Why agility matters


Digital disruption is here. Rapid technological advancement, which is often seen as a threat, can in equal measure present huge opportunity. Every aspect of our lives is being transformed: the way we consume, way we live, through to the way we work.

Today’s innovation climate is different. The differentiating factor is rooted to two things: the velocity of change and the stakes involved. When overlaid by broader macro-economic trends such as increasing globalisation, changing demographics along with the volatile political and economic environment, we can begin to see the speed, chaos and complexity that digital disruption brings. The one thing we can be certain of is that digitisation in business and in our lives will increase, and the opportunity to create and shape the future as business people, employees and citizens is greater than ever before.

Hot air or hot waters – or both?

As industries become increasingly digital, there is a growing awareness that constant and rapid change is becoming the new normal. For digital businesses, the starts-ups and scale-ups, who have the ability to drive innovation, rapidly penetrate a market and scale faster, this presents great opportunity. At the other end of the scale, for the larger, well established organisations, there are often two mindsets: firstly the appreciation of the changing landscape and the recognition that innovation is critical to survival, the questions is how; or alternatively, a deep confidence that disruption will never happen.

The conflicting attitudes can perhaps be understood through Amara’s Law. Roy Amara was a researcher, scientist and futurist, the president for The Institute of the Future. His notion suggests that “we tend to overestimate the effect of technology in the short-run and underestimate the effect in the long-run”. There is much hype around artificial intelligence and robotics. Today, we’re a long way from robots ruling the world, but the potential impact on our future is significant. However, the consequences of complacency can and will have swift and severe effects. Business growth and sustainability is intrinsically linked to a culture of innovation, the ability to disrupt from within. The capability to redefine value through new products, services and solutions is built upon an innovative mindset, creativity, the courage to take risks and an openness to change.

It’s not all beanbags and foosball tables – disrupting is difficult

When we imagine the world’s most innovative companies, the sleep pods, open bars and ping pong tables spring to mind. What is less discussed is the resilience, drive and grit that is needed to survive. Innovation is hard, and it’s no surprise: many recognise the need for change, but simply don’t know how or even where to start. Large established companies have structured processes, systems, and governance, that are deeply ingrained into the ways of working. Their success today has resulted in a large customer base, access to capital, and a strong brand. A deviation from the norm can potentially pose a risk this steadfast success. However, these advantages are slowly being eroded by the smaller digital disruptors who are able to leverage faster innovation, a culture of experimentation and risk taking. Here they are unconstrained by a lack of past experience, which provides the permission to test and experiment, to fail but to learn.

The trick is not blindly to discard what has made you successful today and simply recreate the latest digital tactics, but to challenge the assumptions that have underpinned past success, and stress test the ways you create value for your customer, shareholders and people.

What do you do when there’s no best practice?

The way we make sense of the world around us needs to evolve. Previously our environments were simpler. It was easier to assimilate information, categorise and quickly identify where best practice existed, and follow suit. As complexity increases due to the rapid pace of change, we are required now to sense, probe and analyse changes, and even act, in order to deploy emergent or even novel practice. An untrodden path is daunting. Ultimately the challenge for all is how do we see the complexity and contradiction, and have the certainty to act? The answer, organisational and individual agility.

An agile approach to culture change – a mindset shift

Our established ways of delivering change in a business such as Lean, Six Sigma, Just-in-Time, have been centred around driving efficiency. In simple terms, creating the same output with less resources, (be it time, money or labour etc). This approach has allowed us to reduce flex, waste and redundancy from our processes. In doing so, the by-product is that our processes and our organisations become brittle. The problem we face, is when something comes at us out of left-field, we do not have the time, money or labour to be able to deviate and respond. Our ability operate with agility is limited, yet it is more important than ever before.

As businesspeople:

  • we need to be able to sense the changes in our internal and external environment, and deeply understand how it impacts our business, shareholder, employees and customers
  • we need to be able to collaborate effectively, using collective intelligence to truly make evidence based and data driven decisions
  • we need to deploy dynamic tools and techniques that enable us to anticipate, test, learn and pivot when creating new processes, products and solutions
The Future is Human(ity)

The opportunity is ours for the taking. The competitive advantage we have in the world of automation and machine learning is that we’re human. Our innate ability to sense the world around us, connect deeply with others and understand our environments, creates an opportunity for us to design the world we live in.