Companies with rigid hierarchies and a culture of command-and-control had to empower local managers to make critical decisions about how to redeploy workers or establish new supplier arrangements. Internal communication accelerated with virtual townhalls allowing for more transparency, but also newfound interactions between leaders and frontline employees. These attributes – greater local empowerment, increased speed of decision-making and open communication – are some of the core traits of agile companies. The crisis provides a golden opportunity to adopt new agile behaviours and institutionalise agility, to tackle future business challenges. However, reacting to a crisis and effecting sustainable change are two very different things. Adapting to an emergency – even one that persists as the COVID-19 pandemic has – will only achieve so much, in terms of real, permanent change.
Even the current success stories might not show the real picture. In 2019 – well before the arrival of the pandemic – a study of agility in major European economies focused on two key dimensions of agility – tools and processes and the right mindset that enable organisations to respond quickly to business needs. From the perspective of employees, most organisations were not agile pre-pandemic; 16 percent in France, 15 percent in Spain, 13 percent in the UK and in Germany only ten percent of employees considered their organisations to be agile. Despite the “agile” actions taken by many organisations in reaction to the crisis, employee perceptions of agility have seen little change: An April 2020 study – at the height of the first wave – showed that UK employee perceptions of agility had only increased slightly to 16 percent, while France remained unchanged. This stability in employee perceptions of agility suggests that the transitory agility realised by many organisations in reaction to the pandemic, is not as pervasive as many leaders hoped. For every positive example of high agility that cascaded up the information chain to leadership, employees seem to experience an equal number of low-agility moments, like managers and leaders exercising excessive micro-management to regain a feeling of control – to functions and business units further increasing their siloed thinking – to keep at least their part of the ship steady – with complete disregard for the larger organisation.
So, what do the best do differently and how can HR leaders help their organisations institutionalise agility and anchor learnings from the crisis? First, they need to understand that they are uniquely positioned to drive it. Many have equated the potential for agility with highly matrixed, team-based organisational structures. However, another study of European employees finds little difference in agility based on the organisational structure. Across employees in the UK, Germany, France and Spain, 61 percent said they work in traditional, non-matrixed structures, 29 percent of employees reported they work in a partially matrixed structure and nine percent said they work in a predominantly matrixed structure. However, across these three categories, there is very little difference in perceptions of agility. In all structures, most companies were not agile but, at the same time in all structures, a small number of companies bucked the trend and achieved high levels of agility. Agility therefore has much more to do with a company’s culture than with matrix or other structural arrangements.
Research has identified eight attributes that highly agile organisations excel at, the Agile 8. Knowledge sharing – business-relevant information and strategy are transparently shared across hierarchies and departments. Knowledge and idea sharing is valued and active encouraged. Speed of decision-making – decision-making processes are focused on timeliness, often valuing rapid “good” decisions more than slower “great” decisions. Local empowerment – is the norm, not the exception. Processes and workflows are continuously re-evaluated to see if decisions can be further delegated. Innovation focus – every employee feels encouraged to challenge the status quo and contribute to both breakthrough innovation and continuous improvements. Freedom to experiment – leaders and managers encourage calculated risk-taking and differentiate between well-intentioned failures – essential to learning – and failures of neglect. Technology adoption – new technology is chosen with an employeecentred approach aimed at reducing routine tasks and helping employees accomplish high-value work. Crossfunction collaboration – both structured and ad-hoc interdepartmental collaboration and touchpoints foster vertical communication, quick alignment and rapid responses. Simplicity focus – existing processes are constantly refined, simplified, or eliminated to open up space and time for new ideas and initiatives.
To create and sustain a culture of agility beyond the current crisis, organisations must embed and anchor them locally. This is only done by empowering, enabling and supporting local managers: They make or break a company’s agility and there are as many cultures in a company as there are managers. Managers explain more than 70 percent of the variance in team engagement and performance. Great managers are the ones that create a team culture, where team members feel encouraged to speak up and challenge the status quo. They empower people to take calculated risks and coach them through failures to come out stronger. They also act as connectors between teams and departments – fostering collaboration and knowledge sharing – and as interpreters for leadership strategy and vision. For HR leaders the focus should be on equipping managers to drive the desired change towards a culture of agility. The two most impactful actions are to enable managers to move from boss to coach.
Many managers were promoted to their current role for reasons unrelated to their ability to coach their team and that just 20 percent of global employees are engaged bears testament to the dearth of good management practices in most organisations. Research identifies three components that make for a great coach and clearly illustrate the required shift in management practice: Self-centred to engagement-focused – bosses see themselves as the core driver of team performance and their team only supporting actors following orders. Coaches focus on individual and team engagement, seeing themselves as providers of what employees need to perform and succeed. Bosses focus on things that go wrong and order people to fix their weaknesses. Coaches understand, leverage and gain great satisfaction from unleashing the unique talents and strengths of each individual team member. They are constantly developing and positioning individual and team talent to maximise results. From Processorientated to Performance-orientated – bosses tell people what to do and oversee processes. Coaches create clarity of expectations and performance goals, offering feedback that optimises individual performance and team effectiveness. If organisations expect managers to drive agility via continuous coaching, these managers must be coached themselves. This requires HR leadership’s ongoing support, comprising training, resources and internal bestpractice champions. In fact, a multidimensional and longitudinal development strategy for managers, is HR leadership’s best option to help managers adopt new behaviours that unlock agile.
All reports and research results in this article are attributed to Gallup
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