Survival of the Most Agile at a Time of Maximum Risk

6th October 2020Change Management


The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare that being in business is fraught with risk. Companies that survive are not necessarily the biggest, but they are the most agile.

But what does business agility really mean?

And how do you become more agile?

Defining Agile

To some, agile is yet another business buzzword. In essence, a kind of catch-all term for infusing established companies with the energy and innovation of a start-up. Throwing the business open to outside ideas and innovation.

Agile is great, right?

Which organisation would not want to be nimble, light on its feet, responsive to change and alert to new possibilities?

To others, agile is the antidote to the traditional top down “command and control” structures so prevalent in large corporations.

It’s a bottom-up way of working founded on small teams in close contact to customers, responding to change, innovating, testing, learning and developing new products, services and approaches quickly and collaboratively.

To the purists, agile is about implementing the 12 Agile Manifesto Principles laid out nearly two decades ago to guide the efficient and rapid development of new software.

And yet:

“If you’re thinking about Agile as a set of tools and processes, you’re looking for the wrong thing. You can’t go to the store and “buy some Agile management”

Stephen Denning – The Age of Agile: How Smart Companies Are Transforming the Way Work Gets Done

That’s because agile is more of a mindset than a toolbox.

In short, it’s a way of thinking and acting that forces teams across the entire organisation to increase innovation and become more customer-centric.

Becoming more agile

Long before the COVID-19 crisis struck companies everywhere were planning how best to survive and thrive in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous operating environment.

In a world rocked by coronavirus, the choice for many quickly became to change or risk collapse. And change they did.

Not by following their usual slow bureaucratic processes. But by enabling teams closest to customers to take rapid decisions, adapting and responding to changing needs and shifting priorities.

What can we learn from this?

To become more agile, companies need to:

  1. Transition from an inside-out mindset (“We manage and control”) to an outside-in mindset (“We listen, learn and respond”).

2. Recognise that the ultimate goal of the business is not shareholder value but customer satisfaction. In reality, the company’s owners are no longer the boss, the company’s customers are.

3. Put the fulfilment of customer needs at the heart of all of the company’s operations. Indeed, agile means that every employee must be passionately committed to delivering more value to customers.

4. Organise into small cross-functional teams with direct customer contact and open avenues of communication to leaders and business executives. In agile organisations, senior managers exist not to micro-manage or pass down directives but to empower productive teams and remove barriers to innovation and change.

5. Work in short innovation cycles, run real-life prototypes and where possible gain real-time feedback. Above all, fail early and learn fast.

As Stephen Denning eloquently summarises: The key is to be smarter by generating more value from less work and delivering it sooner

Why agile is the only path to survival and embracing agile reduces risk

History shows that there is no safety in scale. No business is too big to fail as evidenced by a quick perusal of the lengthening list of spectacular corporate collapses.

In the COVID-19 era and beyond, customer centricity and continuous innovation are the best protection against failure.

Being agile leads to faster product development, services more tuned to customers’ needs and more committed employees.

As HBR puts it:

“Agile improves customer engagement and satisfaction, brings the most valuable products and features to market faster and more predictably, and reduces risk”

Harvard Business Review Embracing Agile

In summary

The agile movement began in software development. But it is now found everywhere in this interconnected world of constant change.

Nothing stands still for one moment. Neither should your business.

You need to be looking for the next leap forward, to understand where the market is moving next and what customers will need to make their lives better in the immediate, not the distant future.

To do this your company must become a learning organisation and the customer must become your boss.

You need to get comfortable with constant change – not just now at this time of crisis – but always as a way of growing, learning and adapting.

Moreover, as many employees as possible should feel the weight of customer expectation. Indeed, there should be no hiding place for anyone from the demands of the market.

Finally, your teams should break out of their functional silos and empower themselves to delight customers with continuous innovation.

Admittedly, embracing agile may at first feel uncomfortable.

For managers working in highly controlled businesses with rigid systems and controls, delegating to semi-autonomous, cross-functional teams and working in networks and partnerships with external organisations will also feel unnatural and risky.

And yet, you have to take calculated risks now to survive.

Getting safely across the yawning chasm that divides the pre-COVID from the post-COVID world may even feel like walking a tightrope.

That’s why there’s never been a better time to become more agile.

Our latest blog article gives you advice on winning in the age of agile business development.