Agility has become a necessity in the business world, and leaders must promote the trait
A few years ago, agility was considered a competitive advantage — a trait that a company could develop and nurture to get a leg up in its industry and markets. But late last year, when Forbes Insights conducted a survey of 1,000 executives across industries and geographies, 81 percent of them identified organizational agility as the most important characteristic of a successful organization. Today, agility isn’t about raising the competitive stakes; it’s an organizational trait needed to get into the game.
At its core, agility is simply the ability to change direction quickly in response to external conditions. The problem, of course, is that for the past century, people have been building companies that were anything but agile.
How can you make your company more agile? Focus your efforts on developing the two capabilities that define the trait: sense and response.
A Sense-sational Ability to Anticipate Change
Agility depends on the ability of managers and workers to understand what is going on in the world around them. They need to be able to see and identify — or even better, anticipate — changes occurring throughout the business ecosystem.
In 2018, we at Deloitte called out one of the biggest changes currently underway — a shift in the nature of the corporation that we’ve labeled the social enterprise. Social enterprises answer to an extended set of stakeholders, not just shareholders. To do this effectively, they must be alert enough to sense (and responsive enough to accommodate) a daunting gamut of stakeholder expectations and demands.
The ability to sense change starts with a much broader perspective than most companies cultivate. You can’t hope to see change coming if your attention is focused solely on your corner of the world. Rather, you need to widen the lens — and take not just an inside-out view or even an outside-in view, but an integrated view that recognizes that there is really no separation between the internal and external.
I’ve written here before about the importance of making the people side of the business more data-driven and evidence-based, and that is a key enabler of a broader perspective. Employees at all levels need data-fueled analytics to notice, categorize, and understand the patterns of change in the world around them. Analytics enable them to identify changing conditions earlier, faster, and in greater detail than they could with their eyes and minds alone.
Agility requires turning the focus of analytics inward as well as outward. Last year, Bersin’s research revealed that only 2 percent of companies have fully-mature people analytics capabilities. But these analytics are essential to agility because they help employees understand their own performance in real time. Moreover, they provide leaders with early warnings regarding threats that could negatively affect employee engagement, productivity, and retention.
On the horizon, there are new tools emerging that will extend the sensing capacity on which your company’s agility depends. Organizational network analysis (ONA) tools, for example, enable leaders to visualize how teams — an essential organizational element in an agile social enterprise — and the company as a whole communicate. In revealing these linkages, ONA illuminates how work actually gets done and how it could be improved.
Learning to Respond in Real Time
The ability to respond quickly and effectively to the things that you sense is the other key capability of agility. If the people in your company can’t respond to change in a timely manner, their ability to identify change — no matter how early and accurately — will become an exercise in futility.
The ability to respond will require a new mindset in many companies. Your company will need to adopt an emergent mindset in which change is seen as continuous, not episodic. Ongoing change is, after all, the only thing that is unchanging in our world.
To make this mindset manifest, your company’s employees need to be able to acquire new skills quickly and they need to be equipped to quickly respond to change. That means providing them with personal learning toolsets, knowledge networks, and performance technologies that enable them to learn on the fly. Equipping employees to learn while they work is the secret to accelerating your company’s clock speed.
The learning tools are not enough in and of themselves. The creation and nurturing of a learning culture is a prerequisite of fast response to change. Being agile requires a willingness to experiment, to continuously learn, and to innovate at the individual and organizational level. Bersin studies have identified 40 different practices that define a learning culture, but we can boil them down to three meta-practices:
- Empower people by giving them control of their work, decision rights, and stretch assignments;
- Encourage reflection by rewarding risk-taking and treating failure as a learning opportunity;
- Demonstrate the value of learning by emphasizing employee development in their current roles, in their long-term career plans, and in the opportunities you offer them.
Finally, to bolster the quality and speed of response, you will need to ruthlessly and relentlessly attack the distractions and complexity that slow employees down. We are all in danger of being overwhelmed by too many communication channels and a crushing amount of work. Instead, you need to simplify work using technologies, such as AI and automation, and give employees the time they need to respond to change. That’s the only way we are going to break through the productivity ceiling that we’ve been bumping up against for the past decade.
This a lot to do, but I’m not sure you have much choice. By becoming agile, your company will be able to better recognize what’s changing in the world, and craft and implement more effective responses to those changes in a timely manner. If your company can’t do that, will anything else it does really matter?
Written by: David Mallon, VP and Analyst-at-Large, Bersin™, Deloitte Consulting LLP
As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see www.deloitte.com/us/about for a detailed description of our legal structure. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting. Copyright © 2018 Deloitte Development LLC. All rights reserved.