Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers basketball teams, was known for his ability to pivot — keeping one foot in place while moving the other into a different space. This footwork technique, a fundamental basketball skill, allows a player to find an opening on the court. These days, basketball players aren’t the only people who need to pivot successfully. That kind of agility is now a fundamental skill in business, too.
Agile workers seize new opportunities, even if they seem daunting at first. We’re not asking people to take a quantum leap, but to shift — while anchored in a position of strength — to an area that provides more opportunity.
Disruption vs. Agility
Phrases like “disruptive technology” make it hard for our people to embrace change. After all, who wants to be disrupted? That’s why we prefer to focus on agility. At a human level the changes taking place are less about disruption than about updating our operating systems — i.e., continuously learning.
Let’s look at a few real-world examples, starting with strategy consultants. Clients hire strategy consultants to help their business figure out where to invest. In the old days, being able to apply one of a handful of classic strategic frameworks, run some numbers and communicate a recommendation was enough. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but this is the basic project path.
Those frameworks stayed relevant for a long time. Someone who started her career 30 years ago understood that the models she learned in business school would still be useful by the time she retired. Not anymore. Today it is not an exaggeration to say that at some level every company is a technology company, and almost any strategic choice involves bringing some sort of technology to life.
Applying traditional frameworks isn’t enough for clients anymore, and if all they want is to run some numbers, artificial intelligence can do that. So how do consultants remain relevant? What kind of learning opportunities do we need to provide? Continuous learning opportunities, that’s what.
For consultants to stay informed about the latest advances in technologies and the implications for their clients’ businesses, they need to be learning all the time — every day. Learning cannot be confined to special programs during the year, held for a week or so at a purpose-built facility. CLOs and their organizations need to make learning as easily accessible as smart phone apps while promoting the kind of deep thinking that embeds new concepts into a learner’s brain.
Continuous learning isn’t a new idea. CLOs have been working to create continuous learning cultures in their organizations for many years with mixed results. Why haven’t these efforts been entirely successful? Because to make this a reality, individual learners must be motivated to learn — they must be willing to invest their own time and mental energy on a regular basis. And as the pace of technological change has accelerated, that behavior has gotten harder to sustain. To the average learner, the need for continuous learning becomes overwhelming and tempting to put off. Meanwhile, their level of anxiety about falling behind on skills continues to rise.
So how to break this cycle? We believe it is by focusing on a set of enduring human capabilities. By cultivating curiosity, resilience and informed agility we can help our professionals embrace the willingness to keep learning. And by cultivating divergent thinking, teamwork, and emotional and social intelligence we can help support the ability of our professionals to pivot successfully.
6 Essential Pivoting Capabilities
What should we be doing to better enable our people’s success? Whether your organization hires software developers or tax accountants, full-time salaried employees or workers brought in to fill a contingent need, these six enduring human capabilities — observable, universally applicable human attributes — will help your people pivot successfully, no matter what disruptions arise. The more you can help your learning organizations and HR professionals recognize and strengthen these capabilities, the better positioned your organization will be for the future.
The first three enduring human capabilities are essential for continual pivoting. Cultivating natural human curiosity and resilience and keeping informed about emerging technologies helps maintain people’s willingness to pivot … and to keep pivoting again and again as needed.
Be intellectually curious and eager to ask questions. If answers you receive are not the ones you expect, be open-minded and creative as you think about new solutions. Learn something every day — even if you don’t have to. The professional of the future will be imaginative, embracing the desire to think differently and conceptualize a range of possibilities.
Curious people tend to be resilient people — their elasticity prompts them to constantly ask “What am I doing?” and “Why am I doing it?” They also learn from their work, periodically reflecting on what’s working and what isn’t, so they can learn and grow from their experiences. They’re also determined to reach the desired result — for themselves, their teams, their organizations. They have the grit to battle through numerous setbacks. If they stop, it’s because they’ve determined that the task no longer makes sense.
3. Informed Agility
Agile people pivot with ease. But how do you know when to pivot? That’s where the “informed” part of informed agility comes in. Professionals today need to stay abreast of emerging technologies and how they may be applied. That doesn’t mean you need to be able to talk like an engineer or a technology expert (unless you are one!), but you need to know enough about changes in data analytics to discern relevant from irrelevant data. Keep your general business acumen sharp and have enough familiarity with new advances that you can have at least an initial conversation — and then turn it over to the experts.
The next three capabilities support employees’ ability to pivot successfully and, when developed, enable them to operate more effectively.
Working together to accomplish an outcome — that’s something both people and machines can do. But true teaming requires a human element. Compassion, vision, influence, clear communication and judgment — all human capabilities — make a high-performing team greater than the sum of its parts. These capabilities are essential when collaborating across boundaries, whether geographic or organizational, and when the “team” includes a mix of humans and machines.
5. Divergent Thinking
While computers can analyze historical patterns to predict future outcomes, they can’t make the nonlinear leaps of logic that humans can. We can identify and analyze multiple pathways, making connections that may not be supported by previous actions. We can analyze and conceptualize disruption. And our judgment capabilities allow us to understand the practical and ethical implications of the decisions we make. Technology looks for the most efficient route, but humans can recognize the intangibles that indicate the most efficient path may not always be the most effective.
6. Emotional and Social Intelligence
Sensors, facial recognition and artificial intelligence may someday make it possible for a machine to “read” a room — to know if someone is bored or, worse, offended. But only humans can express genuine emotions and interact with colleagues in an authentic, morally grounded way. The emotional and social intelligence we bring to the table supports our personal and organizational values — including diversity and inclusion. It helps us create a culture that engages our fellow colleagues and helps us all grow.
Enhance Your People’s Pivoting Capabilities
Have you ever been dancing and done too many turns in a row? If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll get dizzy pretty quickly. Dancing teachers tell their students to keep their eyes on a fixed point when they turn — that keeps your head clear.
The same logic applies to the pivots professionals will encounter in the rapidly changing environment we’re in today — and will stay in for the foreseeable future. Encourage your people to keep their eyes fixed on the ultimate goal.
Whether people choose to focus on “disruption” or on change is what will ultimately determine their success in the working world of the future. Yes, technology and its features change so rapidly that the knowledge we gain today could be obsolete 18 months to five years from now. If you think of continuous learning as a burden, you’re not going to be very happy. Instead, look at it as an exciting opportunity to grow — then you, your people and technology will get along just fine.