of their organizational structures. And yet, too often the expected impact or change doesn't materialize. Sometimes their performance doesn't improve at all. Why?

When in transition, organizations often forget that the essential factor in change is people. And people are often afraid of change. That's why organizations should explicitly focus on helping people develop inner agility, because, without it, lasting change won't occur. Leadership plays a key role in modeling this inner agility, but for a successful transformation, each individual must take responsibility.

This article is published in AGILE NXT. Agile NXT is the magazine full of inspiration for professionals on the emerging Agile journey. Theme of #2: New Insights for Agile Performance Management.

The_Secret_Key_to_Performance-_Inner_Agility AGILE NXT Xebia

People are stuck on autopilot
A change process requires building a bridge between the known and the unknown, between the familiar and new. To make this possible, people have to leave the beaten track and let go of their certainties. That's challenging because people and groups are inclined to cling to the familiar and to act out of habit. Change requires self-awareness: which beliefs, motives, opinions, fears, and needs, are the basis of my behavioral patterns? Are they useful, or do they impede the transformation that is needed now?

It's all about personal leadership and inner agility
We all bring our life lessons and experiences with us to work. That's the basis for our behaviors and actions, whether conscious or not.  When things get challenging or problematic, it triggers our defense mechanisms—strategies that allow us to avoid feeling or facing an uncomfortable or painful reality. These strategies often lead to avoidance behaviors, such as not being fully open, or not voicing our genuine opinions, or evading personal responsibility. This (unintentionally) sabotages the transition progress and performance.

The only way we can create change within our workplace is by first focusing on ourselves. We should look at ourselves to see what we do to keep ineffective interaction patterns in place and how it affects our performance and interpersonal relationships.

Developing personal leadership empowers us to speak out and show ourselves without masks. It employs genuine curiosity without judgment in an attempt to understand another.  It draws on our courage and trust, to say what we experience in our inner world, and to listen openly to the response of the other. It's the key to improving cooperation and performance within teams and organizations.

Creating the right culture
Developing personal leadership and increasing inner agility are personal choices that can't be mandated by an organization. In fact, making it seem that it's the people who have to change while the organization stays the same would be counterproductive.  Still, organizations clearly have a crucial role in stimulating and facilitating inner agility. They can do this by creating a safe culture in which people are invited to be open about what is going on within themselves and where relationships and interactions are valued for their quality. Leaders embody the (unconscious) values and norms of an organization in their behavior, so they have to lead-by-example for a culture change to take place.

Powerful approaches for development from the core
How can an organization stimulate people and teams to grow from their core? There are three powerful approaches to bring about sustainable change in people, their interaction patterns, and the quality of the collaborative relationships:

1. Slow down to speed up
Getting out of ingrained behavioral patterns takes awareness. This requires slowing down; to take time to perceive ourselves and reflect. In an organization with pressure to perform, taking time to slow down seems like a counter-intuitive solution. Nevertheless, time for reflection is the catalyst for the eventual change.

Take some time before every conversation or meeting to get clear on what it is that you want to achieve or contribute. Even more importantly, get clear as to how you’re going to do that effectively. Encourage participants to openly express their intentions to each other in a brief “check-in.” Develop the habit of reflecting afterward, preferably together, but at minimum alone. What went well? Where did we miss an opportunity, or where did emotion get in the way? What can we do to fix this?

2. Make the invisible visible
In conversations and meetings, we often get absorbed in the tasks at hand, discussing practical matters. But for sustainable change to occur, it’s important to make behavior and underlying beliefs, motives and needs explicit in the here and now.

Invite people to speak freely about what matters to them and about their tendencies (to fight, flight, or freeze). Explore and define any underlying needs and encourage an open dialogue. Ask for open feedback on how our own and each other's behaviors, and how it affects us.

Get a shared understanding of everyone's role in the interaction patterns. Ask each other questions such as, "What gets you in a flight, fight or freeze mode and what do you need to inspire your best work? What are we creating or maintaining together in our collaboration? Does this get us to our destination?"

3. Learn to love the difference
As human beings, we tend to appreciate what we know, and so clear personal preferences are created in collaboration with colleagues. We tend to avoid others who deviate too much from what we like or know. But this strategy keeps us from gaining valuable knowledge and wisdom. Differences can be the starting point for creativity, new possibilities, and personal growth.

Make an effort to seek out opposing views in your organization and in conversations. Be inquisitive and publicly praise different opinions. Asking in-depth questions and making sure the other is understood are important skills—changing team interactions from “yes, but...” responses, into, “Can you tell us what you mean and why it's important to you?”

Develop the habit of self-reflection when getting irritated by someone who is, act, or thinks “differently.” Ask yourself, “What does my irritation with this say about me?” Self-reflection in these situations often leads to a difficult or uncomfortable part of ourselves. And that's where our opportunity for growth lies.

To ensure an Agile transformation is truly successful, focus on developing inner agility in all roles and levels in your organization. Leaders should set an example. Find the courage to be authentic in moments of contact, and open about any triggers or dilemmas. Invite and stimulate all employees to follow. Everyone should share the responsibility to make the transition a success.

Slow down, make the invisible visible, and learn from your differences!

Agile NXT Xebia

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