The agile movement started as a game changer approximatively 20 years ago when software production approaches aimed at creating and delivering software solutions. These solutions were provided through rapid and consistent work segments based on a regular customer feedback.
Shortly after, different industries began to apply this methodology by recognizing its positive effects and for 2 decades business leaders came to the conclusion that by quickly responding to changes in the marketplace and adapting to customers’ needs can help organizations thrive throughout the years.
But after all, how do we determine if a company is agile or not?
An agile organization creates a well-defined plan to move its structure, processes, people and technology towards a new operating business model meant to help the company avoid any disturbances in its short and long-term growth. Indeed, it has at its disposal advanced tools, processes and trainings that enable its people to adapt to ongoing changes in market conditions, the threat of new competitors, technological shifts and/or prompt alterations in customers’ demands.
“In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.” Abraham Maslow
Such organizations base themselves on great team players that continuously learn from experiments and by practicing an open communication style. Shortly, the final goal is that the company should act and think in the same way at the end.
Recent studies have shown that during the last crisis an increasing number of organizations manifested an interest into these new ways of working. Some of them were born agile, such as our company. The other ones underwent a partial or complete transformation to embrace agility. Either way, the results were clear: these organizations adapted faster to market needs and changes.
But how to distinguish between traditional and agile organizations?
Foremost, one must understand that all organizations are different. For traditional ones for instance, reviewing the whole system and evaluating behavioral change can be very difficult to welcome yet. They are built around hierarchical systems that in most cases are not dynamic, making it difficult for them to voluntarily step into the unknown. In most cases, they value certainty, safety and reliance on rules to keep the business working.
Agility is everything else. Agile enterprises are actively searching for new perspectives that can help them function accordingly to a new and efficient operating system. Instead of relying on a structure that has been stable for years, they start to experiment, to deliberate and to trust its people to get things done.
This is proved to be one of the most difficult elements of change. As mentioned above, traditional corporate cultures define everything around, from roles and relationships between employees and management to the context of the business. Rather than focusing on employees’ feedback and accommodate needs of flexibility, they simply focus on day-to-day operations in order to keep the business on track. This type of environment can benefit employees that are looking for a clear direction as it can give people a sense of stability and safety. However, it leaves little to no space for innovation and creativity.
To embrace agility, one must start by understanding its corporate culture. In order to do so, employees and leaders have to set up a clear list in which they analyze their current cultural assumptions and the methods to apply in order to adapt and support customer and employee behavioral expectations.
It all starts with a change in mindsets and an open eye. Let’s take a representative example. One may think that such a regulated environment such as the banking one may have a hard time adapting to an agile operating model. Well, ING proved us wrong. ING went on the path of agile transformation in 2015 being inspired by giants such as Google or Spotify. In order to provide insights on agile culture and capabilities, ING resorted to the so-called tracking initiatives. They consisted in survey questions and interviews meant to produce practical learning.
For instance, in the first tracking initiative they asked questions related to corporate culture directly linked to the bank’s goals. The results helped ING track the factors that could impact its outcomes. In the second one the plan was to interview senior leaders across 15 countries on culture and opinions on collaboration improvements across the company.
The output of these initiatives shaped the cornerstone of all insights on future performance and employees’ motivation. The survey questions created data able to produce practical learning while the interviews results were employed into leadership interchanges and created a culture of trustworthiness between employees and leaders.
In next to no time, the initiatives helped create a direct correlation between culture data and performance through a successful agile transformation.
As a matter of course, measuring the behavioral change throughout the time it’s been one of the biggest challenges for companies across the world.
“Every day we’re saying, 'How can we keep this customer happy? ' How can we get ahead in innovation by doing this, because if we don't, somebody else will.” Bill Gates
Customer’s behavior is changing at the speed of light and competitors are fighting more than ever to give consumers the best customer journey they can possibly have. Their pressing needs make companies continuously anticipate how a customer will act every step of the way, practice that underlines the need for agility.
This shift helps organizations to re-imagine the customer journey, to being more customer-center and to find ways to meet consumers’ needs across the whole customer life cycle.
