The concept of agility is increasingly prevalent in business discourse. While it would be easy to brush off this term as just another buzzword or passing fad, the ideas behind business agility are fundamental to any company’s success.
If you’re still wrapping your head around this concept or need to convince skeptical shareholders that it’s worth the effort, you’ve come to the right place. Below, we’ll detail what business agility is, why it’s important, and how to infuse agility into your company culture. It’s more important — and more possible — than the skeptics might think.
First thing’s first: What does “agility” mean in the context of business? The Business Agility Institute defines it like this: "Business agility is a set of organizational capabilities, behaviours, and ways of working that affords your business the freedom, flexibility, and resilience to achieve its purpose. No matter what the future brings."
Per the Agile Business Consortium, an organization's ability to operate in an agile manner could look like any or all of the following.
Swiftly adapting to market changes both internally and externally
Addressing customers' changing needs and expectations efficiently and flexibly
Initiating productive changes in ways that are cost-effective while maintaining the quality of the business's products and services
Together, these agile qualities empower a business to remain adaptive, creative, and resilient even in the face of changing markets and uncertainties. This enables the business to deliver for its customers, innovate consistently, and maintain a competitive advantage.
To become an agile business, an organization must hire agile people, cultivate an agile culture, promote agile leadership, and practice business behaviours and governance that are aligned with agility. In other words, agile principles should infuse the entirety of a company, from its people and culture to its structure and resources.
The business world (and the world in general) is unpredictable. Sudden global events, the globalization of business, unprecedented technological shifts, changing consumer demands, shifting workplace norms, the increasing prevalence of climate change-fueled natural disasters, and any of a number of other major factors could change the business world in a matter of days.
Businesses that adopt an agile framework are best equipped to weather uncertainty and successfully adapt to whatever the world throws at them. What's more, agile businesses tend to be more innovative than businesses that eschew agile principles. As business leaders know, innovation is key to sustaining a competitive advantage over the long term.
Agile businesses also tend to benefit from:
Greater alignment between team members and the business's purpose and vision
Increased understanding of customers' wants and needs
More intimate knowledge of market dynamics
All of these factors support the innovation that results from agile business frameworks.
Business agility is so important that a 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Report, which surveyed more than 10,000 HR and business leaders from 140 countries, found that 94 per cent of respondents believe "agility and collaboration" are critical to the success of their organization.
Business agility is a multifaceted concept, and different organizations approach it in different ways. For instance, the Business Agility Institute identifies 12 Domains of Business Agility, while the Agile Business Consortium upholds 9 Principles of Agile Leadership.
What every agility expert seems to agree on, however, is that culture plays a critical role in uplifting or dampening a business's agility. If you can infuse agile principles into your company’s culture, success is likely to follow. Here are seven ways to do just that.
In many ways, a sense of psychological safety forms the bedrock of every agile organization. In fact, an article from Google's HR team shares that psychological safety is the most important determinant of a team's success. A sense of psychological safety helps team members feel comfortable. That includes:
Collaborating with others
Experimenting with new ideas and processes
When employees are thus empowered, they are much more likely to embrace agility — and perform at high levels — both individually and within teams.
Just as psychological safety is key to meaningful collaboration, so are effective tools that enable employees to break down barriers and work together across teams and departments. Popular tools include project management platforms, messaging apps, cloud-based files, and so on. Some organizations also opt for more customized solutions. For example, L’Oréal partnered with Salesforce to consolidate sales efforts and back-end systems, thereby empowering the company’s Professional Products Division to more easily share data, coordinate brands, and enhance work processes. Taking the time to provide team members with tools that streamline their workflows and promote collaboration is key to creating a more agile company.
Change management, otherwise known as "change readiness," refers to a company's ability to respond to change in ways that sustain high performance, diminish risk, and advance new opportunities. A business that embraces a culture of change readiness keeps close tabs on market shifts, enables collaboration and communication between individuals and teams, encourages effective strategizing, and empowers team members to quickly embrace new processes.
When employees cannot operate efficiently — whether it’s because they're hampered by cumbersome review and approval processes or they lack the psychological safety necessary for making autonomous decisions — they're prevented from adapting quickly, developing new skills, or adopting improved processes. Thus, it's critical for leaders seeking agility to affirm team members' autonomy.
This could take several forms, such as:
Empowering team members to seek out training whenever they identify a gap in their skillsets
Encouraging knowledge sharing between team members
Celebrating employees' strengths
Encouraging team members to take risks, fail, and identify opportunities for improvement (sans judgement or punishment)
Enabling team members to make decisions without having to ask permission
Together, these practices support the development of an autonomous workforce full of people who feel confident taking bold action.
Agile teams know that change is inevitable, and they strive to anticipate industry changes so they can innovate quickly and capture new market opportunities. This often entails capturing and frequently reviewing available data, drawing conclusions from that data, and taking swift actions in response. Once again, teams are best equipped to adapt and innovate in this way when they’re empowered to take risks, don't fear punishment in the event of failure, and are equipped with the tools necessary to effectively capture and review relevant data.
Employees at every level of a company hold a wealth of knowledge about company processes, redundancies, customers, roadblocks, opportunities, and so on. That knowledge serves the company when leaders take the time to solicit it and then act upon what they've learned. It's helpful to collect team members' feedback on a regular basis and through diverse channels, such as anonymous surveys, town halls, staff retreats, email and physical suggestion boxes, focus groups, and so on.
Of course, feedback alone doesn't promote agility. Making changes in response to that feedback does. Just be mindful of not making too many changes at once, as constantly updating team processes can provoke confusion and exhaust morale.
Great things can happen when individuals and teams are empowered to experiment, iterate, and make autonomous decisions. Without intentionality, however, all that adaptation can lead to chaos. The most successful teams embrace agility within the constraints of clear objectives and priorities. When everyone is aligned around a common purpose and vision, it's more likely that agile decisions will be in service of those aims.
One way to identify appropriate areas of focus is to emphasize a customer-first mentality that centers customer needs and desires. Per Gallup research, agile teams frequently centre business processes around customers' values. Doing so often hinges on collaboration between teams. For instance, salespeople who receive feedback from customers must have effective channels for relaying that feedback to other teams in order for the entire workforce to stay focused on customer needs.
Agility is critical for any business looking to thrive in the 21st century. This quality empowers individuals, teams, and companies to innovate, satisfy customers’ changing needs and desires, and swiftly adapt to market shifts.
To incorporate agility into your company’s culture, it’s critical to establish a foundation of psychological safety for all team members. Your team must know that it’s safe to experiment, take risks, and even fail in the pursuit of greater innovation. At the same time, it’s helpful to facilitate collaboration, embrace effective change management, affirm employee autonomy, anticipate change, seek feedback and act on it, and establish a vision and procedures that enable the team to stay focused even within an agile framework.
Teams don’t become agile overnight. But by mindfully crafting company culture in ways that support agility, you will strengthen your teams and your business to sustain competitive advantages for years to come.