It seems that the word ‘agile’ is everywhere. Online articles, business magazines, and training companies are touting agility, as the way to immense profitability, productivity and general success.  But is it all it’s purported to be? And if it is, how do we take the theory – developed initially for the software landscape, and implement the principles in business?

There can be no doubt that the way of doing business has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, due in no small part to technology and the impact that it has had on almost every profession.  All industries, not just those in the technology space, have faced disruption on a previously unimaginable level, and to remain competitive, their business has had to change as well.

This transformation has been easier for some than for others, largely due to the mind-set and attitudes to change, from leadership.

Those who not only desire change but embrace and expect continuous change as part of their culture and way of thinking, have been able to make this transition much easier. There can also be no doubt, that business leaders who are driving this kind of change culture are often more in tune with the ’pulse’ of their industry and can thus identify threats and opportunities to their business, and quickly adapt before the threat becomes a reality.

Another factor influencing change in various industries are consumers.  In the industrial age, products were made to a specification that suited the business, with little or no regard for consumers’ preferences – Ford famously offered Model T’s in any colour the customer wanted as long as it was black. In the digital age, any business that proceeds with that mind-set would possibly not last beyond a single financial quarter; and so in this fashion, customers influence how and what is produced, and dictate their terms, putting the onus on the businesses to adjust to meet their changing needs and expectations.

It is this ability to change course, as a response to internal as well as external factors, which is the essence of Business Agility.

So how do we achieve agility?

A starting point for those wishing to adopt an agility minded business strategy is to use a systems-thinking approach. With the entire business being the system, you need to anchor yourself to the core values of an organisation and this will then allow you to gain strategic alignment.  With that in place, which the vast majority of organisations do not today, leadership can then implement the patterns of agility that drive the highest value work in the organisation and getting the most out of the most important asset in the organisation, its’ people.  Much like knowing where your weaknesses lie before embarking on a programme of self-improvement, this looking inwards is just as important as any external feedback an organisation will receive.

Businesses need to be responsive, adaptable and be able to change their production outcome in a much smaller timeframe than ever before. To do this, we need to integrate new ways of working with high performing, small empowered teams into our organisations. With strategy, culture and alignment being the skeleton of an organisation, these high performing teams become the muscle, flexing and gaining strength every day.

With a strong skeleton and growing muscles, the system, or organisation, can then leverage the growing myriad of technologies to exploit opportunities and threats.  One could think of technology skills and expertise as the nervous system, providing real time responsiveness, feedback and reactions.  Expertise in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, quantum computing, cloud and big data, allow us to envision a different future for our businesses and how we interact with consumers. It allows unprecedented access into the thinking of our customers, and the idea around producing a minimum viable product (or MVP), has taken root for many organisations.  MVP, as a concept, allows for the production of a product (process or software) that meets the most basic of requirements for a customer.  In this way the core product can be taken to market a lot faster than those offering all the ‘bells and whistles’, the absence of which however, in no way detracts from the main functionality of the product.  This allows for a much faster speed to market, as well as allowing users to have input into whether or not the envisioned additions will actually positively or negatively impact the use of the product or service.

This type of high performing, empowered cross functional team promotes better quality as well as reduced time to deliver and increased value for organisations. The traditional framework that many organisations still operate within creates silos and unnecessary handoffs, actually preventing knowledge sharing and gain of efficiencies.  If a leader wants to gain the full benefit of a Business Agility approach, it does require a lean, servant leader mind-set; and the ability to drive decisions lower in the organization, much closer to the customer.

While achieving Business Agility is a journey and will take time (as it requires a shift in thinking for the business), the leaders and the teams will start to see immediate benefits fairly quickly. Many times a facilitated strategic alignment workshop can spark this shift and set a clear path for this journey.  The central tenet of Agility is the willingness to experiment, gain feedback, learn and pivot.  No two businesses – just like no two people – are alike, and so setting up the organisation, comparing its’ market and understanding the customers’ needs, has to be approached individually for every business.