Agility: The quest to create value

Activate! featuring Jonathan Tripp - 10 mins

Welcome to the fifth article in our Activate! series. This month we look at the concept of agility.

For us, agility is less a way of working, it's much more a way of thinking that allows people to respond in the most appropriate way to meet customer needs and create value. But in a world where 'agility' has been reduced to a buzzword, how can business leaders unlock its real benefits and create that value?

We spoke to Jonathan Tripp - Head of Boehringer Ingelheim's Agile Lyon Innovation Centre of Excellence (ALICE) about the relationship between agility and value - and how changing people's mindsets can fundamentally change business culture for the benefit of everyone.


Introduction

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According to the Business Agility Institute, the concept first emerged in the early 80s; an evolution of the Lean Business thinking that had already been around for almost 40 years. [1]

Pushed into the mainstream around the millennium by software developers looking for ways to shortcut process, ‘agility’ has evolved since into a ubiquitous, amorphous, catch-all staple of the corporate buzzword-bingo sheet, that can mean anything from flexibility, adaptation and increased efficiency to the willingness to completely change direction in response to market changes.

Having become so tricky to interpret, we went back to basics to try and define it. In their pioneering 1982 paper 'Corporate Agility', academics John Brown & Nick Agnew foresaw that agility requires not only flexibility, but also '... the commitment of key resources to output-oriented goals.'

Brown & Agnew recognised that these resources must be applied to 'fulcrums that provide maximum leverage.'

But in businesses where people are the key resource, we believe that they become the vital fulcrum around which the creation of customer value turns.

And like all cogs, they only work well when they're fully engaged.

For us, agility comes from a focus on creating customer-centric cultures, igniting imaginations to create value at every step.

This reflects customers' desire for a better experience - specifically, one delivered by highly motivated employees. So, can an employer ensure that the value of the ‘feel-good factor’ gets transmitted all the way down to the customer?

Imagine what an impact it would have if they succeeded.


Agility is a mindset

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These days, any number of consultants will tell you that corporate agility comes from the convergence of digital technologies. But the bigger challenge is how do businesses get PEOPLE to converge? How do business leaders move their people towards a point of 'strategic unification' where everyone understands their place in the overall strategy - and their role in delivering it?

Jonathan Tripp believes that agility starts with the way people think. "An agile mindset adopts the perspective of asking what's really going to deliver the best value for customers. And it's not always the most obvious things. You have to really scratch below the surface, push people to define the problem and determine the real need you're trying to solve."

"What we're always trying to do with agile thinking is to unlock 'collective intelligence' - to create an environment where people can express themselves, participate actively and where there is no judgement. A space where 'wild ideas' are encouraged, where people can question certainties and build on the ideas of others. You need to do all of this with an iterative approach and accept that you may fail. However, the important thing is that you learn from it. Once you have that frame, anything is possible."

Similarly, once you have clarity around the purpose of an organisation, thinking becomes focused on how you can create value for customers. Once you have that focus, people feel able to offer to ideas and projects they really want to be part of. And once they've bought in, they can believe that they have a part to play in effecting change.

McKinsey's number one trademark of agile businesses is the ability to land their purpose and vision across the entire organisation.[2] We believe that People Activation unlocks that agility. Not just the ability to react quickly to improve customer-centricity, but also how people - given real purpose - can add tangible value through better collaboration, experimentation and empowerment.


Creating Agile Cultures

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Executives say that they want people to understand the 'why' behind their strategic decisions - and employees want to know that too. But our experience shows us that 'cascading' information down through a business no longer works. Research shows that the foremost influence on developing an agile culture is the recognition that a command and control culture does not encourage empowerment.[3]

McKinsey says that in order to achieve agility, business leaders need 'mindset makeovers' [2] - and we agree. As we've seen in this series so far, pretty much all of the traditional models for communicating strategy, engaging employees and motivating behaviour change are found wanting in the current dynamic business environment.

So how do we change people's mindsets?

Jonathan Tripp sees cross-discipline collaboration as the key: "We'll never break all silos, but that’s not necessary. When we teach the mindset of agile working, we believe that you don't have to be an expert in everybody else's area of expertise, but by collaborating across boundaries you can unlock the potential without having to redefine the whole organisation."

"There are a lot of misperceptions around agility, but the best way to overcome any scepticism is to share the results of agile working. Adopting an agile mindset is about continually moving forward. Trying new things, continually iterating, improving, sharing results - that's the best way to get people on-board."

