Insights for Organisations

Unlocking Business Agility through Adaptive Leadership and Critical Thinking

John Smith

In a rapidly changing corporate landscape, industries require agile leadership that can successfully steer their companies through challenges and adversities. The Covid-19 pandemic has emphasised the need for adaptive leadership that can evolve to meet the changing ways of working in the new normal. FDM recognises the need for this new approach to management. We are continually looking for ways to build on our learnings and engaging in an exchange of ideas with our industry peers.

On 29 June, FDM hosted a panel discussion with a diverse group of industry leaders for an in-depth discussion on the topic: Unlocking Business Agility through Adaptive Leadership and Critical Thinking. Our panellists from across Banking, Media, Information Security, and the Energy Sector shared their thoughts on what it takes to promote business agility especially in the context of emerging technologies in the new VUCAH world.

The session was moderated by Red Team Thinking’s Co-Founder Marcus Dimbleby and included Christian Johansson (CEO of Mediabrands EMEA); Bryce Hoffman (bestselling author and Founder of Red Team Thinking); Vijay Balasubramaniyan (CEO and Co-Founder of Pindrop); Sarah Townsend (Head of Product Delivery in the UK Agile hub at Shell); Jon Simpson (Head of Commercial and Portfolio Optimisation Services at Natwest)

The New VUCAH World

The session began with an overview of the VUCAH world.

VUCAH = Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity, Hyperconnectivity

VUCAH is what has necessitated new ways of working to keep up with a rapidly evolving world where the layers of evolution are so complex that it’s not in the capacity of a single individual to manage.

The impact of this new normal is the failure of a large number of businesses. Whilst geo-politics and their effects on the market have certainly had a bearing on business outcome, the majority of reasons organisations have failed is because of ‘Internal Behaviours’.

Marcus Dimbleby referred to the Agile Manifesto as a source that many organisations look to as a veritable way of successfully navigating through the VUCAH world. However, he pointed out the widespread confusion that exists around the terminology ‘Agile’ because of the ubiquitous way it’s used by different people in different contexts.

Obsession with Digital

Stats show that in the last 20 years, 75% to 80% of Agile transformations have failed. Dimbley blames this on an obsession with digital and a shift in focus from old school project management principles. He explained that what used to be a hierarchy of People, Process and Technology has been flipped on its head in the last decade to focus on Technology first, followed by Process (all Agile) and People at the very end. This is why Agile is failing. 

He spoke about the need to match the 21st century’s new ways of working to new ways of thinking.

Diversity of thought is what will enable us to face new challenges. But diversity shouldn’t just be tokenism or a box for organisations to tick. The way to evolve and keep up with emerging tech and processes is by involving our people.

We need cognitive capabilities in critical thinking. Where leadership fails, we need to unlearn the old ways of thinking and embrace new ideas. Critical thinking and adaptive leadership will unlock business agility.

How Can We Build Trust and Safety In a VUCAH World?

Christian Johansson (CEO of Mediabrands EMEA) believes that the way to build trust is for a leader to show vulnerability in an open and authentic way. When leaders open up about something that is private and meaningful to them, it creates an opportunity for other people to do the same. This accelerates trust building.

Vijay Balasubramaniyan (CEO and Co-Founder of Pindrop) believes that the other aspect of trust building is effective communication. His company Pindrop invite anonymous questions from teams. This anonymity often leads to some hard questions, but he welcomes them and sees them as an opportunity to learn and grow.

A lack of communication is one of the top three failures for organisations. Communication facilitates better alignment between teams and as people grow more aligned, they arrive at answers more quickly. This builds accountability which in turn builds trust.

Bryce Hoffman adds that whilst communication in a broad sense is very important, a leader can only build trust by Active Listening and then taking actions based on what you hear.

He cites an example of Ford Motors. In 2006 as Ford stood on the brink of bankruptcy, the president appealed to all employees to provide their feedback on how to come out of the woods. The company held a press conference and created a web portal where employees could anonymously post their ideas.

Hoffman recalls how the portal received tens of thousands of submissions in the first ten days alone. But in the second week angry workers reported feeling disappointed after getting an auto-generated response thanking them for their input.

