Matt Ballantine interviews Cirrus CEO Dr Simon Hayward for Forbes.

The term “Agile” is one that is used and abused within businesses across many sectors. In the realm of software development, it refers to a quite specific set of frameworks and practices that emerged into the world nearly two decades ago.

However, the principles laid down in The Agile Manifesto back in 2001 are neglected as organisations look at the rituals and tools of agile and adopt them as rigid processes. Industrial organisations optimise for repeatable, scalable activity and so if something looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

But more broadly, Agile has become a synonym for a style of leadership and management that is different to the prevailing industrialised culture determined back in the early 1900s by the likes of Frederick W Taylor and Henry Ford. Strategic consulting behemoths McKinsey have gone so far as to codify an agile organisation into having five key trademarks:

  • strategy embodied as a “North Star” across an organisation, and a focus on co-creation of value rather than zero-sum games
  • structure focused around a network of teams that are empowered to do what they need to do
  • processes that focus on iteration, learning, and continuous change because it’s impossible to know what the future holds
  • people who are entrepreneurial and take full ownership of their roles
  • and seeing technology as a fundamental aspect of every part of the organisation, rather than merely a supporting capability.

But these broad brushstrokes don’t necessarily help individuals and, particularly, leaders to understand what they need to do to live an Agile business life. For consultant and author Simon Hayward, whose recent book The Agile Leader attempts to address this need, it can start with understanding the broader context and need for a new way of thinking.

“We see an exponential change in the world around us, driven often by technology, and a lot of organisations that we have studied are struggling to adjust and adapt to the world around them. A lot of organisations are stuck in a legacy position locked in a set of systems, processes, and culture that is less suited to adapting to the challenges of digital startups or more agile competitors.” Hayward told me when we met recently at his firms London offices.

“Add to that the political context of increasing polarisation, trade wars, and Brexit and organisations have a less predictable runway, a less predictable future, and so the need for them to adapt and change is even more intense than it was even a year or two ago.”

In my conversations with technology teams across many different businesses, a common pitfall I have seen with the adoption of Agile methods has been an ‘all or nothing’ approach. Agile is not a panacea to all ills, and a mix of approaches is required to deliver consistent services successfully. Hayward sees this as a need for broader concepts of agility too:

“If you look at a company like Inditex, a world-leading retailer with brands like Zara, they’ve got a highly-integrated supply chain which is very procedurally-driven but very geared to rapid change in the deployment of new products. And then the retail channel is much more agile because of its flexibility to local demand.”

For Hayward, Agility as a leader requires four key traits:

  • learning agility manifest in curiosity and a willingness to learn from experience and feedback
  • empathy in interactions with others
  • thoughtful decisiveness
  • and digital literacy.

“There is a paradox that leaders need to get their heads around. To be able to move quickly there is a need for quality relationships, joined-up thinking – a connected model – that needs a level of learning agility and an ability to engage people and take people with you in a collaborative way. And yet at the same time, those same leaders need to be thinking about how to challenge that very stability they are seeking to create, looking for either opportunity to for pivotal moments, and the digital literacy to understand the opportunities and threats around them.”

The issue of digital literacy is the one that possibly still poses the most challenge for a generation of leaders in larger organisations who still see themselves as digital immigrants, or even occasionally refuseniks.

“There are a lot of people of my age – 40s, 50s, 60s – who are in senior roles and we are not digital natives. We need to embrace that fact and say that we need to deal with that and go to the centre of what technology can do.”

Hayward offers two pieces of advice for senior executives who find themselves in that position. The first is to engage in reverse mentoring, learning from digital natives in their organisation’s ecosystem. The second is to take active leadership roles in digital transformation initiatives.

“There’s nothing like that to force the mind – ‘If I’m going to take the lead on this, I need to get on top of it,’ and understand the nuances and the possibilities of what we might do. Which is different from being an observer.”

That last point interestingly also taps into one of the biggest causes of failure of agile software approaches. Often senior leaders regard the acquisition of technology as being a purchase akin to that of ordering something like office furniture; that it is enough to state your preferences and then merely wait for the product to arrive. To a great extent, the methods of technology projects that came before agile promoted that mindset.

For successful agile software approaches, however, active participation is vital. And maybe that’s also the key for leaders to be able to extend their agility more broadly.

© Forbes 2018

Read this article on the Forbes website.

Matt Ballantine is a writer and researcher who has held senior technology management roles in global media and digital businesses.

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