Enterprise agility is essential for all businesses as we seek new ways of working – optimized processes that lead to maximum outcomes. But enterprise agility will not happen until the system works as a whole. Thinking about the organization as a living organism might be a useful metaphor.
In episode 11 of Agile Leaders Conversations, hear Sunil Mundra, Agility Consultant and Author his perspectives on agility from the enterprise context and how it synergizes with leadership agility. Sunil is an Enterprise Agility consultant and author of ‘Enterprise Agility: Being Agile in a Changing World’ and I strongly encourage all viewers to grab a copy of his book.
Connect with Sunil Mundra at https://www.linkedin.com/in/sunilmundra/
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Sunil Mundra: The common mistake, which I see is that leaders are approaching complex problems with a complicated approach. With the reductionist approach. The reductionist approach is like a car. It’s like a closed gender system. Suppose you have a flat tire, you just replace the flat tire without worrying about anything, so when you change your tire, it doesn’t affect your scaling, your gears, your engine, nothing else. Leaders are looking at organizations like this, which is the wrong thing to do.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: Hi, everyone. My name is Chuen Chuen. Welcome to agile leaders conversations. This is a series of dialogues where we engage industry leaders in discussions of how they see and apply agility and navigate paradoxes as they lead and pivot in a new normal. My guest today is Mr. Sunil Mundra, author of enterprise agility, principal consultant advisory at ThoughtWorks, and also an international speaker.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: So happy to have Sunil with us. Sunil, would you share with us a little about yourself please?
Sunil Mundra: Good morning Chuen Chuen. First of all, thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to have a conversation with you in the series. Yeah, I have overall 30 years of experience in the it industry, and I’ve been with ThoughtWorks for 10 years. And in these past 10 years, I have worked with organizations across the globe to implement agile transformation programs and enhance agility. As well as working with leaders to shape and implement change programs within their organizations and also coaching leaders in the process.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: It’s really my honor to have someone as established as you. And I think enterprise agility is definitely something that organizations must look at right now. So really thankful and honored to have you here.
Sunil Mundra: The pleasure is all mine Chuen Chuen. Thank you very much.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: Sunil also connected with me on LinkedIn and very supportive. And I think this is really the kind of leadership style that we are looking at going forward, always giving value. From there, we built a very sincere and professional relationship, and I can see many years of collaboration exchange of thoughts and also growing each other in the years to come. So Sunil would you share with us, what are your thoughts of eight paradox on leadership agility after reading it??
Sunil Mundra: It’s a very interesting book. There are several insights which are new to me. I’ve read the book once and I think I will need to read it a few times to really internalize and digest. All the paradoxes you have mentioned. I think this is an important topic, which has not been explored much with respect to leadership related research handbooks.
Sunil Mundra: Handling paradoxes is an important attribute of what we call as an adaptive leadership style, especially in today’s environment of high complexity. It is going to present leaders with a lot of paradoxes. The earlier approach to leadership was that you could just take one dimension of the paradox and go in that direction.
Sunil Mundra: But given the complexity, I think you really need to balance those paradoxes. And what you have highlighted are some of the very important paradoxes at the book, eight of them. And you’ve not only stopped at that. I think what I found really interesting and valuable is you have actually given exercises on how do you uncover those paradoxes in your own context, and how can you better deal with them?
Sunil Mundra: So it’s a book which is a balance of concepts and ideas and also about executing them. Very well written Chuen Chuen and congratulations on coming up with a very unique and a very relevant book for today’s times.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: Thank you so much for the high praise Sunil. And I also want to encourage all readers to get Sunil’s book on enterprise agility.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: I’m in the middle of the book. Very happy to be able to learn and also to see opportunities for us to synergize as well. So looking more into enterprise agility while there was a discussion of paradoxes in my book. I’m wondering from from your lens as an expert in enterprise agility, what are some common paradoxes that you see as you work with large organizations?
Sunil Mundra: I’m gonna try and share some paradoxes which leaders experience in an enterprise context. So the first paradox is, how do you embrace VUCA with predictability and stability?
Sunil Mundra: So VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. And that really is how the external environment can we describe or characterize today. So the challenge which leaders have is that, they are having to move from a mindset of predictability and stability.
