How businesses can avoid “fake agile”

Agile has become one of the most widely used buzzwords in the corporate vocabulary as companies compete to be seen as savvy digital operators in a rapidly evolving business landscape.

As is often the case, however, the hype has only served to confuse its real meaning and value. An over-eagerness to self-identify as agile has created fake agile among companies that misunderstand or downright ignore the true application of agility for marketing kudos. Often all they’ve really done is adopt some new technology.

In the tech industry, there is a distinction between an agile culture and certain ways of developing software known as agile methodologies. These software development processes use techniques popularised by lean manufacturing which aim to make delivering projects more predictable and reliable while minimising wasted resources.

True agility, however, is cultural. It’s a culture that expects, tolerates and nurtures constant change. Importantly, it embraces devolved responsibility so innovation can flourish from the bottom up. Those developing customer features need to be obsessively learning about their target audience, be empowered to make decisions, and have the capability to evaluate and then repeat the process as necessary.

What is a truly agile organisation?

An agile company can react quickly to change through pre-established processes which enable it to assimilate new information quickly and incorporate learnings back into its products or customer experience almost instantaneously. Agility requires teams to be empowered. This demands trust, which in turn takes time. For executives, the hardest lesson is learning to hire talented people, then recognising when to get out of their way.

“In my experience, most organisations are fake agile,” says Mark Holt, chief technology officer at Trainline. “It’s not uncommon for a company to experience a contradiction where programmers employ agile software development techniques, while the wider organisation cannot provide adequate agility to support the programmers in achieving their goals or even effectively evaluate whether the project is worth continuing.”

It is important to remember, though, that agility is relative. Each organisation must test the boundaries of how far it can adopt agile practices. Mr Holt notes his previous company, for example, moved its flagship software product to quarterly software releases, which was deemed as much change as the customers could tolerate. Trainline, meanwhile, makes more than 300 changes every week to improve the customer experience.

Agility a question of mind over matter

Excello Law was set up ten years ago as an antidote to the equity partnerships and hierarchical structures in traditional firms which founder George Bisnought felt were failing to meet the changing expectations of both lawyers and their clients. Mr Bisnought built the firm on agile working, offering companies direct access to partner-level lawyers, who in turn receive complete flexibility over when and where they work.

Real agility cannot be purchased off the shelf, he believes. It is about continuously searching for innovative solutions to problems and implementing them rapidly and efficiently. Agile businesses focus on the results new technologies or processes offer, while remaining alert to changes that open new opportunities.

“Business agility needs to be part of the mindset of a company’s leadership and embedded in its broader culture, covering all aspects of its operation,” says Mr Bisnought. “Planning for change has to be realistic and make business sense on a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. Organisations need to build agility into their foundations and champion it in their company culture. Fake agility happens when companies only attach the principle to current working practices, which does not shift attitudes to working culture.”

Agile means embracing change and reacting quickly to market changes by nurturing highly collaborative, empowered and cross-functional teams. Many people associate agile with a lack of control or management, a chaotic free for all with no plan. In reality, by nurturing collaboration and stripping back bureaucracy and unnecessary processes, companies can enable small, regular increments with short feedback loops.

The increments are regularly inspected and adapted against the overall goals and, as those goals evolve, the iterative nature of the work means strategy and direction can be changed easily, allowing customers to benefit sooner.

If companies fail to nurture this mindset across all disciplines, teams can become impeded and lose vital feedback.

How to spot “fake agile”

The trick is recognising that only fake agile is achieved solely by updating legacy tech or developing software, as much of the hype may suggest, according to Darren Fell, founder and chief executive of accounting software firm Crunch, which has recently overhauled its technology and leadership structure to become more agile.

“We’re currently the most agile we’ve ever been,” says Mr Fell, “simply through removing the management structure and introducing a new circular framework. It’s about stripping everything in your business back to see where the bottlenecks are and implementing simple ways of working that are most efficient and effective for your business, and giving individuals the confidence and ability to make change happen.

“If implemented effectively, true agility shifts the business pace. Processes become more seamless, teams work in tandem more effectively, product quality improves and therefore so does client satisfaction. Agility enables results to be achieved faster and revenue to increase, helping businesses to achieve the ultimate goal of growth.”

As agility increasingly becomes synonymous with digital business, companies that ignore it entirely are unlikely to keep up in the connected economy. Likewise, those that only adopt fake agile are sure to fall behind competitors in the customer experience they’re able to offer. Creating a truly agile organisation must start with recognition from the top that a culture change is required to adapt to the changing business environment.