Barriers to Business Agility and Insights on How to Break Them

Laura Goodrich Posted by Laura Goodrich.

Laura is cofounder of On Impact, an integrated content company that specializes in creating and producing videos, television, and multimedia content delivered over time to create sustained change and adoption of important leadership concepts.

Barriers to Business Agility and Insights on How to Break Them

“The system is that there is no system. That doesn’t mean there are no processes. We have great processes and they make us more efficient. But that’s not what it is about. It’s ad hoc meetings, talking in hallways and calling each other at 10:30 at night to discuss a new idea or something that shoots holes in how everyone’s been thinking about a problem. This is how Apple works”, said Steve Jobs, the charismatic entrepreneur, marketer, inventor and leader.

Steve’s statement shows that he knew what could keep Apple at the forefront of innovation and competition.

Why I cite Steve’s example here is because despite being the supreme product owner who was dominant and ruthless in his approach, he embodied many characteristics of agility. He kept complex processes at bay, focused on simplicity, drove innovation, empowered his people to bring about change, and assigned major projects to small teams while allowing them to manage on their own.

He knew that it’s the culture within that could make change and innovation a routine part of their organization. Though the company has processes but it never becomes a prisoner of those. Rather it challenges convention to become more agile, or let’s say more capable of speedily responding to changes or introducing changes.

However, most companies find it difficult to balance innovation, flexibility and agility. Time and again they have concerns regarding changing internally as fast as or faster than external changes.

The classic conversation – “We’re bringing more structure into it or we are working on establishing a process for doing this task more effectively” drives them away from being agile, flexible and non-conventional, killing their spontaneity and creativity.

Mechanization (restricting humanization) is one of the root causes. This is because mechanization does nothing but further complexes a process. Most companies face crisis when they need to implement a change or adapt to new markets and environments. The employees of such organizations are left with no choice but to restrict to the set processes.

The argument here is that companies must understand that it’s the spontaneity, flexibility, speedy decision making, adaptability, coordination, simplicity and open communication that work in face of extreme complexity. Companies like Apple, Pepsi, Google and Amazon have been using this principle to crush competition.

An agile leader must work towards amplifying the characteristics of humanity and empowering people to interact, take initiatives, make decisions and figure out how they’re going to get a job done.

“I like interacting in the world of ideas, though somehow those ideas have to be tied with some physical reality. One of the things I like the most is dropping a new idea on a bunch of talented people and letting them work it out themselves”, said Steve.

Barriers to Business Agility

So, what do you think stops an organization from being agile? Is it corporate politics, poor planning, organizational hierarchy, monotony in work or lack of clear vision that’s causing a serious hindrance?

Let us identify the real issues that businesses face in battle to become agile or more agile.

Fear to Experiment

“It’s not possible for an organization like us. Apple has this in its DNA. We’re not Apple.” Seems relatable? Yes, even now most organizations fear to experiment.

The management needs to be mentally agile and dare to experiment. Despite working in a continually changing environment, leaders tend to resist change due to some associated fear – fear of unknown, fear of failing, fear of being judged, fear of competition, fear of monetary losses or fear of customers’ reactions.

If the fear of change is not overcome or managed, an organization can never become agile. Because it’s the willingness to change and adapt to new environments that makes it agile!

Execution After Planning

“We are planning how to efficiently execute this.” You must have heard this classic statement many a times.

This attitude makes planning and then execution time taking endeavors, often resulting in unnecessary delays.

Conventional organizations consider planning and execution a sequential activity. The agile businesses like Facebook adopt the approach of “Fail Fast”. Planning and execution go parallel and team members are encouraged to experiment and execute fast. Work is broken into small segments and team members quickly perform the job and make changes and iterate if they fail.

Apple follows the same ideology. Steve said, “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It’s best to admit them quickly and get on with improving your other innovations.”

Rigid Hierarchies  

Organizations following rigid hierarchies often delay decision making and communication and ultimately the process of change. While agile businesses are not managed by a person or a small group of people, rather decision making is generally an un-choreographed and unguided affair among team members.

For being an agile organization, you will need to let teams manage on their own instead of appointing managers to control decision making. Let them figure out how they go about a particular job. Empower them to make decisions and feel accountable.

Idea of Sustained Competitive Advantage

Organizations adhering to the concept of sustained competitive advantage can never break the shackles of convention and move towards agility. They can’t cash in forever on their few innovations. Markets are continuously changing and they need to work towards continuous competitive advantage.

This is possible only when innovation becomes a part of their routine business operations. They need to learn to discard or withdraw a product from the market when it’s no longer plausible instead of hanging on to it.

All Work No Play Philosophy

Why is it that people prefer sticking to an organization even when they have to work for long hours? Because they also have the play time! Agile businesses focus on amplifying the human element of their employees.

Google employees are allowed to dedicate 10% of their time doing anything related to their personal lives.  Teams at Apple work incredible hours to get a job done but then they can work in hallways and call meetings of colleagues and friends anytime to discuss what just struck their mind.

Traditional organizations always struggle to acquire and retain talent. This is because the lives of employees at such places become mechanical and boring.

Equal Priority to All Details

Non-agile businesses focus on collecting all the details necessary to plan a project and execute it in one go. This is again contrary to an agile practice that focuses on small set of details and integrates planning with execution.

The idea behind this is that greater understanding cannot be achieved right in the beginning. Rather it unfolds over time with experimentation. Moreover, requirements can change anytime. So, instead of spending months in in-depth planning, it’s ideal to quick start with a project by breaking into small segments that don’t eat up too much time.

Here persists the 80/20 rule. 80% of the tasks can be completed on the basis of 20% of the details/information.

To become agile, companies need to put people before processes, be they employees or customers. Change can be scary but not changing is scarier. By shedding the age-old concepts, they can become agile.

The agile manifesto is not about shedding everything that’s old school. It’s about having a set up that brings out the best in people and drives them to innovate.

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