When You’re Agile but Your Employer Isn’t

Many organizations aren’t willing to let learning-agile employees do the kind of transformative work they purport to value.

Published: Jan 21, 2020

The evidence has been mounting for a while: learning agility is the skill of the future.

Defined as the ability to know what to do even when you don’t know what to do, it’s embodied by those who perform well in challenging and ambiguous situations, bring a sense of curiosity to their work, and are willing to experiment with new ideas. Research by Korn Ferry shows that learning-agile workers are promoted twice as fast and are five times more likely to be highly engaged than their peers. On top of that, organizations that employ highly agile executives generally enjoy 25% higher profit margins than their competitors.

Companies often get nervous that they’ll sign off on a risky idea and then never hear about it until it fails.

Still, many companies don’t have the kind of culture that lets learning-agile employees do their best work. They cling to old processes out of fear that new ones will fail—a mentality that can be fatal in today’s rapidly changing business landscape. “To meet the wave of disruptive, even destructive change in today’s workplace, organizations will require agility in their workforce, leadership, and practices,” says workplace analyst Marti Konstant in a new white paper called Happy Profitable Employees. “Organizations, leadership, and staff need to adapt to the pace of change.”

As an employee, you may be agile, flexible, and willing to experiment—but if your employer isn’t, you’re stuck. How do you convince your higher-ups to embrace more agility? Try these four tactics.

Anticipate your employer’s worst nightmare.

When you pitch a new idea, frame it in a way that shows your leaders that you’re not just taking a shot in the dark. Be open about the risks and have contingencies in place. “Outline exactly what is in and out of scope, and follow it to the letter,” says Korn Ferry Advance career coach Frances Weir. “This will increase trust, credibility, and the likelihood that you’ll be allowed to run further with your next idea.” At the same time, you also want to sell the positives. Encourage stakeholders to think about the ideal scenario; experts say pitching this way activates an entirely different neural network from “This is the way it’s always been done.”

Create transparency around everything you do.

Companies often get nervous that they’ll sign off on a risky idea and then never hear about it until it fails. Overcommunicate, even when you think an update or issue is too minor to matter. The goal should be to reassure your boss the whole way.

When experiments don’t work out, talk about them openly with your boss and team, sharing what you learned from the mistake. Research shows that talking about failure—both during the fact and afterward—can help to cultivate closer relationships with colleagues.

Bring outside knowledge in.

Employers’ view of professional development is often limited to HR training. But one way to pursue agility is to seek development opportunities outside the office. When you bring back knowledge that can further the company’s mission, you help them see beyond their own walls.

And there’s another benefit: Bosses are sometimes suspicious of ideas that come from the bottom. When you pitch an idea as coming from an authority or expert, you gain credibility.

Get buy-in from a well-respected person within the organization.

Pitching big changes on your own can be made more digestible by having a sponsor within the organization who believes in what you’re doing. Ideally, this person is someone more senior who has influence in your department or organization and can sway others toward your line of thinking. Culture comes from the top, so finding highly influential higher-ups is critical to changing the nature of the organization.

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