November 2018
3 minutes

“Everything is possible, nothing will remain the same”

Agile thinking and acting in the Small and Medium firm sector

Agility is not a temporary phenomenon and it contains opportunities as well as risks. (Image: Rawpixel.com/shutterstock.com)

Today’s complex world cannot be mastered with the help of the “old” logic. Curiosity and being prepared for change is what will be rewarded. In the media and during events, we more and more frequently meet the term “agility”. But beyond half knowledge, what’s behind this buzzword, and why shouldn’t we underestimate this topic?

In a small group, I asked entrepreneurs to what extend they considered themselves agile. They perceived themselves as “predominantly agile”. When asked about the degree of agility within their company organizations, they tended to “not so much” and “partly”. How can this gap be bridged, and how can traditional organizations establish new strengths and connect them to their existing factors of success with the help of agile thinking and acting?

More than a buzzword

fingerzeigen webSpeed, adaptability, customer focus and a certain attitude showing especially in situations with a high degree of uncertainty are among the main characteristics of agility. US-scientist Steven L. Goldmann has coined the term as early as in 1995. “Agility is the ability of an organization to constantly adapt to its complex, turbulent and uncertain environment.” In times of markets becoming more and more dynamic and volatile, its relevance is growing.

Many organizations are in “pain” – react too slowly to customer requests and have a hard time to deal with alterations of customer behavior – but they are not able to localize it. The feeling is coming up that something’s got to change. But there is no answer to the question what it is that has got to change, and thus, they randomly follow trends and buzzwords according to the motto “Young startups are successful with that. Let’s do it the same way.”

The understanding of leadership and company culture

But anywhere where rapidly changing influencing factors in dynamic markets (e. g. with lots of irregular customer requests) meet companies rather bureaucratically lead, these companies reach their capacity limits. It cannot be imposed from above to be an agile company with the ability to detect changes of the market and of the company’s environment and to react to them flexibly and quickly. First of all, appropriate processes and structures should already exist in order to be able to make use of agile practices.

When in complex environments, according to Taylor, the division of responsibilities between just a few deciders rsp. people thinking and lots of workers rsp. people acting doesn’t work anymore, this will lead to soon some “unfamiliar” questions coming up:

  • How are we supposed to implement this?
  • What exactly is the team supposed to do?
  • What exactly should we do differently?
  • How are we supposed to arrange things?
  • How will decisions be made?

In order to find answers to these questions and to establish new ways of working, a different understanding of leadership is required. One solution is to distribute responsibilities (not only tasks) to the team, so you can react to surprises more rapidly and more individually. Leadership doesn’t become obsolete, there won’t be any anarchy in the organization. Leadership will rather be defined differently according to the team rsp. role.  

Principles instead of rules

Relaxed business person webAn agile company culture contains not so many fixed rules, but all the more fixed principles being adhered to by acting flexibly. One principle can for example be: “The customer must be satisfied.” If for example a customer speaks to a sales representative on the phone and asks for a quick decision (e. g. concerning prices, delivery times etc.) and if his commitment depends on this, it would be customer-focused if the representative could decide on this himself or after consulting his direct co-workers (who often can be reached quicker). Frequently however, consulting the boss is required, who might not be familiar with the circumstances, but needs to make a decision anyway, while the customer is put off.  

There is no panacea for complex situations – but there are empirical values and helpful hints:

  • Speak about principles instead of rules.
  • Watch and promote the company culture.
  • Don’t look for general answers and don’t spend too much time on “wrong questions” (which don’t have any distinct answer).
  • Learn together with your customer.
  • Narrow down your targets and topics, stop doing everything at the same time.
  • Lead differently: communicate context, prioritize, support!
  • Decide differently: involve your team into responsibility and leave it there.
  • Be transparent – about anything the team does and decides.
  • Try out things (at small scale): iteration instead of perfection.

Agility is not a temporary phenomenon and it contains opportunities as well as risks. For this reason, I in general very firmly recommend watching and learning – e. g. how agile behavior works for startups. However, I don’t recommend copying 1:1. Entrepreneurs should harmonize agile behavior with the company’s goals and culture. There is no blueprint, you will have to try things out, see what works well and make adjustments.

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