Agility in the workplace. It’s one of the most well-covered topics in our increasingly complex business world—and for good reason. Today, a business’s capacity to navigate the unknown and seize opportunities as they arise directly impacts its ability to thrive in the long term.
That’s because, unlike the traditional working environments of yore, agile working models are open to experimentation. An agile workplace promotes team autonomy, role-based work, and lean decision-making practices. It decides to buck rigid hierarchies in favor of flat, fluid structures centered around high-efficiency cross-functional teams.
Not only do highly agile organizations often perform better financially, per Gallup, but they also lead to more optimism (which has certainly been in short supply as of late). Gallup also found that when employees perceive their workplace cultures to be agile, they’re more likely to have confidence in their employers’ present and future successes. And in the war for talent attraction and retention, agile workplaces stand out.
Now that you know the benefits of agility in the workplace, you might be wondering how to start your agile transformation. Here are three steps to get things kicked off:
It’s tempting to delay your agile transition plans until you feel “ready,” but that kind of approach goes against the goal of organizational agility: to sense and respond, not plan in perpetuity. Yet, a decent percentage of organizations find themselves stuck in the planning phase. When
McKinsey surveyed nearly 2,200 organizations in 2021, it identified an even split between those that either had no plans to transform or were preparing to launch (44%) and those whose plans were in progress or complete (44%).
In order to reap the rewards of workplace agility, you must take action. Stop trying to map out your entire agile transition plan. Instead, plan just enough to take the first few steps, then reassess and revise along the way. For instance, my company wanted to move to a self-set salary model a few years ago. We knew implementing a new way of determining compensation wasn’t an overnight procedure, so we outlined a four-step process and got to work.
We asked our eight employees (at the time) to first decide what their salary should be and record that number in a shared Google Sheet. Then, we asked each employee to define what they thought their colleagues should earn, record that number, and meet to discuss. Money is a sensitive topic, so we knew this would be anxiety-inducing for some. However, we found that there wasn’t a massive range in numbers, and the transparent discussions around salary provided incredible value. After all, workplace agility begins with transparency and trust.
Pursuing agility in the workplace shouldn’t be a process of deploying team-level experiments in a vacuum—at least, not if you want to achieve true impact. But the same McKinsey survey found that two-thirds of respondents with an active agile transformation strategy were “just treading water.” There’s a good chance it’s because they failed to scale their agile transition plan across the entire company.
Indeed, among the 44% of companies that said they’ve started or completed their agile transition plans, 36% had scaled agility beyond the team level, but only 10% had scaled companywide. To achieve a truly agile workplace, you need to reimagine your organization not as a hierarchical ladder of disparate teams and departments, but as a network of high-performing units working in concert to drive end-to-end business goals. This will require experimenting with new ways of working, unlearning behaviors, and creating new values, mindsets, and leadership behaviors. Once you adopt that mindset of experimentation rather than “right the first time,” your agile transformation strategy will become more holistic.
Move to a Decentralized Leadership Model
Over the past few decades, there’s been a trend toward more decentralized leadership. Who among us could forget Zappo’s Holacracy movement in the mid-2010s? But Zappos didn’t invent decentralization—not by a long shot. Johnson & Johnson, for example, was touting the benefits of decentralizing management years before Zappos tossed the idea of bosses into the bin.
Unlike a centralized model, which is based on top-to-bottom decision-making authority, decentralized leadership places more power and freedom into workers’ hands. As a result, teams function as mini businesses, making real-time decisions based on the information at hand instead of waiting for a manager’s approval. The broader operating model and culture are the connective tissue holding everything together.
That said, employees don’t want to feel lost or confused, and that will happen if you implement this leadership model too hastily. Case in point: Two years after Zappos introduced Holacracy, its turnover rate jumped to 30%, and the sloppy transition undoubtedly contributed. All that’s to say: If you plan to flatten your hierarchy, ensure you’re constantly communicating with employees. Even if you no longer have a formal chain of command, employees still want to know who they can reach out to when they need help and where the organization is going.
The benefits of agility in the workplace are compelling, yet many company leaders haven’t made the move. Why is that? Often, it’s a case of paralysis by analysis. Step one is to defeat the mental block and start implementing agile transition plans across the whole company. Then, it’s a process of testing, learning, and adjusting. Good luck.
Timm Urschinger is co-founder and CEO of LIVEsciences, an experienced consulting startup with the vision to catalyze the success of its customers. Timm helps great leaders implement transformation through Agility and Teal. He’s a transformation architect, inspirational speaker, and story collector. Timm also co-created Teal Around the World, an initiative that brings together communities of like-minded future-of-work enthusiasts.
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