Recently I’ve been spending time looking at what business agility actually manifests itself as. Lots of businesses these days place a great emphasis on agility, and for a small business like mine, it’s one of the most powerful weapons against larger competitors with greater budgets.
The ability to take on board feedback, understand it, and change direction enables us to out-manoeuvre others and serve our customers better. But what happens when you get behind the “business agility” slogan to the day-to-day reality of enterprise life? Looking back at our work in Ormsby Street over the first few weeks of 2017, I’m struck by certain challenges which we need to face up to if we are to be truly agile.
Change is constant
While we may have become accustomed to rapid change, particularly in the workplace, that doesn’t mean that we all necessarily like it. Every other week my team meets to review progress and decide what to focus on over the next fortnight. I’ve noticed that when a significant shift is called for – when a partner changes a schedule on us, or we need to ditch a campaign because it isn’t working well enough – there are deep sighs all around. Change might be a constant, but it’s difficult to love.
We all invest a lot in the work that we do, and sometimes changing direction means putting that aside and admitting that it’s not working well enough to continue. It takes a lot of discipline to make this call early, before too much time has been invested, rather than soldiering on heroically to the point where we can blame outside forces for failure.
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail
Whether you attribute that quote to Benjamin Franklin or Winston Churchill, it remains the case that unless you have a clear idea of where you are going, no amount of agile dodging and weaving is going to get you there. I often find that a significant part of my role, and of the other leaders within my business is that of keeping the big picture in view. In our day to day work, it’s very tempting to focus on getting the thing that we’re doing finished, so stepping back and looking at the big picture feels uncomfortable and unsatisfying. But it’s no less necessary for that.
Only last week, I had to put aside a contract that I had been working on for more than six months because it became apparent that the other party wasn’t going to be able to deliver enough progress towards where we need our business to go. Even though I knew there were other projects which were more productive, it is hard to put aside that half-completed work and put a stop to the relationship.
Business agility: Calling the changes
Finally, when we make a change early in a project, after just a short test, it’s very different from getting something through to completion and delivering it to the world. When something goes out of the door to customers as a complete product, and it doesn’t work, there are many reasons why this can be, and so it’s relatively easy to defend your part in the project and look elsewhere for the reasons why it failed.
But if you’re disciplined about it, and test ideas early directly with customers, then you’re the one that’s calling time, and you’ve got no-one to blame but yourself. Calling a halt early is, of course, excellent, it means that you haven’t wasted the time of other people in building a far bigger project, but it also points the finger very clearly at you. If you set the criteria for your idea being successful and it didn’t meet them, then it’s difficult not to take that even a little bit personally.
None of us likes to admit that we’re wrong, particularly in a leadership situation when it’s often felt that clear and decisive vision is a great strength. But if we are to be effective leaders then the challenge to me, to you, to all business leaders is to look for evidence early on that a given course of action is the right one, and when it’s not, make a change.
So to sum up, I think my learning so far this year has been: if you want to truly embrace business agility, get over yourself – that’s the only way to really achieve it.