Business Agility at the Fore
Business agility has been much-discussed in recent years. COVID-19 has brought this thinking to the fore and necessitated an accelerated response from businesses. Reyana Nacerodien talks to Agile Business Consortium on thought-leadership and learnings from the crisis period. This article was first published in In Focus issue 7 magazine.
Agile Business Consortium is a global leader in promoting business agility, having contributed to knowledge on the subject for over 25 years. It’s the world’s oldest agility-orientated organisation and has contributed to the certification of more than 100,000 people around the globe. The organisation’s thought leadership has supported businesses on their agile journeys and ensured continued growth in knowledge through agile research, case studies, resources and tools that help you to compete in today’s disrupted world. The Consortium’s outputs and the work of their members have been challenged by the experience of COVID-19 but it has also led to key learnings and invaluable experience.
Business Agility Understood
While definitions of agility abound, it’s generally held and understood that flexibility and adaptability are needed for companies and organisations to traverse market evolution, fast-paced developments and, ultimately, change. The Consortium holds that an agile business is one that embraces an agile philosophy and values at its core, from its people and culture, to its structure and technology.
Katie Taylor, vice chair of the Agile Business Consortium explains, ‘The term business agility is often used to discuss the adoption and evolution of values, behaviours and capabilities that enable businesses and individuals to be more adaptive, creative and resilient in turbulent times. Business agility is about much more than just another enterprise-wide set of processes. To be truly agile, an organisation needs to operate in a very different way, with leadership, values and norms all reinforcing an inclusive culture and mindset.’
Consequently, an agile business is customer centric and can respond quickly and effectively to opportunities and threats found in its internal and external environments be they commercial, legal, technological, social, moral or political.
Previously, the path to agile ways of working have been difficult to initiate whilst maintaining stable business as usual. However, COVID-19 has provided the catalyst often required to drive change. ‘The future is unpredictable, and with the world and its technology changing ever faster, it’s creating greater uncertainty in our needs and requirements. Businesses that embrace agile are able to adapt faster, delivering value often by testing the environment and remaining customer focused,’ is the long-held view of the Consortium as affirmed by Katie.
Agility Amid a Pandemic
From the Consortium’s point of view, the current pandemic and issues such as Brexit are the epitome of a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world. The value of business agility as a response by innovative organisations is the combination of effective strategies, new thinking and recent research that has been proven to help businesses thrive and out perform their peers. Organisations today can only fulfil their vision and mission by anticipating and constantly adjusting in the face of volatile conditions.
JCURV, a Consortium partner, works with leading global and UK-based firms including several FTSE 100 companies. The two organisations collaborated to survey more than 1,800 people covering executives, heads of transformation and delivery teams to understand what learnings could be taken from how companies have responded to the COVID-19 crisis, that would strengthen agile ways of working.
Emily Ruffle, head of insights at the Consortium explains the three main findings derived from the survey:
1. COVID-19 has forced many organisations to operate at unprecedented levels of pace in order to adapt.
2. Organisations have been able to achieve this step change by radically changing the way they manage change using agile principles.
3. Overwhelming concern about whether these learnings and practices gained from the crisis will be sustained as the world returns to some level of ‘normality’.
‘The survey highlights that organisations have been able to achieve these unprecedented results as they have introduced or amplified many of the agile principles at enterprise level. These principles include empowerment, flatter hierarchy, openness to test and learn, transparency and cross-functional working,’ elaborates Vikram Jain, managing director or JCURV.
Vikram adds their many clients comment on how meetings are radically more effective as they are being run with clearer objectives and more rigour. ‘We’ve seen several organisations already start to downsize their offices or even consider going permanently virtual, like Facebook. A reduced office footprint would radically reduce overheads and create a business operating model that could ignite competitive advantage,’ he says.
The Future is Agile
Beyond the crisis, will the learning hold true for future generations of workers? Consortium research highlighted and affirmed an oft-cited fact that 60 per cent of today’s 11-year olds will go on to have jobs that haven’t been invented yet. ‘As a generation, those under 30 years of age are used to these kinds of uncertain environments and are adept at managing them. Many of this generation don’t use the word agile, instead they reference adaptability, flexibility, resilience, complex problem solving, creativity and more,’ says Emily. ‘What we do know, based on a 2018 World Economic Forum report, is that the top 10 skills for jobs in 2022 include a large proportion of specifically agile skills.’ These include:
- Analytical thinking and innovation.
- Active learning and learning strategies.
- Creativity, originality and initiative.
- Technology design and programming.
- Critical thinking and analysis.
- Complex problem solving.
- Leadership and social influence.
- Emotional intelligence.
- Reasoning, problem solving and ideation.
- Systems analysis and ideation.
These are all skills required in the Consortium’s agile teams and in the very near future, the skills that businesses want to see in almost all their employed talent including those already in the workforce. Discussions have found that members of Generation Agile are most importantly looking for empowered teams, flexible working and organisations that put people first.
‘What some have failed to consider is that the naturally agile generation has a different working approach to traditional business. Agile employees thrive best when they are within an environment which supports their needs, and businesses that don’t meet their requirements for an agile culture are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to recruiting,’ says Emily.
The Consortium’s framework for business agility offers a holistic approach with guidance for organisations on their agile journey. It’s also useful to consider business agility from three perspectives:
- Strategic agility – MIT research shows agile firms grew revenue 37 per cent faster and generated 30 per cent higher profits than non-agile companies.
- Employee engagement – businesses focussed on passion and purpose outperformed S&P 500 companies by a factor of 14 over a 15-year period.
- Innovation – Google products such as Gmail have been powered by employee ‘20 per cent time’.
There are some who are already getting it right. The Consortium cites Timpson shoe repairs in the United Kingdom (UK) where the success of Timpson shows how strategic agility contributes to success. The shoe repair market had been in decline since the 1960s and threatened the survival of the organisation. By changing the strategic focus of the business and diversifying, Timpson has become the UK’s fastest growing specialist locksmith service. The values of the business, based on trust and respect, have helped drive this success and are listed in the Magic Dust section of the Timpson website.
A summary of the key Timpson values and what they consider to be common sense principles:
- Aim to be the best – a fall of five per cent in profit can cause misery and make the business difficult to manage. Timpson puts the emotion first.
- Enjoy change – they think only five years ahead, let their imagination run riot and keep investing.
- Visit the business – meet the people. The business holds that information from your eyes and ears is worth more than any spreadsheet.
- Keep looking for ideas – they crop up in the most unusual places when you least expect them. Give them a go and don’t fear failure.
- Show leadership – the CEO should listen, consult and make decisions to set strategy.
- No secrets – colleagues have a right to know what’s going on.
- Upside down management – customers are king, those that serve customers are next. The Chairman is at the bottom.
- Amaze customers – should be the first line of any strategy.
Several exco-level leaders that formed part of the survey conveyed their main concern that learnings from the pandemic experience would be forgotten as soon as lockdown restrictions are eased. Evolution is key. Harnessing the COVID-19 experience is essential. Adapt, keep what works well and lose less helpful practices. Small and sustained changes is all it takes to begin the journey and these often add up to the biggest changes.
Main photo by Petri Heiskanen on Unsplash.