Six proven ways to make your organisation more agile
Stop starting your agile journey with processes, practies and frameworks. You'll just get frustrated and disappointed. Business agility starts with becoming more people-centric and involves structural changes across the organisation. Six key areas need to be addressed, says agile expert and author Karim Harbott
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries organizations saw great leaps forward in their effectiveness. This was largely driven by a new, disciplined approach to management combined with strict hierarchies, rules, and individual accountability. While few would describe this approach as humane, engaging or people-centric, these bureaucratic systems allowed large organizations like Ford and US Steel to emerge as efficient machines and dominate their respective industries.
Yet what worked so well 120 years ago begins to unravel as the world evolves. Like the proverbial general always fighting the last war, managers seeking to build the efficient machines of yesteryear are ignoring the most important element of success in today’s world: inspired, engaged people. Where once obedience, diligence and compliance were the order of the day, in the knowledge economy what makes the difference is creativity, passion and initiative. These are not brought about by micro-management, control and standing over workers with a stop-watch. A Theory X view of people has given way to a Theory Y view, where freedom, trust, autonomy and high engagement become an organization’s competitive advantage.
In today’s fast-paced complex business climate, knowledge quickly becomes a commodity. To survive and thrive the creation of new knowledge along with valuable new products and services is vital. Compliance and efficiency are rarely enough to achieve this. This is the crux of business agility, and yet, despite this challenging new business climate, it seems that many organizations remain perfectly designed for a world which is long gone.
The journey to becoming more people-centric is not a quick or easy one. Contrary to popular belief, merely adopting a few trendy new processes, tools or technologies will not lead organizations to become more adaptive, more creative and more innovative. Those taking this approach almost invariably face frustration and disappointment. The inconvenient truth is that achieving meaningful results involves structural changes across the organization. There are, in fact, six key areas that must be addressed. I will briefly outline each area and the vital role each plays.
1. People and engagement
The most important part of any organization is its people. Despite strong evidence of employee engagement being a key leading indicator of business success, the percentage of people who are passionate about their work and/or organization remains troublingly low. The prospect of going to work each day to follow strict processes and rigid rules and drown in a sea of bureaucracy is not an exciting one. Yet for far too many it is a daily reality. To thrive in the creative knowledge economy leaders must cultivate people-centric workplaces with high levels of employee engagement. They must reduce the focus on conformity, processes and rules. They must simultaneously increase the focus on trust, freedom, a shared vision, and personal growth. This will allow people to bring their full range of capabilities to work every day, creating truly inspiring workplaces where ordinary people do extraordinary things.
2. Leadership and management
Without a shift in the mindset and daily behaviors of leadership, nothing else will change. This is because leaders design the systems inside which everyone else must operate. Where once focusing on positional authority, micro-management and individual work tasks was the norm, agile leadership involves articulating an inspiring vision, then empowering others to make it a reality. It involves decentralizing decision-making and investing in the growth of those around you. By changing how theyshow up each day and leading by example, agile leaders stop acting as puppet masters, and instead foster high-performing, self-managing teams that can respond swiftly to whatever strategic challenges emerge.
3. Organizational culture
Organizational culture is often cited as the biggest barrier to innovation and business agility. Defined as the result of a company’s collective behaviors, values and beliefs, in many traditional organizations culture can be characterized by words such as control, conformity, fear, secrecy and blame. These cultures are stifling in the pursuit of creativity, innovation and the ability to evolve. Modern, progressive cultures evoke words such as trust, transparency, collaboration, experimentation and psychological safety. These are all underpinned by a shared vision and values. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of culture and, as such, leaders play the biggest role in shaping it. There must be a daily focus on the conscious cultivation of a culture that enables agility.
4. Organizational structure
This is how people come together to get work done. There are few things under the direct control of leadership that have as big an impact on agility as team structure. Top-down hierarchies, functional silos and a focus on individual productivity can certainly make for efficient machines. This model falters, however, when it comes to innovating and disrupting. Hierarchies are just not responsive enough to change in arenas of high uncertainty, nor do they foster the kind of connections and relatedness many crave from their work. More suitable are networks of interconnected, cross-functional, autonomous, customer-focused teams working together toward a common goal. This flatter structure requires high levels of trust and collaboration both within and across teams. This is not only more effective, but more enjoyable ways to work for people.
5. Governance and funding
This is where innovation meets finance. Reinventing policies and controls around how money is assigned to work requires revisiting our relationship with uncertainty and experimentation. When risk and uncertainty are high, up-front business cases, rigid plans and a focus on pre-defined outputs can become self-defeating, not to mention demotivating. This is because it is impossible to know the best solutions without testing the waters. Details will only emerge over time, and change is inevitable. Modern governance practices enable small, safe-to-fail experiments, adaptive plans that respond to feedback and learning and a focus on business outcomes. This provides maximum flexibility in an unpredictable world, as well as tapping into the collective intelligence of everyone in the organization.
6. Ways of working
These are the processes, practices and frameworks used by teams to get work done. This is frequently where organizations start their journey, often failing to realize that changing these alone will have little impact. Once the right environment has been created, techniques like scrum, design thinking and traditional agile practices can begin to flourish. These approaches will be marked by collaboration, fast feedback and relentless continuous improvement by the teams doing the work. This drives engagement, motivation, creativity and initiative.
Changes across these six domains will help to create people-centric organizations which harness human potential. In short, they are about moving beyond Industrial Revolution bureaucracies and creating organizations for both the 21st century and human beings. Redesigning for true business agility will allow organizations to survive and thrive in an increasingly interconnected, fast-paced and uncertain world, and to compete through a combination of operational excellence and innovation.
For a quick assessment of your engagement drivers, try the employee engagement assessment.
Karim Harbott is co-founder of the international training and consulting firm Agile Centre as well as the Business Agility Academy. He is the author of The 6 Enablers of Business Agility: How to Thrive in an Uncertain World (Berrett-Koehler, June 2021)
Contrary to popular belief, merely adopting a few trendy new processes, tools or technologies will not lead organizations to become more adaptive, more creative and more innovative.