So you want to be Agile. The common criteria I have found to define an ‘Agile’ organisation are: –
- Fast moving, flexible, quick and responsive to changes, challenges, events and opportunities from anywhere, anytime.
- Built on policies and processes that facilitate speed and change, it aims to achieve continuous competitive advantage in serving its customers.
- Agile enterprises use diffused authority and flat, non hierarchical organizational structure with no single point of control.
- Short loop information flows among different departments, and develop close, trust-based relationships with their customers and suppliers.
- The connected and aware entrepreneurial organisation, with leaders as catalysts.
So, what to do to achieve these five points? Firstly, all five points are connected; none stand alone. Lets unpack these five points;
1. Fast moving, flexible, quick and responsive to changes, challenges, events and opportunities from anywhere, anytime – In my last blog I mentioned how social genetics or memes evolve with society and organisational design reflect both dominant and emergent memes. Pathfinders/early adopters are expressions of the exciting and emergent value systems. That is why their value propositions are so powerful and there is a mad rush to emulate the few that are successful. Your ability to become Agile depends on your dominant meme system (culture).
Point 1 is about quick and effective exercise of judgment – i.e. decision making. And it is not short term ONLY; it needs to be long term as well (future focused work is a function of organisation complexity). A recent article in the HBR illustrates how important long term thinking is and how it has worked well for companies taking the long view.
An ‘agile’ organisation must be both short and long term to be sustainable and as well as resilient. The necessary minimal conditions for this are;
- an effective structure reflecting the company’s complexity and one that can delivers its intent;
- authorised and flexible role relationships that allow decisions making to be done quickly and effectively, at the right time and place;
- A flexible structure with home-based roles accountable for ensuring different unique value adds – (ie accountable for long and short term).
- Leaders with the cognitive capability and skilled knowledge to handle the complexity of differing types of decision making in all teams, functional areas.
2. Built on policies and processes that facilitate speed and change, it aims to achieve continuous competitive advantage in serving its customers. Organisation intent is delivered through systems of work which are both customer centric and whole of systems thinking. This is where the speed and innovation of digital revolution has driven the need for agility.
Systems of Work (policies and processes) in the Value Added Domain of work (known customers, known products, known services, known markets) need to be so much faster, seamless and integrated – to delight and anticipate the customer. Leading through the rear-view mirror in short time spans is to ensure captivity, opportunities and changing circumstances. Many companies are locked into battle with adding new value through customer rear-view data analytics, aimed at short term gains (1-3 years).
However true agility requires a future focused customer windscreen as well. Elon Musk commented that the customer (and governments) have no idea what the future is bringing and looking to the past is no guide in our fast moving, disruptive world.
Thus Strategic Intent at the longer, more complex work themes level requires different speed systems of work; mutiple ecosystems awareness; as well as the slower, deeper building of organisational DNA. Thus a two speed system of policies and processes, where the shorter time spans are for decision making to adapt, change, innovate; while the longer time spans, stablise, integrate, learn and invest.
3. Agile enterprises use diffused authority and flat, non hierarchical organizational structure with no single point of control.
This is where I differ from the definition. I know of no long term successful company (survived and thrived for 15 years+) where there are no points of control. Diffused authority in principle allows for effective, rapid and relevant decision making. No accountability is a recipe for an organisational stuff up and failure. Sorry, unpalatable I know, but there is it. The naked truth.
If you do this, history will eat you and history has a magnificently illustrated cookery book.
Nature uses hierarchy for creating unique value add; no part is better then another, each part is accountable for different stuff. We talk about hierarchy not as power based or centralised command and control of the red, blue or orange memes, but as yellow (or teal); themes of work, each with unique value adding based on increasing uncertainty and ambiguity, hence complexity.
Here we integrate structure with rear view mirror and the future focused windscreen. The ANZ CEO did not even know how many levels there were in his company, but ANZ ‘levels’ seem to be traditional hierarchy, not complexity base work themes.
4. Short loop information flows among different departments, and develop close, trust-based relationships with their customers and suppliers.
Yes, yes, yes!!!! Unfortunately so often a wish list. Organisations have a Bank of Trust in which deposits and withdrawals are made. Sadly many operate in overdraft. Trust comes from building strong trusting two way relationships over time. It happens when point 1 to 3 are in place and emerges from saying what you plan on doing and doing what you say, and by leading in a consistent, collaborative way. Trust has a corollary, it needs to be felt fair.
An agile organisation is not the sum of a specific technique or team based approach; it is the entire way we design, operate and lead the enterprise. It is a culture of how we do things here.
5. The connected and aware entrepreneurial organisation – Organisations go through cycles of growth, equilibrium and growth, as their complexity increases. Failure or death exist at any-point, especially at points of transition and emergence. Different memes may become dominant drivers.
Agile is also a term that can apply to an organisation’s ability to move rapidly into and remain in Prime; I refer readers to Izchak Adizes pioneering work in regard to corporate life cycles
Many references are made to hiring ‘smart people’ but smart is left vague, up to general interpretation. Each phase requires different leadership skills; so I have avoided ‘the list’ and rather say characteristics are adaptability, skilled managerial leadership and ability to work at the theme of complexity they are leading.
Therefore a key operating principle is one of individual cognitive capability being matched to work challenge – and consistent studies show people grow or shrink work according to their ability to exercise judgement (when they do not know and cannot know what to do). Success comes from stocking high potential individuals into the organisation envelopes of change, with a clear mandate to lead major initiatives, turn things around or head up successful startups. Fact.
So in conclusion – An Agile Organisation is many integrated things, with no silver bullets. It is the Yellow Meme, doing what works and doing what is requisite…