Insight

Take it from the top: how leaders can spearhead transport’s move to agility

By Amy Wright, Mark Wilson

Jan 10, 2023

Transport can’t afford to face new challenges with old methods. The sudden shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, continued uncertainties about passenger behaviour, as well as demands such as the push for net zero, show that modelling based on known scenarios and predictable outcomes is no longer a solid basis for decision-making and action. It’s a situation that points to the need for organisational agility – the ability to respond and act quickly as the world changes. And this is about more than experiments with Agile projects. It’s about running whole organisations with a different mindset and culture.

Yet organisational agility isn’t easy. We’ve studied the most successful organisations and the habits and traits which put them out in front. We’ve learned that while organisations realise they need agility, six out of ten leaders find it hard to embed the change and scale it up.

In transport, the task looks particularly tough. In the UK, the sector is marked by complex, large-scale infrastructure projects that typically take over 11 years to complete. In that time, things change so fast and drastically that strategy risks falling out of step with reality. Yet, for every senior figure in transport calling for new methods, there are several more pointing to regulatory hurdles, safety risks, or other reasons to keep things as they are.

Not to say that transport is an agility-free zone. Whether it’s Virgin Atlantic working faster with small, cross-functional teams, or Air France KLM cutting time-to-market for business IT applications, change is in the air. And now that digital technology is an inescapable part of transport infrastructure, from connected signals and tracks on the railways to smart motorways and the promise of autonomous vehicles, the momentum behind agile-style transformations is growing.

So, how can transport organisations become more agile? Our latest report sets out the essential steps to embedding organisational agility. For transport organisations, the key first step is ensuring there’s unwavering commitment to change from the top team. More than other kinds of change, the move to agility calls for strong direction from the top. And there are three main ways for leaders to make a difference.

1. Mandate your vision

Deep-rooted change is only possible if everyone has a shared vision of the change the organisation wants and why. A clear idea of the prize keeps everyone committed, even when change feels difficult.

When working with a transport infrastructure operator responsible for a £1 billion digital investment, our task was to transform its digital capability to integrate technology into its transport infrastructure. That meant transforming a corporate IT team into a Digital function that was less an arm’s length service provider and more a close strategic partner for the organisation. To mark their intent, the Chief Digital and Information Officer published a firm-wide digital strategy with the CEO’s backing. It’s a constant touchstone for leaders, reaffirming the purpose behind the change, and helping prioritise time and resources.

It's important to consolidate this public vision with a concrete idea of action and for every specialist team or function to understand how it can help realise the strategy. This transport infrastructure operator delivered their plan through a ‘digital summit’. This not only gets buy-in from key stakeholders but sends a signal to the organisation that the top team unanimously backs the vision.

2. Lead by example

Once leaders are seen to back a new way of working, it’s harder to regress into old habits. Giving individual leaders personal responsibility for key parts of the transformation will create and embed commitment. This also gives individuals a licence to solve problems as they arise, rather than delay or not act at all because issues are ‘someone else’s responsibility’.

Leaders can then share progress and outcomes through town halls and ‘ask me anything’ sessions that give everyone a chance to question leaders. Demonstrations of emerging work – whether it’s software, training materials or documentation – create trust and build support for the vision by sweeping away the secrecy that often surrounds change programmes. The introduction of these sessions, led by senior leadership, grew employee engagement from 10 to 80 percent and created an open and active dialogue at a transport infrastructure operator.

Regular retrospectives can boost accountability, foster continuous improvement, and cut risk. Regular, open discussion about what’s working and where to improve breeds relentless improvement, stops harmful issues from escalating, and removes roadblocks. This nurtures a test-and-learn approach that jettisons less effective ideas to focus resources on those with most potential. This is a feature of the approach we’ve brought to Network Rail’s Accelerated Innovation programme. Together, we implemented a positive and safe ‘fail-fast’ culture and process; stopping projects that were not meeting expected benefits earlier – resulting in 60 percent greater cost efficiency.

3. Harness halo leaders

As well as the top team, it’s vital to mobilise another tier of people – those who might not have ‘manager’ in their title but have the social capital and skills to help agility take root. These ‘halo leaders’ could be early adopters with an infectious enthusiasm for agile methods, for example.

Given the chance to shape the organisation’s new ways of working, these halo leaders can use their informal influence to motivate others in a more impactful way than conventional business change. At a transport infrastructure operator, halo leaders acted as a network of change agents to support the newly formed Agile Centre of Excellence. They brought a diversity of thought and approach to change where experimentation, learning and collaboration was embraced.

The key was to trust people who weren’t part of the established management cadre and to give them the mandate and a safe space to experiment. The agile change agents were able to address concerns on the ground and consistently promote collaboration and innovation. Their enthusiasm had a ripple effect in the town halls, where discussion and new ideas were more forthcoming, creating a positive, reinforcing feedback loop.

We need new ways to solve new problems. Agility represents this new way, enabling teams to adapt quickly to change, pivot to new priorities, and empower people to make a meaningful contribution. However, agility requires a fundamental change in the structure of many organisations that bottom-up transitions cannot successfully deliver. So, leaders have to be the first to change. By embracing organisational agility, and by being more prescriptive about the future operating model, transport leaders will pave the way for the transport sector to become a responsive, dynamic force that can deliver a positive human future.

About the authors

Amy Wright PA agility expert
Mark Wilson PA agility expert

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