From Average To Agile: How Companies Can Transform Their Business

The rapid pace of change and volatility is the new norm in today’s business environment. For companies that can react and adapt quickly, it presents opportunities and a competitive advantage in the market.

As companies grow and mature, however, agility, speed, innovation and their ability to adapt have a natural tendency to diminish. The companies that will do best are those that place an active focus on developing and maintaining their agility. For companies to succeed, they need to do more than simply execute. They need to be able to adapt and execute.

In transforming a company into a dynamic and agile enterprise, there are three core and interrelated areas that companies need to be focussing their agile development efforts in:

1. Agile Leadership

2. Agile Strategy

3. Agile Culture

Agile Leadership

Agile leaders are people within your company who flourish in ambiguity and uncertainty. They are comfortable being open and transparent. They share their assumptions, even if unpopular, and they seek to understand yours. They are adaptable — unafraid to challenge the status quo, embrace change and anticipate where it may happen next. These leaders have a passion for learning and do not see it as a weakness to admit when they do not know something. They do not lead by consensus or committee because, due their collaborative working style, they understand who the stakeholders are before making decisions. They keep the company moving.

Agile leadership will not come naturally to the average leader. When faced with uncertainty or change, the human mind works counter to what makes an agile leader. When change or uncertainty occurs, the primitive brain kicks into gear and puts us into a fear state. Change equates danger: It makes us uncomfortable, and we naturally take the path of least resistance or the safest route. Our survival depends on it.

Dr. David Rock, author of the Neuroleadership Handbook and Your Brain at Work, says, "We like certainty, which brings clarity and predictability. Ambiguity, which often comes with change, activates a threat circuitry in the brain." This could explain why so many leaders struggle with change and uncertainty, which can ultimately impede agility.

Leaders who embrace the uncomfortableness of what agile leadership brings are constantly re-training their brains and establishing new patterns of behavior to effectively anticipate and react to change, thrive in uncertainty and build resilience.

For leaders to move from average to agile and become change agents to progress their company's agenda and purpose, they need to master the following areas that are core to agile leadership:

1. Awareness: Agile leaders are keenly aware of what is occurring within their company, both inside and out. They are also inclined to exhibit a high degree of self-awareness and understand their own strengths and weaknesses and how to best go about solving a business problem. This, in turn, helps them better navigate through change successfully.

2. Visioning: Agile leaders can skillfully connect/translate the company's strategy and vision to each of their employees and connect the dots for them to understand how to achieve it. They have the ability to communicate this to their employees in such a way that it feels achievable or even inspiring.

3. Engagement: Agile leaders are masters at uniting and engaging stakeholders behind the common goal and purpose. These leaders don’t feel the need to have all the answers. In fact, they value collaboration and see it as a strength to use the “bigger brain” or more sources of input outside of themselves and their immediate team when faced with solving business problems.

4. Planning and execution: Agile leaders can take strategy and distill it into achievable roadmaps/objectives, helping their teams execute and deliver on them. They are also prepared to adapt their strategy as needed based on evolving or changing circumstances. These leaders have the confidence and support to make decisions, are unafraid to take accountability and will maintain effectiveness in uncertain situations.

Agile Strategy And Planning

Traditional approaches to strategic planning fail to keep up with the rate of change, meaning that many plans rapidly become obsolete and lose relevance. Agile companies adapt their plans as the environment in which it operates evolves.

Strategic obsolescence can occur very quickly. Within a normal business environment, I can take less than 18 months to see evidence of significant divergence from a central strategy. The annual budget process is one channel through which this divergence is accelerated and subsequently legitimized, meaning there is conflict between strategic and operational directions. This divergence leads to a lack of alignment and accountability, and frictions arise due to the gap between vision/strategy and current state/reality.

For most companies, changes in strategy occur through changes to management positions or a result of a sudden shift to the business environment. Agile companies, on the other hand, continually evolve their strategies and plans by regularly reviewing their future state and roadmaps to ensure that they remain aligned and the direction they are heading is: (1) relevant (2) optimal (3) feasible and (4) desired.

Agile Culture

Going from average to agile requires a culture that empowers leaders to make decisions, fail early, recover quickly, and challenge the status quo. Agile companies create and drive the ownership mindset. They create a communicative environment with transparency of direction and accountabilities yet with empowerment for leaders to succeed and deliver. They establish rhythm, agility and speed on decision making throughout the company by using simple tools that cascade the strategy/vision throughout all layers of the company and help leaders navigate how best they can deliver value and outcomes for the company. They align performance evaluation and compensation to support this culture.

It is inevitable that companies will need to evolve and adapt in the face of change. The question is how they intend to address the change. Will it be proactively and continuously, looking to use their agility as a competitive advantage? Or reactively, when markets dictate that change is absolutely necessary? For those companies with the desire to be dynamic industry leaders, starting with the three areas of agility discussed above provides a path to help you begin or finesse your agile journey.


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