The word ‘agile’ is rapidly becoming the term-du-jour in many large organisations as they wrestle with the challenges brought by digital transformation. The need for greater organisational agility is as wide as it is deep. It reaches across the organisation in the same way that customer experience and digital capability and thinking cut horizontally across functional silos and divisions. Just about all the CMOs that attended a recent dinner hosted by AAR are working at businesses in the midst of scaled transformation programmes, yet a common theme that emerged from the discussion was just how nuanced our understanding and application of agile thinking and principles needs to be.  

A number present were in retail, some right in the midst of significant transformation, others at the start of their journeys. Although key areas of retail businesses are already perhaps more naturally responsive than businesses in other sectors, there was common feedback that, even in this sector, the challenges that come with becoming more agile as a large organisation are no less real.

Real organisational agility is as much about manoeuvrability as it is about speed. The ability to respond quickly to changing contexts and to course correct rather than follow entrenched processes and thinking that may bring incremental gain but can often mitigate against the rapid creation of new value. Digital transformation is less about a transition from point A to point B, and more about evolving to a wholly different type of organisation that is characterised by responsiveness and continuous experimentation. Yet this adaptability and iteration also needs to be informed by a compelling and directional vision.

One of the key challenges that came up in the discussion around this need for greater experimentation focused on the challenge of creating space within the day-to-day. Retailers are more naturally aligned to culture of testing, but the difficulties in creating a culture of experimentation are as tangible as they are in any business sector. The constant focus on short-term targets, in particular, can be a very real barrier to nurturing and exploring early stage ideas. 

The discussion turned to focus on ways to create this space, and questions around who in the organisation leads the charge in creating new value and driving transformation. Should it be the innovation lab? The digital team? Customer-facing teams like marketing? Or the responsibility of everyone? There were several different approaches represented by the businesses around the table, but the common thread throughout was the importance of an appreciation of the different tasks in the innovation process and in aligning people in the organisation to what they are naturally good at. 

This need is echoed in the concept, originated by Simon Wardley, of Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners, which brings to life the allocation of resource and talent around these key archetypes. Says Simon:

‘Pioneers are brilliant people. They are able to explore never before discovered concepts, the uncharted land. They show you wonder but they fail a lot. Half the time the thing doesn’t work properly. You wouldn’t trust what they build. They create ‘crazy’ ideas. Their type of innovation is what we call core research. They make future success possible.

Settlers are brilliant people. They can turn the half-baked thing into something useful for a larger audience. They build trust. They build understanding. They make the possible future actually happen. They turn the prototype into a product, make it manufacturable, listen to customers and turn it profitable.

Town Planners are brilliant people. They are able to take something and industrialise it, taking advantage of economies of scale. This requires immense skill. You trust what they build. They find ways to make things faster, better, smaller, more efficient, more economic and good enough. They build the services that pioneers build upon.

The application of this model will likely look different for every organisation but the way in which it is applied is key. Different processes and methodologies will be appropriate for the different job at hand. The point about organisational agility is not saying that agile as a process should be applied right across a company but more that the principles, thinking and cultural attributes that surround agile ways of working need to be more widespread as part of a fundamental re-orientation of the business (the difference between doing agile and being agile). 

One of the attendees at the dinner noted that the ‘Pioneers’ can often be seen as the sexy, interesting part of the organisation which is not subject to the same rules and restrictions as the rest of the business. Approaches like this should, therefore, be inclusive and done in a way that recognises the different contributions of different types of people or areas of the business. 

The challenge with digital transformation, as we heard from those that attended the dinner, is that there is no one way of doing it. In that sense, the process of change and transformation is itself agile.

By Neil Perkin – founder of Only Dead Fish and author of “Building the Agile Business”.