How Can Organizations Become More Agile?
The word “agile” has been mainly used in the past to talk about individuals and essentially means being able to move quickly and easily (at the most basic level to run faster, leap higher, climb further etc.). But in more recent times the term has been used increasingly in relation to teams and organizations as a whole and the need for them to face up to pressure and change in flexible ways. So why do organizations need to be so more agile today and how do they go about being constantly agile?
Although organizations tend to be very agile at start-up stage (being small and often set up to be highly responsive to changing circumstances), they can quickly become more and more proceduralized, slow to act and therefore rigid over time, especially as more and more people are taken on. Specific efforts have to therefore be made to remain agile, the rewards for which are that they can be quicker and more responsive to customer needs and thereby stay ahead of their competitors.
Although there are obviously many ways in which an organization can become more agile, especially when they fear there has been too much “hardening of the organizational arteries” there are five critical category headings that are often most useful when thinking about this subject. These are:
1. Poor/inappropriate culture
In the small organization the culture (and the values that underpin it) is often set by the owner or the founders. However, as growth takes place a culture evolves beyond the owners and starts to be shaped by a variety of leaders and may therefore start to lose some consistency. This is a danger to an organization’s attempts to stay agile because it may become “the culture around here” to slow things down, keep certain information private, not speak up when mistakes are made etc. This inevitably means that it takes longer to get things done and a degree of rigidity creeps into the organization.
2. Conflicting departmental goals and priorities
Once again, the growth of employee numbers means that teams and departments start to form and the potential for conflict arises, especially in relation to competition for scarce resources and who is to take priority when it comes to the individual department goals that need to be achieved. With the right handling mechanism this conflict can remain healthy in the sense that it forces crucial debate about what should take overall precedence. However, when such mechanisms are not in place, conflict can become destructive and even personal and encourage people to spend too much time managing internal organizational politics rather than external customer issues. Such departmental conflict, when unchecked, may even turn into full “silo” based thinking, which is very much an inhibitor to overall organization-wide agility.
3. Slow decision-making
When an organization is small and people can gather together with relative ease, decisions can usually be quickly made (and few people have to make them, of course). Over time, the range and volume of decisions needing to be made increases dramatically and delegation has to occur. It then can become more difficult to get the right people to make a decision so easily and the delay enters proceedings, albeit with the laudable aim of making sure that key people are “in the loop” or not unnecessarily excluded from decisions to which they can make a contribution. However, this democratic intention can backfire when a few important deadlines and targets are missed and the organization suffers as a result.
By their very nature, smaller organizations are happier to take business risks, having less to lose as they “snap at the heels” of their larger competitors. However, some of these risks prove to be worth taking (and the organization wins) and some are not, quickly leading to an increasingly careful evaluation of the risks before decisions are made over time. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this more conservative approach, risk averseness can arise as a habit in some leaders and business agility can again suffer as a consequence.
5. Resistance to/inadequate knowledge about Technology
Where leaders pay too little attention to the possibilities that new technology can bring or resist adopting it for defensive reasons, the overall capacity to be agile can be hugely hugely constrained. These days technology of all kinds can and should play a leading supporting role in enabling organizations to become more agile. Technology should ideally function as an enabler of change and in the use and adoption of best-in-class knowledge-sharing processes, so companies can improve their use of critical data in all of their key decisions.
The agile enterprise tries to deliberately “face-up” to change, both large and small in scale, in the most positive way that it can at all levels and makes it a routine part of organizational life. It does this by being vigilant about all five of the above categories in particular, especially in the face of growth in employee numbers. This greater agility should ideally be used to make speedy adjustments to people, teams and resources, wherever necessary, and in order to take better advantage of the situation than the organization might have done without having this mentality.