Revealed: the four essentials of organisational agility

By Sam Bunting, Stephen Hughes, Tina Hjort Ejlertsen

The faster the world changes, the faster organisations must change with it. Rapidly moving technology, unpredictable customers and the growing urgency of climate change are just three reasons why, increasingly, one word is moving up every board’s agenda: agility. Sudden shocks like COVID-19 only make it clearer that organisational agility is essential, not optional.

We already know the characteristics that mark agile organisations out from the rest. Our earlier research described them. Whether it’s centring on customers, accelerating time to value, or having the systems, culture and stripped-down structure to change constantly, the top dogs have it all. The survey of 500 business leaders also underlined how vital they were: the top 10 financial performers were 30 per cent more likely to have the five dimensions of agility.

We also know changing to take on these characteristics is tough. Six out of 10 leaders told us they knew they had to become more agile, but that embedding the change and scaling it was a struggle.

So, how do organisations actually become agile? Our new report lifts the lid on what it takes to make the change – and reveals that success often hinges on following guidance that runs counter to the approach espoused by traditional agile evangelists. It draws on what we’ve learned from working on some of the world’s biggest agile transformations. It brings out the less obvious insights, those that others may have overlooked, and it sheds new light on how to make agility fundamental to the business, not just a passing fad or a small-scale experiment.

It’s one thing to lay out the theory of how an agile organisation works, and another to turn theory into practice. By helping hundreds of clients around the world and across sectors – from banking, energy and technology to retail, food and shipping – we’ve come up with insights that will make the steps towards agility clearer.

Our experience tells us that for most organisations, the change is huge – nothing short of running the business in a completely new way. It also calls for wholehearted commitment. Tinkering at the edges won’t get results. Becoming truly agile is about more than starting to use some new tools and practices in certain parts of the business. Culture, team structure, leadership and mindset all need to be right for the effort to be worth it.

There can be no manual for organisational agility. Our experience with businesses, from multinationals to much smaller companies, underlines that no two transformations are the same. Even so, we’ve seen that there are four necessities for organisations looking to make a successful switch to agility:

1. Build genuine and unanimous top team commitment

Senior leaders must be hands-on and front and centre for agility to be possible. All the senior management team needs to be on board with why the business wants to be more agile and what it wants to get out of it. They must also be prepared to be visible advocates for change and ready to articulate the business’s vision often, as well as chair the tough meetings. Servant leadership must be accompanied with directiveness and assertiveness when needed. Benign sponsorship from the boardroom definitely won’t be enough.

2. Create the conditions for success upfront

Making a lasting success of agility means doing a lot of work in advance, from making sure you have the right culture of curiosity to deciding how to measure results and tell success stories. Just ‘getting on with it and starting fast’ will not succeed – the more deliberate and painstaking your preparation, the more enduring the results.

3. Cut out the compromises

The biggest risk to an agile transformation is the temptation to water down the design and key decisions at the first sign of difficulty. It’s understandable, given the amount of change the whole organisation will have to go through, whether it’s structuring teams or switching from five-year strategies to three-month planning cycles. But making a success of agility means sticking to your guns and not sliding back into old habits.

4. Accept that tomorrow’s leaders will be different to today’s

Inevitably, there will be tough decisions along the road to becoming agile. Some people will embrace the change, others might resist it. This calls not just for leadership from the top, but right through the organisation. These leaders might not be the obvious candidates. The potential might lie elsewhere, and you’ll need the right mix of newcomers and homegrown people to tackle the inevitable politics.

Organisational agility requires a surprising approach

Our report will contain surprises for some. For instance, the consensual, light-touch leadership that works well for many organisations might not be enough to make agility stick. For an international food company, we found leaders needed a more assertive, even directive style to keep everyone moving in the right direction. Also, while many businesses favour a roll-up-the-sleeves-and-dive-in approach to trying new things, they’ll have to fight that instinct if they’re to become truly agile. A quick and dirty experiment might buzz briefly but won’t have the lasting effect of a meticulously planned programme.

Our approach sets out how you can focus your energy to achieve organisational agility. In doing so, you’ll create alert, aware, inclusive and responsive teams that are able to rapidly respond to shifting customer needs and competitive changes.

Watch out for more posts in this series as we look more closely at the four necessities of agility.

About the authors

Sam Bunting PA agile expert
Stephen Hughes PA IT transformation expert Stephen is a leader in Lean and Agile methodologies having driven adoption of Agile at a number of our largest clients.
Tina Hjort Ejlertsen PA agile transformation and consumer expert

Explore more

Contact the team

We look forward to hearing from you.

Get actionable insight straight to your inbox via our monthly newsletter.