Why ‘agility bubbles’ will be the new management trend for 2023

Inviting a team of employees into a protected space, where they are given permission to do things differently than the rest of the organisation, is what we refer to as an ‘agility bubble’.

The protection and permission such a bubble creates awards employees the freedom to experiment, fail, try again, and succeed. In a business environment where companies are under constant pressure to innovate, cut costs, and reduce time to market, the psychological safety this strategy grants individuals is the key to successful transformation.

Why agility bubbles work

Top-down transformation attempts are generally, though not always, doomed to fail. The reason for this is quite simple: it is difficult to achieve genuine buy-in from those who haven’t been involved in the design. They often perceive the exercise as a risk for their position and a threat for their career. Consequently, they decide to disengage from or even rebel against the initiative.

Workplace transformations are great opportunities but not without risk

Employee relations during organisational change

Rallying your company around business transformation

Reversing the way transformations are introduced and designed, by giving employees the reins and space to test different ideas for themselves, has proven to be a very effective way of changing mindset and eventually culture. Equally important, it is also a key enabler of overall business agility.

It's crucial to recognise that an agility bubble is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. No organisation should set out to be agile for the sake of being agile, the aspiration is instead to enable sustainable high performance and long-term prosperity.

Creating agility bubbles concentrates and accelerates innovation in a safe environment, while other teams carry on with business as usual to secure existing income streams.

This protects critical business while creating room for those with ambitious ideas to trial new ways of working that can better respond to shifting customer and stakeholder expectations.

This culture is often contagious, as other teams in the organisation witness the benefits and are increasingly open to adopting such value-adding approaches.

This management strategy thereby fosters an innovation culture throughout the entire organisation, which leads to higher performance. A study by Accenture found that across industries, companies with strong innovation cultures (i.e. 'pacesetters') consistently outperformed those without (i.e. 'stragglers'), ultimately achieving 6.5 times more revenue growth and 4.2 times higher cost efficiency.

Most executives (62%) agreed that building a strong innovation culture is a critical enabler for growth, and 82% admitted that their organisation collectively lacked the mindset and skills required to build and establish an innovation culture.

Agility bubbles in practice

Creating agility bubbles in practice begins with engaging with those who are motivated to work differently, and apply agile principles, mindset, and ways of working.

Building a safe environment through team stability, equal voice, and psychological safety creates a group of ‘adapters’, who can then inspire change across the organisation.

Rather than adopting a top-down and rigidly defined process, the success of agility bubbles rests on giving small teams the freedom to experiment and learn from the results.

This pull over push strategy leads to improved staff satisfaction and engagement, which ultimately build the fundament for high business performance.

As with any management strategy, there are a few common pitfalls to watch out for. The first, and most important, is over-promising outcomes and rushing the transformation process.

Agility bubbles are scaled through word of mouth and witnessing their impact in practice, which means letting the results speak for themselves. A common trap is leading employees down a path of disillusionment by over-selling the intended results and setting unrealistic expectations, which naturally leads to scepticism and disengagement.

Challenges can also arise when members of a bubble fail to respect the agreed processes or those who are not (yet) agile and operate differently.

Instead of asking others to change their way of working, the best course of action is to build so-called ‘adapters’ into the non-agile part of the organisation. This fosters healthy relationships and encourages the transformation to expand naturally.

Measuring success can be tricky, but some metrics to track include flow efficiency, lead time, and throughput, which help generate a picture depicting the process and its success.

Over time, we can also measure staff happiness, which in my opinion is a key indicator of whether any strategy will lead to the desired outcomes and truly serves the business.

Adapting to change

Many businesses today find themselves at a crossroads. As the economy retracts, they need to innovate and diversify to spread their risk. But an organisation-wide strategy overhaul can be risky, costly, and disruptive itself – with no guarantee of return on investment.

On top of direct economic pressures, industries are still adjusting to new ways of working like remote work and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic such as supply chain issues.

Agility bubbles can be a great way to test alternative ways of working without overcommitting and changing the existing business and operating model in a big bang approach with unpredictable outcomes. Organisations would be well advised to build a path for keen adapters, and reduce the negative sentiment that generally surrounds risk-taking, even the well-dosed. Promoting out-of-the-box thinking and encouraging adapters to 'bubble up' into the wider system will drive a culture that promotes innovation, and ultimately, increases the likelihood that the business will be able to adapt to challenges and leverage opportunities, while keeping risk and cost under close supervision.

Matthias Hasler is chief operating officer at Synpulse8