Agility in a VUCA world

Agility in a VUCA world

Corporate strategy may not be at the forefront of your mind on a sunny day in the middle of summer. But it is always good to know there is one and the beginning of an academic year is the right time to share it and show where you can find it.

This post will describe how we can sustain the health of our organisation during times of unprecedented volatility. We are all living in a VUCA world and it feels much less secure.

Globalisation, rising nationalism, terrorism and the increasing pace of change characterise the period but the best way to define VUCA is by example.

The President of the USA is tweeting policy live and treating successful global trade and policy regulators, such as the WTO, with contempt. The UK is exiting one of the most successful collaborative projects the world has seen and is spending precious time and resource it should be spending elsewhere trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Internationally, the invisible hand of the market is starting to shake with fear.

This has an impact on National domestic policy. The Netherlands*, for example, is potentially making changes to expat tax allowances resulting in seriously detrimental affects for many employees of the international organisations it hosts. We will inevitably lose talent if this policy is enacted.

Every profit and non-profit business exists in their own Local VUCA context. If Brexit leads to more businesses relocating to mainland Europe we may need to provide more school places. If a major client moves from our region – we won’t need as many school places or staff. Which way will it go? And how quickly?

VUCA is a plague of butterflies…

Planning for agility is the only answer.

This book helped me conceptualise what we are doing and what we have already done.

What is organisational agility?

“The organisation’s capacity to respond, adapt quickly and thrive in the changing environment.” (Holbeche, 2015)

Agility is not:

  • attempting to predict the future or mapping out the long term; we’ll leave that to futurologists with jobs that don’t exist yet;
  • austerity – i.e. more work with fewer resources and job losses;
  • an event, speech or a blog post – it is a conscious state of being;
  • possible in a “blame culture” – this kills staff morale. Respect the past and move on.

Agility is:

  • focusing on the immediate and changing needs of our people – students, staff and parents;
  • dealing with “… one problem at a time – removing false or solved problems from the list as you go.” – (Holbeche, 2015);
  • enabling the culture to be receptive to change, to be change-able; with a set of people who understand that things will never be as they were – here, or anywhere else;
  • Engaging every member of the organisation in problem solving.

How The BSN has been agile for the last three years:

Quality and excellence are our core drivers. We’ve come a long way with the five priorities below.

The International Leadership Academy – ILA programmes support strategic agility. For example, pastoral leaders’ front-line experience identified a need for more training in supporting mental health concerns. Rather than sending colleagues to disparate providers at great cost, we have commissioned a programme for our people to share and consolidate excellent practice together.

“Our people are our greatest asset” is easily said but we’re proud that our investment, ambition and practice exemplifies it. There is a war for talent and talent is winning. New recruits tell us the ILA improves our employer value proposition.

Crucially, ILA programmes, accredited by internationally renowned providers such as the Institute of Education, underpin our pursuit of quality and excellence. Colleagues who work for The BSN often leave for promoted positions. The ILA is helping create agile people.

Future School – Our articles of association make it clear that the BSN’s purpose is to provide school places for those who require them. Responding to steady growth is a challenge in a VUCA world. Rather than invest in land and a building that may not be needed in the future we are developing a junior school into a 3-18 campus and a concept for future agility in BSN Connect.

Connect will have large, inspiring spaces with the resources to enable children across our five campuses to learn together in a dynamic, changeable environment. It will become our HQ, housing central services, our Language Centre and the ILA. Connect will visibly support the community and become a physical embodiment of the school as a learning organisation.

Premises, Finance, Security – security fears fuelled by terrorist attacks in Europe three years ago necessitated improved fencing, the hiring of security guards and a Head of Security. We also know how much our community values the quality of their learning environment; there is always so much to do to maintain and adapt our campuses to meet the high expectations of our students, staff and parents.

Assessment – we have been working together to form a cohesive 3-18 learning continuum through a connected curriculum and consistent assessment practice across our campuses. We should be proud that we’re ahead of this project in the face of news that the UK system will finally be emphasising the importance of the broader educational offer in its new quality framework.

Pedagogy and Ed Tech – as I have written here staying up to date with the potential for improved personalisation, without getting gimmicky, meant using the views of students and staff before investing. These really were team decisions.

We should congratulate ourselves on this progress. There is no educational, organisational or business justification for returning to where we were three years ago.

What will being agile look like in the next year? What’s next?

1: Centralise the educational offer – we have a “One School” development plan based on the four priorities below. It is agile; we will evaluate progress half termly and adapt accordingly.

The roundel evolution

Finance looms large as we increase campus autonomy and agility. Managing our premises, growth and business practice also means hiring a Chief Operating Officer (COO) in the next few months.

2: Create / innovate / adapt – we’ll continue to support the flatter, cooperative, co-constructed solutions to problems and barriers.

For example, The BSN App grew from engagement with parents surrounding communication and speedy access to core information about their children. It is a good example of empowered teams finding solutions autonomously, piloting a product and improving it based on feedback.

3: Win the war for talent – local VUCA factors mean that we are likely to lose more people than usual this year and we need to plan accordingly. We need to evolve and speed up our recruitment practice by, among other strategies, moving from “post and pray” adverts to digital sourcing methods. The ILA is also crucial here. Training that is internationally recognised and prestigious matters to applicants.

4: More decentralised services – finding the sweet-spot between campus autonomy and the scaled “one school” approach in order to speed up decision making processes.

5: Engagement over communication – we are full of clever, ambitious professionals. We need to be very clear about what’s happening “on the ground” in order to make the right calls.

Engagement is a two way process. Our people are not a commodity. “Leave me alone and just let me do my job,” is an expression of feeling like one. There is an expectation that colleagues feel they offer more than their stated role in our school. Leadership doesn’t just mean those who are “in charge.” This concept was germane in naming the ILA. There will be a number of new ways to engage this year.

So agility for the BSN means focusing on our core purpose, creating a win-win environment for engaged colleagues, improving services to speed up decision making and innovating with contributions from all sections of our community. It also means letting go of the past and recognising the international, national and local challenges of the VUCA epoch.

And what will I be doing to build my professional capacity? Is there even a need for CEOs in an agile world of teams within teams making decisions? Of course, I would argue, “Yes,” but only if they champion a culture in which everyone can contribute to sustainable excellence.

I’m also starting the National Professional Qualification for Executive Leadership (NPQEL) next month.

I’ve been doing this job for three years and there is so much more to learn. We all need to be agile.



*This policy isn’t directly related to Brexit but it may indicate a subtle shift in Dutch political strategy as it turns toward mainland European partners and politics.