Indeed, Jonathan sees sharing as critical to agility: "Communication and collaboration are at the heart of agility. When we train people in the importance of the agile mindset, we emphasise the power of listening - because listening allows you to collaborate more effectively.

It's important to create a culture of sharing. You often have a mix of people in the same room: introverts and extroverts, senior management and junior staff. Everybody must be given the opportunity to share their perspective."

We believe that culture helps teams become more agile without losing sight of the business' core purpose. And once people are encouraged to share, collaborate and reflect, they think less about what goes on in their silo and more about how they - as a collective - can come up with ideas that create value.

However, defining value can be a tricky business.


Agility creates value

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If creating value for stakeholders is the sole purpose of agile ways of working, why does value remain such an elusive idea[4]. Though everyone's got a view on what it is, the concept of value doesn't have a universally accepted definition or prescribed approach for determining it. [5]

Even Jonathan Tripp sees people struggling to nail it down: “Value is often very difficult for people to define, so they reach for buzzwords - customer satisfaction or team motivation.

But motivation isn't value - the actual value might be the reduction in lost time accidents because people are more motivated. We want people to think: ‘If I do something, what's the TANGIBLE value? What will make things better - for the customer.’”

“The definition we use is ‘utility over availability’ - the right level of usefulness applied at exactly the right moment: that's value.”

No surprise then, that the same principle applies to agility: it has to be applied at the right moment and in the right circumstances to create any value at all. This is one of the key areas where Jonathan sees people misinterpret the function of agile thinking.

"We see people trying to force agile ways of working into routine or standard processes, rather than applying it where it makes sense and adds value, which is usually with uncertain subjects. If you try and force agility into a situation where it doesn't make sense, it actually destroys value. We meet people who have had negative experiences because they've used agile methods in unsuitable situations. Or they've confused agility with something else.”

Experience tells us that agility blossoms in cultures where everyone feels equal responsibility and where everyone understands the purpose so well that they feel empowered to respond to challenges in the most appropriate way.

People Activation experiences are a powerful way of encouraging agile thinking. By taking people out of their day-to-day bubble, you can deliver an inspiring experience that creates excitement, provides a shared perspective and helps them understand the tangible value their contribution adds.

Then they can step back into their roles and apply it with confidence.


Conclusion

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So that's our take on agility. It's a mindset that governs behaviour; an intellectual exercise in unlocking collective intelligence for the specific purpose of creating value.

It's not about bending, flexing, short-cuts or changing direction – it’s about having a clear sense of purpose, clarity on why the business exists and the value it seeks to create. Moreover, it’s about applying the right idea at the right time to get the right outcome for the customer and the business.

The individual and collective confidence to apply it comes from people understanding the bigger picture and the impact they can have. And yes, we do like to think that we can reclaim agility for the thinkers amongst us.

People Activation provides the environment to not only build that confidence, but also for people to draw confidence from each other - and activation events provide a unique space to talk about adding value in a way that's understood by everyone.

Inspiring, hands-on experiences that don't only get your message across in a powerful, focused way, they also give people a deeper understanding of how their individual and collective contribution creates meaningful value for customers.

Ultimately, People Activation understands that people thrive when they feel empowered to use their judgement to respond to challenges in the way they feel delivers the greatest value. Rather than shackling them with process, activation liberates them to make the decision best suited to the situation. That's true agility.

As always, we'll leave the last word to our guest interviewee. "People Activation sessions go past the surface layer. It's not just about slogans - it goes much deeper than that." says Jonathan Tripp.

"They go past the superficiality of 'employee motivation' to determine the tangible benefits that motivation can actually deliver."

"Our people felt hugely motivated because they felt connected to both the purpose AND the value. It changed mindsets; you could feel the difference.

That's the value of People Activation."


References

  1. businessagility.institute - The Agile Enterprise history
  2. McKinsey the-five-trademarks-of-agile-organizations - January 2018
  3. Gallup.com: "3 steps on the path to agility" - September 2018
  4. Journal of Creating Value: “Organisational Agility and Value Creation” (Guest Editorial) - M. Rademakers, S. Scheepstra, P. Stokes, 2019
  5. Wiley.com: "Pricing and Profitability Management: A Practical Guide for Business Leaders" - J. Meehan, M. Simonetto, L. Montan, Jr. and C. Goodin, 2011