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Is Agile For You?

Agile is part of the popular business literature. It may well be the latest fad, which is another way of saying that it may not last. Only time will tell.

It’s a concept that was borrowed from the software industry 20 years ago, and which has been applied to organisations, specifically in how they develop their products and services, and conduct customer relations in other industries.

But what does it mean, and how is it different from what’s gone on before?

For some, it’s just a synonym for flexible. “Flexible,” however, is an “old-fashioned” term. It’s so ‘80s or ‘90s. Agile sounds up-to-date.

Of course, not wanting to miss an opportunity to make the new term sound more glamorous than it actually is, there are others who refer to it as a way of reorganising business activities such that cross-functional and self-managed teams that focus on customer needs are central to it. All of that additional jargon simply underscores what you’ve been trying to do in your organisation since you began working there.

It has always been about galvanizing your organisation’s resources in such a way as to deliver the results that your customers wanted as quickly and cheaply as possible without compromising quality, right?

The question really is to what extent can you be agile? And of course, that will vary from enterprise to enterprise. Franchises, for instance, have very specific business models, and a condition for owning one is contingent on you following the rules they’ve laid down. Entrepreneurs can lose a franchise, which may have cost them hundreds of thousands of pounds if they don’t comply because the failure to do things by the book reflects badly on the brand itself. It’s a condition for having it.

Some, believe it or not, think that flexibility only applies to working days or hours. That to be agile simply means that the business essentially remains exactly as it always has been except that employees have more choice in when they work.

So you can see that just like every other organisational fad or form that has existed, a lot depends on how you define it.


What’s the problem?

The agile organisation promises a lot of benefits, as a quick search online will reveal. Everything from faster product development times, to early ROI, to greater morale, lower risk, and improved customer satisfaction. A business utopia by all accounts.

Who wouldn’t want that?

The problem, however, is typical to all fads. Managers want the results that such things as “agile” promise, but overlook the path to get there. They ask, “How can we get these results?” Not, “Is the path to these results appropriate for us?”

And the truth is that, just like the matrix design of the 1960s, agile isn’t for everyone - at least not to the extent that many infer, and certainly not yet.

And that’s the rub.

Some are suited for it now, and others aren’t. Some will require a great deal more work to get there, and others not quite as much. The problem is that because the results are so attractive, many are unwilling to ask whether they should pursue it at all.

The underlying question that you must ask, and this is true for all change is this: Given a choice, is it a good fit? Will it make your organisation more productive? Will employees be more engaged? And if you can’t show a clear connection between the desired change and the promised results, then it’s better to wait.


Organisational challenges

One of the biggest challenges that organisations face with any significant change - and agile, by all accounts is the granddaddy of them all - is with how to actually do it.

Most, if not all, change as little as they think they can get away with. They do their best to hold onto the status quo - their sacred cows - when what is really required is a top-down, bottom-up redesign.

Yes. It’s a redesign.

This isn’t one of the change programs where you tweak a few things here and there, and end up adding a few bells and whistles to what you started with. This is a design that’s based on the results you want.

You’re really faced with something of a dilemma. If you admit that agile is really no different from what you’ve always wanted, then there’s no reason to change anything. If you believe that you’re headed in the right direction, then all you’re doing is chasing a label.

Why bother?

If on the other hand you believe that agile will deliver fundamentally different results than what you’re getting right now, then it means that you have to completely change everything so that it supports that new thing that you’re trying to achieve. But you can’t have it both ways. You have to choose Path A or Path B. Path A leads to Results A, and Path B leads to Results B, and that means that you’re not going to get agile results by doing what you’ve always done.

And so, to reword a cliche, if you want to be truly agile, and you believe that it is fundamentally different from what you have been doing, then you must create the mother of all restructuring.

Everything must change: the managerial structure, often depicted as an organisation chart and communication channels. You must give everyone greater autonomy and decision-making authority, and you must hold everyone accountable.

