Interview with Mike Richardson

Mike Richardson

Mike Richardson is a thought leading expert on agility and the author of Wheel$spin: The Agile Executive’s Manifesto. He is a scientist and engineer turned manager, executive, and CEO. Mike is also an award winning Chair with Vistage International, chairing 3 groups with over 50 members (CEOs and Senior Executives) and is also a Vistage Resource Speaker to other Vistage groups, nationally and internationally. He also facilitates CEOs and their teams to be more agile as leaders and as a business.

I posed a few questions to Mike about the subject of agility and I’d like to share his responses with you:

1. Agile is a hot topic today. How do you define the concept?

Agility is the ability to cope with rapidly changing circumstances while out-executing our competition (staying ahead of the other guys) and the expectations of our stake-holders -our customers, employees, vendors/supply-chain and shareholders/debt-holders (so that we get to keep the best ones).

The trouble is that agility is not well understood, is easily misinterpreted and is hard to learn, apply and sustain. It requires an understanding of the whole-challenge, the whole-problem and the whole-solution, as a combination of mind-sets, skill-sets and tool-sets. It is a whole-brain, whole-person, whole-organization challenge of leadership agility, business agility and enterprise agility.

I like to say that, “AGILE is the new LEAN”, for several reasons:

  • LEAN has been huge is business. Initially in manufacturing businesses, then service businesses and then in all businesses – even law firms talk about being LEAN. I predict that AGILE will be as huge. Why?
  • Because LEAN easily defaults into being about continuous improvement, on steroids yes, but if we aren’t careful it becomes like rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic! The deck chairs are now nearly perfect and a thing of beauty but nobody is seeing the iceberg coming, recognizing that soon there will be a hole and realizing that soon thereafter we will need a new ship! AGILE is inclusive of both continuous improvement and discontinuous improvement (floating a new boat before this one sinks) or, as Clatyon Christenson calls it, “sustaining innovation” and “disruptive innovation”.
  • And I like the saying “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed”. If you are within a million miles of the software development field you know that the future of AGILE is already here, in the form of Agile Software Development, which has already been up-framed to Agile Project Management, of any kind of project not just software development, and my work is about up-framing it to the level of the business overall, not just project management and not just software. AGILE is a huge movement, philosophy and methodology, just like Total Quality Management (TQM) was in the early days. The future of AGILE is already here and it is going to be as huge as LEAN.

 2. Why is it important in today’s world?

Because agility is the only competitive advantage which has any permanence these days. Everything else is increasingly temporary, increasingly quickly. Charles Darwin said it well: 

“It is not the strongest who survive. Not the most intelligent.

It is the most adaptable to change [agile]”

No matter how strong and intelligent your competitive advantages are, they will be disrupted, sooner or later, and probably a lot sooner than you think. I just researched this by asking more than 600 of our Vistage members, across a wide diversity of businesses and industries:


In other words, within what time-horizon do they expect there to be some significant degree of turmoil because of disruption?

 A total of 88% answered 5 years or less! 38.1% answered 2 years or less!

 In other words, you don’t have long! With the speed of business and pace of change accelerating all the time, laced with increasing turbulence, uncertainty and volatility the new equation for the new reality of our new normal is:

Volatility – Agility = Fragility

3. What do people most misunderstand about it?

 Three things:

1. Despite the data, they think that the volatility quantified above doesn’t apply to them! So I wish them well and say that if I see them in year six and they were right, I’m very happy for them! If I see them in year six and the data was right and they weren’t ready … well, I remind them of the saying, “when you need a friend, it’s too late to make one”.   I urge them to make friends with agility now before it’s too late!

2. Most entrepreneurial CEOs and Executives fall into an unconscious mental trap. When I ask, “what’s the opposite of agility?” most answer with “rigidity” which is a mental trap because they aren’t aware that they hold agility as an “OR-Proposition” not an “AND-Proposition”. The downloadable extract from my book explains.

So fearful of the bureaucracy of being overly structured and organized many entrepreneurial default to being under structured and under organized, in a hair-on-fire, seat-of-the-pants mode of disorganized chaos, crises management and over-whelm, which can easily become increasingly chronic. I educate them about the difference between disorganized-chaos and organized-chaos, which are two completely different worlds, and mastering agility as AND-Proposition. 

