Sometimes, organisations that start off very agile find that agile ways of working can be difficult to maintain as the business grows. Bureaucracy can creep in and passion can get lost along the way. Success can also breed complacency – why change, when things are going so well? A continual focus on overcoming the barriers identified here will ensure that agility can flourish.
Barriers to Organisational Agility and how to Overcome them
Technology is fuelling the pace of change in our increasingly unpredictable and complex world. This means that today’s business leaders must assess and continually react to new opportunities and challenges. They need to implement strategies rapidly and refocus efforts when circumstances change.
The digital nature of customer interactions accelerates the expectations those customers have. It also enables organisations to respond to these needs more effectively and to create innovative solutions.
When presented with key moments of choice, agility enables leaders to move quickly and responsively. By adopting agile ways of working that focus on facilitating mental agility, ruthlessly prioritising, devolving decision-making, and investing in customer research, leaders can drive learning and innovation. Developing a more agile approach to leadership helps teams and organisations to flourish.
When carrying out one-to-one consultations with business leaders regardless of their industry, location or size, they say they are striving to become increasingly agile. There are identified barriers to agility. There is widespread consensus that being agile helps you to achieve goals and react to new opportunities more swiftly and decisively. Agility enables organisations to embrace opportunities they couldn’t have imagined in the past and to disrupt markets.
The Big Barriers to Agility
A risk-averse culture is the most fundamental barrier to agility. Culture is defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as ‘the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time’. It describes the prevalent behaviours and norms of a social group, and the symbols of meaning that are important to that group in defining their identity. In other words, it is ‘how we do thing around here’.
A culture of caution can inhibit progress. Many organisations highlighted a risk-averse culture as the greatest barrier to agility. This can be a particular issue in heavily regulated industries, where conformity can reduce the risk appetite of managers.
The fear of failure, and its consequences, is a leadership issue. It inhibits experimentation and risk taking, and it slows down innovation and improvement. If we fear making mistakes, the only thing we will learn is how to avoid them.
A culture of fear leads to people avoiding risks. Decision making is slowed down when people seek higher approval to cover their backs. The lack of trust and resulting lack of progress can be frustrating for many.
Questions to ask yourself
The six factors of an agile culture
Combining the following factors creates a culture that encourages people to move quickly and with confidence:
1. Leadership commitment: People need to feel they have the support of senior leaders in working in agile ways, which often challenge traditional methods and power relationships.
2. A shared sense of purpose and clarity of direction: When the mission is clear and the priorities agreed, people are freed to act more quickly, safe in the knowledge that their actions are aligned the organisation’s intended outcomes.
3. Authentic leadership: Leaders need to be role models for the organisation’s values and build trust around them. When we trust our leaders and feel trusted by them, we have greater psychological safety and are more likely to take risks and act boldly.
4. Devolved decision making: Decisions need to be made as close to the customer as possible. While there are strategic decisions that should be made centrally, most decisions are better made by experts and by people closer to the customers.
5. Collaboration across teams, functions, and specialisms: Emphasise team work and working cross-functionally as being part of company culture – ‘that’s the way things get done around here’.
6. A focus on and encouragement of experimentation and constant feedback: Learning from customers and testing prototypes is normal, valued highly and shared widely which in turn has helps to differentiate the offer for customers.
After culture, the second biggest barrier to creating an agile organisation is the lack of clarity about goals, roles, and expectations. Many large organisations are burdened by the legacy of complex bureaucracy, often driven by their desire to manage risk. Bureaucracy slows down decision making and action, which makes organisations sluggish and uncompetitive. Stripping away the bureaucracy is a real challenge, often because some people quite like it – it acts like a comfort blanket, reassuring in its warmth and security.
How can you overcome the barrier created by lack of clarity?
To become agile, you need to give people the freedom to adapt and to experiment. Alongside this, you also need to:
Closeness to customers
A fundamental principle of agile working is to stay close to the customer, to test products with them as soon as they are demonstrable, and to get regular feedback. This enables you to deliver what customers value more quickly and economically. It also reduces the risk of innovation in a vacuum, which may or may not meet customer needs. Agile product and service development, using an iterative approach to customer involvement, is reducing risk and accelerating product release velocity across a range of industries.
Customers tend to expect a seamless experience when working with different parts of an organisation, but internal barriers and poor inter-departmental relationships can prevent this. It is important to place the customer at the heart of your organisation and ensure that there is a shared understanding of customer needs.
How can you get closer to your customers?
If you have a connected culture, and clarity about what is important for your people in their roles, you can create competitive advantage through every interaction between customers and your digitally empowered frontline people.
Frontline employees who interact with customers on a regular basis are key to achieving customer closeness. If you invest in these employees, you will typically see increased customer loyalty and decreased cost-to-serve. You are likely to see the greatest return on your investment if you focus on:
Working collaboratively between teams, functions and organisations is becoming the new norm for those who are driving innovation in our digital world. The way different teams and functions interact has become a business-critical issue.
Although collaboration and cross-functional working are widely recognised as positive, one of the most common barriers to agility and innovation cited by the organisations we consulted with is silo working. Many struggle to break down the barriers between different functions, different geographical locations, and different demographic groups.
How can you encourage more collaboration across your organisation?
Leaders can address this barrier by:
What are the biggest barriers in your organisation?
Agile organisations are more able to adapt to the rapidly changing digital world. You may find it helpful to stop for a moment and assess where your own organisation stands in relation to the four big barriers highlighted here:
Where should you focus your attention first, to reduce the barrier and accelerate progress towards agility?
How to Overcome your Barriers in an Agile Way
Thinking about the questions above will help you to identify the areas you need to prioritise. There will always be more things to do than you can actually do well. Focus on what will make the greatest difference. Agree specific goals, but be agile about how you achieve these goals. You do not always need a clearly defined plan – be flexible. Think about incremental gains.
Agreeing a timeframe can accelerate agility. Some organisations create intense innovation where a concept can go from idea to prototype by focusing groups of employees on a specific challenge in a fixed, short space of time. Interestingly, many organisations do not see lack of budget as a barrier to agility. Rather, they believe it encourages creativity, innovation, and a clear focus on achieving results.
We have already highlighted the dangers of a risk-averse culture. As you seek to overcome the barriers in your own business, it is helpful to adopt the principle of ‘fail fast and learn’. Encourage experimentation on a small scale. Test things out. If something works, direct more resources towards it. If it doesn’t work, stop doing it, learn from it, move on, and most importantly – don’t blame anybody. Blame contributes to the sort of risk-averse culture that inhibits agility and innovation.
Many start-up organisations are admired for their agility. The majority of long-established businesses will experience more barriers to agile working. It’s worth remembering that agility does not happen overnight. Consider starting with pockets of agility which can influence the rest of the organisation. Bear in mind that people operating in these pockets may get frustrated when they interact with others working in the old ways. If you are constrained by operating in a heavily regulated industry, focus agile working on the parts of the business where less governance is required.
Physical workspace is important. Although virtual and remote working are increasingly commonplace, most business employees still work in an office environment. Consider how well your buildings are designed to encourage agile working. For example, some of organisations encourage people not to sit in the same place every day.
Sometimes, organisations that start off very agile find that agile ways of working can be difficult to maintain as the business grows. Bureaucracy can creep in and passion can get lost along the way. Success can also breed complacency – why change, when things are going so well? A continual focus on overcoming these identified barriers will ensure that agility can flourish.