Ford was so overwhelmed by the bulk and depth of the feedback received that they didn’t take any actionable steps to address these concerns.

Sarah Townsend (Head of Product Delivery in the UK Agile hub at Shell) believes leaders should make themselves visible and accessible to employees. She talks of the importance of creating a culture where team members can come into her office at any time and creating a fun, relaxed environment at work – since we spend most of our times in the office. 

Citing another real-world example, Marcus Dimbleby mentions how Natwest was at one time conducting 4 employee surveys a year but not getting enough returns. He attributes it to the bank not actually using data from those surveys to take any actionable steps. However, this was turned around when they used a simple feedback – like there not being enough microwaves in the kitchens and then installing 25 microwaves. People knew they were being heard and their opinions were leading to actual change, no matter how small. Naturally, returns on surveys went up to 85%.

Toxic Leadership

In this part of the discussion Marcus Dimbleby addresses a rather difficult issue of toxic leadership. He poses a question to the panellists about the learning required for leaders when workers are delivering under duress and speed.

Jon Simpson (Head of Commercial and Portfolio Optimisation Services at Natwest) believes that the key to have your business thrive is to ensure that your people thrive. Performing under duress never gets long term results.

Sarah Townsend speaks of the importance of communicating what the shared goal is, so teams understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. However, she maintains it’s equally important that teams are empowered to push back when they feel the need to. This means challenging product owners and pushing back when there isn’t a strong enough case for a task or project or putting in a certain number of hours. 

Vijay Balasubramaniyan believes that a tell-tale sign that a team is working under duress is an instance of Hero Worship. Here an individual leads and drives the project almost single handedly and is therefore likely working against time and under duress. He mentions the importance of managers and peers taking the time to getting to know their people and creating opportunities for everyone to have sufficient time off from work.

Why Do Some Leaders Become Toxic?

Bryce Hoffman believes it stems from a fear of people realising you don’t have all the answers and fear of losing control. It all comes from a sense of insecurity. He emphasises the importance of embracing leadership as a capability rather than a role. This involves evolved decision making.

Dimbley cites a famous quote from Sir Richard Branson: ‘I care about my people and they then care about my customers.’ Dimbley believes this leads to a virtuous circle of capability.

If you want to drive decision making and allow lower-level leaders to make decisions, you need to equip them with the cognitive skills required to do that. You have to trust people to take charge. Education and leadership training are key to the success of true leadership.

Dimbleby mentions that evolved decision making is achieved through the 3 Cs: Clarity, Capability and Culture. This involves understanding your mission and the problem you’re facing and the capability to both technically and cognitively do what is needed to address those problems to change your culture.

Deliberate Disruption

In the beginning of 2022, the general mindset was one of moving forward and leaving COVID-19 behind us. However, in a short time that false sense of security was dashed by – the war in Ukraine, inflation, interest rates going up, supply chain issues and an impending recession.

Vijay Balasubramaniyan draws on his company’s experiences to say that what helped them was doing scenario planning. Whilst scenario planning can have scary results – like 30% of your customers churning – it is important to do to this pre-mortem to be prepared.

Balasubramaniyan’s mantra is to ‘Lean into the Suck’ to deal with these disruptions. It is the ability to embrace a bad situation and turn it to your advantage. He draws on his company’s experience during Covid. They offered renewals to customers 2 quarters before they were due with huge incentives, securing a lot of business for the next three years.

He believes that teams should be trained to respond to worst case scenarios so that they are prepared to not only survive, but adapt and thrive.

Dimbleby further adds that appreciating that others are perhaps more capable than you and are trying to achieve the same results – is how to stay ahead in the game.


The session ended with a Q&A where audience members got to pose a number of insightful questions to the panellists. One of the questions was about privacy and how much information businesses could share with their people. The consensus was that transparency is something to be encouraged and over-communication is not a bad thing. In the event that companies can’t share information, they need to provide context to their people and even then, be prepared to be challenged.

FDM’s Approach to Adaptive Leadership

FDM is committed to promoting a culture of transparency and adaptive leadership. From having an open-door policy at work to engaging with our industry peers for a regular exchange of ideas – we believe in creating leaders at every level to facilitate business agility.