Brad D. Smith Talks About Agility, The Most In-Demand Skill

Magnet with the text "Experimentation" on it pointed at a metal ball with "Success" written on it

I’m often asked what skill, experience or attribute I find most important in today’s fast-changing environment. Admittedly, my answers have evolved over the past 35 years of my professional career. Looking back, it has become clear that one skill stands the test of time, and I believe will be increasingly in-demand as we push ahead in the 21st Century. That skill is agility.

The pace of change has significantly accelerated in the era of digital transformation, and that velocity has doubled-down with the market disruptions created by the COVID-19 pandemic and societal adjustments during this time. These conditions have placed a premium on the ability for individuals and organizations to develop and demonstrate agility in their daily habits.

In the midst of this disruptive pace of change where leadership does not come with instructions, I was struck by an “aha moment” recently as I observed a talented leader create the conditions for his organization to lean into agility. The magic was how adeptly he threaded the needle of (a) maintaining high standards of excellence, while (b) avoiding an environment that fears making mistakes. He achieved this with a simple message – “the difference between perfection and excellence is the willingness to be caught learning.”

That one line delivered at a company Town Hall spoke volumes to all who heard it. When faced with a dizzying pace of change, less than perfect data and high stakes if the wrong choices are made, a leader must create the conditions where teams know when it is best to “act” and “react.”

Agility is defined as the ability and willingness to learn from experience, and then apply that learning to perform successfully under new situations. It is a combination of “act” and “react,” with the velocity of learning being as important as the accuracy of outcomes. As the adage reminds us – it is not “the big that eat the small, it is the fast that eat the slow.”

I have found three particular leadership actions useful for fostering the mindset and capability to optimize for agility:

  • Create a culture of experimentation
  • Celebrate learning from the best wheelmakers
  • Carefully choose how you measure success 

Creating a culture of experimentation

Every leader dreams of creating an environment where the best ideas rise to the top from all levels of the organization, and employees dream of having their ideas valued and acted upon. The challenge is sorting through the volume of ideas to determine which ones have merit.

The most successful approach I have found to achieve this outcome is to treat every idea as a hypothesis, and subject every hypothesis to a rapid in-market test to validate or disprove its merit relative to other ideas. As I’ve shared in previous articles, Intuit works to create such an environment by training all employees on design thinking techniques and creating “unstructured time” in their schedules. They are empowered to conduct scrappy, low-cost experiments to test their ideas. Any request for funding must be backed by “evidence” and preceded by a lead-in that explains “because of this evidence (in-market experiment, external benchmarking, etc.), I believe “X” (idea, project fund request, etc.) should be pursued.

We train teams on how to conduct low-cost experiments using paper prototypes, in-depth customer observations, dry-tests on the website, and the list goes on, removing any objection that centers on not having the resources or time to conduct an experiment. The end result has been a velocity of new innovation inside the company that continues to accelerate each year.

Celebrate learning from the best wheelmakers

As Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems famously stated, “the smartest people in the world don’t all work for us. Most of them work for someone else.” It’s simply a law of numbers, yet most organizations fall into a trap of “not invented here.” The fact that great things are happening all around us feeds into a second adage in scientific experimentation – “sometimes the best experiment to run is one that someone else has already conducted for you.”

A tool I’ve found particularly helpful to foster outside-in learning is to ask any team seeking to tackle a business problem these three questions:

  • Who are three organizations outside our industry who have attempted to solve this problem, and what have we learned from their experience?
  • Who are three organizations inside our industry who have sought to solve this problem, and what have we learned from their experience?
  • Have any teams inside our company attempted to solve this problem over the years, and if so, what have we learned from their experience?

The insights from these questions and leaps forward to learning and agility will often surprise you.

Carefully choose how you measure success

Choosing the right metrics is highly sensitive to the context and stage of a particular project. There are many documented best practices for defining the best metrics, ranging from OKR’s and Six Sigma’s DMAIC process, to working backwards from output metrics to input metrics, or defining the “succession metrics” of innovation. I would do each of these a disservice by attempting to over-generalize, so I will instead focus on something I have discovered often goes overlooked – measuring the velocity of learning.

In a world that is rapidly evolving with continuous change and market disruption, I have found it to be a best practice to place a premium on how quickly a team is learning. Three particular techniques have proven helpful in my experience:

  • Measure the velocity of experiments: if you have adopted a culture of experimentation as described above, implement a measure for the number of quality experiments that the team conducts in an appropriate period of time (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly). It tells the team you value the velocity of learning.
  • Treat success and failure equally, as an opportunity to learn: a hypothesis that is disproven is not failure, but rather, proof that the particular hypothesis didn’t work. To eliminate the seeking of perfection and increase the number of “at bats,” I’ve found inquiring about the lessons learned behind “over-performance” and “under-performance” with equal interest helps reinforce this mindset. Seek to understand variation, whether it is positive or negative.
  • Reward barrier busting: sometimes success is dependent on identifying and removing barriers that impede the velocity of a team or outcome. Make barrier busting a priority and measure it. Celebrate individuals and teams who seek out these barriers and help remove their presence so teams can move faster.

In summary, I believe the super-power most in-demand in the 21st Century is agility. Leaders can help teams cultivate an agile mindset and accelerate their velocity of execution by creating a culture of experimentation, celebrating learning from the best wheelmakers, and carefully choosing how to measure success.

What best practices have you found most successful in fostering agility in your organization?