Agility and how to achieve it are clearly major concerns for leaders right now – indeed, in the past few days, two separate columns on agility from two, different senior leaders have emerged from the online business media.
In a 5 July piece for SME Web,  Simon Hayward – CEO of change-management consultancy Cirrus – observes that retaining an agile culture can be very challenging for organisations that are getting bigger. “There is a widespread tendency for organisations to introduce more systems and processes as they grow,” he writes.
“As time goes by,” he explains, “rules and procedures tend to become more complex, with more control adding extra layers to the maze of bureaucracy. This slows down the organisation, restricting pace, innovation, and entrepreneurial flair. The need for simplification is clear, but the challenge is immense because the system is difficult to change.”
Meanwhile, in an article published on the same day by the CBI journal Business Voice,  Ricoh Europe vice president Javier Diez-Aguirre points out that a business “moves at the pace of its slowest part”.
He also notes that deploying smart technology is not enough to guarantee business agility. “Leaders have to look beyond the technology and encourage an open-minded culture where employees are empowered to take measured risks,” he writes. “Quick decision-making skills twinned with the ability to rapidly execute are also essential.
“It’s encouraging that Europe’s business leaders clearly recognise how investment in a digitally empowered workplace forms the foundation for profitable business agility. However, without similar investment in a culture of agility, these businesses will struggle to see an effective ROI.”
Hayward and Diez-Aguirre both endorse detailed and thorough business-process reviews to crack the problem. Which sorts of issues should leaders be aware of as they undertake these exercises?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “As a matter of course, leaders create systems and processes designed to eliminate opportunities for error. That serves a great purpose in areas such as the accuracy of the data we gather. One simple example that comes to mind is online forms that we fill in to request information, which are subdivided into a range of categories with drop-down menus: forced choices that limit the potential for users to enter mistakes. The danger, of course, is that you build something so rigid that it’s unable to account for changes. Say a new region or country is created, and the form just stays as it is, there will be nowhere to enter that choice.”
Cooper notes: “Future-proofing certainly sounds great – but how do you know what you’re going to need in order to account for something that isn’t around yet? One option is to build discretion into the system, so if you run into a Little Britain-style ‘Computer says no’ situation, the relevant employee may be able to override that obstacle. So you’re immediately into a realm where trust in your employees becomes critical, because having built a system that was meant to take human error out of the equation, you have then reintroduced human judgment to the process in order to pave the way for the required agility and responsiveness.”
She adds: “It’s a true management dilemma, but creating a climate of trust in which people feel able to exercise that discretion – and providing detailed training on how and when it they should exercise it – is absolutely key. This ties in quite strongly with the thoughts of Sir Charlie Mayfield at John Lewis. In his view, there will indeed be fewer jobs as time goes on – but those jobs will be bigger. While automation may address less-skilled areas in which there is not a large requirement for agile thinking, human judgment will still play a role – but it will be a much more developed form of thinking than what we typically depend upon now. So employees will be much more in the mould of knowledge workers.”
For further thoughts on leading change, check out these learning resources from the Institute
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- 08 August 2018