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7 practices to boost agility

7 practices to boost agility at an individual, team and organisational level

Crises can often be the catalysts for change – the last year has upended how we work as individuals, teams and organisations, as have past economic and societal disruptions. Covid has forced change upon us and highlighted the need for greater agility to be able to tackle future challenges and remain relevant and competitive. What is sure is that there is more change to come, and agility is something that can help people and organisations be more prepared for what is around the corner and to prosper.

 

What is agility?

Whilst many organisations talk about the importance of being agile, research by McKinsey suggests that only around 12% of organisations are truly agile1. The same research demonstrates a strong link between agility and organisational performance. “Agility” can also mean different things to different people. Some see it as simply making decisions quickly and acting quickly. Some think of it as agile project management methodologies. And others view it as how quickly a given organisation can adapt to changes and evolve. It is important to clarify what agility is at different levels:

 

Individual2
Team3
Organisation1 4 5
Description People who are agile:

  • – Are open to change
  • – Adapt quickly to changes
  • – Work effectively when faced with problems
  • – Make decisions and act with incomplete information when needed
  • – Proactively prepare for potential changes
  • – Let go of approaches that aren’t working
Teams who are agile:

  • – Have clear objectives
  • – Prioritise effectively
  • – Have clear role responsibilities
  • – Give team members autonomy
  • – Work collaboratively
  • – Seek and act on feedback
  • – Learn from experience
  • – Proactively anticipate evolving needs or potential changes

 

Organisations that are agile:

  • – Have a clear vision, meaningful values, and a competitive strategy
  • – Have leaders who inspire staff
  • – Communicate clearly and share knowledge effectively
  • – Put in place processes that enable effective delivery
  • – Use data and experience to learn and adapt strategy
  • – Spark innovation using ideas generated internally and externally
  • – Proactively manage risk and look for what is coming ahead
Benefits Agile behaviours help individuals develop new knowledge and skills that enable them to deal with current and future work challenges. Agile teams are able to execute on defined objectives in a relatively autonomous and adaptive way. Agile organisations deliver on and adapt their purpose using effective people practices and processes.

 

Agility is not just about making decisions quickly and acting on them, it is also about adapting and delivering in a sustainable way.

 

What are the obstacles to being agile?

There are many benefits of being agile, but there are numerous factors that can hamper this:

 

Individual
Team
Organisation
Challenges
  • – Being uncomfortable with change and ambiguity
  • – A preference for certainty and stability
  • – Analysis paralysis
  • – Risk aversion
  • – A focus on the here and now, and not seeing the need to adapt for the future
  • – Unclear priorities
  • – A lack of the right resources
  • – Unclear roles and responsibilities
  • – Ineffective delegation/ lack of autonomy
  • – Dysfunctional team dynamics, such as a lack of trust and collaboration
  • – A focus on maintaining the status quo

 

  • – Lack of shared purpose
  • – Organisational silos that inhibit collaboration
  • – Complex organisational structures that can slow down decision making
  • – Legacy systems and processes that are not entirely fit for purpose
  • – A focus on maintaining the status quo and a risk averse culture

The CEO of Pfizer highlights a number of factors that enabled Pfizer to develop a vaccine in record time, such as challenging people’s beliefs about what was possible, getting people behind the urgent need to save lives, collaborating across companies, and deliberately removing bureaucracy6.

How can we practise being more agile

Having a clear understanding of what agility actually means and of what some of the barriers are highlights what could be done differently to put it into practice. Try out some of the practices below to boost agility and tackle some of these barriers.

Individual

Sometimes people delay making decisions and acting because things are uncertain and they feel the need for more information before acting. The desire to make the perfect decision can lead to procrastination. But, delaying decisions can mean missing opportunities and becoming stuck.

Practice #1: Shrink the decision:

Generate a small step that would move things forward. For example, instead of creating a detailed plan for the next 12 months, create a plan for the next month.

Practice #2: Consider the cost of delaying or not acting:

Ask yourself: What would I gain by delaying? What would I gain by starting? Research shows that people are much better at recognising risks rather than opportunities7. Starting with a small step could actually provide more information to help make better decisions.

Practice #3: Make time to look ahead.

Agility is also about anticipating changes and preparing for them. Set aside time to understand changes in the business, industry or wider environment, and think through what this may mean for you or your team. This can help reduce the risk of being blindsided by changes.

Team

Practice #4: Practise delegation.

Work slows down when even simple decisions are passed to leaders to make. Aim to get work done at the right level and to empower team members to make decisions that they are best suited to.

  • – List the work tasks that you perform and decisions that you make now. .
  • – Rate them on a scale of 1 to 5 in terms of how challenging they are for you to perform. 1 being ‘not challenging at all’, 3 being ‘moderate’, and 5 being ‘very challenging’.
  • – For any tasks or types of decisions that you have rated as 1 or 2, create a plan to hand them over to a team member. If you find delegation difficult, start with team members observing you, then getting them to do it with some coaching and feedback from you, before fully delegating the task or decision.

Practice #5: Build learning into regular meetings.

Team meetings often focus on operational delivery. Teams also need to make time to reflect on how work is done and how it could be improved to be able to adapt, otherwise they risk falling back on the status quo. In regular meetings, ask team members to share something they have learnt across the last week or month, as well as what they might do differently based on this. As part of project reviews, in addition to identifying key lessons, identify specific situations where these lessons will be applied in future to increase the probability that they will actually be applied.

Organisation

Practice #6: Create multidisciplinary teams and reward collaboration.

Leaders and teams are typically recognised and rewarded for performance within their specific domain. This can lead to a narrow focus and organisational silos that inhibit collaboration and broader organisational agility. To encourage greater collaboration and accountability for wider performance, create teams that include representatives from different parts of the organisation, set goals focused on collaboration across teams and include these in performance reviews.

Practice #7: Prepare for a number of possibilities.

Ask ‘what if?’. Scenario planning involves creating a number of specific scenarios that might happen in future, along with a description of the factors that would lead to these outcomes and how the organisation would prepare for them. Scenario planning helps to combat the status quo bias, prepare for changes and a number of different possibilities, and to respond in an agile way when a given situation emerges8.

There has been a great deal of change and uncertainty across the last year, which has highlighted the need for greater agility. But it’s vital to remember that change is constant in today’s world, not just in times of crisis. Agility is a skill and competency we can build at all levels that will enable us to respond to changes, learn, and create more sustainable businesses and organisations.

 

References

1 – Bazigos, M., De Smet, A., & Gagnon, C. (2015). Why agility pays. McKinsey Quarterly, December 2015.
2 – Sherehiy, B., & Karwowski, W. (2014). The relationship between work organization and workforce agility in small manufacturing enterprises. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 44, 466-473.
3 – Rigby, D. K., Sutherland, J., & Takeuchi, H. (2016). Embracing agile. Harvard Business Review.
4 – Collis, D. (2016). Lean strategy: start ups need both agility and direction. Harvard Business Review.
5 – Muduli, A. (2016). Exploring the facilitators and mediators of workforce agility: an empirical study. Management Research Review, 39(12), 1567-1586.
6 – Bourla, A. (2021). The CEO of Pfizer on developing a vaccine in record time. Harvard Business Review.
7 – Babineaux, R., & Krumboltz, J. (2013). Fail Fast, Fail Often. USA: Penguin Group.
8 – Erdmann, D., Sichel, B., & Yeung, L. (2015). Overcoming obstacles to effective scenario planning. McKinsey & Company.

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