In the media

5 tips for leaders to achieve lasting agility

By Alanah Bushnell


23 November 2021

This article was first published in HRreview

Agility is increasingly dominating the thoughts of boardrooms and executive teams. 

As well as realising its importance in delivering value to customers through turning ideas into products and services at greater speed, it can also be an enabler to speeding up recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and help mitigate against future unknowns.  

The value of agility is well established. The top 10 percent of businesses by financial performance are almost 30 per cent more likely to display agile characteristics. What’s less clear is exactly how businesses achieve organisational agility – not just ‘Agile’ ways of working in isolated situations, but agility in everything they do.   

How do you make agility stick?

Our report on organisational agility distils what we’ve learned from delivering and scaling agility with businesses of all sizes and sectors around the world. We’ve found that one of the necessities to achieving organisational agility is genuine and unanimous top team commitment. 

While any business transformation calls for senior leadership commitment, the pursuit of organisational agility will test this to its limit. Success calls for all executive leaders, including the CEO, to be visibly and actively involved on a day-to-day basis, taking up new measures, structures and leadership styles. 

Teams at all levels will have to ditch the conventional ways of working and behaving which they’ve traditionally relied on. Many will need convincing it’s the right thing to do. That’s why leadership commitment has to be unanimous, unshakeable and tangible. Without it, don’t go any further.   

Here's how to do it: 

1. Mandate the vision 

While any change calls for a defined vision, no attempt at organisational agility can be made without this being clear, compelling and inspiring. 

This is because agility makes demands unlike any other transformation, requiring not just a new organisational structure but different funding and governance models, and new ways of working. 

This vision has to be powerful and inspiring enough to sustain the business through the inevitable challenges ahead. 

Everyone has to be crystal clear on what they, the business and its customers are going to get out of the change.  

2. Recognise that your organisation is unique

Contrary to the views of many traditional agile evangelists, bottom-up self-organisation will not succeed. Nor will top-down instruction be enough. 

Organisations are complex, adaptive systems; so while leaders have to be unequivocal about what they want and why, they also have to listen and be open to questions and challenge. 

They have to facilitate the change by bringing people on the journey and giving them a voice. So instead of a cascade of emails, think town halls and other settings that spark or enable dialogue. 

We’ve seen this done particularly well in monthly listening and sharing forums. These give all people, regardless of hierarchy, the opportunity to ask questions – further embedding the vision and purpose of the transformation.  

3. Ensure employees are on board

Any mention of change can automatically generate employee anxiety of another management fad. 

Dismiss these fears by ensuring the senior team attend events like Program Increment Planning sessions and Quarterly Business Reviews. 

As well as keeping activities on track, this underlines the importance of what you’re trying to achieve. 

4. Lead by example 

Conscious role modelling is another factor crucial to success. Leaders need to practice what they preach, showing they can work in new ways themselves, rather than insisting that everyone else does. 

This extends to awareness of blockers that could impede progress. For example, leaders will need to look out for additional tasks of people that could distract them from delivering desired outcomes such as achieving faster time to value. 

Leaders must evidence that their actions help deliver constancy of purpose. 

Agility calls for substantial change, so comfort with failure (as long as lessons are learned) is paramount. 

The best role models will embody a ‘test-and-learn ethos’ that supports continuous improvement rather than improvement by initiative. It’s an approach that calls for humility, empathy and the willingness to listen. 

Doing so will create trust and empower teams to self-organise and deliver around common goals. 

Leaders should start to openly admit mistakes and share failures in order to foster the continuous learning culture needed to future-proof their organisation.  

5. Harness the right leaders 

The last way for leaders to enable organisational agility is to pick the right people to lead with them – and free them to make decisions. 

These leaders won’t necessarily be the ones with the most senior titles. The important thing is that they have the influencing and facilitation skills to make things happen. 

They need to be tough enough to stop politics blocking action, and have the emotional intelligence to listen to problems on the ground.   

To harness these leaders, you’ll need to outline what’s in it for them. Upskilling them, freeing them up from other tasks, empowering them with a clear remit and decision-making power, and ensuring blockers are removed from their path.  

The leadership effort required for agility is disproportionately more than what is required for any other transformation. But, when successful, this effort can unlock disproportionate returns. 

It’s why lip service won’t suffice. Instead, everyone in the senior leadership team – up to and including the CEO – needs to be personally and visibly involved from the outset, sacrificing time to genuinely lead.  

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