To be agile or not: That’s the question

Do you want an agile team to operate on you in heart surgery? This question divides in people’s debates. To form an opinion about this, one has to get a deeper understanding of the concept of “agile organizations” which currently is seen as “remedy” to achieve more focus, higher performance, better results and higher employee satisfaction.

“Agile” in the first place means nothing more than being more flexible, more adaptive and therefore maybe faster and savvier when one has to react to unknown and unpredicted circumstances. The basic principles of agile collaboration are much more complex and comprehensive, especially when they are transferred to and established in larger organizations. They also do not contradict the traditional organizational principles like hierarchy, management and leadership, standards, predictability or strategic focus. They’re simply implemented differently.

If companies want to transform to an agile organization several dimensions have to be considered which are all interrelated and can usually not all be changed at the same time:

  • Within the smallest unit of teams “agile” revolves around changed processes, principles and methods of collaboration. Agile teams are composed of interdisciplinary skills, act largely self-directed with more autonomy and “self-determination rights” and use iterative-incremental procedures. Many companies start their “agile transformation” by applying these principles to project management methods or innovation projects to develop new products.
  • In order to broaden agile collaboration in (divisional or functional) organizations, it is necessary to at least partially break up traditional line organizations and to organize processes directed at specific purposes in cross-functional teams. However, at the same time overlapping organizational structures are necessary in addition to coordinate cross-functional teams and “strategically align” them, because they work in the same markets, for the same customers or on the same products. Units that ensure compliance with certain standards (e.g. technologies, processes, etc.) are also indispensable.
  • In order to fully exploit the potential of agility in organizations, a changed understanding of leadership is needed. “New Work” has simultaneously become a buzzword and concept with which companies try to cope with new market realities, company strategies and employee needs by adapting leadership principles, decision-making processes, steering and planning processes (“Beyond Budgeting”) as well as HR instruments.
  • If a company decides to become agile, it needs qualified employees and managers. And this definitely does not only mean that they have to master agile methods. The requirements for personnel development and lifelong learning are far more complex. The concept of agility was developed as response to the “VUCA world” and rapid technological change, i.e. employees and managers must learn in the future to deal with changed job requirements, to orient themselves in complex and unstructured situations, to use creative intelligence for the development of new and valuable ideas and to develop social intelligence when interacting and persuading others.
  • All these measures ultimately require a changed mindset of all employees or a changed organizational culture. For many companies, agility means to relinquish traditional ways of thinking and behaving. Agility requires more openness, transparency, trust, appreciation, collaboration and participation. This is an area where change is not easy to accomplish. Attitudes and behaviors can, however, be relearned through positive experiences.

Agile organizations do not question everything that has been valid for efficiently functioning organizations so far. Agility should also not be seen as a “rigid set of rules”. And agility should not be reduced to only one dimension (e.g. methods like design thinking or Scrum or customer-centric processes and structures). Every company still aims at making its organization and its employees as efficient as possible by means of efficient processes, fast decision-making processes, customer orientation or optimal use of technology and innovation. “Agility” provides the means, principles and methods to achieve this and may work better in certain situations to help cope with new complexities, changes and uncertainties.

So, let’s get back to our initial question. And the answer is: it depends. Properly applied and implemented agile teams and organizations have a lot of advantages. But please only supported by a true customer (or patient) focus, by the right use of technological means and the right degree of efficient and effective and, where possible and necessary, standardized and pre-planned procedures and procedures which help anticipate and handle certain eventualities.

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