Agility and structure

Mojave Training Ltd

In this article we consider both the need for agility in businesses and organisations today and the role structure plays in either enabling or hindering it. 

The increasing need for organisational agility 

As we all know, because everyone is saying it everywhere, the world is just getting quicker and quicker. Globalisation was just the start. These days telecommunications, the internet, social media and 24 hour a day news means that when things happen, the reactions to it are both rapid and wide!
It's not just in response to external events that the pace of change is critical.  Increasingly, in order to find a competitive edge that will enable business success, businesses are turning to new ways of working.  Perhaps the starkest example of this is in product development.  In decades gone by, a new product would have been intensively researched and considered, with months or even years being spent in design before launch to ensure it had the best chance of success.  The issue here, was that there was no guarantee that the product development team would have been working under a full understanding of the complex market into which the product would be released.  The modern world, being so interconnected, is just too complex.  Over the last few decades, the approach to product development that is now increasingly popular and mainstream is the school of thought around ‘fail fast’ and ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP).  Books have been written around the subject, such as Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, or The Lean Startup by Eric Reis.  Such approaches are based on the premise that we’ll learn far faster from failure and confirming what doesn’t work by exposing the product to the market and testing than we will trying to identify what will work within the safe isolation of our own product development teams.  Such approaches are now standard fare for some of the world's largest organisations and sporting teams. 

The modern pace of change, and the business communities ever growing awareness of the need to keep pace with it – if not beat it, means that agility is an increasingly valued characteristic to have in an organisation.  If you have it, when something occurs which either opens new opportunities or threatens current lines of business, then an organisation can quickly adapt to maximise the opportunity and gain a market edge, or to limit the damage of the threat.  Agility, essentially, can be a weapon in the armoury of risk management.  So how can we achieve it? 

Enabling agility

Being agile means being able to quickly know the answers to a series of questions. These questions are broadly along the themes of: 
  • What is it we currently do in relation to the new event?
  • What resources and skill sets do we currently have aligned to our current activity?
  • What processes do we have in place to deliver the current outcome?
  • What should we do in response to the new event?
  • What resources and skillsets should we have?
  • What processes will we need to best respond to the new event?
You’ll notice that the first three questions are all about ensuring clarity on what your start state is. Now, if you have to spend the first period of time seeking to respond to a change just figuring out what you already have, this will slow down your ability to respond. A much better position to be in is to already be very clear on what you already have. And this clarity regarding the current position of your organisation shouldn’t just be possessed by you, it should be widely understood across your organisation (otherwise there will be another stage in responding to a new event, and that’s making sure everyone knows what’s going on!).

One of the best ways to enable this widely shared understanding of the start state is to have a clear structure and roles and responsibilities across your organisation. If you have that, everyone already pretty much knows the answers to questions 1-3 and the response cycle can simply begin at question 4. That will enable a much quicker reaction. A far quicker OODA Loop. And if you discover your solution before anyone else can discover theirs, that puts you at an advantage. 
John Boyd's OODA Loop model highlights the point that if you can correctly respond to events before your competition, you will inevitably develop an advantage.

It supports the view that agility of response is a critial component to success in a wider range of fields.
Now, there will be some out there who say that structure and defined roles and responsibilities constrain agility. I would counter that by saying that they don’t - or at least, they shouldn’t. What causes structure and defined roles to constrain agility is poor leadership and management. Where structure and defined roles are treated as dogma and not a guiding doctrine, that’s when they stifle agility. One of my favourite lines in a film is from Apollo 13, where the Mission Controller, Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) is seeking solutions rapidly to inform how best to respond to the unfolding emergency. He asks the lead designer of the Lunar Landing Module (LLM) about its capability. Being defensive the lead designer simply states that the LLM, “was designed to land on the moon.” Slightly peeved at the defensive and unhelpful answer, the Mission Controller screams back, “I don’t care about what it was designed to do, I care about what it can do!” This sums up the approach that I have seen used, and used myself, so successfully throughout my career. Yes, the current approach was designed to be used a certain way, but that shouldn’t preclude us understanding how we might quickly adapt it when requirements change. Having a clear understanding of the current system enables, rather than hinders, rapid adaptation. It enables agility. Though to do so, it requires strong and confident leadership across the organisation.

So, want to be agile? Then have the structure and clear understanding of how your orgnaisation works and couple it with the leadership and management ability (not just of you but of your entire team) to be able to adapt it rapidly. That’s how you get agile! 
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