3. Agility is complex and most people over simplify it. That leaves an agility gap between the majority and the minority. I help them master agility to cross the gap and join the minority.

4. What special skills does a group need to work in a more agile way?

Mastery requires a simultaneous shift of mind-sets, skill-sets and tool-sets. A shift of mind-sets around 11 attributes of leadership agility to change your relationship with:

  1. Chaos
  2. Triage (an acute form of time management, priority management, focus management)
  3. Insight (Learning)
  4. Luck (which is huge in business)
  5. Journey Orientation
  6. Turbulence, Uncertainty & Volatility
  7. Disruptive Innovation
  8. Ambiguity
  9. Paradigm of Focus
  10. Time
  11. Responsibility & Accountability 

A shift of skill-sets around 13 component parts of business agility to execute well:

  1. Agile Strategy Process
  2. Agile Goal-Setting
  3. Agile Operations Management
  4. Agile Mental Models
  5. Agile Infrastructure
  6. Agile Productivity
  7. Agile Culture
  8. Agile Leadership (the subsystem of 11 attributes outlined above)
  9. Agile Innovation Engine
  10. Agile Conversation-Flow
  11. Agile Focus
  12. Agile Integration, Alignment & Attunement
  13. Agile Path-Finding & Future-Proofing

5. What is the relationship between conversational capacity and agility?

Conversation is at the heart of agility.  In fact I distill our agility challenge to what I call “C2C” – Conversation-Flow to Cash-Flow.  If you don’t like your cash-flow in the present, look at your conversation-flow in the past.  It’s what brought you here.  Have you been talking about the right stuff, in the right way and with the right pace?  Even more importantly, if you want your cash-flow to be better in the future, look at your conversation-flow in the present.  It’s what takes you there.  Are you talking about the right stuff, in the right way and with the right pace?  Whatever trajectory you want your cash-flow to be on in the future, your conversation-flow will have to go there first.  Where your conversation-flow goes, your cash-flow WILL follow.  It’s just a matter of time. 

  • My definition of conversation-flow?  Linking and accumulating individual thoughts, questions, decisions and actions into the unfolding flow of a journey.  In other words, inclusive of action.  Action is a conversation with reality.  Reality is speaking to you with plenty of feedback, loud and clear, through a megaphone, about what’s working and what’s not working.  The only question is, are you listening and are you looking, or you falling asleep at the wheel?  Google has a saying for this idea that action is a conversation with reality – “launch early and iterate often”.  Take the action if launching early to get reality into the conversation and then iterate often according to the feedback you see/hear to steer towards success.
  • So my work focuses on agility frameworks and models to help people drive the QQC of their conversation-flow up a trajectory which their cash-flow will follow:
  • Quantity – what’s the quantity of your conversation-flow?  Are you talking about the right things?  Are their some blind spots?   Are you over-talking about some things and under-talking about others?
  • Quality – what’s the quality of your conversation-flow?  Are you talking about things in the right way?  What’s the tone and transparency?
  • Cadence – what’s the cadence, pace and rhythm of your conversation-flow?  Are you talking about things at the right time?  With fast-cycle or slow-cycle loop closure?

6. Can you leave readers with a question or two you’d suggest readers consider and discuss with their colleagues. 

Here are some questions to ponder:

o   How soon are we likely to experience significant turmoil of disruption of our business/industry?

o   How sustainable is our sustainability?

o   How agile are we in the face of volatility?

o   How ready are we getting for a next recession?

Craig Weber

Known for his impactful work and his engaging delivery, Craig Weber is a sought after speaker, author, and consultant. His pioneering ideas about conversational capacity and adaptive learning are outlined in his bestselling book, Conversational Capacity: The Key To Building Successful Teams That Perform When The Pressure Is On (McGraw-Hill, 2013), his new book Influence in Action: How to Build Your Conversational Capacity, Do Meaningful Work, and Make a Powerful Difference (McGraw-Hill, 2019), and his popular Conversational Capacity eCourse.