Sunil Mundra: So not too long ago, leader success was measured on how predictable and stable they kept the organization. But today, if you keep your organization predictable, unstable, you are not going to be able to deal with this VUCA. So that is one paradox
Sunil Mundra: The second paradox, which I see is about engaging and exploiting. Today, because of the complex environment that we have, the organization is part of an overall environmental ecosystem. It cannot insulate or isolate itself from the rest of the entities in the environment. Earlier organizations could do that because the environment was stable.
Sunil Mundra: They could take the customers for granted, and they could really choose how much they wanted to expose themselves to the environment. People created entry barriers and sat comfortably behind those. Today you can’t do that, right? Because there are so many changes happening and you are just part of the environment as another entity.
Sunil Mundra: So the mindset has to move from exploiting, which means, “oh! I did everybody else on the other side of the table. And my primary objective is to make money for my organization and create value for my shareholders. If it comes at the cost of anybody else, that’s their problem. It’s not my problem.”
Sunil Mundra: That was the mindset of exploit. But the engaged mindset is where you are having to think of a win-win situation for all your stakeholders. Be it customer. Be it employees. Be it vendor partners.
Sunil Mundra: And I think that is where really it’s all about co-creation today. And therefore engagement is so important with all these stakeholders. In fact, in my book ,when I was slicing the organization Initially my thought was that customer is an entity which is outside the organization. But then I actually thought about why can’t we treat the customer as an internal entity to the organization?
Sunil Mundra: Why do we treat the customer as somebody sitting on the other side of the team? And that’s how you engage with customers to actually co-create your products. You get feedback from them. You take ideas to them. You understand their pain points. And you do the same with all other entities who are connected to you.
Sunil Mundra: In the overall environmental ecosystem. That’s the other paradox which I see. The third paradox is of systems thinking versus reductionism. Reductionism is a property of a complicated system. Whereas system thinking is an attribute which is needed to handle a complex system.
Sunil Mundra: What I find is that, understanding the difference between complexity and complicatedness is leaders are approaching complex problems with a complicated approach. With the reductionist approach, it’s like a car. It’s like a closed-ended system. Suppose you have a flat tire. You just replace the flat tire without worrying about anything. That’s gonna change in the car. So when you change your tire, it doesn’t affect your scaring, your gears, your engine, nothing else. Leaders are looking at organizations like this, which is the wrong thing to do because organizations, as I have mentioned in my book and which is the primary premise of my book. They are complex adaptive systems.
Sunil Mundra: So to give an example of systems thinking, suppose. On a human body, which is a complex system. Somebody’s doing a surgery on a hand. You just don’t say that I am only gonna bother about the hand that the hand surgery is happening. Your blood pressure, your breath, your temperature is being monitored. That is the approach of systems thinking. So this is a paradox. The move from complicated to complex. Yeah, these are the three.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: This is so good. I’m so excited to complete reading. I honestly love systems thinking, and I like it when you articulated complicated versus complex. There are different things. Are we introducing very complicated solutions to try attempt to fix the complex problem? And in the process, we actually make things worse. That it is a question that leaders have to think as well.
Sunil Mundra: Yes. So I think it starts with awareness. I used to use the words complex and complicated as synonymous. I thought there was no difference. And that is what it is right now with most leaders. There is a lot of education that needs to happen in this area.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: I think you are seeing things from the enterprise level and I’m seeing things from the leader individual level. And I think there’s a nice way these two can synergize. And in your second paradox engagement versus exploitation, I see there’s a, there might be a connection between scarcity and abundant mindset. Am I just going to go all out to create value for myself? And I really don’t care about what happens to other people in the ecosystem. As long as my objectives. My KPIs are met. And now shifting into the abundance mindset, that’s enough for everyone. We can all succeed together. And then how do we create value and help each other, and then uplift the entire ecosystem collectively.
Connection Between Leadership and Enterprise Agility
Chuen Chuen Yeo: So coming to the next part, which is about leadership agility. So I’m wondering, how do you see the connection between leadership agility and enterprise agility?
