Can agile principles help business cope with Brexit?

In the context of Brexit, there are three types of businesses: those that predict and plan, those that are agile and those that plough on blindly. In the tumultuous global economy, Brexit notwithstanding, the third group are an endangered species and the first are, let’s say, brave.

Given there is arguably no such thing as a true balance of probabilities, the second group looks smartest. Adopting agile methodologies doesn’t mean understanding the world around us, rather accepting the unknowns and being flexible enough to either dodge or absorb threats and opportunities as and when they arrive out of the blue.

In a world driven by uncertainty, companies need to nurture and develop creativity as a means to succeed

The world is a complex place, more so with each passing year, and organisations are bombarded with new and interesting challenges to overcome, from global warming to protests against global warming. Agile, then, can bring benefits in a range of ways.

1. Structure

“Brexit could change the market significantly if new trade deals are made with the Americas, Africa and eastern Europe, for example, broadening our footprint beyond Europe,” says Lloyd Snowden, partner at business planning and supply chain management group Oliver Wight EAME.

“To accommodate market focus in these areas successfully, organisations will either already have the agility to do so or they will utilise their agility to restructure.”

This, he argues, might involve establishing new subsidiaries or divisions, or adapting existing ones while relocating teams and establishing new capabilities on foreign soil. Firms with agility baked in will make the transition more smoothly than those without.

But, depending on the type of Brexit we get and assuming we actually leave the European Union, EU business structures could become de facto foreign operations too, as companies lose previously held access to member states.

According to Professor Mark Skilton from Warwick Business School, it would necessitate wholesale change that only companies with agile values and principles could realistically cope with.

“Companies need to focus on their supply chain distribution, product and packaging compliance, and the important issues of human resources and office locations that may have EU and UK staff in remote offices and who now need to apply for licences to work in the EU or UK.

“Market access and the growth of UK business in the EU market will incur additional costs because of these reintroduced overheads. Diversifying risk to other non-EU markets, as well as working harder to retain price competition while selling within the EU, will become a pressing issue in the coming years.”

2. People

It’s easy to focus on the structural challenges of Brexit and forget that you’ll need to bring your people along with you. Agile leaders must therefore be strong communicators, allowing concerns to be raised and providing reassuring, motivational and truthful information in response.

Adrian Moorhouse, managing director of Lane4, says: “Communication should go two ways, particularly during uncertain times like Brexit. Employees want to feel heard and respected, and to know their viewpoints are being taken on board.

“An agile leader will encourage open communication to learn from their people and adapt and evolve the business accordingly.
Agile leaders should also set time aside for reflection and discussion on any issues the company might be facing. It can be difficult when you feel like you need to produce results, but it is worth it in the long run.”

David Selves, founder of The Selves Group, believes bosses will struggle to keep talented people in their business post-Brexit. But agile values and principles can help here too.

He says: “At any time, recruiting, training and keeping quality staff is difficult, but with full employment it is a nightmare, even without the added impact of Brexit. The number-one thing UK businesses should concentrate on with the threat of leaving with or without a deal is how they will continue to attract and retain talent.

“It is essential employers are realistic, practical and forward thinking. They must think creatively about how to protect their workforce, which may mean looking beyond salaries and thinking about what their key players really value.”

3. Technology

The speed of technological development is increasing, which means static, unadaptable IT quickly becomes a sea anchor for businesses. Brexit is likely to augment this effect, with legacy systems unfit for legislative, as well as technical, changes.

But agile values and principles could convert threats to opportunities, as companies employ live data to inform decision-making. More prosaically, companies using technology to sell will benefit from slick, efficient and adaptable services.

“Agility is remarkably simple to reflect on,” says Jonathan Corrie, chief executive at Precursive, a cloud-based resource management business.

“Can you acquire, serve and charge your customer in an efficient way, and deliver meaningful value to them that they recognise and will pay you for? If you consistently answer this question with a ‘yes’, then your systems and processes are where they need to be.”

Mr Snowden adds: “Agile organisations will have the flexibility in place to incorporate new technologies to interpret data, to enable faster responses to trends and opportunities, but also close any gaps that have been identified as a result of Brexit.”

4. Process

Process-driven business cultures are rarely equated with agility, but these organisations should adopt agile values and principles to encourage innovation, says Mr Corrie.

“In a world that is driven by uncertainty, companies need to nurture and develop creativity as a means to succeed both internally and externally with their customers,” he says. “Being agile means you are prepared to take a leap of faith into a different space and make it work.”

Agile businesses adopt processes that empower people so they can adapt and share outcomes with colleagues for the benefit of the organisation as a whole. It’s a culture that supports experimentation without blame, according to Dr Simon Hayward, chief executive of global leadership consultancy Cirrus and author of The Agile Leader.

“They can ‘fail fast and learn’ as a driver of innovation and pace. Free movement of knowledge facilitates innovation and improvement,” he says.

For business and Brexit consultant Erica Wolfe-Murray, agile methodology breeds complementary benefits, for example facilitating lean processes that are insulated from sudden shocks.

“Devising lean processes is so much easier when you move fast because the pinch points can be readily seen. By examining process closely, agile companies also get to consider cost-centre and local profitability throughout the process map. If they are changing something, in today’s world that needs to be baked in,” she says.

Regardless of what happens with Brexit, the effects will be with us for decades. In that time infinite other lesser disruptions in the fields of technology, politics and the economy will contrive to throw businesses off course. We don’t know exactly what shape they will take, only that they’ll happen. Agile organisations alone can cope with that reality.