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The Agility Mindset: Transforming your organisation and your workforce for a digital world

On the 13th September, we hosted a half day seminar – The Agility Mindset – Transforming your Organisation & your Workforce for a Digital World – focused on the pressing need for organisations to develop an agile mindset. The event brought together more than 30 senior HR leaders to discuss how to be agile in the face of considerable uncertainty, new technologies, changing customer demands and globalisation. The event operated under Chatham House rules, giving attendees opportunities to reflect with an open mind on their industries and businesses, and to generate honest discussions about how agile leadership and organisational agility are key to overcoming the challenges surrounding business growth. We’ve outlined the key themes from the event and what organisations need to be focusing on to build a workforce for the future.

The importance of agility

The event was opened by Sir David Walker, Chairman of Sova Assessment, who began by reflecting on the fact that the workplace has always been subject to significant change. From the industrial revolution to the advent of the internet, change is not a new concept for organisations. Drawing on his experience as Air Marshall in the RAF, he highlighted that technological innovation has been at the forefront of the organisation throughout its lifetime. Back in 1903, no-one had yet achieved flight, yet by 1st April 1918, the RAF was established, with 20,000 aircraft and 300,000 staff. Since its inception, the organisation has evolved at a pace only made possible by the constant agility rooted in the DNA of the RAF. However, the pace and ubiquity of change as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution feels different. According to the World Economic Forum, 30% of jobs will disappear by 2025, and the US Department of Labor predicts that 65% of today’s school children will eventually be employed in jobs that have yet to be invented (US Department of Labor). The success of the RAF and the transformation of the workplace highlight the importance of organisational agility. Businesses and their people must foster a culture that is based on the ability to embrace and adapt to change while retaining organisational stability. The criticality of agility has implications for all aspects of an organisation, from existing staff to new hires, from business proposition to people strategy. Whatever happens to an organisation cannot happen without affecting its people and if our people and our processes are not agile, businesses will not survive as the landscape shifts around them.

We need to be smarter about talent

But what does building an agile workforce mean in practice?

This was one of the questions we put to three HR leaders in a lively panel discussion, featuring American Express, Citigroup and LexisNexis. Our panellists all recognised that if they wanted to do things differently, then they would need to think about bringing in new skills, for example hiring coding expertise into their organisations. Such a need for new skills doesn’t always marry with established thought processes of organisations which have been in existence for over 150 years but it’s clear from our panellists’ experience and discussions that we need to be far smarter about how we manage our talent. Hiring new and cognitively diverse talent doesn’t only impact recruitment but also the systems and processes put in place to help them thrive – that could be where employees work, how performance is managed or making flexible working arrangements. In the scramble to find and retain good talent, it’s clear that our processes must treat people well. It’s crucial that we digitise the talent acquisition process – ensuring the process passes the 3E’s test – being engaging, efficient and effective. Employees and managers must give real-time feedback, checking in with applicants as they move through the hiring process. Once talent is in your organisation, the way performance management is viewed needs to change – shifting away from annual appraisals to more frequent conversations. But it’s not just about hiring in new skills, we also have a responsibility to invest in the development and upskilling of existing talent.

Implications for leadership

Dr Kiran Chitta, chartered organisational psychologist, Sova strategic partner and published author on the topic of organisational agility, argued that for organisations to thrive in a digital world, a different approach to leadership is required. Shifting away from a hierarchical ‘command and control’ approach to being more collaborative and inclusive, where it is OK to question, and it is OK to fail – as long as you learn! Our panellists acknowledged that for many of their leaders the competencies that underpinned their success so far were not necessarily those that would take them forward. Being humble enough to recognise that you don’t always have the answer is important, as well as creating the right environment for people to thrive, experiment and learn. Leaders also need to find the balance between having enough infrastructure and giving enough space to flex as market conditions, customers and politics influence the organisational context. Making this transition as a leader can be challenging. Exploring agility through a psychological lens helps individuals and organisations manage paradoxes and navigate digital transformation more effectively.

Own the automation debate

Each of our panellists’ organisations had gone through (and are still experiencing) significant changes driven by technology. Technology was responsible for re-shaping their competitor landscape as new, agile entrants fight for position against well-established organisations. One element of new technologies reshaping business process is automation, of which much of the public narrative is negative when talking about the likely implications for the workforce. Automation is perceived to lead to job losses for much of our working population, but it’s clear we should be looking at this more positively. 28 percent of new jobs created in the UK in 2017 were in technology fields, with expertise in artificial intelligence and data science two of the primary drivers. We need to ‘own’ automation and bring in skillsets that support it to increase productivity; retraining employees whose roles may be displaced or reshaped by new technologies. The automation of some job functions can lead to the opportunity to focus on higher value tasks within business and design more meaningful jobs for employees of the future. Organisations that work with automation to improve not only process, but all aspects of their businesses, will reap benefits as these technologies continue to improve.

Digitalisation of assessment

Organisations that are successful in transforming their workforces should leave no part of the business behind and the talent assessment function is no exception. We’ve already seen how digitalisation is impacting the assessment industry, re-engineering the hiring funnel, by the removal of lengthy off-theshelf tests in favour of a single blended assessment and digital assessment centres. These developments mark a departure from traditional approaches, helping the assessment process to be faster, more efficient and more engaging. Dr Alan Bourne, CEO, Sova, identified that assessment is a cornerstone of your people strategy and can add huge amounts of value, whether by understanding the capability of your existing talent or evaluating new hires. To be truly effective, however, assessment needs to be future focused, digitally delivered and have real impact. The event offered an opportunity for people to think about how their assessment process currently operates and whether it delivers true value for the organisation. With regard to what is being assessed, Sova are seeing a marked shift towards a new set of ‘must haves’ including adaptability, purpose, problem solving and critical thinking. The speakers at our event were unanimous: organisations want to assess for the ability to manoeuvre. Employees who are adaptable and resilient will be crucial to our future workforce success, so assessing potential employees against these criteria in an effective, efficient and engaging way is a key shift for organisations globally.


It’s clear from our event that traditional ways of looking at a workforce are outdated. Organisations have access to talent in many ways but need to be mindful of creating processes and structures that support new ways of working as their workforce changes. In a world with much uncertainty, organisations need to think and act differently to thrive and stay ahead of the competition. We must be smarter about talent – with regard to attracting and retaining it – and we must work with automation to achieve value for shareholders and employees alike. Most importantly, organisations must be agile. Without agility businesses risk being left behind by competitors and losing out on talent, and we must work to ensure that our processes, structures and people are equipped with the ability to adapt and be resilient in the face of uncertainty.

At Sova we help organisations build the workforce of the future. If you’d like to find out more about our events or any of our services, please get in touch at

Download a PDF version of this event write-up to find out more.

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