Sunil Mundra: Enterprise agility or agility as a word is an umbrella term for a set of capabilities. And the three core capabilities which every organization needs. So agility to me for an organization is what health is to human beings.
Sunil Mundra: For organization, if an organization is functioning, they definitely have some level of agility. The point is, can you make it better? So the three capabilities, which underly agility in my view are the ability to sense, adapt and respond. Yeah, and to me, you need to improve on these underlying capabilities to be able to deal with a fast changing environment.
Sunil Mundra: Leaders being who they are. So what is leadership agility? Leadership agility, you can talk in terms of personal agility towards people, agility towards change and things like that. But for me, the role of a leader is very important because they have influence. In terms of the attention, which they can give to priorities. In terms of setting the direction for the organization. In terms of helping people to perform their roles or their jobs in a better way. By creating alignment by focusing on the right things.
Sunil Mundra: So for me, leadership agility therefore becomes important in terms of both their mindset and their behaviors, and leaders are role models. People look up to them. So in terms of their ability to influence the organization. The people and the resources available at hand within the organization and all the priorities and the direction which the organization or enterprise can take, leadership agility becomes extremely crucial in terms of both mindset and behaviors. I have called out some of those things in my book, I have a special chapter on leadership, where I have detailed out some of the things which leaders need to be able to do to enhance leadership
Chuen Chuen Yeo: Very well said. I think it will be of great value for the viewers to also look at the rest of your interview Sunil, and for them to learn about this. Because I think leaders definitely have a very important role here to help enterprises move especially in this time, the pandemic times, the crisis management, how do we sense, adapt, and respond accordingly.
How Leaders can Sense the Change Required
Chuen Chuen Yeo: How do you think leaders can sense what the changes or the adaptations they are required?
Sunil Mundra: So the first way to do it is really to see how close are you to your customers? How do you really understand them? Are you there with them at every single step? Yeah. One part is that, and it sounds obvious, but it’s not.
Sunil Mundra: Let me give you an example. When I was in UK, I was consulting with a multi billion pound retail online retail organization. And when I met the marketing director of this organization, I asked him, when was the last time you met a real customer. And in a very embarrassed way, that person said, no, I’ve not met a customer in the last two years.
Sunil Mundra: So leaders need to be closer to the ground. They need to be close to the people who are closest to the customers. The leaders need to go and actually talk to the customers. It’s not about sitting in a corner and just looking at reports. There is nothing better than actually meeting customers and hearing their voices.
Sunil Mundra: that is one part. The second part is about listening to your employees and keeping an open environment where people are able to have a culture. They’re able to give you bad news very quickly, right? So in many organizations, again, there is no psychological safety as we call it. People are punished for bringing in bad news and therefore people resist giving bad news.
Sunil Mundra: I’ve called this in my book again. If you look at the major disasters which have happened across the world, airplane crashes, oil spills, et cetera, people on the ground knew there was something wrong. But the attitude was it’s either not my problem, or I don’t want to take it to my boss because I will get blame for it.
Sunil Mundra: Or I will be asked to take care of that problem and I don’t wanna do that. So how do you have this safety culture where employees can be free enough to tell you. What’s happening on the ground in a very real way.
Sunil Mundra: People on the ground are afraid to give you bad news, which will come to you at some point, but by then, it’s too late. And the third point of which I mentioned earlier is about engagement with the ecosystem. Yeah. Talk to your partners, talk to your other organizations who are there, network with your peers.
Sunil Mundra: Yeah, get some technology experts, join some technology forums to understand what their developments are happening and which of those developments may impact your organization or which of them do you can leverage. So sensing is a multi-pronged strategy and leaders need to devote a lot of time, which in today’s world, especially in command control traditional organizations.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yes, two valuable points I’m taking away here. I see a nice synergy of what you’re describing with the first step of my reform coaching model, the reconstructing, the map. And as I talk about reconstructing, the map, different organizations would do it differently sometimes by asking questions. And I like that you gave a very clear structure.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: Who are the people you should have those conversations with, and it’s not about communication. It is about connection. And the second part that I really like is you are actually talking about culture, building a certain type of culture where there’s open communication, psychological safety, so that people can come to you and give you very honest, direct, and truthful feedback.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: And I think you also pointed out one common thing, leaders need to really guard against that and ensure that they don’t unknowingly do it because we really need to be able to synergize and bring out all these different viewpoints and have the courage.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: To look at the real feedback, without being sugar culture. And then sometimes the meaning is lost and distorted in the end. Now Sunil, what tips and advice would you give leaders in enterprises?
