Part 1: Agility in context
The 8 weeks since the beginning of March have been an extraordinarily testing time for organisations of all shapes and sizes. The economy is experiencing its biggest contraction in centuries, health and politics seem irrevocably bound together, and society is in alien territory as we learn to work and live under lockdown. One word perhaps more than most seems to characterise the organisations that are faring better than others – agility.
We’ve seen manufacturers pivot facilities in days from producing everything from perfume (LVMH) to fashion garments (Burberry) to vacuum cleaners (Dyson) in order to supply ventilators, hand sanitisers and personal protective equipment to the front line. We’ve seen previously bureaucratic procurement processes transform into rapid digitally-enabled decision-making over the course of hours. We’ve seen communities of strangers join together to develop mass grass roots movements supplying essential goods, services and volunteers in the fights against the pandemic. All amazing examples of nimbleness and resilience in the face of adversity.
On the flip side we’re seeing business models that seemed solid just months earlier, shatter as they confront the new extremes of supply and demand. We’re also seeing just how fragile and complex supply chains can be when consumer behaviour takes an unforeseen turn and the political landscape is thrown into disarray. And we’re increasingly likely to see how exposed organisations that are unable to quickly mobilise and take decisive action are.
Agility – being alert and responsive to new information and its implications, spotting the opportunity and then reacting with speed and purpose – could be the difference between the survivors and the rest as we begin to emerge from the aftermath of the pandemic.
The agile organisation is not a new idea. The original Agile Manifesto for Software Development was drafted almost 20 years ago. Since then the principles underpinning the agile movement have spread out of the software domain and been adopted by many other functions, from operations to finance to marketing. In many cases, these principles have started to become part of an organisations core operating philosophy.
Part of this shift has been as a result of a re-evaluation of the effectiveness of command and control type models that are typically characterised by centralised decision-making, rely on operational hierarchy and are governed by a ‘leaders know best’ mentality. These organisational models may have performed well when markets were relatively stable, consumption patterns were more predictable and there was the luxury of ample time to plan.
However, as we face historic levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, organisations are quickly realising that they must rapidly evolve to operate in a completely different way if they are to survive this existential crisis.
Without the luxury of stability, and the comfort of long-term planning horizons, what’s needed today is the agility of a jet-ski versus the steady plod of a tanker. Borrowing military veteran Stanley McCrystal’s description, this is akin to the ‘Team of Teams’ model. In this, rather than a top-down hierarchy, specialist teams form and swarm around specific problem statements or goals. Both teams and membership of teams is fluid and changes depending on the goal, but the emphasis is on the creation of autonomous self-organising units to achieve the objective.
There is still a role for a coordinating executive team, but rather than centralising decision-making, the leadership team sets the guardrails, structure and objectives and then devolves decision-making and responsibility for outcomes to the teams. And the ‘walls’ that define the organisation are far more porous in this model, to the point where the focus is on combining the right skillsets, regardless of origin, rather than being hung up on job descriptions or the source of the capability. It is a true ecosystem.
It’s perhaps no surprise that some of the world’s leading organisations have adopted many variations on the ‘Team of Teams’ model. From Google and their emphasis on speed of decision-making to Amazon and their concept of the optimal size for a team being based on consumption of 2 pizzas, to Apple’s approach of always having a Directly Responsible Individual (DRI), empowered to make decisions, and with whom the buck stops. It’s perhaps no surprise that these companies, and many others are finding innovative ways to tackle the unfolding pandemic, and address the severe disruptions to public health, economies and supply chains we’re experiencing.
Even organisations that may historically have been seen as running the ultimate command and control blueprints, the British Army and Navy, have adopted many of the agile principles we will discuss in Part 2 of this series. From spending time walking in the shoes of those on the front-line to get closer to ‘the customer’ (i.e. the communities they may be operating in), to bringing together team members from multiple disciplines to swarm around and solve problems, agile constructs and disciplines can unlock new ways of working that deliver better outcomes.
It is important to note however that this model isn’t a bolt on. Estimates suggest that over two-thirds of organisations who attempt this shift achieve only partial success or fail completely. Some of this is because the principles are only paid lip-service and there isn’t really the motivation to change, or the motivation is short-lived and it’s easy to retreat to ‘business as usual’. The message here is do not underestimate the cultural changes required to land agile principles in an organisation.
In part 2 of this series we’ll take a look at how applicable the original Agile Manifesto’s 12 principles are for organisations looking to survive the pandemic ,and then thrive as we emerge into the new normal.