Achieving strategic agility in volatile times

Agility is regarded as one of the key traits required by organisations if they are to compete in uncertainty. Being agile by nature means businesses can be alert to new markets and opportunities, communicate new strategies to employees and stakeholders, assess what needs to be done operationally as well as innovate and execute at the speed of start-ups. 

In reality, organisations often fail to have the leadership style, culture and top-down view of business and operations to enable them to mobilise quickly. Moreover, many organisations fail to clearly define and articulate the new strategy and communicate what it means to those expected to implement it. To successfully compete in the agile new world, they need to make some changes to how they approach fundamental business practices and processes.

First off, they need to fully integrate and involve their people in the new strategy. This means making objective-setting and feedback a far more collaborative and two-way process. Releasing discretionary effort, especially, in top performers, is crucial to incorporating agile practices so it is imperative to share the future vision for the organisation and engage and empower these individuals. Unless employees can genuinely relate to their own and the company’s goals and mission, they are unlikely to go the extra distance to help the organisation deliver on its new strategy.

While new collaborative tools are helping to facilitate this, it isn’t only about technology. It is also about having the right culture and management practices in place. This is especially important when it comes to managing the Millennial generation in the workforce, many of whom will already be occupying junior and middle management positions in the organisation, and who expect a more collaborative, less hierarchical style of leadership than previous generations.

The same collaborative approach needs to be applied to measuring performance. It is not good enough to simply lift the performance bar and expect everyone to jump higher. If individuals have been involved in setting their own goals, they also need to have input into the metrics and indicators that will be used to measure their performance.

Once again, technology in the form of real-time dashboards, business intelligence tools and big data all have an important part to play but the methods of measurement need to have a relevance and resonance for the individual and must also be aligned to achieving the overall mission. At a workshop presentation held at Rialto’s offices last week we gave the example of Dylan Hartley, the English rugby team captain, who commenting on victory against Italy, said: “Our numbers show that: metres per minute, accelerations per minute, have doubled. Time getting off the floor, too. That is not luck. We have had to earn every victory.”

While elite sport has capitalised on measurement to deliver high performance, many organisations could benefit by more effective use of measurement techniques to inspire and drive performance.

The pace of technological change and the far-reaching effect this has on transformation means that agile organisations must also factor in risk as if it is a reality. Some 21st Century CEOs have already fallen foul by failing to put in place controls, mitigating actions and contingency plans to manage risk. They have found themselves held to account, costing their organisations millions if not billions of pounds. It is their role to make sure that the potential cost of risk is understood at all levels. If those at the coal face of the VW car emissions scandal had fully understood the risk to the company, would they have acted as they had?

Becoming an agile organisation also means constantly making improvements in areas such as productivity and performance. Too often, there is a disconnect between projects dedicated to improving productivity and operational reality. A project manager will be engaged to undertake a feasibility study and develop a business case and prove it. The business case will have enabled them to obtain approval for the project but as to whether it brings real improvement when transferred to an operational context is often left untested.

Rather than relying on hordes of project managers, agile organisations need to make process and performance improvement the responsibility of the beneficiaries of it: those managing operations. That said, beneficiaries are constrained by the pressures of day-to-day operations so they need people to handle improvement for them in a dedicated role such as a performance improvement manager. Establishing this role and these practices will enable organisations move into a continuous improvement cycle and culture where those in operations – and to whom it matters most – are driving the improvements.

In business circles, words can sometimes be cheap and agility is currently bandied around as a trait that organisations can quickly adopt. To be truly agile though, requires resource commitment and deep-rooted change that doesn’t take place overnight.

By Andrew Hudson and Richard Chiumento.

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