“Agile.” Probably the most wide spread word used in business conversations today and yet with meaning, context and authenticity varying so dramatically from one to the next.

Such is my recent experience as I reflect over the past 3 months in working with 2 leading organisations. As I consolidate my own learnings from both these experiences, I felt compelled to distil them into a few points to share more widely in this blog. The key learning is that, on one hand a valid and very real business concept can be applied appropriately and with informed business intent; and on the other hand, the same business concept can be used as an excuse for a lack of foresight and planning.

The Context

Company A: Acknowledges that their capability to define, deliver and sustain improvement and change is variable (at best!) To complement their focus and intent on innovation, they recognise the need for structure and rigour; traits that their legacy doesn’t carry. They foresee that innovation will benefit them only if there is a level of discipline, planning and involvement in how that innovation is undertaken. This is a company that has chosen to invest time and effort, amidst their backdrop of fast paced change and innovation, to embed its own ‘Agile’ methodology for all business change. This is to help them deliver a vast range of projects, at pace, using a common language and approach with executive oversight.

Company B: Has transformed at many levels over the past 5 years and has built on its reputation, results and brand in Europe. A company that embodies 000’s of employees and one that is executing intense change on a regular basis. This company is at the forefront of preparing for and implementing large-scale regulatory changes and is not shy of using an array of external partners as and when needed to support the delivery of these changes. And yet, how can it be that one of their most significant and high exposure projects is being managed with the barest of planning, design and collaboration? Decisions are not being made in a timely manner, and project activities and tasks evolve with each meeting and each corridor conversation. The project team work into the late evening hurriedly preparing for the next day’s presentations. What if someone labels this approach as ‘Agile’! Thus advocating that a lack of planning and structure is what is needed to allow the project team to be able to respond to changes in decisions.

So often the extent to which the ‘right’ level of structure is applied is too dependent on the leader of the change.

Change and improvement comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes with many variables impacting the success of implementation. In some cases a minimalist approach works and it is sufficient to apply some light touch governance and rigour to delivering change. In other cases, where the impact is global and potentially affecting 000’s of people and where millions of £s are at stake, more structure, planning and discipline is required to keep all activities connected, to stay on the front foot and to deliver effective change. However, so often the extent to which the ‘right’ level of structure is applied is too dependent on the leader of the change. Often the leader is brought in due to their technical or industry experience, not necessarily because that individual possesses the skills to be able to construct and orchestrate the change successfully. This is where it is critical to distinguish between the leader that inherently by virtue of their personality avoids detail, planning and structure even though the project calls for it vs. the leader that recognises it will benefit all concerned and therefore chooses to take time to proactively manage the change and plan for the next phase of it.

So how do you recognise a truly Agile Leader vs. a Maverick?

How can we distinguish between a leader who appropriately and genuinely applies elements of agility to their organisation in a manner that benefits the culture and accelerates positive outcomes for the changes they are pursuing vs. a leader who is hiding behind a business concept in hope that the use of it will mask the absence of much needed diligence and detail? Perhaps these prompts and questions will help…

  • How much rigour and discipline is being applied in how the change is being managed?
    Too much = time/effort spent planning vs. value add may not be in balance. Too little = plans are left to evolve resulting in last minute organisation of activities and resources
  • How well do all parties know what is going on?
    When the key constituents of the change are scurrying around to plug information gaps, or discovering real-time in meetings that something fundamental in the approach has changed, it is clear that the leader must focus on better planning and rigour to reach a successful project outcome
  • How much of today’s activity is spent in response to today’s decisions?
    This might suggest that decisions are not being made/kept with sufficient lead times to allow the project team to act and prepare for the outcomes
  • Is the basic project governance missing?
    No matter how agile an organisation or approach, ultimately every change needs a basic level of project discipline. Items such as; a team huddles, sponsor updates and sprint-level planning are necessities that will only but complement any agile culture or approach. Ultimately is the valued concept of ‘Agile’ being used haphazardly and out of context; or, is it being used as the reason for having to execute on the fly without thinking through any supporting detail?

If any of the above is resonating with you then what you are most likely facing is a lack of necessary (albeit minimalist) discipline in your change. In this case is your leader truly agile or simply not seeing the value of combining freedom with structure?

The power lies in the use of the word “and”. Being truly agile, paradoxically, is about being both structured and adaptive as the same time. Therefore, governance, processes and plans become a fixed backbone for a truly agile leader. In parallel, however, the same agile leader must create looser and more dynamic elements that can be adapted quickly to respond to new challenges and opportunities.