The enemies of agility

There are several barriers to being an agile business. Here's what to avoid

Hierarchical structures

“[Non-agile organsiations] still have this hierarchical and functional model,” says Siemens HRD, UK and north west Europe Toby Peyton-Jones. “There is a sense that you need this model in order to be legally compliant. So we have a competing pressure there. But the organisational chart today says less and less about how an organisation actually functions day to day.”

Organisational politics

“I would like to think IMI has minimal politics,” says its group HRD Geoff Tranfield. “I think organisational politics are the enemy of agility because if people are thinking ‘I need to do this because it makes me look good or leverages my position’, then that is the enemy of being externally-focused. And I would always define agility as something that helps you compete in the external market.”

Change as the sole preserve of management

“Of those organisations with a central PMO [programme management office], the more successful ones take a different approach… They are less concerned with taking the lead in driving change on behalf of the organisation, and more concerned to equip individuals and teams to deliver change within the line organisation,” the CRF’s Organisation Agility report states.

Treating change as a destination

One of the many dangers of treating change as anything but an ongoing, never ending project is that people become disillusioned, says Mind Gym’s CEO Octavius Black. “The greatest danger is ‘we’ve heard it so many times before, and the promise we were offered never came true therefore we don’t believe it this time.’ The framing suggests there’s some stage in the future that’s easier than now. That’s just a nonsense. Claiming it loses you all credibility.”

Lack of clear purpose

If purpose rather than procedure is to be the organising principle then it’s important this overarching purpose is crystal clear to all. Unipart group HR director John Greatrex says such a clear sense of purpose will also ward against the demands of agility compromising employee wellbeing. “With wellbeing, the thing that’s important to understand is, yes occupational health is important, yes the piece on mental health is critically important. But actually one of the things that drives resilience fundamentally is good quality, purposeful work,” he says.

Overly lean budgets

“Agile organisations have sufficient capable resources… to deploy readily to experiment with new ideas and exploit opportunities as they arise. However, the investments they have to make in testing, failing, implementing and learning mean they can’t be ‘lean and mean’,” the CRF report states. But a low fixed cost base, and constant re-evaluation of budgets, is also critical to the reallocation of resources, it states.

Fixed, or overly prescriptive job descriptions

“We don’t have job descriptions,” reports Objectivity’s head of HR Paulina Roszczak-Sliwa, adding: “Of course we write adverts… but we don’t base this on the competency model because we’d have to change the competency model every 12 months for this to be in line with the organisation’s objectives.”

Sub-standard management practices

Vital to agility, the CRF report states, are many HR practices most would identify as good practice just generally. This includes best practice in recruitment, training and development of managers. “…making management practices fit for purpose is an absolute prerequisite for agility…” it explains, with the report’s co-author Gillian Pillans adding: “You have to get the basics right. You can’t try and run the 100 metres if you don’t know how to walk.”

Slow moving acquisitions

“We’ve grown mostly through acquisition,” says Mastercard’s David Walsh, SVP of global human resources. “Your agility around integration has to be spot on… We’ve learnt that fast integration is what’s needed”. Citing the example of distribution and outsourcing company Bunzl, the CRF report identifies a non-bureaucratic approach to acquisitions as key: “While the centre sets clear objectives and targets, it doesn’t dictate how those should be achieved.”

Physical environments which encourage silos

“There were a few areas we bumped into as we went,” says the DVLA’s head of HR Louise White. “One was accommodation. The environment people were in wasn’t lending itself to having groups of people standing around and talking, so our estates team changed things. Just simple things like putting up white boards have really helped.”

Read more: HR's role in organisational agility