Becoming an agile organisation


If business leaders and people who work in organisations want to thrive in the complex, uncertain world of today they need to adopt agile ways of working, a new book argues.

The Agile Organisation by Professor Linda Holbeche, Co-Director of the Centre for Progressive Leadership, argues that a number of broad cultural, economic and environmental trends are leading to the development of new markets, businesses, channels and consumer expectations and that organisations in every sector will be under increasing pressure to develop greater agility as a result so they can respond to a changing environment more quickly.

The book covers everything from agile strategising and implementation to the role of HR, agile leadership, employee engagement and resilience and building “a change-able culture”.

Holbeche says agile working involves a holistic approach to all aspects of how an organisation works and adds that culture is more important than strategy in determining an organisation’s successful adoption of agile processes.

That culture includes a big emphasis on employee engagement, a management style that supports people to succeed, a focus on collaboration and a style of working that “embraces change as the norm”.

Holbeche says a lot of different functions in organisations have been talking about agility in their separate silos, but when she started looking into it around six years ago there was very little research available. Since then there has been a growing recognition of the need to be agile, she says. “There was a lot of talk about creating future leaders, employee engagement and flexible working, but the holy grail of how to holistically pull it together to create an organisational shift was lacking,” says Holbeche.

Changing the mindset
She adds that the gradual emergence from the economic recession has also acted as a catalyst. The biggest challenge to agile working, though, is an organisation’s mindset, she says. “It does need to start at the top even if the drivers for it are IT and the operations people who see the need for doing things faster. If the executive are, as is commonly the case, quite defensive in their thinking and caught in a command and control mindset, it is difficult to change things.”

She recognises that there are real reasons for resistance to change, including a reliance on short termism, a knee-jerk response to crisis which involves axing lots of jobs, genuine fear of risk and shareholder interest.

To change that requires a shift in understanding at the top of organisations, she says, and a recognition that if you want innovation “you shouldn’t treat people as goods and chattels”.

“In many cases, that will require a leap of faith,” she says. Having examples of other agile businesses can help as can a gradual approach to building a culture of trust where hierarchies are broken down rather than sticking with a command and control structure. That culture has to be both bottom up and top down, says Holbeche, and it has to begin by taking into account changing customer demand in a 24/7 world. “As people get to see how operating differently works in customer-focused sections of the business, the penny begins to drop about the need to change the overall structure.”

Holbeche says there are mixed signals about the UK’s readiness for agile working. On the one hand, the UK has been able to benefit from a very flexible work model in comparison to other European countries. On the other, it tends not to do so well on consultation with staff and suffers from an overemphasis on risk management and compliance which, she says, “slows things down and inhibits the speed of work decisions being implemented”.

Enterprise and engagement
Innovation is key to the agile organisation and all employees need to be encouraged to be entrepreneurial, says Holbeche. This is in large part due to the fast-changing nature of today’s marketplace and uncertainty about the future, for instance, developments in Europe. “There is a need for thinking on a sixpence,” she states. “You need to be fleet of foot.” Due to the nature of technology and innovation, competitors can come in and create a new paradigm. Often these businesses don’t need to be making money before they corner the market and start putting other organisations out of business. “Big businesses do not typically take them seriously until it is too late,” she says, citing home deliveries as an example. “If they are not innovating they end up following.” Those businesses which collaborate with the newcomers can prosper, she adds.

On agile work culture, Holbeche says that flexibility works best if it is a two-way street with both employer and employee benefiting. She recognises that flexibility has been exploited, for instance, in some forms of zero-hour contracts when too much power has been concentrated in the hands of the employer. “It needs to work for both the people and the organisation,” she says. She agrees too that it can be difficult for those who have childcare responsibilities to be wholly flexible about their hours, for instance, coming in for a sudden meeting on a day they normally don’t work. “If you don’t have agile childcare you are stymied,” she says. “There’s still a stigma attached to people, mainly women, who take time off to work from home if their children are sick and some types of work don’t lend themselves to remote working or have hours that are difficult to get childcare cover for.”

She adds that agile working works best when it is properly planned. She cites John Lewis’ family friendly flexible model, including its policy of allowing partners to work longer hours in busy periods and bank hours to take time off during less busy times, such as the summer holidays. She says this benefits from the fact that staff are encouraged to be versatile and says its organisational model where staff are the owners of the company has played a part in this. She thinks changes in family friendly ways of working will come when more senior managers, especially women, navigate their own working arrangements and transform the culture from within.

*The Agile Organisation by Linda Holbeche is published by Kogan Page.

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