Through digital channels, agile transformation has the capacity to carry out the wishes of existing customers as well as attracting the new ones. In order to achieve this, they need to get customers’ feedbacks through digitalized methods such as online forums or start-up incubators. Regularly, these feedbacks serve as checkpoints in order for a customer to compare if what he initially wanted applies in practice. These checkpoints set the pace of the different stages of an ongoing project, that through innovative solutions and knowledge development should meet its purpose. All this with one main purpose: customer satisfaction through decreased prices and increased efficiency.
Technology and recruitment
In order to be efficient, companies should decentralize their technology by giving enough responsibility to each and every subdivision of the company.
The different aspects of agile organizations are not independent one of another. As an example, the recruitment of specialized engineers that want and can function in cross-multifunctional teams is directly linked to a significant improvement in the agile technological transformation of the company. To facilitate this inter-dependance, one must raise expectations in terms of technology talent with an additional investment in mentorship and coaching.
In most cases, digitalizing the existing processes is not enough in order to take the path towards agility, as organizations must also incorporate new ones into their existing practices. For instance, a new universal collaboration tool can facilitate communication and can help all teams align in terms of timing and priorities.
The first steps towards agility
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Traditionally, planning knowledge work was a very tough process that was taking a huge amount of time to achieve and that was projected into the upcoming years. This was feasible especially as markets were not extremely dynamic.
However, for a few decades, the planning process in terms of knowledge work has to be flexible and reviewed at every step of the way as there is an increasing number of changes on the market, from technology to customer needs.
Into this transformation towards more agile ways of working, adjustments into the planning processes were more than necessary as, following the market trends, many of the initially planned parts of the process had to be reviewed and updated. That is, through regularly delivered working software, the motivated self-organizing teams, sponsors and customers should maintain a close collaboration at regular intervals and track the progress of particular work items together. They should keep it simple and most importantly, transparent.
Agile pilots are for instance more than welcome. The goal of an agile pilot is to test the potential and viability of a small unit within the organization. The pilot should be limited to independent teams as it is still at the stage of experimenting in terms of structure and facilities. In most cases, however, it still requires that cross-functional teams should work together during this phase.
According to McKinsey, in order to scale beyond the pilots, leaders must step in and incorporate learning in the scale-up plan. An important amount of leader’s time is necessary concerning the mentorship of new conducts and practices.
If successful, a complete agile management system will translate itself into general practices such as: radical transparency at all organizational levels, the establishment of an information flow within them and balancing demand with corporate capabilities in order to improve forecasting.
The actual situation
An important change in the static operational structure of a company (technology, people) during the current pandemic may be very scary. It is however more important than ever for organizations to be able to leverage real-time work management tools adapted to market trends. Through these tools, they should capture changing market requirements and analyze and adapt their capabilities to produce higher quality products or services to better serve the customers’ needs.
By applying this logic, any organization should be able to better adapt to the “new normal”, and most importantly be aware that once it has reoriented its operations to answer to the current situation there is no way back when the crisis is over.
Before the pandemic, innovation was an open door for each and every company that forecasted that the future belongs to those who embrace uncertainty and adapt to it. Hence, the arriving of the pandemic for those who already fostered agile culture was not a big business disrupter. Indeed, various studies show that resilient agile organizations were able to take important decision at an unprecedented speed and adjust to current market needs.
As customer centric businesses are the ones who will emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, their resilience will be the trigger factor that will decide how many of the Fortune 100 companies will still occupy their position in the ranking as for 2022-2023.
One of the most valuable lessons we can learn from this paper is that companies may be able to implement Agile by changing their processes and structures, but never be agile without changing their culture, the way people interact, engage and work on a daily basis.
On the other hand, as we all know “customer is king”, meaning that customers are the center of every business. Through agility and evolving technology, an organization has all the necessary means through which it can receive and adapt to the customers’ needs and demands.
Moreover, today’s environment is practically forcing organizations to simply become agile. If in the past it was still a choice, nowadays agility becomes an identifiable need in order to survive on the market.
Finally, to keep agile transformation on track, one must ensure a clear vision of the final goal and a stable model throughout the years that everyone must believe in (from the workforce to the stakeholders and customers). Without a doubt, when the vision of a company is clear, creating the strategy and motivated the audience should come easily.