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Mastering the new Agile Coaching Mindset for the 4th Industrial Revolution 4IR

By Larkland A. Brown
May 16, 2022

The challenge with 4IR is identifying and mastering tomorrow’s skills today…

Like you, I’ve been following the discussions on the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) for some time now. For the uninitiated, the 4th Industrial Revolution (or Industry 4.0) refers to exponential changes in the way we work, live, and interact with one another as a result of the combination of technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, intermingling with the physical world to create cyber-physical systems. One of my favorite articles is from Bernard Marr, a leader in the 4IR discussion: What Is The 4th Industrial Revolution, And What Does It Mean For You?. Another article written more from an Agile Practitioner’s perspective is RGP’s How Business Agility Helps You Thrive in the Age of Disruption. I recommend both pieces as must-reads.

This article is written by Larkland A. Brown, Director and Agile Coach at the Hartford Insurance. Larkland is participating in the panel on Agile at Large Organizations at IIL’s 2022 Agile & Scrum Online Conference.

There’s no doubt about it: the 4th Industrial Revolution is underway. Business transformation in response to the 4IR means that machines will take over some jobs, and even if your job isn’t lost, the skills deemed essential for tomorrow should be the skills we start focusing on today. The 4IR demands new professional skills, and Bernard’s article does an excellent job at highlighting some of tomorrow’s essential skills – especially those that AIs and robots can’t do better than humans.

The common thread from all the 4IR discussions is that predicting the optimal delivery approach for realizing the value propositions of new and existing goods and services, as well as leveraging 4IR technologies to meet customer’s rapidly evolving preferences, is in itself, unpredictable. However, indisputable is the fact that hyper-personalized experiences, products, and services driven by innovative business models are the future for new revenue sources and increased market share.

For the Agile community practitioners, managing change and uncertainty to deliver on strategic goals is nothing new. The challenge with 4IR is identifying and mastering tomorrow’s skills today to optimize delivery of innovative solutions in a coming era of more uncertainty and relentless changes introduced by the 4IR. Many of the 4IR disruptions may still be in the “Early Market” phase – per Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm” MarTech philosophy – but the success of these initiatives will eventually cross over the chasm for adoption by “the Mainstream Market.” Hence, as practitioners, now is the time to be prepared.

Here are my thoughts on some of the critical skills and mindset adoption required for Agile Coaches and Change Agents to be successful in the 4IR:

Transforming to a “Living Organism” Mindset with Business Agility

Operating in a fast-paced world with threats and opportunities requires flexible responses with adaptive strategies, fast performance, and funded innovation. As RGP points out in their article, a Business Agility mindset and agile portfolio management fundamentals will master “strategic agility” i.e. the ability to sense changes in market conditions and adjust or implement new strategies quickly and decisively when necessary.

Business agility mindset begins with a mental shift. Systemic problems call for holistic solutions, and meeting new challenges requires new ways of thinking. When change is a constant, continual course correction is a hallmark of competitive advantage. SAFe’s e-book Agile at Scale: Making the Case for Business Agility describes an organization that’s achieved business agility as behaving more like a living organism than a machine. Industry titans of past industrial revolutions were built on the machine paradigm. Today’s, and tomorrow’s, market-makers are more like living organisms. Machines will seize up or break down in adverse conditions; organisms will adapt. The former grows by adding scale and complexity, which must be managed. The latter grows by transforming itself to function more efficiently in its changing environment.

The Agile Coaches’ credentials for the 4IR would benefit from a successful track record of leading Business Agility transformation initiatives and experience with creating environments for the rapid evolution of people, processes, and technological efficiencies to ensure constant delivery alignment with changing market strategies.

Realizing Benefits with “Roughly Right” vs. “Precisely Wrong” Data Analysis

Managing Big Data – the 4th Industrial Revolution’s currency – is probably the most critical activity for realizing solution-driven value propositions in the 4th Industrial Revolution. Organizations will rely on data analytics to provide business insights for delivering new products/solutions and optimized offerings/services, determining root causes of failures, issues, and defects in near-real time, recalculating entire risk portfolios in minutes, and detecting fraudulent behavior before it affects your organization.

However, sometimes when working with data, perfection can be the enemy of good, i.e., precision can often bring about a false sense of certainty. Sometimes it may be better to aim for being “roughly right rather than to be precisely wrong” in a continually changing environment. In today’s cut-throat business environment, the cost of delay can be so high you may have no choice but to get comfortable with operating on good enough data. We still gather the data, and we are smart enough and bold enough to figure out the logical decision – but then let’s trust our intuition for what the next move should be. As we adopt a continuous planning cadence, the ability to manage uncertainty with incomplete data becomes much more tolerable because we know we will have the opportunity to inspect and adapt at more frequent intervals.

As Agile Coaches, we should look for opportunities to lead industry practices that effectively integrate, store, and builds ecosystems to manage big data from an economic perspective e.g. “Data Mesh”, which favors pushing data as a product, self-serve data infrastructure as a platform, and data ownership and responsibility to local domain teams at the edges of the business. Coaches’ value statements should reflect variants of delivering timely solution responses to digital disruptions brought on by 4IR, resulting in huge benefits, e.g., your niche may read “Created advantage of superior customer insight for an Artificial Intelligence front-runner. Competitive benefits included an improved ability to tap into consumer preferences, tailor outcomes to match individual demands, and, in doing so, capture an ever-bigger slice of the market”. Note that a front-runners’ ability to shape product developments around this rich supply of customer data will make it harder for slower-moving competitors to keep pace and eventually make their advantage unassailable. 

