When the Water Level Is Low - the Stumps Will Show

tree stumps.jpg

Agility Life Lesson #11 …

When the water level is low …

the stumps will show!

I think I first heard that insightful Southern saying over thirty years ago when I was a young thirty something HR Director learning my way around the business world.  I was riding between Wrangler jeans plants with our Divisional Finance Director, Woody Miller, as we went go plant-to-plant with other senior divisional leaders and share the annual “state of the business” story with all employees. Woody was filled with simple, pragmatic wisdom that spilled beyond the moment.  I should have filled a notebook with these sayings – they were plentiful and meaningful and some have stayed with me all these many years.

The 1980’s were some very turbulent years involving heavy inflation, deflation and culminating into a disruptive crash at the end of 1987.  We had moved to England in 1986 where I was able to learn much more about business and myself as I headed up Human Resoures, Strategic Planning and Total Quality Management based out of Nottingham for a couple of years.  I found Woody’s adage applicable around the world and as economic conditions worsened – the stumps of inadequate workforce development and leadership skills, weak businesses processes and fragmented technology platforms became abundantly apparent across many industries around the world.  Across the U.S., the stumps related to textile industry production and apparel manufacturing had become so prevalent that by the end of 1990’s, manufacturing in the U.S. for these industries was found only in the history books.


Now we are living in the era of “accelerated obsolescence” where the pace of change is game changing for those unable to adapt and adjust fast enough.  Just like the water level at my lake house …. things can change so fast in today’s environment.  Last week, my dock was floating … this week it is far from it. The good news here is that it helps me clear the stumps and rocks around my dock.  If my business survival was at risk … not so good.

On my drive out to the lake today, I got word that one of my friends who had started a new business just last year has already had to shut it down.  We operate in a very competitive and consequential environment where even when you have a “great idea” … it takes more to navigate and survive.

Whether navigating on your lake, in your latest new start-up or in a large enterprise, we will all experience times when the water level gets low and our stumps will show.  The vital questions include:

  • Are you anticipating change by staying alert and proactive to scan for your stumps or those of your competitors? Or are you consistently getting caught by surprise?
  • Are you regularly generating confidence with all your stakeholders by staying connected with active communications, alignment and engagement?
  • Are you able to initiate action better and faster – operating with sense of urgency, empowered decision-making and active, collaborative teams?
  • Are you encouraging and liberating thinking throughout your ecosystem … maintaining customer-centric focus and valuing idea diversity?
  • Are you keeping your eye on the prize … with all stakeholders understanding what success looks like and how to measure it?

We are at the start of another new year … maybe high water for some and could be low levels filled with stumps for others.  Use these questions to try and identify some of the “stumps” in your operating system … could be with your leadership or workforce (people), might be your business processes and practices, or just might be that your technology platforms (or lack thereof) represent your biggest stumps.  Most important is that you stay alert and not be complacent.

One step you might take is consider doing your own “AGILITY AUDIT” to systematically examine those questions with your teams.  You might also consider engaging experienced third-party to help give you an objective, trained assessment.  Just like with your personal health, where it is vitally important to get your annual physical to monitor and detect things that could be life-threatening.  The Agility Audit helps examine your organizational health and fitness to face the faster paced, more demanding and much more turbulent operating environment.  How are your agility vital signs and where are your stumps?  Good to discover early before too late.

I would love to hear about your stump stories or perspectives on finding them.

About Tom O'Shea


Tom O'Shea, CMC
Principal, Agility Consulting
Organizational Agility Practice Leader[/caption]

Volatile, unpredictable, even erratic- these are the times we live in and exactly why Tom O’Shea is considered a trusted advisor and collaborator helping leaders, teams and organizations adapt and thrive by becoming more focused, fast and flexible in an increasingly complex and ambiguous world.



