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Building agility within traditional organisations

Trayton Vance, CEO & Founder - Coaching Focus

Agility and agile leadership are familiar concepts for anyone working in HR, and are often associated with technology companies and start-ups, filled with young ‘disruptors’ in modern offices. But what about organisations in more traditional sectors, with more conventional structures?

Many of the industries which would be considered ‘traditional’ – say public sector organisations, utilities, or retail – are now facing the most significant disruption. This means that embedding agile principles is no longer nice to have; it is becoming increasingly essential. Conformity and the old ways of doing things will not help them to achieve net zero targets, attract a Gen-Z workforce or adapt to automation, to name but a few.

The secret to successful agile leadership within larger, heritage organisations may well lie in coaching. Ultimately, even if your agile transformation is supported by new structures, technology, and processes, it is people who will carry it out. If they are not bought-in, if they are not prepared to change their mindset, the transformation will fail. Coaching is crucial to help leaders and teams to develop this agile mindset.

McKinsey defines traditional organisational models as ones that have evolved for stability in a well-known environment, where the ‘business as machine’ analogy works well thanks to a static, structured hierarchy. Of course, not all businesses in traditional sectors follow this model. But having been around since the days when this was the status quo, they’re certainly more likely to have retained the old ways.

Meanwhile, agile organisations have ‘evolved to thrive in an unpredictable, rapidly changing environment’. Information is democratised, technology quickly adopted, and the analogy used, rather than a machine, is of a living organism. One in which leaders show direction and enable action, and teams are empowered and accountable.

Clearly, the latter is more suitable for today’s business environment. So how can traditional organisations embed agility and create a coaching culture that supports long-term business sustainability?

A lot of the literature on agile leadership still talks in organisational terms first and foremost. Individuals’ needs and personalities are seen as second-order priorities. This is plainly the wrong way around, and people and culture must be at the centre of agile. Within a traditionally hierarchical business, if your agile transformation programme is spear-headed by a naturally conforming traditionalist, they will struggle to create the necessary culture and are likely to undermine the success of the project. Equally, if you bring in a dynamic leader from outside but they do not take the time to understand the old ways of doing things, teams will be demotivated from the outset.

Our experience working with a utilities’ firm highlights how coaching is vital to developing an agile mindset. As a business that has been around for over 130 years, this water company was seeking to adapt to a changed landscape post-COVID. Coaching which focuses on agility allows the business to invest in its people, while also transforming customer experience due to better responsiveness when dealing with urgent scenarios.

By empowering staff across all functions to think more creatively (a key part of agile) within the confines of a process – rather than blindly following procedures without critical evaluation, teams became more efficient and issues such as leaks or contamination issues are dealt with more effectively. Another project, with a large supermarket firm, focuses on supplier relationships and increasing the agility of this engagement against the backdrop of changing KPIs, increasingly related to sustainability and positive relationships, rather than a race to the bottom on price.

These are just two examples from our recent work with so-called ‘heritage’ organisations. At Coaching Focus, we see a vital role for coaching in any transformational change programme, and this is especially true for projects which deploy agile principles. This is because the principles of coaching are grounded in listening and encouraging teams to come up with the solutions themselves. When it comes to agile transformation, this is more than just a one off process to canvas for opinions, it must underpin the entire ethos. 1-1 leadership coaching and team development programmes can help leaders to become more agile themselves whilst feeding into rapid decision and learning cycles that help the business maintain that agility.

Of course, there are degrees when it comes to agility, and not all organisations will be suited to full-scale agile organisational design, particularly if they’re operating within a more traditional sector. But addressing the cultural element of agility, supported by coaching, will help organisations to identify the right leaders for any agile programme, as well as securing gradual buy in from teams. This approach will also help businesses to avoid the trap of assuming that if leaders are invested in agile, teams will follow. A coaching-focused approach will help to support the entire team through what can be a disconcerting process.

According to the Business Agility Institute’s 2021 Report on the status of business agility worldwide, the two most significant challenges across all respondent organisations on their agility journey were resistance to change and leadership. This should reassure ‘traditional’ organisations that the path to greater agility is challenging for organisations of all types. But whatever the nature of your organisation, investing in agile and underpinning this with coaching will pay dividends in the end.

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