The new normal – agility in the face of adversity (Part 3)

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Mel Christopher

Part 3: How to start your agile journey

As a recap, In part 1 – agility in context – we explored agility in the context of the unfolding pandemic and its impact on how we live and work. In part 2 – applying principles of agile – we explored the applicability of the original 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto for how organisations can operate during, and as they emerge, from the crisis.

In part 3 we briefly review the environment we are operating in both now, and for the foreseeable future. We then turn to a discussion of how organisations can start to adopt some of the concepts and principles discussed earlier in this series.

Recapping the context

There is significant uncertainty about the macro economic environment and the scenarios that organisations could face as part of a post Covid-19 world. Economies, industries and organisations are being affected in different ways and to differing degrees, and despite there being no shortage of analysis and opinions, the reality is no one can be certain what the future is really going to look like.

However, the majority of commentators do agree that we are undergoing disruption at a scale none of us have experienced before. Unemployment has risen at the fastest rate in living memory. Public borrowing is at record peacetime levels. The trading environment is shifting and shaking across many industries. Stock markets are flipping from despair to optimism and back again.

Against this backdrop, many organisations, both large and small are fighting to survive by shoring up their finances. For those that have been able to make radical changes to their business models, rapidly overhaul legacy ways of working and adapt to remote technologies, there is hope. For those who are not already on the journey, the acceleration towards digital models is likely be even higher up the boardroom priority list.

Many experts also agree that there are likely to be significant changes to the competitive environment. Local or regional value chains may become more appealing, versus those built on highly globalised models, favouring simplicity and agility as opposed to the complexity of the latter. We could see a swing back to onshoring or near shoring to address widespread unemployment concerns in our home markets. We might see an energised movement to create a different sense of corporate responsibility, one where the environment, society and ethics are core elements of all corporate agendas. Attitudes towards risk may also shift, and we could see the types of regulation typically reserved for the banking sector extend into other areas (e.g. greater capital and liquidity requirements.)

How we work is likely to change. Corporate and employee attitudes towards working and learning remotely are undergoing a minor revolution. Some have been liberated from the daily commute and there are signs that home working might help improve productivity, but there are also early warnings that flipping to wholesale remote working models may not be the solution either. Perhaps we will settle somewhere in-between, adapting to a hybrid way of working that blurs the lines between offices and hypothetically being able to work from anywhere.

We are also likely to see a much more elevated role for government, in at least the short to medium term. The public sector could find itself propping up critical infrastructure, whether that’s in transport, education or health. However, they may also need to partner more readily with the private sector to support increased demand for public services and gain access to capabilities they lack. Perhaps a more innovative and forward-thinking state might emerge that embraces greater public-private collaboration and innovation as a catalyst to get the economy back on track. Attitudes towards data sharing may well also evolve as we see start to see the benefits of a more open approach in other countries.

Consumers have also been thinking and acting differently. They’ve moved from shock, through rapid adjustment, to early acceptance of new ways of consuming and doing business. Will we start to re-evaluate our priorities, putting more emphasis on experiences, health and well-being and family and friends? Or will the effects be short-lived as we slip back into old patterns.

As we emerge from the ‘tunnel’ we’ve found ourselves in, there will be opportunities to think and act differently. Organisations might find that now is the time to recalibrate their futures.

Getting started

How do you start on a journey of agile transformation?

In part 1 of this series we highlighted the risk to organisations of applying a thin veneer of agile. These organisations run a real risk of misinterpreting the essence of the principles. A shallow coating is likely to wash off when the going gets tough, and the temptation to revert to old ways of thinking and doing might prove too strong. If you’re not seeing the immediate results of empowering your team to deliver outcomes, then does the top down autocratic approach start to rear its head? If you don’t like the direct and damning customer feedback on your prototype, do you shy away from customer testing in the future and rely on your gut instead of direct and early feedback?

This point sits at the heart of the challenge for organisations wanting to become more agile – the shift is as much, if not more, about changing culture and behaviours as adopting principles and processes.

Below we outline 4 considerations for organisations who are serious about agile transformation:

1. Consider starting outside-in

Clayton Christensen, the American Academic credited with creating the theory of ‘Disruptive Innovation’, said companies will always struggle to disrupt themselves. So how do you create an environment where a new organisational model can survive and thrive? 

One approach to consider is starting a new organisation outside of the constraints of the current model – one  that can thrive outside the boundaries of the existing business, whilst the ‘mothership’ keeps the company afloat through the transition. In this approach the team can be empowered to create new business models and adopt fresh and unconstrained ways of working. They should have the trust and autonomy to design and test new ideas, and create new  structures and processes, whilst protected from the need to comply with an existing set of rules and restrictions that could stifle progress.

