Why you should worry if your boss says: ‘We’re going agile!’

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“Agile” is the latest business buzzword doing the rounds at organisations around the world. It’s often used with words and phrases such as “delivering value quicker”, “leaner”, “smarter”, “efficiency”, “productivity” and “engagement”. They’re all squeezed in there to make it seem like the Holy Grail of operating models.

The Agile Manifesto on which the approach is drawn was conceived 17 years ago in 2001, so it’s really not a new concept. A team that I led in a government agency in 2010 implemented the approach successfully and were seen (locally) as trailblazers. Yet, at the time, it all just felt like common sense.

Why wouldn’t we try and deliver things more quickly? Why wouldn’t we break the ridiculous cycle of pointless meetings in dull meeting rooms? Why wouldn’t we increase accountability and engagement by making our work visual? We didn’t need a certificate to do this, we just needed the courage to challenge the status quo. 

Unfortunately however, agile is currently being viewed and talked about as a silver bullet. And like most corporate silver bullets, in the wrong hands, agile — as an approach — simply won’t work. In the right hands, agile works, but not for everything.  It can’t be applied carte blanche to every initiative, nor can it be the sole answer to an existing failing initiative. It can’t be implemented in a week or a month, nor can you change people’s job titles or team names and except a sudden shift.

Despite all of this, it’s becoming increasingly en vogue for chief executives around the world to expect immediate change when they say ‘we’re going agile!’ It doesn’t work that way and if it’s your chief executive that’s saying it, then it’s time to worry. One way to overcome this worry is to show some courage and ensure that your organisation is educated about what it means to be agile and takes the necessary steps to smooth the pathway to implementing it. And implementing it well will require the development of a new culture.

In research published this month, McKinsey found that when agile is implemented incorrectly or misused it can trigger disruption and productivity loss. They warn against copying competitors or market leaders without having a renewed vision and ensuring that people have the right behaviours and mindsets to make agile work.  This cultural redefinition needs to occur prior to the implementation of any ‘new ways of working’ to ensure that the organisation has employees that have the time and motivation to be part of the evolution of ‘the way we do things around here’.

And time is key for greater agility. Less time needs to be spent in meetings and compiling reports and more time spent on prototyping, testing and revising. Less time needs to be spent waiting for decisions to be made or for an expert to come back from annual leave. And less time needs to be spent following outdated processes that get in the way of getting things done.

Organisations looking to move to greater agility need to give their people a renewed sense of purpose and understand what it takes to behave in the right way. To redefine how they work together and create a safe environment to continually challenge the status quo. These people need to be self-aware, prioritise their work well and become role models for consistent quality of delivery. They need to work closely with the customer and ensure they are tuned into their needs to solve their problems or help them exploit opportunities as soon as is possible.

Without this renewed or agile-ready culture, organisations will always get what they’ve always got with regards to delivery, and agile will move from silver bullet to scapegoat in no time at all.

NOW READ: The agile working style started in tech but it could work for banks

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