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What Does Agile Culture Look Like & How Do You Get There? (Part 2)


10 Ways to Make Your Organisation More Agile

Do you know what your customers will need in two years’ time? In fact, can you even tell for sure who your customers will be two years from now? Can you predict what kinds of products and services will be in demand and which ones will have become ‘old news’?

If you have little or no idea, don’t worry you are not alone. In most industries, customer demands change so quickly – a phenomenon accelerated by relentless changes in technology – that it’s almost impossible to know what the future will bring.

The way for a company to excel in such a fast-paced environment is to build an organisation which is highly flexible and adapts readily to change, so that whatever the future holds, the organisation is ready to embrace new challenges. This is the essence of Agile.

In my previous post I outlined the most important characteristics of an Agile culture. But knowing what it looks like and getting there are two very different things.

In this article I will introduce 10 steps that will help you on your path towards an Agile transformation.

How to make your organisation more Agile

  1. Why should your organisation change? The answer lies in having a clear purpose.

Changing an organisation’s culture is difficult. So why bother doing it? Why not just stay the way you are?

As long as you don’t have a compelling reason to change the status quo, nobody will move and nothing will change. After all, staying put is much more comfortable.

The first step of any Agile transformation is the exploration of the ‘why’.

Why do you want this change? What new opportunities could you seize if we worked in a more Agile way? How is Agile going to help you improve, move faster, react more quickly?

Having a powerful purpose behind the transformation of your company’s culture will provide you with the necessary energy throughout the change process.

  1. What is your starting point? Conduct an Agile diagnosis.

How do we become more Agile?  The answer to this largely depends on your starting point.

What do you think are the main characteristics of your company culture right now?

Maybe you have a very close relationship with you customers, and you cooperate with them closely while developing your products (an important element of Agile); yet at the same time, managers excercise a high level of control and offer very little empowerment to employees (not very Agile).

Maybe your company has an inspiring vision (an essential feature of an Agile organisation), but the feedback culture is underdeveloped, and this makes learning from mistakes difficult (which is a great obstacle to becoming Agile).

In order to have a clear understanding of where you stand now – what the strong and weak aspects of your organisation are with regards to agility – it is wise to conduct an organisational diagnosis.

  1. Where do you want to go? Create a strong vision.

Once you understand your present organisational culture in detail, it’s time to define where you would like to go.

But isn’t this obvious? – you might ask – we would like to be Agile!

OK, but what does that mean exactly for your company, for your team? Agile is not a defined set of rules to be followed. Every Agile company is unique: each applies very different practices, different methods. There is no recipe.

Therefore, it’s simply not enough to put the 10 Agile principles on the wall and consider the goal-setting done.

You need to create a vision of the new culture and have a strong image of what the company will look like once it is working in a more flexible, proactive and Agile way. How will people work? How will they interact with customers? These are some of the questions you need to ask yourself.

As a member of the management team, never do the vision-setting exercise in isolation. A classic trap into which many well intentioned management teams fall is that they spend an enormous amount of time on forming a vision, only to find out that there is absolutely no buy-in from their colleagues.

What a great paradox! The very essence of Agile is that an organisation should interact closely with its customers while trying to create value for them. A management team working on creating a company vision – one which is supposed to motivate the company’s employees – that doesn’t actually involve these employees in the process is going right against the Agile principle.

The bottomline: Involve some key colleagues from all parts of the organisation to form an inspiring vision together. This vision will serve as your compass during the Agile transformation.

  1. Create cross-functional teams with end-to-end accountability

Funcional silos in an organisation are one of the biggest obstacles to a company’s ability to react quickly to changes. Just think about all the tasks getting stuck in the ‘no man’s land’ between two departments.

In any Agile transformation the shift from functional departments to cross-functional teams with end-to-end accountability is one of the most critical elements.

If your organisation has a classic functional-hierarchical structure, this shift might seem unimaginable at first. Do we really need to restructure the whole organisation? Will this not result in chaos and anarchy?

Always remember to perform the Agile transformation in an Agile way. Take one step at a time, experiment with an idea and learn from the experience of doing it.

Here’s one approach:

  • Find an area where you can test the new structure. Maybe it is the IT department, or perhaps Marketing. Or maybe you can set up a new project team in which a variety of different experts collaborate, with a high level of acccountability.
  • Try the new cross-funcional structure. See how it works. Collect feedback.
  • Fine-tune your approach. Learn from the initial mistakes. Gain confidence.
  • Set up some more cross-functional teams in other areas.
  • Repeat.
  1. Pilot, prototype, experiment

Shifting the company culture by making it more Agile will necessitate trying new things all the time:

  • Form new cross-functional teams.
  • Set up new forums for communication.
  • Conduct learning and development in a new way.
  • Introduce new products to the market.
  • And many more.

