Agility is Redefining Corporate Culture

By Alexander Bockelmann, CTO, Baloise

Alexander Bockelmann, CTO, Baloise

Yet another new method of working?

Agility has become a buzzword of our times. But what does it actually mean? It’s often equated to a particular way of working. But agility goes much deeper than that. It’s a matter of mindset and culture – a set of behaviours and principles for results. The implementation of agile can differ depending on which part of the business they are implemented in. For me, agility is an umbrella term for the various means by which a company and its individual teams attain their goals and build their corporate culture.

"Leaders need to create the space for teams to safely experiment and learn the new approach"

There is some debate on whether agile targets efficiency or effectiveness. I think it has to be both. To me agility is devaluing doing a lot of things fast with potentially unfocused value contributions and is more about doing the right things at a sustainable pace, i.e. the things that truly create customer value. Hence, we need laser focus on the high value use cases and have as little distraction as possible. As a by-product, this helps to avoid the deterioration in our mental performance from continuously switching attention between different tasks.

Impact at decision-making level

Agility also entails a decentralisation of responsibility via improved transparency. It’s about making information accessible to all – a clear departure from the use of information asymmetry as a management tool. It’s about empowering the workforce, with decisions made by the people who have the relevant expertise. The principle of open information is particularly important for cross-functional collaboration and should apply at all levels. The right experts, whatever their place in the hierarchy, need to be given the information needed to make the right decisions. It shifts decision-making to a functional level and significantly changes the manager’s role. The manager cedes responsibility for allocating tasks and decisions and becomes more of a facilitator – creating an environment in which teams and experts can work in a focused and effective manner.

Redefining the manager’s role

Agility entails a paradigm shift in the manager’s role. It changes from task-management to purpose giving and team enablement. Agile leaders should convey their vision and purpose. They need to provide personnel and budgets, ensure the establishment of strategic priorities, empower the teams to decide and act, and create the right environment for their teams success. Letting go of the old way of doing things won’t be easy at first. After all, it will mean giving up a degree of authority. It means managers will have to redefine their role and either becomes members of agile teams, focus more on the HR and skill management side of leadership or become a purpose and impediment managing leader. This change in role and self-perception on the leadership level is often the most crucial success factor for implementing an agile mindset culture in an organisation.

Change is the biggest challenge

The biggest challenge might be the role changes with their new responsibilities. People will have to learn new methods of working and cooperation. The way they communicate, collaborate and lead will need to fundamentally change. Agility often requires a shift in perspective and culture. This will need time to develop and become established. It is important to provide the opportunity to learn hands-on what agile working means. No class-room teaching will have the same effect. In most cases also the support by experienced agile coaches is crucial for success for inexperienced teams. Selective hiring of new team members with agile experience also speeds up the adoption curve.

Agility needs structure – a contradiction in terms?

Agility needs a very clear structure – agile, cross-functional teams cannot operate in a vacuum. Once you begin to work in an agile manner will you discover just how much discipline is involved. Agile does not in any way mean unplanned or random. The coordination of agile teams in a network requires a structure as an alternative to hierarchical management. Prioritization and decision making processes for example need to be redesigned to replace traditional management involvement. Moreover, agile teams are often unable to work in the most optimum way because the company’s practices and policies have not been adapted. For example, budget processes, capacity planning, approval workflows, (team) bonus systems, training and (self-) learning capabilities might need to be adapted. Leaders need to create the space for teams to safely experiment and learn the new approach. This also involves giving the team’s time to build up their efficiency levels. It is also important that the objectives of an agile mindset organization, like transparency, adaptability, customer-focus and team empowerment can be achieved using different approaches and structures for different business areas. Change oriented and IT enabled teams might work in Scrum or related methods, call centres can use Kanban boards, Lean process models, and other methodologies to achieve the same goal.

Agility – first and foremost it’s about culture and customer value

Agility is not something that can be learnt from a PowerPoint presentation or a training course. The way you learn agile methods is by putting them into practice yourself. Only then will you begin to properly understand them and see their benefits. At Baloise, we are making it possible for people to work in this kind of environment, to experience it and to embark on a learning curve to learn from successes and failures. This is where the hype surrounding agility differs from the reality. We believe working with an agile mindset increases people’s adaptability and capacity to learn and support them in adopting a more customer focused behaviour. An agile mindset and the corresponding work methods will play a key role in our future success as they improve our adaptability to change and allow us to provide more customer value in shorter increments. This incremental value creating speeds up our learning capability and our time to value for our customers. And working in this way really is a lot of fun, too!

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