When it comes to agility, people come before process

By Amy Finn

Agile working often conjures up ideas around new tools, processes and innovative ways of working. Sometimes, one of the last things we think about is people. Yet putting your people front and centre of your agile transformation doesn’t just lead to happier employees, it leads to more financially successful organisations.

In our recent report, The Evolution of the Agile Organisation, we surveyed 500 leaders from some of the largest organisations across a range of sectors. For each organisation we analysed 15 characteristics of agility across five dimensions and found a strong positive correlation between these characteristics and financial performance.

We found that the top-performing organisations made a conscious effort to focus on their employees, creating a work environment that’s dynamic, encouraging collaborative work practices and empowering employees at all levels.

This is a far cry from traditional ways of working characterised by hierarchical reporting structures, siloed job functions, and workers who were far removed from their customers.

In the same way customer-centricity is a key trait of successful agile organisations, so is the ability to liberate your people from these conventional ways of working. The question is how?

The agile leaders of today – we call them the Agile Cohort – create workplaces that are transparent and empowering, dynamic, and collaborative. This group put their people at the heart at everything they do.

And that change starts from within. Too often we look outside our organisation to help galvanize change and forget to look inside. Our Cohort treat their people like their customers.

Empower across all levels

Creating a culture where people thrive starts with empowerment. Our study showed that 54 per cent of the Agile Cohort actively empower employees at all levels to contribute ideas that improve their business and its products and services.

Leaders can do a lot to enable their people to feel empowered. This can be as simple as encouraging your people to define how and when they work and allowing them to make decisions on their own.

We found that instead of giving people a narrowly defined job description, agile leaders create a vision and inspiration for the organisation to connect with its core purpose.

John Lewis is a prime example. All of John Lewis’ permanent employees are Partners who ultimately own the business. This partnership structure also involves a Partnership Council where employees share ideas with the board. You don’t need to restructure your business to empower your people. By giving employees the opportunity to become involved in driving change and sharing ideas, you’re encouraging an inclusive and engaging working environment where employees feel a greater sense of accountability.

Bring dynamism to your company culture

Another area our survey revealed as important to the Agile Cohort’s success is company culture. In fact, 56 per cent of the Cohort say their people would describe their company culture as fun and dynamic. It’s easy to think of the agile stereotypes of company culture – breakout spaces, free coffee and regular team socials. But we all know that’s not enough and without proper thought, the gloss of any new initiative to bring dynamism into your company will quickly wear off. Achieving fundamental culture change is about defining values and behaviours and weaving them into the fabric of everything you do.

There isn’t a one size fits all approach to getting the balance right. By listening to your people, you can take a user-centric approach to transformation, where a dynamic culture will empower your people to contribute their ideas, enabling greater collaboration.

Design collaboration into your organisation

Collaboration is a word that’s used a lot. But do we really understand what it means to be truly collaborative? Of the Agile Cohort, 44 per cent say their technology, infrastructure and workspaces are designed to support flexible working and informal collaboration.

Take Unilever. It’s developed an entire platform to encourage collaboration. Unilever Foundry is a global collaboration platform where start-ups can partner with the brand to grow their new products and technology. The platform dramatically cuts down the time it takes to launch a product or service. Start-ups tend to adopt agile ways of working by default. By partnering with these young brands, Unilever is capitalising on these efficiencies and positioning themselves at the centre of innovative new technologies and product development.

Organisational leaders need to appreciate the importance of creating a people-focused workplace – with commitment, energy and sensitivity – if they are to thrive and succeed as agile organisations of the future.

About the authors

Amy Finn PA people and talent expert

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