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Why Pursue Organizational Agility?

Why Pursue Organizational Agility?

Business fads come and go. Most of them build on the last one. Agility is no exception. Agile practices build on Lean practices. Whereas Lean started in the manufacturing realm and expanded to other parts of the business, Agile started in software development and has since propagated similarly.

Agility has only one overarching goal: delivering customer value better, faster, safer, and more efficiently. Every aspect of the practice serves this goal. Other operational models make the same claim. Why is “agile" different?

The Agile Difference

Whereas other business operating systems have a variety of objectives, agility only has one. This focus on only one thing is liberating. It creates the flexibility necessary to reduce the impact of risk-taking and adapt quickly in a world where the environment changes ever faster and more dramatically.

Industry leaders must develop the ability to evolve continuously or be swept up by the waves of change. Agile practice achieves this by encouraging a fear-free culture of continuous experimentation. Experiments, by their nature, sometimes fail. Taking risks is at the heart of agile principles. While the agile manifesto never explicitly mentions risk in the 12 principles, it is in spirit throughout.

It is human nature to make assumptions that turn out to be wrong. Without this ability, we get stuck in our present state. Notice we don’t attempt to mitigate risk. Instead, we strive to reduce the impact when frequently taking risks, some of which turn out badly.

Historically, leaders were referred to also as decision-makers. Although agile leaders continue to make some decisions, the practice stands the traditional role on its head. By creating fully empowered, cross-functional, autonomous operational teams, leaders no longer need to make many decisions.

Instead, they act as bearers of the organization’s vision and supporters for the operational teams. Agile practitioners call them “servant leaders.” Coaching their direct reports, celebrating intelligent risk-taking (with their associated learnings), and removing obstacles further empowers teams to be more effective. This approach acts as a force multiplier to engage the full creativity and intelligence available within the organization.

With this energy and creativity, single-mindedly focused on improving the delivery of customer value, the entire organization moves faster and more deliberately. The critical component that brings more safety to what may seem dangerous is conducting all efforts in the smallest possible increment. Teams iterate, succeed or fail, and learn quickly enough that no failure is catastrophic.

Agile organizations rely heavily on hard evidence. If they don’t have it, they conduct research or run experiments to get it. Relying on evidence doesn’t guarantee success. It reduces the effects of risk. Traditional organizations reduce risk by minimizing risky behavior. Agile organizations compartmentalize it.

Agile experts point out that agility is not just a set of practices but a mindset. Cultural changes may be the most challenging to implement. Some organizations embark on “agile transformations.” Unfortunately, too many of these “end” in failure. Leadership invests time, money, and effort into the process. When the project time clock expired, they didn’t get what they wanted.

The better mental model is the “agile journey.” It is a never-ending journey. You continue to strive for perfection but never quite achieve it. Agility acknowledges the power of every human along with our limitations.

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