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Business Agility: How to get started

Organisations are asking:

? How do we create a more entrepreneurial culture?

? How do we get closer to our customers?

? How do we take better risk?

? How do we respond better and faster to change?

In most organisations, we find ourselves with one foot in the traditional business world of predictability and control, and another foot in a new world of empiricism and uncertainty. Especially for leadership, handling the predictable and the empirical world at the same time seems to be a major challenge: To find the balance between planning & delegating on the one hand, and testing & learning in empowered teams on the other.


Agile works on a theoretical level because it is empirical. Decisions are based on evidence and ongoing validated learning, and that's the short answer to all the above questions. On a practical level, agile works because it organises work in teams with high levels of trust. Such teams are able to openly discuss what's broken and can - if sufficiently empowered - act on it.

Without these ingredients, we may at best uncover problems, but it takes ages to act on them. Or even worse, the underlying causes remain hidden forever. I'm sure you know of projects in your organisation that should have been killed long ago, and other projects that somehow can't be started.


Business agility is becoming a significant competitive factor in business because it allows organisations to respond quickly to change and in the best possible way with a clear positive impact:

  • Accelerate time to market Reduce the time-span from idea to first invoice, stabilise new business models earlier, and go to scale with new initiatives faster.

  • De-risk new initiatives Avoid expensive failures, lean from early adopters, avoid building products that nobody wants, and generally lower the cost of innovation.

  • Employee satisfaction Attract creative problem-solvers and win the war for talent, reduce churn and number of disengaged people, and generally build teams that perform better.

Agile works best in contexts where there isn't necessarily a shared understanding and documented relationship between causes and effects. Planning everything up front is not the answer here. Rather, having the courage to learn and respond one step at a time is a big part of the answer.


The building blocks of business agility are

  • Minimum viable thinking Build only what is necessary and sufficient to rapidly get feedback on your value propositions and continuously reduce risk. Think big, but start small.

  • Cross-functional teams Organise in stable and dedicated teams empowered to make decisions. Go for diversity and and a blend of skills and abilities.

  • Experimentation Test ideas and assumptions quickly and before making costly commitments. Involve customers early and often, and respond to new insights immediately.

  • Time-boxing Design activities in sprints, going from ideas to data in days rather than months, and focus on problems worth solving.

  • Practiced values Build trust and confidence in teams by continuously practicing a small set of core values such as openness, respect, and focus.


For an organisation to "master both worlds", some changes to leadership need to be introduced. We like to think of them as simplifications rather than extra work on top.

  • Remove constraints Descale complexity by simplifying and removing rigid rules and processes. Replace with heuristics and set the teams free.

  • Servant leadership Set motivating long-term direction. Push decisions downwards. Be inspiring, enabling, and available.

  • Learning and growth mindset Allow (and reward) experimentation. Create effective feedback loops. Celebrate failure as well as success.

These virtues can co-exist with a traditional way of organising in "pockets" around your business. And that's how you get started with new ways of working: Small, but with big ambitions.

The first steps are therefore interventions in your business in places where you can find and assemble teams who already have a learning and growth mindset, and facilitate the early stages. Over time, you can foster a genuine culture change by making business agility your organising principle at an enterprise scale, learning what works and doesn't work for you along the journey.

So beware being trapped in "scaling new ways of working" as an up-front exercise. It's all about descaling complexity in ways that fit your particular organisation. That's why copying some agile organisational structure from some other succesful organisation is a bad idea: It needs to be your journey.

• Thanks for your interest.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash


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