Introducing agile thinking into an organisation needs to start at the top or it will fail to win the backing of key employees. Dr Simon Hayward, CEO of Cirrus, Comments in The Times.
Agile thinking, while not commonplace in UK boardrooms today, is expected to become the basis of the management practice of tomorrow.
The approach is already being taught on a number of management training courses. But outside academic spheres, it is also referred to under various other monikers ranging from customer centricity to faster, smarter and leaner.
This is about responding in a swift and imaginative way to the accelerating business change being brought about by technology and digitisation. But to do so frequently involves behaving in counter-intuitive and counter-cultural ways.
For example, in a fast-moving world, agile thinking means abandoning the traditional annual plan, with its reassuring key performance indicators, to create small, quick-and-dirty projects that deliver often imperfect products instead. These products can be killed if they do not work, but also have the potential to deliver rapid benefits.
At the heart of this approach, however, is what Simon Hayward, chief executive of leadership development consultancy Cirrus, describes as the “agile leadership paradox”.
“Being able to respond to change is vital, but the paradox is that you have to be willing to be a disruptor and almost undermine your own thinking by challenging it and looking at how it could be knocked sideways,” he says. “The point is you’re either going to be on the front foot changing the way your industry operates and creating competitive advantage or you’re going to be responding to that.”
Some pioneering organisations beyond the rarefied world of technology startups have already embraced agile thinking and applied this philosophy across the enterprise. But the majority are still either in the process of working out how to do it or have introduced the approach into their IT and digital departments only, which is simply not enough.
Barriers to agile ways of working include company silos that inhibit collaboration, deferential and bureaucratic processes, and an inability to prioritise, all of which slow change down. One of the central principles of agile is that teams get on with it and self-manage.
“At the heart of all this is control,” Mr Hayward points out. “One of the central principles of agile is that teams get on with it and self-manage. Most senior leaders find it difficult to cede control to others, especially if they’re trying to drive change, but if they can devolve decision-making to the lowest level, it’s very empowering.”
A key challenge here though is the majority of senior leaders employ management techniques that have proved successful in the past, but are largely unsuitable for addressing today’s problems. But because they do not know how to change, they end up focusing too much time and effort on the wrong things.
Put another way, to adopt agile thinking, it is vital that senior executives change their own belief system and attitudes. Mr Hayward explains: “It’s about rethinking your beliefs and developing ‘learning agility’ to create a climate where people can operate effectively. This means not blaming them if things go wrong, but encouraging them to learn from their mistakes and take responsibility for their actions.”
But this change in behaviour from the top is crucial if agile thinking is to become embedded throughout the organisation. It is up to leaders to create a safe environment that enables team members to work in an agile fashion despite pushback from elsewhere.
While small benefits should make themselves felt quickly, embedding agile thinking into how the organisation operates is likely to be a 12 to 24-month process.
“It’s not a short-term fix,” Mr Hayward concludes. “The thing with agile is that it takes time; it’s such a different way of working and requires such a different mindset because it flies in the face of much traditional management practice and culture.”
© The Times 2017