How to Build an Agile Culture

In my article last month, From Great to Outstanding, I discussed the concept of agility which determines who will stand out amongst those who have successfully moved from good to great. And there a hanging question which I promised to tackle in this issue: How do you build an agile culture?

The process of building a culture of agility is a mix of science and art. Hence, there is no exact formula in executing it. It’s not rocket-science either. The framework or model to be used differs from one company to another. In my experience helping organizations create an agile culture, I have seen practices common to those who have made it happen. I call these the must-ingredients which I am delighted to share with you.

Must-Ingredient 1
Agility needs to be clearly defined and this definition must be shared within the organization. A clear description of what agile is about and how it looks like must be fleshed out. Defining agility also means identifying specific behaviours and ways of doing things that manifest it.

Example of what Agility means:
Agility is getting a customer served half the standard turn-around time.

This definition explicitly says that if the standard turn-around time is one hour, the customer must be served within 30 minutes. So, how this should manifest in terms of employees’ behaviour and company’s processes must be carefully identified. When these are crystal-clear, everyone in the organization gets to fully understand what agility is. And the likelihood that people will embrace the culture building process definitely becomes higher.

Must-Ingredient 2
Understanding what agility is and how it translates into one’s behaviour and ways of doing things is not enough. Desired tangible outcomes must be determined. Outcomes are true measures of success. Ask questions like: What’s the value of creating a culture of agility? How will it benefit our customers, the business and the employees? In naming the outcomes, however, there is a huge tendency to emphasize only the financial gains the employer and employee can reap in the end. While financial bottom line may be imperative for any business, I observed that it is not enough to get people on-board as it is not the only motivator. Focus instead on the outcomes that can bring an individual to self-actualization. These outcomes will serve as fuel to the individual:

  1. a. the self-fulfilment one gets from making a customer happy
  2. the great feeling one gets from making a difference in other people’s lives
  3. the self-actualization one gets from constantly bringing out his fullest potential
  4. the limitless opportunities one gets as a result of stretching himself
  5. the feelin of success one gets from continuously transforming

Must-Ingredient 3
Creating a culture that requires sense of urgency and speed is more people-driven than technology-driven. Hence, it heavily relies on people’s decision to scale up and stretch themselves. Stretching means going beyond what you currently have – competencies, skill-sets, knowledge, ways of thinking – which requires full ownership that, unfortunately, cannot be imposed upon people. The directive approach and telling style, therefore, do not work if you want people to go beyond their limits. Helping people think, find solutions and strategies on their own allows people to stretch their talents and capabilities. How can this be done? Leaders must change the nature of their conversations with their people from being directive to non-directive. Dialogues in the workplace must shift from one-way to an engaging two-way communication. Leaders must, therefore, learn the art and science of coaching as it is a powerful tool that draws out the innermost potential of people through non-directive conversations.

Must-Ingredient 4
Just like in any organizational initiative, leadership at all levels is key. Leaders must drive the whole process. Leaders must model agility. Leaders must enable, support, inspire, challenge and rally the people. It only means that leaders must be equipped with the necessary tools and skill-sets in coaching, training, mentoring and other essential enablers critical to the change process. On top of these, they must be able to demonstrate passion and do-what-it-takes, plus the consistency and flexibility in achieving the desired outcomes.

Must-Ingredient 5
Lack of trust and openness slows down work, decisions, and output. Therefore, genuine teamwork and collaboration is a must in building a culture of agility. This is when people openly and objectively discuss issues that get in the way…when they put aside their personal agenda to promote the common good. This is a culture where people affirm outstanding performance and call each other’s attention on non-performance. It is where people turn diversity into competence.

Must-Ingredient 6
Measure progress and celebrate accomplishments. Identify who is in and who is out. Affirm and acknowledge those making leaps and bounds. Do not tolerate mediocrity. Excite and challenge those lagging behind. If the misaligned choose not to align themselves, they must be eased out.

These must-ingredients are carefully woven to form a step-by-step process or roadmap which my team uses to build an agile culture. This roadmap is always a combination of training and non-training initiatives and the implementation lasts up to 6 months or more depending on the size of the organization.

Should you need help in creating a culture of agility in your organization, please feel free to get in touch with us.

Update
This article was featured on Bong Osorio’s column on The Philippine Star’s Business Life section. (June 29, 2009 Issue)