· Features

Being agile vs. doing agile

Many organisations have embraced agile teams and agile ways of working, but very few would describe themselves as truly agile

If you want to build an agile organisation you need to create a culture of agility. This goes beyond systems and processes – it requires senior leaders to change the way they think and behave. Agile leaders create an environment of psychological safety where agile ways of working can flourish because people feel confident to experiment, adapt and learn without fear of punishment or blame.

Creating enterprise-wide agility requires a fundamental shift in culture from control to empowerment, from risk aversion to experimentation, from hierarchy to self-managing teams, from long planning cycles to iterative funding and budgets.

This shift needs leaders to become role models of agility and it needs engagement with the whole workforce to embrace risk, learning and focusing on what customers need. This is a transformation that will take years not months. It requires a new mindset at senior levels to enable it to happen.

There is a growing awareness that if your business is going to be truly agile then every part needs to operate in an agile way, with a high degree of collaboration across different functions. If, for example, your technical teams are operating in an agile way they need other functions to be working in ways that support more iterative planning and shorter project cycles.

There are often valuable learnings for the rest of the organisation as well. The principles of agile – collaboration, continuous improvement, rapid and flexible response to change – can then be applied widely across the business for the benefit of customers.

If you look at the methodology of agile software development it carries a high degree of transferability into wider business processes. Agile is essentially a flexible and incremental approach to managing the design and development of products and services in areas such as software, engineering, and information technology so that they are focused on what customers need most. An example in practice is Scrum, an original form of agile software development.

Agile teams are typically multi-skilled and empowered to adapt and learn. They ruthlessly prioritise activities and focus resources on what customers value most. Regular reviews ensure they respond to change and improve ways of working on an ongoing basis.

Agile working requires high levels of process discipline, but more importantly it requires very high levels of openness between people collaborating in teams, openness to regular customer feedback, and openness in the way managers manage. It recognises that customers’ needs will change, and that technical issues will be encountered that mean even the best-prepared plans will often not be delivered as expected. This requires an agile response, and freedom to adapt to changing circumstances without the incumbrance of strict hierarchy and management control.

Without a relentless emphasis on teamwork in your organisation, in hiring decisions, rewards and bonuses, leadership development, succession planning and performance management, the holy grail of becoming a truly agile business will be very difficult to attain. Teamwork creates a positive cycle of personal fulfilment for team members, improved productivity, and more joined-up outcomes across each process. And in my experience teams with the autonomy to make decisions about their work, and the ability to improve regularly, become powerful forces for change in their organisations.

The biggest barrier to agility is the inability to embrace risk. This can be a particular issue in heavily-regulated industries, where conformity can reduce the risk appetite of leaders. A culture of caution can inhibit progress. Fear of failure and retribution leads to risk avoidance. Decision-making is slowed down when people seek higher approval to cover their backs. Lack of trust leads to lack of progress.

I’d encourage leaders to examine the ways of working and types of behaviour across their organisation and consider whether they are contributing to agile ways of working. What are the systems, customs and beliefs that shape how people behave day by day? What are the constraints on people’s behaviour that stop them from being agile? Seek feedback from others, welcome it, and act on it.

Simon Hayward is CEO of Cirrus, an honorary professor at Alliance Manchester Business School, and author of The Agile Leader and Connected Leadership