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What can we learn about agility from our childhood birthday parties?

Two of my favourite things about childhood birthday parties were jelly and Lego. This rather defines my age, but memories of those parties are synonymous with jelly and Lego. Let’s be clear, this wasn’t the jelly of 1980’s nouvelle cuisine or Heston’s ‘whiskies of the world’ jelly from the Fat Duck. This was the Hartley’s jelly of the 1970’s with fluorescent colours and flavours to match. And we’re not talking about the amazing current Lego models of Hogwarts or the Millennium Falcon, rather a bag of brightly coloured bricks with no instructions – out of which I could make pretty much anything.

Aside from the warm reminiscence of childhood, I still like jelly and Lego, partly because they’ve given me a great metaphor for organisational agility.

Reconfigure like Lego, or fill any shape like jelly

We know from our organisational agility survey that the Agile Cohort – those top-performing companies who, as it happens, also display the characteristics of agility – have worked out that they need to build to evolve. This means building both a technical and a business architecture that can adapt as the market and wider environment changes. That’s clear – but what’s less clear is what an evolving business architecture really means.

Did you know the top 10% of financial performers are 30% more agile than the rest?

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The thing is, I don’t think there’s one answer to this question. Instead, it’s more useful to think of the different ways companies can go about creating the flexibility needed to change. This is where I’ve called on my jelly and Lego analogy.

Both are flexible and adaptable, but in entirely different ways.

Jelly, rather obviously, is brilliant at filling out any required shape. Admittedly, in my childhood, it filled the shape of a big bowl. But jelly can mould to any shape. I’m sure today’s parties see jelly, if it’s still on the menu, in the shape of a Dalek, unicorn, Iron Man or Xbox controller (assuming Amazon has appropriate moulds for sale). Once set, jelly also has a famously wobbly characteristic: within limits, jelly can flex.

Lego is also great at forming many shapes. It can’t quite fill a void in the same effortless way that jelly can, but it offers near infinite forms based on a surprising level of simple formality. A handful of rules makes it possible to rapidly configure Lego into any shape. Mine tended to be houses, cars, space craft and guns, but even in this limited repertoire, if one form didn’t suit my need, I could reconfigure it into another in seconds.

Evolve with changing market demands

Both jelly and Lego offer the ability to adapt as needed, but they do so in completely different ways. Both have advantages and limitations. Jelly may lack industrial levels of rigidity, but it can beautifully form any required shape with ease and precision. Lego may suffer from a slightly ‘blocky’ effect if viewed too closely, but it’s infinitely and easily reconfigurable.

Similarly, when we design organisations, we recognise there isn’t just one route to agility and flexibility.

On the one hand, we can create modular businesses that can quickly reconfigure the building blocks of operations and capability to adapt to changing market needs.

We’ve just done this with a medical diagnostics business. We redesigned their organisation into capability building blocks. Each capability block can develop its own IP and know-how to create some industrial strength, but the blocks can quickly come together into larger delivery teams to respond to any need for new diagnostic products and solutions. The blocks can form and re-form based on market demand. The business can now adapt to changing market needs quickly, without having to formally re-organise.

We’ve also created fluid businesses that continuously deploy resources to meet changing market demand. They often use self-organising teams to create best-fit responses to rapidly changing market dynamics, where speed of response is more important than the repeatability of solutions.

Both routes work, offering the ability to evolve to the changing world. But the key to making the right choice is understanding the nature of the business, the changing market it’s part of and, as a result, the best way to build to evolve.

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