Agility as a concept has been discussed for years, though the competitive advantage of being more agile came into sharp focus in 2020. The increased pace of change, rapidly evolving customer needs, compressed timeframes for responding — all of these and more drove the topic back onto every Board agenda.
More than any other time in past 40 years, the ability to rapidly make decisions and take action is a defining factor of success. Many organizations were caught short as the pandemic forced rapid decision-making. While responses to COVID-19 varied, organizations with higher degrees of business agility were able to better make, operationalize, and sustain the necessary changes.
But achieving agility can be a major challenge. How can organizations move beyond boardroom discussions to affect tangible change? If some organizations have struggled for years to build agility, how can others expect to achieve it quickly, especially now?
Agility and agile are not the same thing
It’s important to recognize that technology is just one part of agility. "Agile" with a capital “A” is a framework for developing software, products, and services. Being “agile” — lower-case “a” — is fundamentally about being able to react faster to change than your market or competitors.
Enterprise agility is an organizing principle; it infuses everything you do. In essence, it’s a function of your organization’s structural flexibility, adaptability, and responsiveness.
Agility is not a thing, not a single-minded initiative to move to the cloud or adopt of a version of the Spotify engineering model. These may enable agility, but the reality is simpler – and more complex. It’s how your company is organized, how teams are empowered, and how comfortable they are to make decisions and own the consequences.
What does an agile organization look like?
Being agile means being outcome-oriented rather than process-centric. It means being aligned to value streams, with teams and structures oriented around customers, employees, and market dynamics. To be focused on delivering value —and moving fast – leaders need to enable teams and people to become decision makers who are comfortable owning the consequences and operating in a matrix. When teams are porous, with people moving easily across them to leverage their capabilities, silos can be broken and the organization can act with more agility.
The underlying foundation is the idea of modular, scalable architecture. Agile software development is possible thanks to APIs. An agile organization works on the same principle, with every capability effectively becoming an API. Leaders create a toolkit of swappable components – whether for a product, system, or process – that enable the organization to build in a modular fashion. Changes no longer require redoing the whole, just adjusting the smaller components. This allows teams to work and iterate in parallel and minimize dependencies. However, sequencing matters, and communication and coordination are critical.
This approach doesn’t mean companies must dispense with standard functional areas. It simply means they should use cross-functional teams with shared goals and shared accountability that cuts across the organization.
Where agility and Agile start to connect is the requirement to fuse the perspectives of business and IT stakeholders. For example, when an organization develops a new product, business owners and product owners are integrated from start to finish and are combined with engineers and marketers. This is analogous to the DevOps way of working.
We’ve seen this approach succeed across sectors. In the pharmaceutical industry, clinical trials used to take 18-24 months; now, agile companies collaborating across their organization and with partners are hastening the development of critically important vaccines. In the automotive sector, a leading manufacturer was able to quickly analyze its operations and customer intelligence to turn a downtown showroom into a transactional hub that increased sales. Even Wipro has benefited from this fusion: our five-year integration of design and engineering teams enabled us to pivot quickly when the pandemic struck.
What does it take to become agile?
Without technology, tools, and the “API-ification” of work, agility would be nearly unachievable. But becoming agile is as much of a people and culture issue as it is an IT requirement. Technology can be deployed within days or weeks. Establishing a culture and mindset is the deeper change, which is why so many leaders and companies struggle.
Fortunately, there are ways to accelerate agility.
Be willing to change your mindset. Leaders need to be able to think differently in order to create a foundation for people to do things differently. If you can’t change your mindset as a leader, how do you expect to elicit change in your organization? Leaders must create the right culture and abandon the “this is how we’ve always done things” attitude.
Empower delegated decision making with a different risk appetite. To change means to risk. If they want to accelerate decision making, leaders must delegate decision making. But they cannot separate the responsibility of making a decision with the accountability for the consequences of that decision. This will feel uncomfortable for everyone, but it rapidly grooms a culture of empowered leadership.
Hire right, then get out of the way and enable. Agile leaders need to be – and hire – “servant leaders.” Servant leaders share power, put others’ needs first, and help people develop and perform to their utmost abilities to grow and benefit stakeholders. To foster the ability to pivot, it’s important to minimize constraints. This means giving people the room, support, and resources they need to succeed, and holding them accountable for outcomes.
Institute metrics that matter. If you’re serious about becoming outcome-oriented, start measuring outcomes and leading indicators rather than traditional units of work or measures of silo-process efficiency. Measurements incentivize the desired behaviors and results; people behave how they are measured. Forgive (and reward) people for re-aligning processes that have hindered business outcomes and share their learnings with the broader organization.
Becoming agile is about changing culture
Overhauling the technology stack will advance the organization, but it cannot magically make the organization agile. Agile is hard because, fundamentally, it’s “soft.” It calls for eliminating silos, and that’s a people issue.
Being an agile enterprise encompasses culture — how you think, solve problems, and make decisions — not just how you operate. Change has to be managed across all key dimensions: people, process, and technology.
Technology is the easiest part of the change equation. Process change can be laborious, but it’s still fairly straightforward. People change is the toughest part. It’s also the most important.
Companies can’t sit back after six months of pushing or when the pressure eases and consider the job done. Evolving culture doesn’t happen overnight. However, the impact of increasing agility – essentially increasing an organization’s ability to evolve – can be seen profoundly and quickly.
The real challenge is to maintain flexibility and ensure that the innovations of today do not become the dogma of tomorrow. To be agile is to “learn and unlearn” through adaptation to market dynamics. Enterprises must embrace continual evolution rather than a finite number of revolutions.
It doesn’t take a public health crisis to shock your clients’ business, or your own. Disruption is the great unknown. In a world moving ever faster, enterprise agility is about ultimate resilience — the ability to adapt, reinvent, and always deliver value.