Menu Close

Agility vs management: What smart leaders should actually care about

Regardless of your industry, agility is now a prerequisite to staying competitive in today’s marketplace. Craig Howe explains what smart business leaders around the world do in such volatile environments.


Regardless of your industry, agility is now a prerequisite to staying competitive in today’s marketplace. The continuous introduction of new technologies means that business structures, objectives and departmental responsibilities require constant reinvention.

This new ‘business as usual’ is challenging enough for most companies at the best of times. Add to that a disruptive event like the recent COVID-19 pandemic, and your ability for a fast response is thoroughly tested. For businesses, the current crisis has provided a series of rapidly evolving situations – ensuring the workforce is enabled and online, creating consistent checkpoints with suppliers, customers and critical priorities. Businesses who have delayed moving to newer ways of working, processes and tools, have been negatively impacted. Some might not make it as a result.

The companies that are nimbler have similar requirements: respond faster to customer needs, break down internal silos and attract and retain talent. The difference between fast and slow is an understanding to be operating in a ‘match-fit’ manner that balances business as usual while implementing change. The business can manage the changing landscape in an effective way, without unnecessary compromise to agility or management impacts to key priorities, resources, delivery or cost of sale.

Starting with leadership

This change involves implementation of a modern operating model, which may begin at a project or program level, but must be implemented organisation wide.

Business and senior leaders are imperative to the success of the implementation. Leaders must be unified to behavioural changes, open to external inspiration and clear on the company purpose. The priorities and strategy must be made succinct for communication to align teams. They must ensure middle managers and team leaders at the coalface are aligned during these types of transformation activities – it will make or break these positive changes.

The workforce in these organisations can be generally hierarchical in nature with industrial-age-based working practices. More modern ways of working, supporting collaboration and workforce efficiency should be high on the agenda.

For example, a lot of organisations talk in terms of deliverables and tasks, but not always outcomes that are consistently measured and are what the business actually needs. By being aligned, leaders need to consistently communicate desired outcomes and “The Why” to their teams. This type of language will help drive accountability and allow teams to anchor in delivery to what is really important for the business, wherever they are working.

Additionally, these older practices can restrict talented individuals in your organisation because their abilities are not exploited, as they reside in teams connected to a primary discipline, for example, engineering.

Forming into cross-functional teams called squads or pods, brings a series of disciplines and potential generational experiences to execute on these outcomes. The team (squad) incorporates all areas of the business, including finance, engineering, marketing, security and talent acquisition. The squad tends to be small teams of a dozen or less, lowering risk as they can increment, govern in flight and shape activity according to business objectives. Whether this is done in the office or online across various time zones, it is the team’s health and results that matter as they are supported by modern, collaborative tools to help get the job done.

A consideration to proper functioning of the squad is the role of the designated lead. They are the master of ceremonies, the chief unblocker, holding themselves and the team accountable for the outcomes or KPIs, in a safe environment for the team. They understand that individuals generally search for autonomy, inspiration, purpose and recognition, ensuring squad team health is maintained to sustain engagement.

The lead helps the team to showcase their capabilities on the way to those outcomes. Showcasing and leadership involvement serves as a great way for driving advocacy in the transformative effort for all parties, beyond typical retrospective sessions. The real test of these teams however will eventually be their ownership that pushes resolve, after receiving clear communication to change tact in alignment with those changing business priorities.

Ending with leadership

Managing agility through change is difficult, it starts and ends with leadership, with focus on behavioural changes that need to permeate through a level of advocacy.

It is about rethinking how teams can operate and scale, how governance and capacity align to business outcomes and the squads, instead of funding specific projects.

Make a specific plan with the right operating model, make it public, driving accountability with peers for known consequences.

Start small with everything except your thinking. Automate small processes. Create small budgets, small schedules, smaller projects.

As they say, the only constant is change. Change and responsiveness is hard, and people often resist it but the rewards can be enormous, removing pressures that once were.

So how will your business respond?

Read next: Why your business needs agility to survive and grow

Leave a Reply