Most of us started the session thinking that more agility would be a good thing. We have read the stories about the modern technology companies who seem to be able to create and implement new business models in a few weeks, and most of us have seen our own companies struggle to do very much at all in that timescale.
People in the conversation also had a good idea what an agile environment would feel like. We’d be able to get decisions and take risks and make mistakes. There would be a lot of listening and learning, and not much bureaucracy. Things would feel small and fresh.
But then we were asked to think about what first steps would help make our environment more agile, and what KPI an “agility czar” might be judged against. This was harder. The energy in the discussion increased, but there were few synthetrons and more disagreement. It was generally agreed that attitudes and behaviours would be key. Somehow we would have to demonstrate trust and empowerment, and engage and listen more. But how?
There were plenty of interesting thoughts. Someone made a connection between agility and relentless performance management: if we are all given strict tasks and targets and judged against these, we might have less incentive (and less time) to react to what we see changing around us. That felt credible, and also disturbing: surely intense performance management is a good thing?
Sacrifices for Agility
Why was agility seen as so desirable, but so little seemed to be available to practically achieve it? The menu for everyone in the discussion would be quite different. And there might be wider messages available too.
The comment about performance management got me thinking. Perhaps other well-established practices also come at the expenses of agility. Many of us have endured attempts by our companies to become bigger, to harmonize practice, converge regions and demand standardisation. That is hardly likely to support agility – not only is personal initiative downplayed in favour of conformance, but also decision chains get slower and more complex. In my own career, I’m convinced I’ve seen more diseconomies of scale than I have economies, and every time I’ve been part of a standardisation programmes I think it has made things worse – at great expense and great distraction from the customer. Mergers are even worse.
Who wins from all these so-called good practices? Winners include managers who love predictability and control, and people looking to build senior careers in service functions like finance. Power hungry CEO’s can see the allure. Weak management teams can create distraction from losing to their competitors.
But the group who gains the most are consultants – especially the biggest ones and the IT ones like Accenture – and other advisors like lawyers. They win from the standardisation projects and they win from the customer that emerges at the end – more centralised, offering bigger projects and unlikely to hire boutique competitors.
I wonder who is conning whom here? It is certainly worth thinking about. It is not only agility that loses out every time, but simplification too. Work-life balance usually loses as well, as expectations at work become more global.
We produced a From-To table as part of the report. Looking down the To column, and imagining a large company run along those lines, it would certainly be refreshing, but it might be a bit chaotic as well. For some situations, it might work well, but for others it would clearly lack discipline. So even the desire for agility should certainly be contextual, and for sure not everyone could thrive in that environment, since we have spent most of our careers developing skills in the opposite direction.
So agility does not come for free. Just as someone has to suffer for lower taxes and someone has to pay for higher spending, something has to be lost in order to acquire agility. So how much do we really want this? It is all very well hankering after an agile environment, but what would be sacrifice to achieve it? My suspicion is that most corporate leaders would take a lot of convincing to change radically in the direction of agility, and their consultants and advisors would certainly not help. It does not help that, judging from the conversation, KPI’s and links to financial performance are hard to come by.
Are we storing up later problems by under-prioritising agility? We can use tricks like creating hothouse environments where agility is most required. But surely the ability to react quickly to change really is critical in the whole business, and will become more so? Perhaps it is more important in the long run than standardisation or control. Firms can die from a lack of agility, paralysing complexity, or burned-out key staff. But I suspect the top pay lip service to the aspiration to improve, but are not really convinced and not ready to make the sacrifices. I’ve known many senior managers who thought things like agility are for wimps.
A frightening parallel might be climate change. We all want to stop it, of course. But it is hard to see meaningful first steps, and leaders are driven by opposing objectives and are not ready to pay the price. Until when?
I sense there is fertile ground here for smart consultants, ready to go against the grain. What are the smart moves that have low cost? When can they be applied with low risk? What are the hidden downsides of established methods? Can we find good KPI’s and prove links to financial goals? And how can we develop leaders who will see things another way?
Always start with I
One thing we can always do is look at ourselves. This may be one of those areas where we all think we are a little bit better than we really are. Are we part of the problem? My first advice to new managers is always: Get out of the way! But how well am I following my own counsel? This might be one of those irregular verbs: the boss should get out of my way, peers should respect my creativity, and subordinates should just do as they are told!
How do I know that I empower and engage more than my colleagues – or is that just wishful thinking? When did I last seek out feedback on these things, or do an assessment?
Which brings me back to Synthetron. It is a great way to capture signals and ideas, bring forward issues and find solutions and actions that really involves people, all in just an hour. This Think Tank helped to open my own eyes: somehow most Synthetron sessions seem to achieve that, often in surprising ways.