Let go of the classic long-term planning approach and embrace testing and prototyping. Try new ideas in the framework of a pilot programme and scale it up once they seem to work.

This approach should be applied internally as well as externally:

  • You could pilot a new service on the market first. This is better than spending years of making it ‘perfect’ only to find that customers are just not interested.
  • You could pilot a new leadership development programme. Don’t overplan it. Test it instead with a small group of managers and change the concept if necessary, based on their feedback.

You can pilot almost anything. So be brave and try out a new idea in a small way.

But make sure you do all the necessary learning during this process. A pilot programmeme without learning from mistakes is just a waste of your precious time.

  1. Develop the culture of open communication and feedback

Open communication and regular feedback are core components of an Agile culture. Learning and improving as a team are impossible if we don’t talk honestly about what went wrong and about what we expect from each other. Experimenting is hard and scary for an employee who doesn’t feel appreciated because they don’t get any positive feedback from their manager and peers.

Two practical ways to improve the feedback culture are:

  • Provide feedback training. This will help managers and colleagues learn the techniques and become comfortable with giving and receiving feedback.
  • Set up systems and routines. Giving open feedback is easier if there are designated forums for it. Such forums can include quarterly feedback meetings between manager and employee, weekly team meetings when colleagues share their feedback with each other, etc.

However, no amount of feedback training and clever systems will facilitate a feedback culture in an environment where there is no emotional safety, and fixed mindsets (link) are prevalent. These underlying causes for the poverty of feedback must be treated first.

  1. Increase customer focus at all levels

Every employee has an impact on customers. But unless someone works in sales or in customer service, it is easy for an employee to feel disconnected and forget about how their work directly or indirectly influences the customer experience.

Agile companies excel at maintaining a high customer focus at all levels of the organisation. Some practices in Agile companies include:

  • Asking for regular client feedback – in the form of customer satisfaction surveys as well as personal interviews – and taking it extremely seriously.
  • Talking about the customer all the time. Sharing feedback from clients widely, encouraging colleagues to put themselves in the client’s shoes.
  • Organising regular client meetings where back-office employees are also present – and they can gain first-hand experience of what the customer needs.

In an Agile organisation, employees are strongly connected with the company’s clients. As one employee of an Agile company succinctly put it: “We talk about the customer all the time. We think about the customer all the time. A day’s work is considered successful if I can feel I created someting valuable for our client. Otherwise what is the point?”

  1. Transparency – knowledge and information available at all levels

To react quickly in a rapidly-changing environment it is essential that all necessary information is readily avaliable to all levels of the organisation. This information could be about:

  • the market – about the customers
  • the company’s products, services, activities
  • other colleagues working in the organisation and their expertise
  • available training opportunities

All this information should be made avaliable to teams so that they can move quickly and proactively without them having to labouriously hunt for the necessary knowledge, even if they know it exists.

Finding ways and forums to share information and knowledge widely is an important step in the Agile transformation.

  • Have a user-friendly online platform on which all information is made available.
  • Introduce company meetings, newsletters or other forums to keep colleagues up-to-date about relevant changes in the market and in the company itself.
  • Organise knowledge-sharing events where colleagues from different areas can meet, get to know each other and have a chat. Facilitate informal networking to boost knowledge transfer in the company.

As well as setting up practical forums for knowledge sharing, have an honest look at the company culture and ask yourself: Is transparency the norm? Do managers and colleagues openly share information? Or do people regard information as a source of power and keep it to themselves? If the latter is the case, then this attitude must first be tackled and overcome.

  1. Focus on leadership

Leaders at all levels are the key players in any Agile transformation.

Agile leaders

  • create an inspiring vision and communicate this in a way people are willing to follow
  • empower and trust people, at the same time setting clear boundaries and defining clear accountabilities
  • foster collaboration within their team
  • don’t compromise on feedback and learning: they create a culture of openness and honesty, augmented by the sense of emotional safety that allows people to learn from their mistakes
  • have the strength and flexibility to let go of an idea that doesn’t work; they change direction quickly and explore new possibilities.

Is this your managers’ attitude in your company?

If not, start leadership development right now.

  1. Don’t compromise on employee engagement

High employee engagement is within the core of an Agile culture. Agile companies achieve excellent results in an ever-changing environment because teams of highly motivated people go to work every day with the intention of doing their best to serve the customer.

All this wouldn’t be possible with disengaged employees.

Don’t ever compromise on employee engagement. Measure it regularly. Take the results extremely seriously. Make it a top priority for all leaders to follow up on action plans designed to increase employee satisfaction and engagement.

Only with engaged and motivated employees can you provide services and products that delight your customers.