The future will be agile!

by 2021-02-16Strategy

The current period is very destabilizing.  The outbreak of the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 has taken the whole world by surprise.  The priority response of public authorities around the globe has been to ask the population to remain confined for periods ranging from a few weeks to a few months, to implement social and physical distancing measures and to impose the wearing of masks in certain situations.  Most of these measures have been known since the Middle Ages.  Worse, we seem to have collectively forgotten how we coped with the so-called Spanish flu, which did not occur in antiquity.

The current crisis has, for the vast majority of organizations, significantly increased the level of uncertainty in their environment.  Even if they have not adopted the same approaches to deal with the virus or have not demonstrated the same maturity in their adaptation mechanisms, organizations have to adapt to uncertainty about the world we will eventually return to.  If you are an elected official, a senior civil servant, or the head of a company in the air transport or tourism sector, this uncertainty can become tiresome.

Uncertainty and agile approaches

Interestingly, increased uncertainty and acceptance of change are among the characteristics of the environment that gave rise to agile approaches.  And these approaches have proven their worth over the past two or three decades in helping organizations respond quickly and accurately to emerging and unprecedented market or internal needs.  

In an uncertain and changing environment such as the one we are currently facing, Agile approaches can deliver good results quickly, something that traditional predictive or top-down methods, which are too linear and rely on strict execution of plans established and validated well in advance, cannot offer.  They must also be able to cohabit with more hierarchical and authoritative approaches that still give their usual good results in cases where uncertainty is removed.  Indeed, there are few examples where the mask is not worn in closed public places or on public transport.  Wide acceptance to these rules we now see is part of an approach to accompanying change, and I will come back to this another time.

The impact of collaboration

What lessons can be learned from these latter examples?  At the very least, that new solutions can quickly emerge from collectives that have not necessarily worked together in the past but that share a common goal or vision.  That those closest to the problems can organize themselves quickly and efficiently.  This is remarkably similar to many of the principles of agility as stated in the Agile Manifesto.  As world-renowned agility specialist Henrik Kniberg points out in his video “Spotify Engineering Culture” about agile approaches: “Rules are a good start, then you have to break them when necessary. “(Kniberg, 2014).

This global crisis, beyond its health, social and economic impacts, constitutes a major phenomenon the scope of which is still poorly defined and the repercussions of which are far from being fully identified.  At the level of individuals, it jeopardizes the employment of several million people and may even ruin some of them, when it does not endanger their health and that of their loved ones.  It plunges organizations, including private companies, into great uncertainty and forces them to navigate on sight.  And at the collective level, it demands that a new balance be quickly found between health, freedom and the economy.  It almost instantaneously overturns all the plans and strategies that have been put forward so far.  And it shrinks time: what used to be done in months, quarters and years must now be done in days or weeks, especially during the crucial period when the virus will be active but treatment will not be available.

Speed of adjustment through autonomy

As a result, organizations are being overwhelmed and in some cases transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic.  The presence of many uncertainties -some described at the beginning of this text- should incite to move away from predictive approaches to adopt agile, iterative and incremental approaches, more focused on real needs and leaving more autonomy to those who work closest to users, beneficiaries or clients.

Of course, the need for food, shelter, transportation and clothing will not disappear, but the way people will be able and willing to meet these needs is likely to change rapidly in the period ahead.  Needs for entertainment, socializing and traveling will not disappear either.  Organizations will therefore need to find ways to get closer to their customers and users, identify their new needs and behaviors, and propose solutions that fit as closely as possible with what these stakeholders will define as necessary or superfluous, acceptable or unacceptable, mandatory or nice to have- knowing that these definitions will also change over time and will depend on the knowledge gained over time about the virus and the disease.  

The need for change

Organizations will also need to have the courage to quickly abandon what does not work in favour of other ideas, systems, processes and methods.  For example, finding a way to facilitate and improve physical distancing in public transportation based on what passengers want or are willing to accept and on the evolution of the pandemic could be a challenge best taken up in agile mode: collect what the customer wants, deliver incomplete but functional versions at short but regular intervals, and let teams self-organize.

It is also the right time to accelerate the digital transformation.  We need to take advantage of the fact that the crisis caused by the pandemic is reducing resistance to change to speed up digitization, to automate low value-added tasks and to increase testing of new technologies in both the front and back offices.

The organization as a system

The Covid-19 crisis also reveals weaknesses that have become invisible in organizations: a fragile supply chain or a dependence on “non-strategic” products to which leaders pay little attention, to name only these vulnerabilities.  It is a great opportunity for individual and collective learning, but few organizations still excel at it.  The organization of work, recruitment and performance assessment of individuals and teams will need to place greater emphasis on the sharing of experiences, ideas and knowledge and the creation of new knowledge by multidisciplinary collectives, which is characteristic of agile approaches.

Finally, this crisis shows the importance of diversity in organizations.  Diversity of professions, gender diversity, age diversity, diversity of experience, diversity of origin are a guarantee of making better decisions and facilitating closer relations with internal and external clients.  In this period that requires the ability to experiment and to capitalize on what works, it is better not to censor oneself in order to quickly discover what will work in the post-Covid-19 world.  

In other words, let’s stop planning, stop trying to control, let’s shorten the transformation and innovation cycles, and let’s get closer to our customers!

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