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How to Create Organisational Agility in Times of Unprecedented Change

Dominic Ashley-Timms

It’s hard to overstate the unprecedented pace of change that every organisation faces in today’s VUCA world.  The future is more unpredictable than ever before and this has already caused many organisations to strain (and break) under the pressure. Contributor Dominic Ashley-Timms, Managing Director – Notion.

In order to survive this onslaught of change, organisations need to displace typical organisational dynamics and traditional models of management with a more agile way of existing that increases the organisation’s ability to respond rapidly to change. 

Here, Dominic explains why he thinks it’s time for organisations to get beyond the ‘What’ and start implementing the ‘How’ by learning to engender high levels of enquiry. For once, ‘this too shall pass’ is an idiom that might not easily lend itself to these economic conditions.  Indeed, the level of change is expected to increase at an exponential rate – and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it will do just that.

Let’s first look at the rate of change.  According to work conducted by Buckminster Fuller 1 in the 80’s, at the turn of the century, total world knowledge doubled once per century; by the end of the Second World War that pace had increased to once in every 25 years. Today, evidence suggests that world knowledge doubles every 13 months.

Figure 1 reflects the fantastic rate of progress in areas such as clinical knowledge and nanotechnology, and can be observed by the speed at which new markets emerge, and new products are developed, as well as in the diverse ways we communicate and live our everyday lives.

Secondly, it’s interesting to explore the scale of change.  Assisted by social media and global communications, people can get more informed more quickly and become more directly involved in subjects that have a substantial impact on political agendas.  Indeed, it’s predicted that when the ‘world’ is fully internet enabled, only artificial intelligence will be able to analyse the abundance of data generated. At this point, world knowledge will be doubling every 12 hours 2 – and this is expected to occur in our lifetime.

The World Economic Forum 3 predicts that in the next two years, 5 million jobs will have been lost across 12 developed nations as a result of increased automation and robotisation.   But, the International Labour Organisation 4 is less conservative in their estimation; they state that across places like Cambodia, Indonesia, The Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand, 137 million jobs will be lost as a result of the robotisation of the garment industry alone.  That equates to an epic 56 percent of the workforce.

We are already feeling the ripples of change and the social cost of it; when industry is suddenly inundated with new innovation it can create massive levels of confusion and that confusion leads to paralysis. This has a significant impact on how people cope with change and we are beginning to see emotional signs of the overload.

Here are five signs of the emotional impact we have started to observe in our client organisations:

1: Change overload (too much change)
2: Ill-prepared for change (unready)
3: Past experience of change leading to anxiety
4: Avoidance/Resistance in the face of change
5: Emotional experience of change (workplace stress)

We know that the ‘wellbeing at work’ sector is positioned to provide the symptomatic treatment of these conditions but perhaps this ‘after-care’ service is simply too late.  Maybe the answer is in reform rather than recovery.

Deloitte’s Global Trends research in 2017 5 identified that 80 percent of organisations recognise that they need to develop more agile and diverse Leaders and Managers.  But how do organisations achieve this?

Professor Reg Revans 6 believed that, “in order for organisations to survive in the face of change, the rate of learning must be equal to or more than the rate and pace of change.”  If ‘Revans Law’ applies then all indicators suggest that organisations are going to struggle to survive unless they do something radically different to ensure that people can keep up with the rate and scale of change.  And of course, this is where most organisations falter – Knowing what needs to happen is very different to knowing how to make it happen.

In fact, according to our recent poll 7 concerning organisational culture across more than 500 organisations, 79 percent report that they are still ‘very’ or ‘mostly’ command & control led.  It seems that even despite overwhelming pressure, organisations are still found wanting when it comes to engaging and mobilising their workforces to learn in a way that will unleash the talents of the many and enable them to deal effectively with what is to come.

Professor Revans established that it’s not simply a case of seeking even cleverer people to come up with the answers, but rather to find people who can ask good questions.  That may sound oversimplified but the art of asking questions, every day, that challenge the status quo and that drive better outcomes, is still a skill set that is undervalued and largely missing in most organisations.

Having provided coaching services to organisations for a number of years, the team at Notion were struck by the fact that coaching per se had failed to break out of its cloistered and occasional, sit down 1-to-1 coaching session.  This stimulated new questions including “What experience would managers have to have to begin to use more of a ‘coaching approach’ as a preferred style of management?”

After extensive research, 13 commonly used Coaching models emerged (each a derivative of Whitmore’s GROW model) and discovered that almost every training course that set out to teach coaching skills had as its premise the idea of managers behaving as Executive Coaches i.e. each model was for the coachees’ benefit alone and required a ‘planned’ coaching session (further reinforcing the view of coaching as an infrequent, 1:1 activity).

To begin to redress this limiting belief we set out to determine the behavioural aspects of coaching which managers could adopt, that would enable them to use a coaching approach confidently, in the moment, in flow, and in just about any situation throughout their day for better situational outcomes.

When people adopt an ‘Operational Coaching’ approach (a term coined to capture the ‘everyday’ application of this style of management), they begin to ‘tune in’ to the opportunities around them and are able to ask better and more insightful questions.  This in turn contributes to a culture which invites curiosity, debate and new dialogue, and when organisations can begin to embed that as a core and valued behaviour not only do people begin to change how they communicate, they find new ways of contributing and collaborating to drive the organisation forward. This fundamental shift in the way that people behave, stimulates a response to ongoing change that is altogether more proactive and can massively improve engagement, productivity and performance levels.


1.Buckminster Fuller, R and Kuromiya, K (1982) The Critical Path, St Martin’s Press, New York
2.IBM (2016) The Toxic Terabyte: how data dumping threatens business efficiency, IBM Technology Services, Global
3.World Economic Forum (2016) ‘Five Million Jobs by 2020: the real challenge of the fourth revolution’, accessed 12 July 2018>
4.International Labour Organisation (2015) Insights into Working Conditions in India’s Garment industry, International Labour Organisation, Geneva
5.Deloitte (2017) Global Human Capital Trends Research: re-writing the rules for the digital age, Deloitte University Press, Global
6.Revans, R. (2016) ABC of Action Learning, Routledge, New York
7.Notion (2015) ‘What is Coaching?’ Poll <>

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