Whether your company has come under the ire of a presidential tweet, a social media crisis, an activist offensive or an internal scandal, one thing is for sure: things are moving fast. And truth be told, even if everything is humming along, you’re probably not immune from mergers or strategy changes or leadership transitions or budget cuts.
Change in today’s world not only moves fast, it’s also ubiquitous and relentless. In fact, change may well be the only constant in modern business.
For corporate leaders — especially those charged with engaging stakeholders — adapting to this unfixed landscape imposes an entirely new set of pressures. It requires that organizations be able to adapt quickly and efficiently … again and again, forever. That’s agility.
And it’s necessary at every level, in every function, and in every task. It’s the pathway to three key things:
- Driving bigger business results
- Directing your own disruption
- Finding dollars for reinvestment in the future
But what does it mean to be agile? And how do you get there? In our work with clients across industries and around the world, we’ve identified a series of characteristics in three major categories that are markers of agility and that can be replicated.
- They know who they are and what they’re here to do.
- Their building blocks are dynamic.
- They have (and follow) shared ways of working.
1. They know who they are and what they’re here to do.
Define a north star
Most companies have established some combination of a mission, vision, and values. The North Star is a little different. It’s a function’s reason for being. The North Star makes the big aspirations of the company actionable for a function. What do you stand for? What are your core competencies? And is everyone in your organization aligned around what you’re here to do?
For sailors on choppy seas, the North Star served as a fixed point of reference. It serves a similar purpose for leaders seeking to become agile. A clearly defined North Star gives you a framework for evaluating any decision. Does the potential impact bring the organization closer to or further from its North Star? The answer enables you to make, and confidently implement, quick decisions.
Let strategy and execution live
These days, an annual plan ironed out in November may well be outdated by Christmas Eve. Rather than commit to a plan that doesn’t allow for any flexibility, think of your strategy as a living, breathing organism, able to adapt to changes within the organization and out in the world. You should start thinking of strategic planning as a year-round task, and as the top of an infinite loop: strategy leads to execution, which informs continuous improvement, which leads, ultimately, to strategic evolution.
Commit to continuous improvement
By regularly analyzing the impact and performance of its functions, an agile organization can easily identify areas for improvement, then loop back toward previous steps in our methodology. Return to process and governance, for example, and ask where workflows broke down, or which decisions took longer than necessary. Then measure again. The answers feed into a virtuous cycle of improvement, making you agile enough to take on whatever the world brings your way.
2. Their building blocks are dynamic
Optimize structure and skills
After aligning with a North Star and an Operating Model, you have to take an honest look in the mirror and ask yourself if the organization is built to deliver on its mission. Do you have the right names in right boxes on the right org charts? Do they have the right skills to succeed in the long term? If not, it’s imperative to not only solve those problems, but also to recalibrate how you evaluate and recruit talent. Plenty of established companies haven’t revised their job descriptions in a long time, which creates crippling incongruities between job descriptions and day-to-day expectations.
Build a culture of change empowerment
If change is a constant, change can’t be compartmentalized and treated as an anomaly to be managed and mitigated. Within an agile organization, its leaders do not view change as an obstacle to be managed, but as a resource to be leveraged for the benefit of the whole organization. An org can empower itself by how it responds to changing circumstances. Does it incentivize new ideas? Do those ideas get turned into action or buried in a filing cabinet? When the ideas fail, are the instigators rewarded anyway? Does leadership embrace change, or resist it?
Adopt flexible tools and technology
Tools and technology should enable an organization, not hinder it. That means scrutinizing the tools you have to determine if they’re each calibrated to help each function deliver on its mandate. Doing so will eliminate roadblocks to agile operations. Are your tools up to date? Do you have a MarTech or ComTech-stack plan in place? A project management tool that suits the skill set of the people using it? A collaboration tool that’s right for your operating plan? Are you hitting every problem with a hammer, when what you really need is a decent pair of pliers?
3. They have (and follow) shared ways of working
Articulate an operating model
There was a time when only P&L organizations needed to flesh out their operating models. Those days are over. Today, every part of an organization needs to define what they do, how they do it, and who they do it for. Sitting back and waiting to be told what consumers or other stakeholders would like you to do, like a butcher behind the deli counter, is the opposite of agile.
Streamline process and governance
The difference between solving a problem in a few minutes vs. a few hours vs. a few days can come down to the efficiency of an organization’s processes and governance. Process and governance both fill in the white space on the org chart, precisely defining how work actually gets done. An agile organization should pare down workflows, approvals and governance to ensure the necessary level of involvement from the most critical stakeholders. It should precisely define how it will react to data that signals a brewing crisis.
Measure through a wider lens
While a CMO may measure an individual campaign’s contribution to sales, while the CCO is monitoring media impressions, an agile organization measures the macro performances of entire functions and uses that data to adjust at all levels for the future. The marketing team’s output is measured holistically, accounting for the impact of campaigns, messages, and all the operations. Such functions should be measured regularly, based on a data strategy that includes the constant cleaning, housing and analyzing of the data they generate.
It’s important to note that these nine characteristics represent a progression, but it isn’t entirely linear. Progress in one area may expose vulnerabilities and opportunities in others. It’s an evolving ecosystem. But that isn’t to say you can skip one. It’s the equivalent of leaving a critical ingredient out of a complex recipe. At the end, you’ll have cooked something, but it won’t taste quite right.
It won’t be easy. But the alternative is to be perpetually scrambling to keep up, to prevent events from overtaking your brand, to fending off one full-blown crisis after another because your organization couldn’t react quickly enough to a shift in consumer sentiment, cultural currents, or market structure, or struggling to stay afloat as demands increase and budgets shrink.
The organizations that are built to change every day are the ones that will thrive under those conditions. They’ll embrace the fact that change never stops. They’ll be agile. And they’ll drive results.
Stay tuned for more as we continue an extended exploration of these characteristics of agility.