To be as agile as the name suggests, your organisation needs to function as closely to a collaboration of solopreneurs as is practical. And the truth is that hardly anyone will be willing to do this.


Because it means that those who hold a lot of authority will have to delegate it to those they currently supervise, something that few people are willing to do. Those who have power usually want to increase it.



An interesting development has been that the vast majority - something like 92% of millennials - expect flexibility from any job. They are the rising generation, and they’re not the only ones who want it. Nearly three-quarters of all British employees now find flexible working attractive to them, so much so that nearly a third of them would choose it over a pay increase. The thing is that less than 10% of advertised positions offer it. And so that means that if you do have it, then it puts you in fairly rare company.

The recent push for working-from-home has accelerated this change, though increased Internet speeds had made it inevitable.


Competitive advantage?

Few things actually turn out to be what is popularly known as competitive advantage, and that’s because one of the central criteria is that it can’t be easily replicated. If your so-called competitive advantage, for instance, is that you offer your cars in black, blue, red, and white, and your competitors only offer them in black, as Henry Ford once did, then you can see how easily that advantage could be erased by simply offering the same or even different colours.

Agility is different. It’s different because it doesn’t suit every organisation, or at least not to the same extent. And so if it’s something that you can do, then that alone will put you in the minority in the short to medium term.

As with everything else, a time will come when all organisations will be agile if they want to be, and if there’s a need for it. Right now, those who can are in a very small minority. You mustn’t assume that that will always be the case. The organisations that stay ahead work at it. Getting to be “King of the Mountain” is a lot easier than staying there.



If you want to become truly agile, then here are some recommendations for you.


Honestly assess if agile is for you.

The first thing you must do is to honestly assess if agile is for you. You and your team are the only ones who can make this determination because only you have all of the information needed to understand how your organisation works as a whole. And that breadth and depth of knowledge is needed for this undertaking.


Determine to what extent you’ll become agile

Once you’ve decided if this is something you should do, you must then determine to what extent you’ll do it. Agility (flexibility) is subjective. You may be able to do to a greater extent in some areas, but not others, and you’ll have to figure that out for yourself.


Include everyone in the redesign

You must include everyone from the top of the organisation to the bottom in the redesign. This is a place where your employees can be especially helpful. You should find out from them how much responsibility and authority they want; what their vision for your organisation is; what they’re willing to do to make it happen. Anytime someone has a say in how things are done, they’re much more likely to commit to it than if an order comes down from on high.

If you treat everyone with respect by showing them how much you really value their expertise and dedication, then you’ll be amazed at what they’ll do for you.

Transforming any organisation has to be a coordinated effort that everyone makes together, and the degree of change that agility will bring will turn things upside down and inside out. You’re going to need all the help you can get to do this.


Do the right thing

Do the right thing? Really? You’ve had me read this entire article, and now you’re telling me to simply do the right thing?


Agile is something of a misnomer. You’ve heard the results that it promises before. In many ways, there’s nothing new about it. In the past, it was simply called something else.

That tends to be the way things are in managerial circles. The concepts don’t change; only the labels. Of course, the researchers and business authors will never concede this because their careers are based on what they want you to think are significant differences; but when you think about it, there really aren’t any.

And the things that are important to employees haven’t changed either. They still want you to recognize them for doing good work. They still want opportunities to grow and to get promoted. They want greater responsibility. They still want their jobs to be meaningful to them and to feel valued by you.

Yet, for some reason, those things continue to elude them because they’re also the ones that managers avoid doing. Instead, organisations fiddle around with their policies and rules, making them unfair in most cases, and promote people into management positions without training them properly. In other words, organisations would rather do the wrong things because they’re easy than to put forth the effort to do the harder things even though they’re more valuable in the long run.

Doing the right thing is the crux of the whole matter; not labels. You need to worry less about whether you’re agile, and much more about how to create an environment that makes your employees want to be fully engaged in their work and the objectives of your organisation.

If you do that, then they will give you all the agility that you need.


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