Sunil Mundra: The key message which I want to give to leaders is that organizations or enterprises. Are living systems and should be modeled and treated as such. What happened is the hangover of a manufacturing mindset and traditional mindset is so high. Even today, our organizations are actually structured to manage physical work, but today, most people or most of our work is cognitive in nature, and our organizations are not modeled appropriately for that type of work. The way they are modeled is based on Frederick killer principles of thinker, doer separation in cognitive work, you cannot separate the thinker in the. So organizations have got modeled as machines. Everybody just focus on doing their own thing.
Sunil Mundra: Just like a worker has to focus on working on his or own machine and produce that part. The process takes care of, for everything to making the same thing over and over again. Yeah. And then the thinker toward separation, creating these hierarchies focus on efficiency. We just created silo. That was an of scarcity at that time.
Sunil Mundra: So efficiency mattered and efficiency does matter in a manufacturing concept where you make the same thing again and again. So your process variation has to be zero or close to zero, right? But today it’s all about delivering value. It’s not an of scarcity. If you have a good idea, you can easily get money today.
Sunil Mundra: So organizations need to focus on or leaders need to focus on making their organizations or modeling them as living systems as complex organizations. And the reason is this. If you look at a closed system or a machine, okay, the only path forward for a closed vendor system is degradation and obsolescence.
Sunil Mundra: The only way an organization can deal with change is through evolution and evolution can happen only when there is a life in it. And without evolution, if you look at species which have become extinct or systems, which have become extinct social economic systems, which have become. They have gone into extinction because they have not evolved.
Sunil Mundra: But those systems which have evolved with time are still existing and are thriving. Yeah. Look at us as human beings. One theory says that we were apes earlier. We had a tale, we gave up that tale because we didn’t need it. And we are who we are today and who knows if we survive another 10,000 years, who knows what we will look like?
Sunil Mundra: We don’t know that. So I think the point is to look at organizations as living systems to recognize the fact that, to nature of work today is very different. It is cognitive in nature, which means that a large chunk of the decision making has to happen close to the ground and therefore organizations and the structure of the organizations must be modeled accordingly.
Sunil Mundra: And the leaders have a very important responsibility to shape the culture of the organiz. To be able to deal with this who guide work. So that’s my key message to leaders.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yes. I really love all the analogies and the stories that you tell, what I’m taking away is evolution can only happen if there’s life.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah. And therefore leaders to look at the organizations right now, the way that it’s been designed. Is it a system full of life? Is it a living organism or is it a lifeless system and the levels, the layers, which actually doesn’t make any sense at all. So I’m sure by now, a lot of viewers will be very interested to connect and engage with Sunil.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: I will insert. Sunil’s LinkedIn URL in the post. Anything you would like to add here, Sunil?
Sunil Mundra: No, I’m more than happy to connect with people. I’m very passionate about sharing my knowledge as well as learning from others’ experiences. So anybody who has interesting, engaging with me to discuss something, to share some experiences or even to challenge my thinking I’m more than happy to engage with everyone.
Sunil Mundra: So LinkedIn is the best way to engage with. If we are not connected already do send me a connection request and then we can use the link chat to connect and see what leads to web.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yes. I think this is exactly how we also started this. We’ve had a conversation, about our different ideologies, how we seeing things and then how are we synergizing?
Chuen Chuen Yeo: So that’s great. So strongly recommend that you get a copy your Sunil’s book, connect with him, search him on Google, and you’ll be able to find a lot of these valuable interviews and talks. And of course humbly. Please get a copy of my book as well. Thank you so much Sunil for your time today and for being on agile leaders conversations.
Chuen Chuen Yeo: Thank you very much for this opportunity once again Chuen Chuen. It was a pleasure having this conversation.