We all know the frustration that comes with the moment you realize a housefly has gotten into your home. The peaceful silence is disrupted by a sudden incessant buzzing as the bug zips and around the room, landing intermittently before zooming off again. Again and again you creep up behind it and pull your hand back with your weapon of choice, only for it to dodge out of the way at the last second, buzzing off for you to follow in hopes of catching it the next time. Although very few of us hold any love for these pests, if you are looking for the most agile animal on earth look no further than the humble housefly. They may drive us crazy, but they’re an insect from whom leaders and their companies have much to learn.
Human beings naturally crave predictability and stability. In every aspect of our lives we want to get to the point where we see predictable results, and that includes in our businesses. We yearn for the market we compete in to be consistent, allowing our leaders to accurately plan for a future that is clearly laid out before them. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way. Change is an inevitability in life and markets are notoriously volatile, and trying to remain on a straight path across a moving landscape can create more inherent risks than one may believe. In order for a business to survive, it must have the ability to adapt to change. However, if a business truly wants to thrive, it needs to go further than adaptability––it needs to be agile. As put by Jim Highsmith, an executive consultant with over 30 years experience as a software engineer: “agility is the ability to adapt and respond to change…agile organizations view change as an opportunity, not a threat.”
While the market have always had a tendency to fluctuate, today’s world is one that is increasingly less knowable and predictable as technology and social progress have opened the doors to unprecedented uncertainty and near constant disruption. While on the one hand this has meant new ways are constantly being developed to analyze and predict trends, the reality of the situation is that there will always be far too many variables to make any such equation infallible. After all, the competitive market is a man-made construct, meaning that just as with people we have to expect some level of irrationality to accompany it. If volatility is an inevitability, then a good strategic business plan is one that acknowledges this and makes it a central aspect.
An agile business is not simply a company that adapts to changes; it is one that adapts quickly, leading change in a way that is both productive and cost-effective while avoiding compromising the quality of the product or service they offer. This ability to respond rapidly not only helps a business when markets change, but also gives them a competitive advantage of other businesses that are slower to action. A business with agility also embraces failure as a necessary evil, and is willing to fail early and create a fail-safe environment. Without this, innovation will certainly suffer, resources will be wasted and competitors will get ahead. Agile methods can help prevent misallocation in the organization from the outset. Bill Gates once said: “success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react and reinvent.”
A good starting place for workplace agility is always within the interactions. Hanif Lalani, a British businessman has said that “innovation and agility are as important for the finance function as they are for the business as a whole,” indicating that businesses must take a holistic approach to agility. They must work to stay up-to-date –– or better yet ahead –– of the advancements and trends in technology, always seeking new techniques and methods they can use to become more agile. The organizational structure must enable cross-functional, creative and effective work. Agility starts with productive meetings, and companies need a healthy conflict culture in order to find the best solution for their needs.
When it comes to those employed at the company, it is them and not processes that ultimately make change happen, and it should be ensured they have the necessary tools to do so. Employees must feel engaged, and be given clear, concise goals that are focused on value-creation. Management goes beyond budgeting and controlling performance targets and sees change as an opportunity. It’s about trust, empowering employees and giving decision-making power to the people with the best assessment of the situation. Culture is finally perhaps one of the best indicators of a company’s agility. An agile company puts its purpose ahead of its mission, encouraging experimentation and mistakes with an emphasis on learning and improving.
By ensuring that every aspect of a business is agile, one can become more resilient and adaptable to destabilizing changes. Today’s market place and economic systems have been subject to major destabilization and disruptive changes in recent years, and companies that operate under the assumption of a stable market are hardly resilient enough to withstand these changes. However, it is important to note that having agility does not mean throwing stability out the window. Overcompensating by losing any sense of centralization or risk management can be just as damaging as moving your business in a slow and rigid fashion. Instead, business leaders need to think of stability as the backbone of their organization –– identifying those few core aspects that will change very little if at all –– and using them as a springboard off which they can be more dynamic.
There are many different factors to consider when it comes to determining the sweet spot a business should sit in on the spectrum between speed and stability. A large organization that has been around for decades may realize that it has been too long a time since they last evaluated their strategy, or a burgeoning start-up may come to discover that in focusing so much on innovation they failed to build a business with a lasting structure. Every company must determine on its own the balance that will grant it peak agility –– the ability to quickly maneuver through change and uncertainty. Trusting in any sort of standardization of agility can often lead to disastrous results, as formulaic approaches go entirely against the ethos of it.
However, while there is no single solution to a company lacking in agility, there are a number of shifts that can be made that will allow leaders and their companies to develop a culture of agility. They can encourage employees to embrace change and see it as an opportunity rather than a threat. A balance must be struck between enabling autonomy while still maintaining a concentration on a small amount of ambitious and clearly formulated goals. As pointed out by Jim Highsmith, Bill Gates and Hanif Lalani, agility is an imperative aspect of a successful business, paving the way for opportunities, reinvention and innovation.