Training an elephant to race like a greyhound: five lessons for delivering large scale organisational agility transformations

Muttaqee Dar

By Muttaqee Dar, Amisha Doshi

To retain competitive advantage over newer, leaner, more specialised disruptors, established large scale organisations – offering end-to-end services – increasingly turn to agile ways of working.

Our research, surveying 500 leaders from some of the world’s largest organisations, finds two-thirds believe their business model is in need of a fundamental rethink – a new business design for agility.

Despite this clear agile imperative however, less than a third of leaders rate their transformation initiatives as being very effective.

For large scale organisations in particular, agile transformations all too often fall short – failing to deliver the value promised, in the timescales expected, and to the costs initially projected.

One of the reasons why, is because off-the-shelf agile typically focuses on the delivery of projects and programmes – ‘change-the-business’ (CTB) activity – paying less attention to day-to-day operations, or ‘run-the-business’ (RTB) activity. And, unlike the disruptors, large scale organisations often have in excess of a 2:1 ratio of RTB to CTB activity. These transformation journeys thus exclude most of the business from the outset, ensuring underwhelming success at best and serious material cost at worst.

For the largest and most complex transformation journeys, this outcome is common but by no means inevitable. Our research, which tracks the evolution of the agile organisation, illuminates a clear path for those willing to commit to meaningful change.

Below, we outline five lessons from our experience delivering complex business transformations, including the world’s largest organisational agility transformation.

1. Cut out the compromises and go hybrid by design

With the complexity of large scale organisations, it is often a hybrid operating model – with both agile and non-agile components – that best suits. Far from a compromise, this approach should seek to optimise the balance between flexibility and scalability that enables competitive advantage.

In fact, large scale transformations, compared to small, should afford even greater consideration for the dependencies between agile and non-agile groups within their organisations – and in doing so can reap the benefits of both agility and economies of scale.

On their journey to organisational agility, we helped one of the world’s largest banks do just that, by:

First, defining the boundaries of their value stream model – clearly identifying areas of the business that sat outside, such as operations and shared services

Second, mapping the practical interactions between activity inside and outside of value streams – fitting all the pieces together as one complete picture

Third, developing ways of working that enabled organisation-wide coherence and scalability, without compromising on value stream autonomy.

2. Liberate your people with islands of stability

Agile transformations should aim to deliver value early and often. However, the continuous release of new capabilities and ways of working, without proper time to breathe and reflect, can quickly lead to fatigue and resistance in your teams.

With larger and longer transformations especially, it’s important that your people are aligned on a clear and common direction of travel, with defined opportunities to take stock along the journey.

Islands of stability are clearly defined states in between phases of transformation, able to hold steady at consistent levels of maturity across the organisation.

Using this approach, we helped one of the UK’s largest housing associations embed stability as a core tenet of their transformation journey, during a time of major pandemic uncertainty. Creating islands of stability allowed them to balance periods of relentless improvement with steady states, as well as enabling focus on their most impactful customer segments to deliver value to first, without leaving other areas of their business behind.

3. Centre on your customers by integrating value streams

For customers seeking end-to-end services, internal structures and operations mean very little. Adopting a value stream model, whilst certainly streamlining delivery and increasing individual autonomy, will not alone increase an organisation’s ability to deliver customer value. For this, organisations need to consider the integration required between value streams – the various ways in which they connect together as complete value chains, delivering end-to-end.

In our experience delivering business transformations across multiple sectors, the best way to integrate value streams is to consider your capabilities. Capabilities articulate what an organisation needs the ability to do, encompassing: business, technology, people, culture, governance, and behaviours – all as one.

Thinking in capabilities removes organisational boundaries and allows both leadership and delivery teams to consider more than the individual business unit’s needs and goals – instead driving outcomes based on the ambitions and integrated value of the whole organisation.

4. Build genuine and unanimous commitment between business and technology leaders

Like any team endeavour, success lies in all members operating to the same objectives with clear alignment on purpose, vision, and incentives. For successful operating model transformations, the join-up between business and technology leaders is especially important.

Not only do business and technology leaders need to be fully aligned and truly believe in the journey to organisation agility, but they also need to constantly demonstrate and embody the future culture, consistently singing from the same hymn sheet to empower and transform the teams they lead.

We recently helped Europe’s largest financial services organisation achieve exactly this by bringing the CEO, CIO, and COO into the same room to unite on a shared transformation vision and approach. By breaking down legacy empires and firewalls, we helped to shift executive priorities and perspectives – moving away from an overreliance on siloed reporting lines, and instead orienting together around the delivery of customer value.

5. Create the right conditions for success by thinking big from the outset

‘Think big, start small’ is a common agile mantra – and certainly when you’re dealing with large scale organisation transformations, the best place to start is often simple and small. Identifying pilot opportunities, in areas of the business most ripe for change, can help demonstrate value early and create exemplars for the rest of the organisation to follow. It is important however, that despite starting small, your transformation doesn’t lose sight of the Big – the enterprise-wide ambition, the North Star.

In our experience, taking the time to develop a clear North Star emboldens pilot teams to work with confidence, supported by common guardrails, and an enterprise-wide vision. Crucially too, it ensures that the design approach remains consistent and effective for teams across the business – not just the first movers – enabling broad and steady transformation across the organisation.

For the disrupters, the start-ups, and the innovators, agility is already the new normal. And while the imperative for large scale incumbents has long been clear, the road to true organisation agility has not. Agility need not be a compromise, but a true evolution. It should unlock value that has been honed with experience and bring new flexibility to established value propositions.

With each of these lessons, large scale organisations too can make agility the new normal – delivering greater value for their customers and their people.

About the authors

Muttaqee Dar
Muttaqee Dar PA operating model expert
Amisha Doshi PA operating model expert

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