Making your business agile: the issues of in-depth transformation

“Agile thinking” … You hear it all the time, and it has nothing to do with your yoga positions. It’s a new way of working in companies. Moreover, it’s a new way of thinking, and the reason you hear it all the time, is the many advantages of the agile methodology.

Here is a short description of the concept, the benefits and how to concretely use it in your firm.

Why become an agile company?

The store has hardly changed since the industrial revolution. You invest in a mass production plant and make your money back with volume in the long run.

It’s the same story in services, banking, insurance, etc. Invest in your IT system and you make back your investment in the long run with volume.

Thus, you had better be sure it is working when you commit. Otherwise you may lose your, potentially large, initial investment. That’s why firms plan. To increase the likelihood of getting it right first-time around.

However, that is not necessarily what customers want. First, customer needs and the solutions to answer them are getting more and more complex. Your customers may even not be able to clearly articulate their needs without concrete examples of how these needs could be expressed

Second, from the moment you plan your investment till the first product is delivered, several months, sometimes years, may pass, and your customers’ needs may have changed in the meantime.

For those reasons, planning doesn’t work anymore, and your business must go agile.

What is being agile in business?

What exactly is an agile business? It’s a company which:

  1. Knows how to build practical and personalized solutions to the problems they face.
  2. Use cooperation as a lever for competitiveness.
  3. Is designed to deal with permanent change.
  4. Relies on its collaborators as its primary source of value.

Seems clear to you? Good. There are a lot of perks to turning agile, as you’ll see. It simply enables you to satisfy your customer even better.

With agile you identify customer expectations at the right time, including the expectations the customer was not able to articulate at the start of the project. To do that, agile companies work closely with their customers.

And by that, I mean real collaboration, not communication, no networks, or anything like that. You REALLY work with your client, from the beginning. By operating in the same offices, delivering prototypes on a regular basis – e.g. every second week – and getting frequent feedback.

This allows your customers to fully commit to your solution and to mentor you, so your final product is perfectly tailored to their needs. Finally, your customers will help you prioritise necessary over superfluous features. Thus, you have developed faster with fewer costs, and the customers get a product exactly matching their needs – a win-win situation.

Becoming an agile company, however, doesn’t come without challenge. Let’s review the main issues you will face during your business transformation and how you can overcome them.

Real difficulties

Difficulties will first appear on the strategic scale. How do you reconcile production and iterative development in short bursts, with a business strategy based on three-year forecasts?

Later come the difficulties. Collaboration in agile teams reaches levels never seen before in companies, who are starting out in agile. For instance, these teams prefer defining their way of working themselves, to better adapt to their environment and break barriers. You end up with self-organised teams, with their own methods with overtakes the overall organisation’s standards. Inevitably, it raises questions about the organisational hierarchy. If production teams agree the decisions to make directly with customers, what’s the point of being a manager in this completely new world?

Finally, difficulties are also cultural. An agile organisation fosters team empowerment. However, even agile teams can sometimes be afraid of autonomy at times. Being agile also boosts creation of unfinished prototypes – even if it means building imperfect products. What you must do therefore is to implement a culture focused on trust and on allow your team to make, and learn from, mistakes.

Levers on which you can act

These challenges shouldn’t scare you.

You must work on company culture from the very start of your business transformation. For example, it is mandatory to review individual performance assessments to strengthen the acceptance of mistakes and autonomous work. It’s a key tool to facilitate initiative and to set the acceptable error level.

Managers have to stand back and to think about their role in order to go from a “command and control” management to a “servant leadership”. Managers define the frame and support operational employees to help them co-construct their objectives and reach them.

This managerial frame is what keeps the whole strategy coherent.

After that, keep going by using simple management methods, e.g. Scrum. Once it’s firmly established, progress to the next level and initiate the transformation of the whole organization. Start with selected departments: IT, marketing, etc. Then continue with other departments.

In conclusion, keep in mind that this is a substantial transformation and surround yourself with good advisors. This is mandatory if your firm wants to face the challenges for the years to come.

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