Most precision operators have checklists to insure that the critical activities, conditions, events and resources are in place, fully functioning and properly executed.  Would you want to fly on an airplane, submit to major surgery, live near a nuclear reactor or even drive your next rental car without the confidence that the responsible crew or team had not used a rigorous checklist to insure safe and effective operations?  Not me.  Checklists are essential whether you are NASA launching a rocket ship into outer space or a project manager looking to launch the next product improvement initiative.  The complexity and speed of play in today’s operating environment can be overwhelming.

We are in the season when many organizations are heading off to strategic retreats to hopefully stop the merry-go-around for a few days and reflect on three classic strategic questions to help them and their organizations get re-centered for 2017 and beyond …

  • Who are we and where are we today … really?
  • Where are we going?
  • How do we get everyone aligned and focused on what matters to get there?

Shaping the Future involves helping your leaders, teams and total enterprise to be focused, fast and flexible on the things that matter in your vision and strategy map for success.  Here are a few checklist questions you might use with your teams as you go to the mountain top for a few days or even just progressively pause for a few hours of meaningful, reflective discussion as a team – big or small.


  • What does that mean for you anyway – as a leader, team or total organization?  Maybe you have an aspirational vision statement that provides everyone meaning, purpose and energy – that’s great.  Maybe you don’t. As a true leader you can (must) help your team identify and understand the team’s mission, goals and roadmap for success.  The absence of this clarity results in many false starts and organizational collisions.  In the Navy SEALS, they call this clarity understanding the “commanders’ intent” – it helps guide decision-making down the line.
  • How do we translate this down the line?  Clarity must radiate beyond the senior leadership circle if any chance to become a truly focused organization … it must go top to bottom and across all functions.  Focus cannot be complicated, confusing or contradictory.  Those organizations who are concentrating on building understanding and skills in core “operating principles” are navigating better and faster than those organizations trying to be overly prescriptive and controlling.


  • Where must you have strategic speed? This question can create important and provocative conversation.  More likely than not, it will lead you to some discussion about cross-functional collaboration of one sort or another.  In some organizations, this often naturally leads to fingers getting pointed in several directions.  Just as dysfunctional are those organizations that operate in benign neglect for fierce conversation.  Strategic speed has a dependent relationship to this notion of being focused which is why we ALWAYS talk about being FOCUSED, fast and flexible – with focus first.
  • How do you get and stay FAST? This is often the tougher question – how to change the metronome standard in your organization.  The speed of play is getting faster all the time – how does that play out in your organization?  Are you using the same age old cadence and expectations for product development e.g. it normally takes us three years to launch a new product?  The key is getting all the stakeholders to up the tempo together just as talented jazz or bluegrass musicians are able to do in a jam session.  It doesn’t work if only part of the team is willing or able to step up the tempo.


  • What does flexibility mean for you?  Flexibility is a strategic capability for agile organizations, teams and leaders.  Really does start with a leadership mindset of positive adaptability and possibilities.  The simple leadership realization that “there is more than one right answer” is powerful and liberating as National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones shared in his video on Everyday Creativity.  The paradox to be effectively navigated is how to create clarity in strategic direction and operating principles AND to be open to idea diversity and new possibilities.  Agile leaders polish, feed and grow this capability as they continuously inform their capabilities to anticipate change better and faster.
  • How do you get and stay FLEXIBLE? Agile organizations are oriented to operating principles of speed, fluidity and synchronicity among others.  Those factors that are constraints to those principles also limit flexibility.  Each is an opportunity for teams discover the “next right answer” that doesn’t sacrifice on your customer centric value equation.

Yes – the magic comes from the ampersand … when we are Focused, Fast & Flexible then we are well on our journey to making Agility a real advantage while creating the kind of organizations where talent flourishes and grows.  These are but some of the key questions that might be on your checklist.  If you would like to explore more, you might check out our book FOCUSED, FAST & FLEXIBLE.  You can acquire from Amazon or click here www.focusedfastandflexible.com to get copies for your whole team at our bulk discounted rate.  It will help equip your team for some provocative discussion about some critical success factors for Shaping Your Future in 2017 and beyond.