Is true agility just a pipe dream?

Is true agility just a pipe dream?

Agility might well be bang on-trend, but there are very few companies that have really got the hang of it. While the majority of businesses are introducing new methods, modifying processes or opting for new software solutions, and these are good approaches, viewed in isolation they are still far removed from “true” agility. Why exactly is it so difficult to put agility into practice?

If you want to achieve genuine agility, you’re going to have to shake up the familiar principles of day-to-day work. Instead of taking action from the top down as tradition dictates, true agility calls for a rethink toward a bottom-up approach. The vision is to make the team – not management – the cornerstone of agility. Team members collaborate both internally and with the customer, developing independently managed solutions to the problems they face. The team makes decisions autonomously and, needless to say, bears responsibility for them, too.

Agility means losing privileges

What might sound positive to some, sparks numerous fears among others. After all, if you take agility to its logical conclusion, cherished hierarchies, existing knowledge silos and supervisory bodies will be put at risk. On top of that, the very people who would be tasked with driving forward the transformation in the company are also those who would lose control. And who likes giving up privileges?

Agility requires greater commitment

At the same time, agile ways of working ramp up the pressure on the team because, unlike with conventional approaches, individuals can no longer hide behind processes. They suddenly sense the heavy burden of responsibility they carry, which calls for greater commitment. In addition, problems become perceptible very quickly and are then also discussed within the team. At the end of the day, true agility has nothing to do with feel-good management – it’s never an end in itself. Instead, it places specific goals center stage and the team ultimately has to accept its performance will be judged based on those goals.

Can agility work as a lighthouse project?

While reading the above lines, you might have initially thought of software development or certain lighthouse projects in which staff can indulge in their agile aspirations. Perhaps you assume that agility can only work in clearly defined areas. In reality, quite the opposite is true – and there’s absolutely no need to declare a company-wide “agile strategy” or to introduce scrum.

Everything centers on a bottom-up strategy

As you set out on your journey toward achieving true agility, the main focus is on bottom-up approaches. Companies have to shed their inhibitions. They need to give their staff the opportunity to help one another to solve customer problems without external supervision.

By way of example, let’s imagine numerous companies are investing time and money in training courses and performance support. As a result, they are ensuring their employees have access to a centralized source of information and job aids for specific situations as and when needed. But can these companies be certain that the assistance offered is actually relevant to the work being carried out on the front line? Can HR departments or academies truly gage what support their staff members need in all the different working environments and with all their various knowledge requirements?

Sharing knowledge and supporting one another

If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer to that question is “No”. For that reason, companies need to give their staff a voice and empower them to support one another, share knowledge or solve problems as a team without direction from on high or bureaucratic obstacles. All the while, senior management has to resist the temptation of intervening or analyzing the approach adopted with suspicion. More than anything else, this is a matter of culture, not technique.

The value of know-how

You’re probably wondering why a company should take this step. Well firstly, staff possess significant knowledge about the company, its products and its processes. Secondly, employees’ understanding of customers’ problems and desires is a valuable asset that ensures the company can keep up with the competition in the future.

Teams that work on the front line know whether policies, procedures and products are well received by customers. That’s why they are also the ones who – provided they are afforded the opportunity – can harness their expertise to develop solutions and make things better. They can do all this as an unsupervised, autonomous team – entirely in keeping with a bottom-up approach and without the word “agile” ever being mentioned.

Delegating responsibility and developing trust

Companies that have truly grasped agility therefore place trust in their teams and give them greater responsibility – without meddling in their affairs. It goes without saying that such a change in mindset also harbors risks. But does that mean this vision should remain a pipe dream? After all, what would happen if a company lost its competitive edge as a result of clinging on to the command and control approach of the industrial world and failing to give an “agile” response to today’s VUCA environment?