One example of this approach is OnStar, a profitable GM subsidiary that provides vehicle telematics services such as security and emergency services. Whilst some may argue this model is now itself being disrupted by mobile apps, at the time Onstar was launched as ‘Project Beacon’ its President and CEO, Chet Huber mandated that “OnStar operate as a separate subsidiary… directing the engineering unit/group to disrupt its usual integration processes”. More recently we see similar approaches by companies such as Google, building projects that become companies  (Waymo – an autonomous driving business – being one example).

However, these endeavours mustn’t be an infinite game – they should be held to account from an outcomes perspective. They should focus on the delivery of great products and services that meet customer requirements. Being commercial must be part of the journey – staggering funding based on success to drive results. Scarcity can be used to drive creativity and avoid the trap of wasting abundant resources. The revenues for the new may take time to mature, so as a leader holding your nerve and resisting the temptation to ‘snap back’ to the old ways will be hard as stakeholders - boards, shareholders and colleagues - become anxious for results. However, the prize is there for those that can stay the course.

2. Define the ‘from – to’ behaviours

As part of embarking on this journey it’s important to be very clear on the specific behavioural changes needed by the team. This can be achieved by defining the shift from today to tomorrow. Without a blueprint for changing habits and learned behaviours it’s difficult to know how to change.

For example, shifting from an organisation that may be used to operating in organisational silos, to a model that’s focused on deliberating collaborating across these silos, is not just a case of switching structures and defining new processes and technologies. It requires a fundamental shift in behaviours, from how leadership involves itself with the team, to how a team works and communicates, to how a team (not necessarily the individuals) are incentivised. Military veteran Stanley McCrystal’s described how he lead such a shift to a model he describes as a ‘Team of Teams’ during his time commanding Joint Special Operations Command in the mid-2000s. Breaking down the silos of many different units to encourage collaboration in the form of intelligence sharing required a wholesale change in ways of working and communicating.

New leadership qualities will also be important, such as managing paradoxes and working through conflict. The works of Miyamoto Miusashi provide a perspective on how to operate in a conflicting duality and to ‘perceive that which cannot be seen by the eye’ or ‘see distant things as if they were close and take a distanced view of close things’. More recently Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, wrote about leaders needing to embrace opposing ideas and reconcile contradictions to inform better thinking.

Being clear on the behaviours expected from the outset means that when it comes to adopting new models and ways of thinking, the mindset is already primed.

3. Help establish the right motivators and team to deliver the outcomes

In part 2 we discussed the principle (#5) of building projects around motivated individuals, giving them the environment and support they need, and trusting them to get the job done. Understanding employee motivators in order to drive change, and what the right team of people and skills needs to be to deliver the required shift is another important piece of the puzzle.

Just as in any successful sports team, this involves identifying who the ‘dressing room’ influencers are who can motivate others to change and what the incentives are for those people. Who are the leaders who will act as role models for the rest of the organisation? Who, when the journey inevitably gets hard, will be able to galvanise the team to focus on delivery of the outcomes?

There is an important role here for agile ‘champions’ and ‘coaches’ who can help drive adaptation and adoptions.

4. Be open to the idea that this is an iterative journey

The PowerPoint slide might show a smooth, logical uni-directional view of transformation, but the reality is likely to be very different. Whilst the temptation may be there to create a grand multi-year ‘plan’, the environment in which the organisation will have to operate will not care about this type of projection. It will, in all likelihood, continue to be volatile and uncertain and therefore require decision-making based on imperfect inputs, experimentation and testing. Two steps forward, one step back; debate and disagreement; successes and failures – these will all be characteristics of a shift to new business and operating models.

A mindset that accepts this and looks to grow and learn is likely to be far better positioned  than one that is focused on playing a ‘perfect’ game. If you can be true to your purpose and ensure you build a resilient, adaptable organisation that is anticipating future scenarios, you’ll be better prepared for the next shock to the system.

Satya Nadella, who has lead Microsoft on their remarkable journey back to becoming one of the world’s most valuable companies, is a keen advocate of the growth mindset, a way of thinking that embraces challenges, learning and persistence in the face of setbacks. He credits Carol Dweck at Stanford with inspiring his drive to change the Microsoft culture from one of ‘know-it-alls’ to “learn-it-alls’.

In summary

This series on 'agility in the face of adversity' has looked to provoke dialogue around how the concept of ‘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 resilient and the rest as we begin to emerge from the aftermath of the pandemic and share the future of our organisations.

Hopefully this series has shown how the principles of ‘agile’ extend well beyond the confines of software development, and perhaps provide a template for a new type of organisation ready to tackle whatever new challenges may emerge over the course of the next decade.

Written by

Melanie Christopher origional

Mel Christopher

Transformation Services Guild Leader
With close to 20 years of experience delivering, leading and consulting on business transformation.
Melanie helps companies make major changes to their business, culture or organisation, She brings a relentless focus on the client and the challenge organisations face in the current environment.

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