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Maureen Metcalf

Management

Building Agile Organizations

Four tips for adapting faster

Published: Thursday, October 10, 2019 - 12:02

Many organizations feel the need to be leaner, faster, stronger, more adaptable, and more profitable. The right toolset to get them to that outcome may not be intuitive or singular.

Building organizational agility is a solid approach to help organizations develop the capacity to perpetually evolve. It enables them to accelerate their ability to sense and adapt to the volume, complexity, and rate of change organizations face in the current environment. Yet the right tool set to get them to that outcome may not be intuitive or singular. We believe business agility comprises four main elements: strategist leadership, nimble culture, lean principles, and agile methods.

The challenge

Change is accelerating across all sectors of organizational life, largely driven by technology, geopolitical changes, and strong academic research. This accelerating change in disparate sectors collectively drives organizations to develop the capacity to perpetually evolve, often quickly; to set trends; or to respond to forces that are changing the market. Although this volume and pace of change seem daunting, the most successful organizations are addressing it by developing organizational agility.

According to a January 2018 article in McKinsey Quarterly, “The urgency imperative places a premium on agility: It enables the shift to emergent strategy, while unleashing your people so they can reshape your business in real time. It’s also a powerful means of minimizing confusion and complexity in our world of rapid-fire digital communications, where everyone can talk with everyone else—and will, gumming up the works if you don’t have a sensible set of operating norms in place. Agility is also the ideal way to integrate the power of machine-made decisions, which are going to become increasingly important to your fundamental decision system.”

The approach

There are four key elements that we believe must be implemented to build a truly agile organization. They must all be addressed to create the optimal solutions. It’s insufficient to have an agile organization and leaders who aren’t agile, thereby impeding the process. Correspondingly, any of the four elements can impede the progress of the whole system. That said, some progress may be better than none, and different elements may be implemented using a time-phased approach to leverage the agile concepts.

Agile organizations can be found in any segment of society. Businesses, nonprofits, associations, nongovernmental organizations, and even some segments of government can leverage the four elements to be more agile. Each will have its constraints and look different, but the principles hold true across a wide range of organizations.

In particular, companies in dynamic markets and those applying innovation need to run agile organizations, but we believe that all organizations need to demonstrate organizational agility now—or soon, given the accelerating rate of change.

To create organizations that are perpetually evolving, companies need to understand each of these four elements and master when and how to use them.

Strategist leadership mindset
Leaders of agile organizations need to think about their organizations differently and update their leadership thinking and behavior, not just their processesIf you approach implementing organizational agility like you approach a system change, you’re likely to suboptimize the impact or completely fail—possibly leaving the organization in worse shape than when you started. Leaders not only need the technical skills to transform an organization, but they also need a different mindset: They need to value flexibility. They need to be willing and able to change what they do and how they do it, and they need to be intellectually versatile and reflective. If we think of leaders who demonstrate these traits, they can inspire others to follow them in times of uncertainty because they embody nimbleness.

Nimble culture
Culture must reflect the organization. As you look at becoming agile, you’ll want to tailor these elements to reflect your organization. When creating agile organizations, it’s imperative that the culture and underlying agreements about how you think and what you value align with the organization you’re trying to create. These agreements will either support or undermine the overall transformation. Agreements could include topics such as “We put customers first,” “We’re transparent in our communications with one another and with our customers,” “We conduct rigorous experiments in appropriate areas of our organization,” and “We learn from everything we do.”

Lean principles
Being lean is a systematic approach to making the system more effective and efficient. Lean thinking involves increasing efficiency, reducing waste, and improving the value delivered to both internal and external customers. This requires continual assessment of practices and processes to ensure that “just enough” is done, and that they serve the agreed-upon objectives and goals while delivering as much value to internal or external customers as possible. If the customer isn’t requesting or paying for it, you should challenge why you do it. In my conversations with leaders in this space, I’ve learned that being lean is included as a building block in agile development methodology, but not all lean processes are agile. Lean thinking can be used in all parts of the organization. Many organizations don’t realize it applies equally to delivering a service and physical production.

Agile methods
The fourth element of an agile company is the actual agile development methodology based on the Agile Manifesto. Agile software development, for example, is a process or methodology that focuses on customer value as much as possible. It requires cross-functional teams to come together and work in a committed way to develop features in fast iterations called sprints. A focus on customer feedback and time to value realization is key.

Agile organizations focus on driving strong partnerships with their customers and quickly adapting solutions to meet their changing needs. They identify minimal feature sets, prototype aggressively, test-drive new features, and use incremental go-to-market strategies. New products and services are encouraged to fail fast rather than wait for perfection, which is elusive.

During this era of accelerated change, increasing complexity, and increased interconnections across sectors, organizations must build the capacity to proactively navigate the changes facing them.

First published Sept. 4, 2019, on the thoughtLEADERS blog.

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About The Author

Maureen Metcalf’s picture

Maureen Metcalf

Maureen Metcalf is the President of Metcalf & Associates, Inc., bringing 26 years of business experience to the table as she helps professionals grow well beyond their own expectations. Her work is focused on helping leaders innovate how they lead while transforming their organizations. Metcalf is also a principal at thoughtLEADERS where she teaches programs on building personal resilience.