The word “agility” has been presented as a panacea for many corporate ills, including overcoming organizational rigidity. Many “rigid” organizations continue to use 20th century systems that are top-down command-and-control, with burdensome processes of governance and tooling that reinforces compliance over creativity and enablement. Some businesses also begin to “do agile” and “embrace agility” without a clear consensus on its definition or how it can help the company succeed in the fast-paced 21st century.
Let’s face it. Agility has become a buzzword like the word “synergy.” I, for one, do not care whether or not something is called “Agile” in a capital-A way. What I do care about is applying lean concepts such as inspect and adapt, limit work in process, and eliminate waste. I care about how to leverage today’s best practices in product development to accelerate market responsiveness by increasing something I call “organizational metabolism.”
What is organizational metabolism? In nature, it’s the chemical processes that occur in living organisms by which they convert food/fuel into energy while eliminating waste. In business, this translates to the system that converts assets, including money, people, and time into customer value, ideally while minimizing senseless cost (e.g. bureaucracy).
Existing practices of just working harder than the competition will not cut it. We face a new reality that customers expect continuous updates and innovations to what they want and need – especially for anything that's digitally enabled.
In order to keep pace (and in fact get ahead of the pack), organizations need to shed their sluggish metabolism in favor of fleet of foot 21st-century business, to deliver value rapidly. They can do this by developing the people, processes, and tools that increase metabolism within their companies. Without adopting a new way of working, companies will miss market opportunities while competitors race ahead, leaving customers open to explore alternative solutions.
For companies ready to evolve into a new way of working, here are five steps to consider that will help inspire an agile transformation:
1. Have a clear and aspirational vision
Having clearly defined outcomes – both for your business and in your company’s agile transformation – is vital because an agile mentality means being comfortable with change. While tasks and tactics will shift, the ultimate vision should remain as the True North. Every company is different but needs to have a vivid picture of its overall purpose and a desired outcome: What is the outcome I care about and what am I actually asking people to go and do? A clear vision will help guide the practices that need to be implemented as changes in the external market and internal operations fluctuate.
2. Consider the culture
To attract and retain the best people, you’ve got to create an environment in which they can thrive. A thriving environment is one in which the employee population is motivated, empowered, and follows best practices that deliver value. Leaders need to ask: How am I helping my front line? They are the listening posts – the ones engaging with customers. Empowering the front line makes it easier for organizations to sense and adapt to change. Top-down control organizations are slowly becoming the dinosaurs, and organizations that adopt cultural change that empowers the front line and provides productive feedback loops will be the ones that succeed. Moreover, leaders must lead by example. Too often leaders will expect their employees to implement agile practices without changing their own behaviors.
3. Rethink your processes
Many of the processes and systems we use in business were created decades ago under the guise of automating standard business processes. But these standard business processes were built on adaptations of high-volume manufacturing of physical items. As companies improve their organizational metabolisms, leaders need to rethink what processes and systems are carried forward from the 20th century that may not be serving fast responses required today. Today’s workplace not only needs process for governance and compliance, but also processes for people and enablement - into the slipstream of the way people work today.
4. Find the right tools
The right tools will amplify leadership and vision, removing the friction that too often hinders transformation. Tools reinforce good processes and behaviors, quantify the desired outcomes and help the team make the right adjustments. Even the most millennial company on the planet would have slow metabolism if it used antiquated tools and systems. Whether it’s a software development platform or an internal system to log employee time, or a new collaboration app, modern tools should reduce work, not make more of it.
5. Be open to fail (a.k.a. learn and adapt)
Employees should not feel like they will lose their jobs if they take a smart risk and fail. This should seem obvious but actually isn’t for most companies. Some amount of failure is inevitable when you are fundamentally changing the culture, processes, and structures of an organization; this is the basis of innovation. Calculated risks should be encouraged in modern companies. The important thing is to learn from those mistakes and get smarter. Test and learn, not perfection, is the new mantra.
Increasing organizational metabolism requires the discipline to examine the entire system, much the way a professional athlete continues to hone what she eats, how she trains, the goals she sets, and the attitudes she invokes to become world class. These athletes don’t “run in place” but rather continuously seek improvements and actively train, implementing the practices that will get them across the finish line first. Similarly, companies must constantly strive to improve. Transformation is a challenging yet vital step in today’s market. While it’s not always easy, when companies, teams, and individuals put in the effort, they’ll be in a far better position to compete and deliver for customers.
Excellent artcle. People naturally embrace "change" when their current situation becomes uncomfortable or unfulfilled. Establishing and clearly communicating a clear vision of desired outcomes make changes to antiquated process more palatable for teams.
On rare occasion the stars align and maturity, clarity and exactness combine in such a unique and powerful way as to transcend its content. This article serves equally well whether at the "beginning" or "completion" of any business process, Agile, or otherwise.
This article defines and can unify it's participants in form, fit and function and is required reading for a companies entire staff. When analysing why my business exists, what we do and where are we going the five steps presented are essential.
Easily the best article read in the last year. Thank you.
An analog I have experienced is having governance and budgeting practice for software development use a framework based on a waterfall development model, when the project teams are planning and executing using Agile. Those two approaches are very different and require different models of governance and oversight to be effective.