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Agility is the hallmark of every scrappy and successful leader. Indentifying the weaknesses and opportunities of products, services and team members with accuracy and introspection enhances your organization’s capacity to achieve its goals. Translating that information into action, however, is where many entrepreneurs fall short.
Through my mentorship with entrepreneurs, I’ve often found them clinging to their preliminary concept for dear life, regardless of the mountains of evidence that suggest a course correction is not only likely to be more profitable, but even essential for the company’s life.
But here’s the catch: great entrepreneurs and leaders are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. Strong leaders empower teams to act, make course corrections and chart new courses. Great entrepreneurs are inspired by ideas, while maintaining just enough awareness to avoid idea stagnation. The magic equation: If you combine the two, the result is a business superhero who can balance these qualities to replicate success in any environment, regardless of the product or service they sell.
Roosevelt-Style Agility and Entrepreneurialism
The book Leadership in Turbulent Times, by Pulitzer Prize Winner Doris Kearns Goodwin leaves me inspired by the entrepreneurialism and leadership of our U.S. Presidents. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, endured a childhood filled with adversity, but refused to let circumstances derail his dreams of becoming president. He demonstrated agility in the face of staggering challenges, including paralysis. He surrounded himself with loyal advisors, created support systems, and took action to overcome obstacles quickly. During his presidential campaign he said, “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” (Goodwin, 2018).
For successful entrepreneurs, Roosevelt’s words translate into agility in action, such as navigating the Depression with an experimental New Deal and strategies that united individuals toward a shared goal (improving the U.S. economy and quality of life for its citizens). Unbound by convention, Roosevelt solved new problems through new actions as he created policies and departments, empowered teams to innovate and risked failure, repeatedly. As a model for problem-solving, Roosevelt’s example continues to inspire leaders to action. The message for entrepreneurs: Develop that adjacent product. Find new funding. Hire that marketing guru. Chart a new course.
Be Agile–Avoid the Need to Rise from the Ashes
Just as the core of agile software development is collaboration and end-user experience, an individual or organization should consider agility to be core. The “innovate or die” concept won’t be going away any time soon. If culture eats strategy for breakfast, an organization that deliberately embeds agility and collaboration into its strategy will find its greatest success by welcoming, anticipating, or even aspiring to change.
Consider the example of Netflix. Originally a mail-driven DVD-rental business, Netflix saw its revenues plummet when competitors emerged with increasingly accessible and affordable services. The same industry that took down the likes of Blockbuster could have knocked out Netflix as well. But through technology investments, strategic collaborations and modernized delivery methods, Netflix expanded its market and increased convenience for its customers. Continuing its success into an adjacent market, Netflix used its platform to create and distribute original series. Transitioning from DVD rental to award-winning productions? Clearly, Netflix doesn’t just talk their core values; they’re charting the course for others in (and outside) the industry as well.
Passion and Vision Beget Agility
A lesser known, but equally intriguing example of agility a small graduate university in Provo, Utah (disclosure: I am aware of this group because I serve as a member of its board of trustees). Founded in 1998 by two retired Navy officers and a faculty member at Brigham Young University, Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions (RMUoHP) came forward as an entrepreneurial endeavor to affect the quality of healthcare in the United States. Initially, the University delivered master’s and doctoral degrees via a non-traditional academic model, relying heavily upon air travel to gather students and faculty from across the country. However, the tragedies of September 11, 2001 changed everything, not only affecting the students and faculty at the University who were stranded and had limited communication access, but also disrupting the University’s ability to fulfill its vision. Without students, there could be no ability to make wide-reaching and positive impacts on healthcare.
Fast-forward to 2019: Now celebrating its 20thanniversary, RMUoH has stayed true to its healthcare mission while diversifying its markets, Netflix style, to expand and increase its contribution. The organization now provides ground-based programming in physical therapy, physician-assistant studies and speech-language pathology, while new and non-traditional programs (primarily online) advance the practices of current healthcare providers. As early innovators and early adopters, the University is able to adapt quickly to the needs of students while staying in tune with healthcare shortage and needs in communities and across the nation.
The current chair of the Board of Trustees, Dr. Michael Skurja, Jr., and University President, Dr. Rick Nielsen, are visionary retired Navy officers who dreamed of translating their love of country, passion for improving healthcare and commitments to service into a higher quality result. Overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, these two Navy veterans have sacrificed tens of thousands of hours and untold resources to achieve their goals. Yet they give credit humbly to the individuals who believed in their mission to increase quality of life through improved healthcare and operationalized their course corrections. It is because of these strong servant leaders that loyal employees have been challenged to innovate, empowered to solve problems and have had the freedom to learn and the courage to fail. The university has been energized by collaborative teams who’ve overcame odds that would have spelled the demise of many other organizations.
As parting advice from my own consulting experience, I note that many early entrepreneurs fear delivering bad news to their investors and boards. It’s a natural human tendency to want to fix the problem instead of owning up to it and to not want to be the bearers of bad news, particularly about the companies and functions they oversee. This is a critical mistake. There are many times that quick kills, the ability to pivot and agility in addressing jugular issues are vital to the organization’s success. These are acts that should be rewarded, not criticized (which goes back to the principles I discuss in “The 7 Non-Negotiables of Winning,” where I advise entrepreneurs to “fail fast,” and to emphasize strong culture and transparency in their organizations.
In all, whether you are striving to leave a legacy of healthcare change, affect the delivery of entertainment or even become the President of the United States, agility is vital to your short-term and long-term success. Course corrections are a natural and important part of your business. So the next time you hear your GPS declare “Rerouting!” I hope you remember these principles and smile, as your new course may be more beautiful than you could have ever imagined.
February 28, 2019 at 04:46PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs