Ready for anything: how defence and security can embrace agility

By Andy Brown

The rapidly unfolding war in Ukraine shows only too clearly that defence and security organisations have to be ready to adapt quickly to fast-moving events, and respond just as speedily.

In short, they need organisational agility. This isn’t just about using Agile methods for running certain types of projects. It’s about adopting new ways of thinking and working that penetrate deep into organisations, their mindset and culture. The current situation underlines that, for defence and security organisations, effectiveness and agility are really one and the same. The outgoing UK Prime Minister set the vision in the 2021 Integrated Review: “Our diplomatic service, armed forces and security and intelligence agencies […] will be characterised by agility, speed of action and digital integration.”

We’ve defined what that agility looks like in organisations, from putting customers first and shortening the time it takes to put new ideas into action, to simplifying structures and systems to be able to change constantly, and letting people run with their ideas. We’ve also dug deeper to see what organisations have to do to actually adopt these characteristics.

An evolving threat needs an evolving response

It’s been clear for some time that cyber warfare and terrorism have made the threat to the UK more fluid and unpredictable, expanding it beyond the purely military realm. Operationally, the sector has matured over decades to deal with these pressures and become inherently agile in many areas. However, there is still a lot that non-operational side can do.

The same can’t always be said of the non-operational side. At times, it’s been slow to respond to change and has even resisted it, lagging behind the private sector in setting goals for agility. Agile practices and tools and techniques appear in pockets, but it’s more about exploring a methodology than becoming agile across the whole organisation.

Defence and security organisations have to overcome ingrained instincts to become alert, aware and responsive. We’ve pinpointed four steps to take.

Build genuine and unanimous commitment from the top

Any major organisational change needs support from senior leadership. Those at the top have to be conspicuous and visible in championing change, both to set the tone from the start and keep everyone on course when challenges inevitably appear. This is particularly true of a wholesale shift like an agile transformation. Leaders can’t get away with superficial buy-in and have to understand the full extent of the culture change their organisation needs.

Defence and security has shown what it can do in situations that call for a rapid response, with the Ministry of Defence at the heart of the UK’s response to COVID-19 and many military personnel involved in running The Vaccine Taskforce. But while defence and security organisations often excel at setting high-level vision and strategy, they can struggle to instil commitment further down the chain of command. This is where halo leaders – influential and respected people and thought leaders – can become the architects of a new culture by dealing with ambiguity, leading with empathy and heading off challenges with determination. In specialist military capabilities in particular, we’ve seen these leaders drive agile transformation across large parts of their organisations.

Create the conditions for success from the start

Defence and security organisations are often large and complex, with inflexible processes and old systems and infrastructure. So agility goals, timelines and aspirations have to be realistic. This means creating a clear shared idea of the ‘minimum viable product’ to build positivity and momentum and get buy-in from influential but sceptical people while encouraging would-be agile evangelists. This lays the basis for longer-term changes.

Defence and security is awash with data, but can have poor management information. This is a potentially fatal weakness when developing agility, which depends on solid metrics to recognise progress, keep everyone motivated and scale up from early successes. In parallel, organisations will need to prepare the ground for transformation by instilling a culture that rewards curiosity and those who adopt new ways of working. Being clear well in advance about what the right culture looks like help staff adapt and see their place in the new organisation.

Cut out the compromises

Without a clear mindset change, what looks like a sound new design for the organisation could be watered down and undermined even before it’s implemented. In an agile transformation, there can no half measures and organisations could well run into resistance which they’ll need to tackle rather than accommodate. In defence and security, it’s common to have a core of long-standing employees who could well believe that frequent change of the sort that’s part and parcel of agility isn’t ‘what they signed up for’. This is where the senior leadership must step up.

We worked with a UK security organisation that wanted to be able to develop technology on demand in an agile way. But the processes for achieving this capability were bolted on to a traditional ‘waterfall’ method of delivering projects – the antithesis of agility. Benefits were not realised and after some pain it was recognised that the entire product lifecycle needed to become far more agile, and that leaders needed to set clear, non-negotiable parameters on core principles and standards to stop fatal reticence of this sort.

Accept tomorrow’s leaders will be different

In some ways, agility calls for quite traditional directive leadership. This is especially true at times when senior people have to make it clear exactly what they want to see and send unambiguous signals about where they won’t compromise.

But today’s geopolitical challenges also mean defence and security leaders have to be adaptable. Increasingly, leaders are coming into the sector from areas where agility is more accepted. This can help in recruitment, where these leaders’ insights will help to bring in people more in tune with an agile culture and perhaps ready to be tomorrow’s leaders.

Leaders will also have to tolerate and even embrace failure, a quality not usually associated with defence and security. It will become easier to accommodate if it’s about ‘failing fast’ and quickly absorbing lessons without increasing operational risk. And leaders will have to be ready to involve their customers more in shaping products or services. This could well mean having to encourage customers themselves to realise the role they can play and becoming comfortable with seeing and responding to work in progress. This is part of reorientating organisational models, processes and ways of working towards customers.

These four steps are essential for UK defence and security organisations to become agile at their core, not just at the margins. In doing so, they can make themselves better prepared for the future, and their increased organisational agility can play an important part in realising the UK’s safe and secure future.

About the authors

Andy Brown PA Agile expert

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