What the CEO needs to know about agility

Chief executives of smart companies across all industry sectors are beginning to see that a capacity for constant change is becoming fundamental to success and survival. Over a short time, implementing operational changes has shifted from being a one-off project to become a constant feature of what enterprises do.

The underlying reason for this shift is that software is so central to all business. And it is affordable for smaller and more agile competitors to turn themselves into cutting-edge and fast-growing companies based on the latest technology. Disruptive giants such as Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google have grown in this way.

The highly agile state of disruptive firms is forcing established players across industries to look at their business models, how effectively they foster collaboration and innovation internally, and how well placed they are to make changes that improve their competitiveness.

Businesses with the ability to meet a world that is changing around them are pushing well ahead of competitors

“In terms of operational agility, companies that don’t grasp quickly enough that change has become inevitable soon find themselves being outcompeted by rivals that do,” explains Simon Haighton-Williams, chief executive of Adaptavist, the consultancy specialising in enterprise agility. “Businesses with the ability to meet a world that is changing around them are pushing well ahead of competitors.”

The concept of agile change emerged initially as an approach taken by software developers who often found their creations, by the time of going live, were at risk of being outdated. In response, they took up an approach focused on achieving much smaller scale delivery milestones, more frequently. They were then able to fail or succeed with ideas much more quickly.

The agile approach is now being adopted by entire organisations whose aim is to pursue opportunities more rapidly and to establish a culture characterised by evolution and change. As they develop, individual projects can be run at a small scale, but then very quickly either scaled up or set aside, depending on their effectiveness. The same applies to quicker launches of products, which can be improved continuously.

Mr Haighton-Williams says chief executives need to bear in mind they cannot know exactly how their businesses and markets will look in a few years’ time. However, they can generally be certain of a need for substantial change, so it is essential they create an organisation that is able to create and try new ideas, approaches and opportunities.

Out of necessity, he explains, chief executives are making their organisations less hierarchical, as well as less prescriptive in how they look for new ideas and routes towards competitive advantage.

“Becoming more agile means there’s a certain rejection of hierarchy or at least innovation coming through it. It’s about establishing internally an ability to absorb change throughout the organisation,” says Mr Haighton-Williams. “From a leadership perspective, CEOs must learn how to foster ideas, feed them and allow them to grow.”

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s not about slavishly following some sort of rule book

Sensible risk management clearly involves fostering change to reduce the dangers of a business quickly becoming obsolete or even simply inefficient. “In traditional businesses, the view has often been that the only way to minimise risk is to minimise change, whereas better risk management is actually accepting that change is inevitable, then absorbing it and encouraging it,” he notes.

Adaptavist helps businesses across industries to be highly agile. It works to understand organisations’ needs, plan change and deliver agile and measurable shifts based on smart tools such as Atlassian development and collaboration software. It focuses on helping companies to become more people-centric, putting individuals ahead of processes.

For small and medium-sized companies, a people-centric approach is about managing timeframes and individuals as contributors of valuable resources. In the context of larger workforces, it means adopting a view that accounts for teams as resource units and creating frameworks, allowing innovation to happen on a consistent basis, whether it is responsive or pre-emptive.

To inform strategy in this context, enterprises also need to assess carefully how tools and processes can be used to support teams and individuals, and prevented from hindering them. Crucially, these tools need to be understood as being transient and subject to change all the time. For many businesses, this means using cloud-based software that can be switched on or scaled up as needed and which creates operational rather than capital expenditure, essential for constant evolution.

Mr Haighton-Williams says the rate of change in enterprises can be so fast that even the bottom line does not necessarily give a clear picture of how effectively a company will continue to compete. Organisations should equally focus on measuring the smaller metrics that lead up to their profitability. He says: “That might be adoption data, it might be the rate of evaluations or where customer consideration becomes a transaction. The profit follows when those basics are right.”

Chief executives of the smartest businesses increasingly see how change must be embedded in their companies’ ways of working. “The key attitude is to be pragmatic and open minded, taking the ego out of change,” Mr Haighton-Williams concludes. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s not about slavishly following some sort of rule book. The businesses that win will be the ones that know the importance of actually being agile, rather than just doing agile as a project.”

To find out more about how to become a deeply agile business please visit adaptavist.com