There is a common emphasis on flexibility and speed as primary attributes of an agile organization. In the literature about organizational agility, four main factors are most commonly cited that companies must consider when developing those attributes: structure, work processes, leadership, and culture. Until you take all four into consideration, you won’t have a truly agile organization.
The Four Pillars of Agility
Part 3 in our series on organizational agility: what it is, why you should care, and how to start building it in your organization.
Structure: Organic vs. Mechanistic
Agile organizations tend to be characterized by decentralization, empowerment, and freely flowing knowledge.
In the past, rigid structures entrenching power-based hierarchies dominated, particularly in highly specialized industries like manufacturing. Because the rate of environmental change was so much lower, employees could be seen more like “cogs in the machine,” concerning themselves only with the task in front of them and not worrying about what went on elsewhere in the organization. But as the rate of change has increased, so has the need for organizations to take on a more organic, flexible structure.
More organic structures allow decision making and knowledge sharing to be distributed and flow among more “natural” links within the organization, as opposed to up and down a set hierarchical ladder.
These natural links more easily adapt and evolve over time, keeping the organization flexible enough not to break when it’s bent.
Using more organic metaphors may even help upend the more “mechanistic” way of thinking that dominated in the past. Mechanical metaphors, which we invoke in terms like “drill down” or “input and output,” suggest clear cause and effect, while evoking biological systems forces us to consider the complexity of organizations and social interactions. As I recently wrote in an article about the language we use to describe work environments, “Our organizations are open systems interacting with diverse forces: competitors, partners, customers, legislation, governments, and technology changes, to name but a few.”
This type of organizational reconsideration isn’t just a tactic to gain agility; it’s, as I argued previously, a more realistic and human approach to organizations and people themselves.
Work Processes: Dynamic Reconfiguration vs. Prescriptive Process
Brittle organizations tend to have a vertical control of work processes that are so tightly linked, if one process must adapt, it causes a chain reaction of adjustment that takes far too long to meet the immediate need.
Agile organizations, on the other hand, are purpose-built to dynamically renew processes to achieve congruence with the environment in real time. And because decision-making is decentralized in the organizational structure, process changes in agile organizations don’t require layers of slow-moving approvals that impede adaptability. This goes back to the ability of an organization to “sense”—and easily act on that sensory data.
Once useful information is gathered, work processes need to be agile enough to adapt to the new information “on site,” without bringing down the entire structure.
To be clear: I don’t advocate an end to processes en masse. I’ve seen organizations abandon processes as they attempt to deal with all of the change brought about by COVID-19, but this leaves them in a position of being “reactive” rather than “responsive.” The choice isn’t between “process” or “no process”; it’s between “brittle processes” vs “adaptable processes.” In this context, real-time data becomes extremely valuable, as it helps shed light on what is working effectively and what isn’t.
Leadership: Lead Vision-caster vs. Sole Decision-maker
Even though agile organizations are much more egalitarian, it would be a mistake to think they don’t require strong leadership. In fact, in agile organizations, leadership can take on an even more vital and earnest role.
Leaders in agile organizations are responsible for developing and communicating a set of guiding principles, values and frameworks that empower employees at all levels of the organization to make decisions in alignment with the organization’s strategic focus. Because decision making is more widely distributed, employees must be absolutely clear on what values to base their decisions on and even what types of decisions they should be making in order to achieve an alignment of purpose throughout the organization.
This strategic direction becomes a vital filter for separating “noise” from “signal” and enabling people to properly prioritize their work.
Another key role of leadership in agile organizations is mobilizing resources in pursuit of the organizational purpose. This includes providing time, space and equipment for experimentation, fostering a culture of creativity and trust, and investing resources in organizational structures and processes that allow others to act nimbly.
In short, these emboldening leaders shift from being the people who do everything to the people who enable others to do what needs to be done in a culture of trust—a type of transformational leadership that is much more commonly associated with organizational agility than transactional forms of leadership.
Culture: Collaboration vs. Specialization
At the end of the day, agility comes down to a question of culture.
Agility is primarily enacted in the behaviour and attitudes of employees. The list of cultural characteristics that are more common in agile organizations aren’t that surprising: collaborative, self-organizing, adaptable; an emphasis on teamwork, consensus, and participation; a commitment to continuous learning; and a strong and articulated alignment between individual effort and overall organizational goals (set forth by transformational leaders, of course!).
Agile cultures also tend to foster a positive view of change and risk, a posture of excitement toward possibility, and the welcoming of diverse opinions and perspectives. They also tend toward transparency and make sharing and acting on information (like a piece of implementable data one of your “sensors” has learned) quick and straightforward.
In less agile workplaces, employees may be stuck in a blind adherence to “the way we’ve always done things,” not really understand how their work ties into the broader organizational vision, and be blocked from open and timely communication by senior leaders intent on maintaining a tight grip on decision making.
Perhaps most importantly, agile organizations must nurture a culture that constantly reinforces the value of collaborative problem-solving (and create processes that allow for it to happen).
Just like those mechanistic, highly specialized organizations that become too brittle to adapt, employees and teams who work in silos tend to slow down processes, have less ability to sense the need to change, and find change more difficult to adapt to when it comes.
This isn’t the call for an end of expertise, however; instead, agile organizations need to develop the wisdom to know how much and what type of expertise is needed, as well as how to get experts working together in a collaborative space to solve problems. I like to think of it as optimizing your company’s expertise, not simply maximizing it for its own sake.
Nurturing this type of culture, like building agility itself, is a journey. You just can’t manipulate a culture toward agility in the short-term—you have to commit to a more lengthy process of adoption, diffusion and enculturation of aligned values, mindsets, behaviours and methods. It can be challenging work, but it’s absolutely vital to building an agile organization.
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