The barriers to organisational agility and how to overcome them

Publication date: 07 February 2019
Article type: Blogs and Articles

Assess how your business fares against the four big barriers to agility, advises Simon Hayward.

AgilityWhat is agility, and what does it matter?

Technology is fuelling the pace of change in our increasingly unpredictable and complex world. This means that today’s business leaders must assess and continually react to new opportunities and challenges. They need to implement strategies rapidly and refocus efforts when circumstances change. 

The digital nature of customer interactions accelerates the expectations those customers have. It also enables organisations to respond to these needs more effectively and to create innovative solutions.When presented with key moments of choice, agility enables leaders to move quickly and responsively. By adopting agile ways of working that focus on facilitating mental agility, ruthlessly prioritising, devolving decision-making, and investing in customer research, leaders can drive learning and innovation. Developing a more agile approach to leadership helps teams and organisations to flourish.


‘If we fear making mistakes, the only thing we will learn is how to avoid them’


When carrying out one-to-one interviews with business leaders for my book, The Agile Leader, every organisation I spoke to, regardless of their industry, location or size, said they were striving to become increasingly agile. Every organisation I spoke to also identified barriers to agility. There was widespread consensus that being agile helps you to achieve goals and react to new opportunities more swiftly and decisively. Agility enables organisations to embrace opportunities they couldn’t have imagined in the past and to disrupt markets.

I have considered what I had gleaned from my own research alongside a wealth of research from leading global organisations – academic institutions, consultancies and professional associations – to identify the big barriers to agility (see box).

The big barriers to agility

Key area
Key Issue
Culture
Risk-averse culture
Clarity  A lack of clarity about priorities
Customers
Distance from the customer, lack of shared understanding of customer needs

Culture

A risk-averse culture is the most fundamental barrier to agility. Culture is defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as ‘the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time’. It describes the prevalent behaviours and norms of a social group, and the symbols of meaning that are important to that group in defining their identity. In other words, it is ‘how we do thing around here’. 


‘Many large organisations are burdened by the legacy of complex bureaucracy’


A culture of caution can inhibit progress. Many of the organisations I spoke to highlighted a risk-averse culture as the greatest barrier to agility. This can be a particular issue in heavily regulated industries, where conformity can reduce the risk appetite of managers.

2016 Leadership Connections research from Cirrus and Ipsos MORI found that only 54% of people in the UK agree with the question ‘do people have the right to make a mistake in your company?’ This fear of failure, and its consequences, is a leadership issue. It inhibits experimentation and risk taking, and it slows down innovation and improvement. If we fear making mistakes, the only thing we will learn is how to avoid them. 

A culture of fear leads to people avoiding risks. Decision making is slowed down when people seek higher approval to cover their backs. The lack of trust and resulting lack of progress can be frustrating for many.

Questions to ask yourself

  • What is the way of life in your organisation like? 
  • What are the customs and beliefs that shape how people behave day by day? 
  • What are the constraints on people’s behaviour that stop them from being agile?

The six factors of an agile culture

 Combining the following factors creates a culture that encourages people to move quickly and with confidence:

  1. Leadership commitment: People need to feel they have the support of senior leaders in working in agile ways, which often challenge traditional methods and power relationships.
  2. A shared sense of purpose and clarity of direction: When the mission is clear and the priorities agreed, people are freed to act more quickly, safe in the knowledge that their actions are aligned the organisation’s intended outcomes. 
  3. Authentic leadership: Leaders need to be role models for the organization’s values and build trust around them. When we trust our leaders and feel trusted by them, we have greater psychological safety and are more likely to take risks and act boldly.
  4. Devolved decision making: Decisions need to be made as close to the customer as possible. While there are strategic decisions that should be made centrally, most decisions are better made by experts and by people closer to the customers.
  5. Collaboration across teams, functions, and specialisms: Emphasise team work and working cross-functionally as being part of company culture – ‘that’s the way things get done around here’.
  6. A focus on and encouragement of experimentation and constant feedback: Learning from customers and testing prototypes is normal, valued highly and shared widely which in turn has helps to differentiate the offer for customers.

‘The way different teams and functions interact has become a business-critical issue’


Clarity

After culture, the second biggest barrier to creating an agile organisation is the lack of clarity about goals, roles, and expectations. Many large organisations are burdened by the legacy of complex bureaucracy, often driven by their desire to manage risk. Bureaucracy slows down decision making and action, which makes organisations sluggish and uncompetitive. Stripping away the bureaucracy is a real challenge, often because some people quite like it – it acts like a comfort blanket, reassuring in its warmth and security. 

How can you overcome the barrier created by lack of clarity?

 To become agile, you need to give people the freedom to adapt and to experiment. Alongside this, you also need to:

  • provide and agree clear goals
  • explain what role you want each individual and each team to take
  • agree clear expectations in terms of outputs and standards of behaviour. 

