On the road to Abilene

By Mary Henson, chief executive of the Agile Business Consortium | 16 August 2017

Mary HensonAs leaders struggle to identify the risks and opportunities associated with the Brexit world, amidst an unprecedented level of change and uncertainty, it’s clear the importance of knowledge has been replaced by the need for excellence in communication and collaboration. These are the competencies that will help organisations manage the skills crisis and move forward successfully in a world where disruption is ‘the new normal’. 

Recruiters need to be aware that traditional methods of recruitment and promotion, based on existing knowledge, are no longer the key to success. Talent strategies should be built around agility, adaptability, and the ability to interpret and respond to a business context that is in a state of flux. 

To ensure organisations have the right competencies for strategic success, HR departments should invest in people that understand what motivates individuals and teams. In fast changing times, talent acquisition plans need to recognise the increasing importance of effective collaboration in building business agility, and understand the competencies that contribute. Without the skills to communicate and collaborate, even the best strategies are at risk of being unravelled by that most basic disrupter of all – ‘the human condition’.

Humans are social animals and people yearn to feel that they ‘belong’ to a group. If someone appears to be an outsider, the ability to empathise and try to understand that person drops. Feeling connected to the group is critical and is closely linked to trust, which is vital for effective collaboration and the sharing of information. Understanding the impact of this on behaviour and performance will influence outcomes far more than knowledge.

Where teams are co-located, it’s more straightforward for leaders to build an understanding of team members and stakeholders. Increasingly, the drive to match skills to strategy, or achieve 24-hour productivity, results in teams being geographically distributed. Here, leaders need to appreciate how differing cultures may affect communication, to ensure people are kept ‘in the loop’ and do not feel excluded. For instance, video conferences calls will generally support team bonding, but for team members in different locations and from different cultures, written communications may provide the time needed to absorb details and fully appreciate meaning. Agile businesses tend to place more emphasis on empowerment for distributed teams, as traditional command and control methods find it difficult to cut through cultural barriers.

Human behaviour can appear very irrational. Have you ever agreed to something that you felt wasn’t really the best idea? This is called the Abilene Paradox, from Jerry B. Harvey’s 1974 article The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement. 

Harvey tells a story about a family who set off on an uncomfortably hot, unsuitable, and ultimately unsatisfying trip to have dinner 53 miles away. Everyone had agreed to it because they thought the others wanted to go, even though they themselves privately preferred to stay at home. After their return, the truth came out and ‘the group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted.’

The point is that as individuals we are quick to assume our opinion is in the minority and so we often choose not to voice our real judgements. Where the group consensus appears to say “yes”, we feel uncomfortable about being the sole voice who says “no”. Leaders need to recognise how this undermines collaboration and prevents people contributing to the best of their ability. 

PathWhere change is frequent and fast, effective collaboration is essential to build and maintain a common vision that avoids effort and investment being fragmented across divergent goals. Communicating continuously and clearly ensures that team members do not feel their productivity is threatened by ‘moving goalposts’ and can work together to get the best results from changes as they occur. 

Tried and trusted methods are undoubtedly safe options, but the power to innovate and to embrace new ways is what helps organisations survive. Following well-trodden paths was efficient when business-as-usual was likely to be similar to what had gone before. In today’s world, what worked well last year may not work again. That knowledge now has limited value; what counts is that teams are motivated to try new ways, that they feel safe to experiment and take risks, and their enthusiasm is nurtured rather than quashed.  

Change and transformation has become business-as-usual, and to succeed we need to build the skills to create new knowledge continuously and collaboratively. This is at the heart of business agility.


Article published in the HR Director – August 2017 issue

Republished by the Agile Business Consortium