Understanding Organisational Agility
By Emma du Parcq
To be agile, in any sense, is to be able to move quickly and easily and adapt to a current situation. In organisational terms, it is about responding to a sometimes complex, uncertain and ever-changing business environment. It is also the ability to predict the near future, and that includes making use of data and sensors within an organisation. Importantly, agility involves looking forward and anticipating rather than being in reactive mode.
Explaining organisational agility
What is the opposite of organisational agility? Antonyms for agility are stiff, sluggish, slow, clumsy and unresponsive and in many cases they can be used to describe organisations. Often organisations that recognise they have a problem where they feel that they are slow to react often use the analogy, ‘we are a big ship to turn.’ And when they begin to ‘turn the ship’, it can take a long time to see the change. Usually, the larger or more complex the organisation, then the more so that that is true.
Is agility just another buzzword? Most front-line employees serving their customers day in and day out will feel the tensions from a poorly designed system. For example, someone may be working on the shop floor and a customer approaches them with a complaint about their product, are they able to solve their problem there and then? Often, they are not authorised to give the customer a refund or replace their product. Immediately, there is friction in what should be a smooth process. To what extent does the organisation trust their employees to do the right thing? What is behind the apparent lack of trust? Often, it starts with the senior leadership team and old-fashioned ideas around control.
Why are some organisations struggling to be agile?
Some traditional management methods and structures were established decades, even centuries ago and not really fit for purpose in the twenty-first century. When thinking about organisational structure, people often understand it to be a traditional hierarchy-based model – think of the pyramid shape of most organisation charts. Developed on military lines and early industrial experiences where organisations had large numbers of people doing tasks that needed a high level of planning, organisation and control. In early factory environments, employees were typically doing repetitive tasks and there was a real need to command and control. The thinking goes that the best way of doing that was to set up these tree-like structures with managers at the top and layers of reporting lines. And even though the world has moved on and work is now very different, requiring different skills including problem-solving and collaboration, most organisations still operate hierarchies.
Today, workers are using their brains to solve problems, being creative and innovative, and that’s very different from a production line. Moreover, although there are systems and technologies to help with modernising an organisational structure, often they have been developed and operate inefficiently. It is rare for organisations to use technology to enable agility and change rather than drive it.
Generally speaking, people are not resistant to change and always want to improve things. People resist badly thought-out change, change which they don’t feel will ease the problems they face or change they don’t understand. One of the things that leaders of organisations can do if they are trying to increase organisational agility is to be clear and have a shared understanding of what agility means in their context – what change will we see from being more agile? What benefits is it going to bring? If leaders cannot be clear on that, then any attempts to try to become more agile are likely to fail.
The 5 conditions for agility
Data and information
Without having a data-driven approach, organisations are likely to struggle to know where their problems really lie. Data might be numeric, such as sales results, customer net promoter score or employee satisfaction. It could be qualitative, anecdotal data collected from customer or staff experiences. Whatever data it is, you need to have a really good idea of where your main problems exist – where is it that you need to be agile? Without sound data, an organisation may not know what measures to put in place.
What can organisations do to survive and thrive? Workers’ reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic were an example of this mindset coming into action. During that period, we saw organisations pivoting quickly, changing products, services, channels, suppliers and ways of working in the face of global uncertainty. People working in organisations know they can be agile because they did it when they had to; when there was a compelling reason that everyone could understand and get behind. When thinking about mindset and agility in your organisation, what is the compelling reason to get behind? A shared goal unleashes agility and creativity.
The pandemic allowed organisations to give themselves permission to drop all the unnecessary and just focus on the absolute necessary – some might call it ’forced’ innovation
The right environment
Organisations can foster an environment that encourages agility in two ways; making it safe to challenge and making collective learning a priority. When a member of staff sees that something isn’t working, there must be a safe environment that allows them to challenge that. Sadly, some awful corporate failures have been the result of people not feeling that it’s safe to speak up and the consequences have been tragic.
An environment that encourages collective learning means that when something goes wrong or when something goes right, people are learning from it and sharing that learning collectively. This is important so that next time there is a similar problem or a different one, they can apply what they have learned. Often, large organisations struggle with sharing knowledge. Fostering an environment that makes it safe to challenge and share learning collectively will help create conditions for improved agility.
If organisations want to create conditions for agility, they must make smart decisions; know when and when not to act and have clear accountabilities. It’s very easy in organisations that do not have clear accountability to assume that someone else is doing something about a problem when they might not be. Or the opposite, acting when you don’t need to and duplicating effort. For example, when people are new in a role, they often feel compelled to do something. Actually, the right thing to do might require more thought, more consultation and more data gathering. There are also times when doing nothing is the right thing to do. Making smart decisions about when to act on an organisational scale will allow greater agility.
To be agile, an organisation must have to have a better way of ensuring the flow of information throughout so that the right decisions are being made and made quickly. If agility is to have the ability to move quickly and easily, you cannot do that if there are fifteen levels of management approval.
Humility and hierarchy
To be agile, people in organisations must possess genuine humility, realise that they don’t have all the answers and are open-minded enough to gain useful information whenever and wherever possible. Many factors affect organisational culture, but in some organisations, often highly hierarchical organisations, managing large teams is seen as a badge of honour and may be linked to pay and reward. This can lead to ‘empire building’ behaviour. Senior managers may think that they must be the expert and have all the answers, however, that assumption is contrary to collective learning.
Agility and strategy
Imagine you are planning a road trip, how would you create the strategy to ensure, to the best of your ability, that you will make it successfully to your destination? You might start with the vehicle; check the mirrors, tire pressure and fuel levels. You might then determine exactly what speed the vehicle needs to go to reach your destination in time. Then you will try to predict what obstacles you might face. However, once you set off on your trip, you did not foresee a road closure disrupting your route nor storms that were not forecast making it unsafe to drive. Despite planning your road trip to the utmost degree, you have had to be agile in navigating around emerging obstacles to successfully make it to your destination.
This is how organisations must be when setting strategy and when running businesses; they must be agile. It is necessary to have a plan, but you then need to be open to the idea of things that might happen on the way. You have a rough idea of your direction, but you need to be constantly sensing what is changing in that environment to continually correct your course, adapting and changing at speed.
Building a strategic business plan is not easy, and neither is being organisationally agile. Thankfully, learning and development organisations, such as Roffey Park Institute, can help your senior leadership team develop the skills and competencies to navigate through uncertain environments. Our programmes enable dynamic, collaborative learning based on real-life cases and cutting-edge research. Roffey Park Institute also offers a team of trusted consultants who in many cases have been in your exact position. They use specialist interventions and techniques to bring your people along to support change, transformation and performance – including the ability to become more agile.