The case for organisations to become far more agile in how they operate in response to the impact of digital technologies has been well made. But it’s worth exploring what agility really means in this context. One of my favourite ways of describing this from a cultural perspective comes from Pinterest:
Agility = velocity x flexibility
It’s easy to think of agility purely in terms of speed (productivity, speed of response, speed to market) but I think there’s more to it than that. I like the definition above because it combines the need to move at speed with the need to create the kind of environment in which things can move fast. It’s no good deploying sprint-based working methods in a culture that is based around waterfall thinking or siloed working. When you’re trying to create exceptional customer experiences that are not only joined-up but are also able to adapt rapidly to changing behaviours or competitive contexts, rigid organisational silos simply don’t work. I see this again and again.
Russell Davies talks about tempo in his post on fast loops. How a small team ‘with a shared understanding of their situation and their goals – and lots of trust’ can move very fast working in iterative cycles. That point about trust is key. He quotes from Robert Coram’s book on Jon Boyd. Boyd is variously described as ‘the greatest U.S. fighter pilot ever’ and perhaps ’the most influential military theorist since Sun Tzu’. His OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop is a highly influential decision cycle model that has been applied in combat operations, but also in the context of litigation and business strategy. Says Coram:
"Trust emphasizes implicit over explicit communications. Trust is the unifying concept. This gives the subordinate great freedom of action. Trust is an example of a moral force that helps bind groups together in what Boyd called an ‘organic whole.’”
An environment and culture that is characterised by trust is critical to move fast. This research by MIT Sloan and London Business School, based on a survey of 11,000 senior executives from more than 400 companies, demonstrates the weak link that often exists in companies between strategy and execution. For the two to be aligned, a strategy must be clearly articulated and comprehensively understood. When the researchers asked people to list their company’s top three to five priorities, only around half could list the same one priority (even with five tries), and only a third could list the top three. Even more surprisingly, the result was only slightly more than half for those who were actually involved in developing the strategy.
The research also found that execution in large organisations suffers from a lack of trust, leading to over-commitment. Says London Business School Teaching Fellow, Rebecca Homkes: “When it comes to relying on teams in other departments or business units, senior managers trust their colleagues to deliver all of the time, less than 10% of the time”. The result is that senior managers end up doing the job themselves, stretching themselves and their teams too thin, letting their own commitments to other teams slip, and compounding the problem. This enduring issue results in ‘passive commitments’, duplication of effort, inefficiencies, and a failure to focus on or recall the firm’s priorities. Homkes again:
“It’s not always malice or ill-will that lead to cross-department (horizontal) commitments breaking down. People are taking on huge volumes of work to ensure a job well done, but they also feel they cannot say no”. The tendency is to say ‘yes’, but then certain things just don’t get done. That’s when things start to break down.”
When trust is inherent in a culture it enables not only velocity, but acceleration. As Russell says, the challenge for a team working in fast loops is ‘maintaining the speed whilst scaling’. Quoting from Robert Coram again:
"A crucial part of the OODA Loop—or “Boyd Cycle,” as it has come to be known—is that once the process begins, it must not slow. It must continue and it must accelerate. Success is the greatest trap for the novice who properly implements the OODA Loop. He is so amazed at what he has done that he pauses and looks around and waits for reinforcements. But this is the time to exploit the confusion and to press on"
That point that Coram makes about implicit rather than explicit communication is also important. A clear and understood vision, or strategy empowers autonomy and entrepreneurial thinking. Staff intuitively know what the right thing to do is, rather than having to check or be told, and in a culture of trust they can get on and do it, and do it at speed. If we apply the four stages of competence model (that I talk about here) to digital maturity, the fourth and last phase of that is ‘unconscious competence’, where capability has reached the point that decision-making is intuitive, and making smart choices becomes second-nature, which allows for far greater pace and efficiency of execution.
Increased speed or frequency might both be a goal or ambition and a disruptive force against inertia and a lever for change. Nick Haley (Director of UX at The Guardian) has talked about how speed can be used to disrupt legacy processes and habits. If you change the time parameters by which something has to be done quite profoundly, you have to radically change the way in which you achieve that goal. It forces you out of your comfort zone and puts you in a different place. It reframes the process you need to use in order to accomplish the task.
If we’re to achieve not only velocity but also acceleration, then we need momentum. Real change happens when you build energy and momentum over time. Nick describes this as:
Momentum = speed x focus
Most of the time, says Nick, a lack of ideas isn't the issue. So it's no good just doing a hack day. You need to bring focus to choosing which ideas to pursue. And that’s about validation. Working in sprint cycles in small teams doesn’t just make you work faster. If you do it right, you build organisational momentum and lasting change.
When a team or a whole company is functioning at their peak level, when they are energised, highly motivated, and absorbed in moving forwards at pace and completely immersed in achieving their objective, I like to think that they have achieved what psychologists would call a state of ‘flow’. They are ‘in the zone’. When you truly get that, no-one can come close to catching you.