Agility is an increasingly important concept for modern organizations that want to meet rapidly evolving customer expectations, keep up with changes in the marketplace and react to new trends in technology and the competitive landscape.
For businesses to be truly agile, they need managers who understand the intricacies of this idea and how their role fits into the organization as a whole.
The growth of the agile organization
According to McKinsey, the increasing emphasis on agility in the business world is part of a major paradigm shift. Many industries are moving away from the old notion of organizations as ‘machines’, with static, hierarchical structures, to a new view of companies as ‘living organisms’, composed of networks of people-centered teams that are able to learn and evolve quickly.
The management consulting firm’s research and experience suggests there are five defining elements of agile organizations:
- A ‘north star’ (shared purpose or vision) that is embodied across the business
- Networks of empowered teams with clear, accountable roles and hands-on governance
- Rapid decision and learning cycles that support iteration and experimentation
- Dynamic people models that ignite passion
- Next-generation enabling technology
With such emphasis on moving away from top-down structures and putting more control in the hands of team members, it’s worth asking what role managers have to play in agile organizations? Going one step further, what attributes do agile managers need to be truly effective?
A horizontal outlook
Agile organizations place trust in teams to set their own goals, decide on the most effective ways of working and derive maximum value from the talents and skills of their members.
This means managers need to be comfortable with moving away from the old-fashioned, ‘vertical’ style of supervising teams and passing down instructions from above, in favor of a ‘horizontal’ approach.
Agile managers shouldn’t be viewed as a ‘boss’ or an authority figure who represents the upper echelons of the business, but rather as a source of support and enablement for teams to get on and do what they do best.
To succeed in a management role within an agile company, ask not how you can manage your team, but how you can help them achieve maximum autonomy and self-sufficiency.
Ability to see and remove obstacles
Your mission to help agile teams function effectively - as opposed to simply telling them what to do - will depend on identifying and removing potential obstacles before they become too problematic.
Impediments to effective teamwork will often appear in organizations that are making a gradual transition to agile methods. There may still be processes, procedures and structures in place throughout the business as a whole that make it difficult for innovative teams to achieve their goals.
It’s the manager’s job to spot these issues and address them as quickly and efficiently as possible, so the team can stay focused on their key tasks and objectives.
Being a good listener is always a useful skill for a manager to have, but it's particularly important in agile organizations, where team members need to feel comfortable approaching you to raise questions or discuss issues that could be hindering performance or results.
As well as showing people they are supported and their input is valued, being a good listener will help you do your job by providing insights into how the team is functioning and the provisions it needs to support its ongoing development.
Supportive of experimentation and failure
A key element of organizational agility is allowing teams to innovate and experiment, which requires that people have no fear of failure.
Agile managers have a key role to play in creating this environment and letting people know that failure is not only inevitable in business, but often valuable because it highlights where change is needed.
‘Fail-fast’ has become a common mantra in business. While there is disagreement about whether it supports innovation or is simply a modern fantasy, members of agile teams should always feel they have the freedom and control to experiment with new methods.
Any mistakes they make could give rise to improvements that make a big difference to the business in the future.
Always moving forward
Agile managers must be comfortable in an environment that is constantly changing and moving forward, sometimes into areas that have never been explored before.
Many businesses spend a lot of time devising their strategies, studying their competitors and predicting what might happen in the future, but agile organizations are likely to place greater emphasis on doing than planning.
The results of new, groundbreaking activities might be difficult to predict, but it’s always possible that your team’s next innovation could be the one that takes the company to the next level of success.