Leaping over the Competition with Innovation

Humans are still better in any industrial revolution when it comes to creativity. So those who can dream about a better tomorrow, forge a new way of thinking, and encourage and empower team members to explore and implement creative ideas will help organizations advance future value delivery quicker.

With the constant urgency for solution delivery, there’s a risk that the “tyranny of the urgent” will override opportunities to innovate. Given the need for relentless improvement, however, organizations must create an innovation culture, including promoting decentralized decision-making to facilitate ‘innovation riptides’ that flows back to program fiduciaries. Given the importance of innovation, as Agile Coaches and Change Agents, our mission is to advocate for dedicated cadence and timebox for promoting innovation and a continuous learning culture.

Some of my favorite examples of companies that have distanced themselves through innovation and creativity while improving their ROI and stock prices include:

  • In 2010 Intuit’s CEO Brad Smith faced a challenging growth prospect for QuickBooks and TurboTax. Intuit launched the “Design for Delight” initiative, which became a key factor for meeting Smith’s strategic goal of improving ROI from 14.7% to 24%. Intuit’s shares also doubled in five years. Intuit’s innovation success was also featured in Eric Reis’ book The Lean Startup (Crown Business, 2011)
  • Under Tim Cook, Apple Inc. has not invented a new, game-changing product like the iPhone since Cook left Compaq in 2011. However, Cook repeatedly touts the fact that Apple built an ecosystem with the best user experience on the planet and is a significant economic market for developers. Cook went on to make his now-famous quote that Apple “makes products for years that people didn’t know they wanted and now they can’t live without.” At the end of 2019, Apple is now the biggest watchmaker in the world (Investopedia 2019) and Apple’s stock price was up 480% since Cook took over. Cook attributes Apple’s success to the culture of innovation, combined with incredible– loyal customers, and Apple’s ecosystem,”
  •  One of my coaching involvement was with a leading financial company that introduced a “Shark Tank” themed innovation timebox on a regular cadence. Developers would showcase their innovative ideas for driving future growth to the executives, who would then select the best bets for future implementation.

The bottom line is that companies that successfully harness technology-driven innovation to drive results in any industrial revolution usually grow revenue at least twice as fast and are twice as likely to increase their profits. Agile Coaches who lead organizations in recognizing the importance of innovation are twice as likely to be in demand (no statistical data here – it just seems to flow nicely with the theme in this section).

Managing the People Enablement Culture

Perhaps the most critical component of managing any change initiative is the human factor. People Enablement culture, built on trust, alignment, and support, is even more important today as companies adapt to remote work and a highly connected world.

The pandemic has taught us that people can be productive no matter where they are based. Smart companies are now reorganizing their workforce and rolling out a people enablement culture built on ‘location-agnostic’ delivery. These organizations are hiring outside their urban bubbles for a more diverse team, increase cost savings, and seizing on the opportunity to rebalance economies. To borrow a famous political phrase, it’s all about building back better.

Of course, the flip side is that working from home and trying to manage virtual learning, needy pets, occasional contractors, etc., takes many to an uncharted territory of stress on mental health.

As Agile Coaches and Change Agents, we should arm ourselves with the tools to recognize mental health challenges and the impact on leading our teams in this new and challenging environment. For example:

  1. Being acutely aware of mental health issues. A recent study from The Hartford found that 68% of employers believe they foster an open and inclusive work environment that encourages mental health dialogue. However, only 42% of employees said they felt their workplace encouraged that open dialogue. There are several ways employers can help bridge that disconnect. Coaches should seek training and education to spot signs of mental health issues and communicate with compassion.
  2. Generate buy-in for your mission, vision, and values. With a defined focus, people care about the essential questions around motivation, performance, and engagement.
  3. Align team members’ objectives with the organization’s objectives (i.e., through KPIs, Strategic Themes, OKRs, etc.), enabling team members to create their own goals to align with org objectives. Play to their strengths and not their weaknesses to leverage their skills and strengths to meet strategic goals.
  4. Recognize team members when they go the distance – Public recognition is a fantastic, no-cost approach that motivates employees.
  5. Develop your team – leaders will have to take a human approach to drive better engagement. 

Thanks for reading. If there are any other critical skills and mindset adoption you’re leveraging to drive changes in these unprecedented times, please share.

This article was originally published on Larkland’s personal LinkedIn and has been republished here with permission.

Larkland is a Lean-Agile change agent with experience assisting Fortune 100 CIOs across the Financial Services, Products, Utilities, Telecommunications, and HealthCare industries manage agility at scale initiatives leveraging the principles of business, technical and transformational agility, along with the skills and competencies of Enterprise Agile Coaching.  His niche is re-engineering the mindset and behavior necessary to catalyze adaptation of business agility, in alignment with the organization’s strategic goal.

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