Closeness to customers

A fundamental principle of agile working is to stay close to the customer, to test products with them as soon as they are demonstrable, and to get regular feedback. This enables you to deliver what customers value more quickly and economically. It also reduces the risk of innovation in a vacuum, which may or may not meet customer needs. Agile product and service development, using an iterative approach to customer involvement, is reducing risk and accelerating product release velocity across a range of industries.

Customers tend to expect a seamless experience when working with different parts of an organisation, but internal barriers and poor inter-departmental relationships can prevent this. It is important to place the customer at the heart of your organisation and ensure that there is a shared understanding of customer needs.

How can you get closer to your customers?

If you have a connected culture, and clarity about what is important for your people in their roles, you can create competitive advantage through every interaction between customers and your digitally empowered frontline people. 

Frontline employees who interact with customers on a regular basis are key to achieving customer closeness. If you invest in these employees, you will typically see increased customer loyalty and decreased cost-to-serve. You are likely to see the greatest return on your investment if you focus:

  • providing your people with accurate information about customer buying patterns, preferences, and profitability, using the power of data to personalise the customer experience 
  • developing the communication skills of frontline colleagues to work with customers to resolve issues quickly and intelligently, and empowering them to make decisions within agreed parameters
  • making small improvements to customer experience every day – all those little tweaks can add up to something very significant. 

Collaboration

 Working collaboratively between teams, functions and organisations is becoming the new norm for those who are driving innovation in our digital world. The way different teams and functions interact has become a business-critical issue. 

Although collaboration and cross-functional working are widely recognised as positive, one of the most common barriers to agility and innovation cited by the organisations we interviewed is silo working. Many struggle to break down the barriers between different functions, different geographical locations, and different demographic groups. 

How can you encourage more collaboration across your organisation?

Leaders can address this barrier by:

  • being role models for collaboration by ensuring collaboration is the norm across their own teams and conflict is swiftly addressed
  • introducing more agile working practices such as multi-skilling employees to support flexible working patterns
  • creating opportunities for collaboration with other teams and organisations where your skills are complimentary or where you can create more value by working together. 

What are the biggest barriers in your organisation?

Agile organisations are more able to adapt to the rapidly changing digital world. You may find it helpful to stop for a moment and assess where your own organisation stands in relation to the four big barriers highlighted here:  

  • Your Culture does not give people confidence to act 
  • A lack of clarity of vision, roles, and expectations 
  • Customer intimacy is not engrained in the organisation 
  • Collaboration and team work are not seen as important.

Which represents the greatest barrier for you?And conversely, where are you strongest?

Where should you focus your attention first, to reduce the barrier and accelerate progress towards agility? 

How to overcome your barriers in an agile way

Thinking about the questions above will help you to identify the areas you need to prioritise. There will always be more things to do than you can actually do well. Focus on what will make the greatest difference. Agree specific goals, but be agile about how you achieve these goals. You do not always need a clearly defined plan – be flexible. Think about incremental gains.

Agreeing a timeframe can accelerate agility. Some of the organisations I interviewed create intense innovation where a concept can go from idea to prototype by focusing groups of employees on a specific challenge in a fixed, short space of time. Interestingly, many of the organisations I talked to do not see lack of budget as a barrier to agility. Rather, they believe it encourages creativity, innovation, and a clear focus on achieving results.

I have already highlighted the dangers of a risk-averse culture. As you seek to overcome the barriers in your own business, it is helpful to adopt the principle of ‘fail fast and learn’. Encourage experimentation on a small scale. Test things out. If something works, direct more resources towards it. If it doesn’t work, stop doing it, learn from it, move on, and most importantly – don’t blame anybody. Blame contributes to the sort of risk-averse culture that inhibits agility and innovation.

Many start-up organisations are admired for their agility. The majority of long-established businesses will experience more barriers to agile working. It’s worth remembering that agility does not happen overnight. Consider starting with pockets of agility which can influence the rest of the organisation. Bear in mind that people operating in these pockets may get frustrated when they interact with others working in the old ways. If you are constrained by operating in a heavily regulated industry, focus agile working on the parts of the business where less governance is required.

Physical workspace is important. Although virtual and remote working are increasingly commonplace, most business employees still work in an office environment. Consider how well your buildings are designed to encourage agile working. For example, some of organisations encourage people not to sit in the same place every day.

Sometimes, organisations that start off very agile find that agile ways of working can be difficult to maintain as the business grows. Bureaucracy can creep in and passion can get lost along the way. Success can also breed complacency – why change, when things are going so well? A continual focus on overcoming the barriers identified here will ensure that agility can flourish.


‘Agree specific goals, but be agile about how you achieve these goals’


Dr Simon Hayward is CEO of leadership specialist Cirrus and author of The Agile Leader. He welcomes your views on this article and can be contacted at simon.hayward@cirrus-connect.com or on Twitter @SimonJHayward.