The Value of Business Agility

Every business faces one foundational but complicated challenge: It must develop a strong strategy for the future while understanding the future will inevitably bring change. The challenge is in preparing for change without knowing yet what form that change will take and when it will happen.

That’s why business leaders today must adopt an agile strategy and mindset. Business agility is not just a talking point; it’s a worldview that informs all of your organization’s decisions and allows the business to continue evolving amid unpredictability. Businesses that refuse to embrace change come closer to obsolescence as the world changes around them.

A business of any size can start sliding into history for misjudging how the market is changing, or being too unwieldy to pivot. Companies like Blockbuster and Kodak have demonstrated that. The benefits of being agile go beyond business survival in itself, though. Studies show that embracing an agile model produces four meaningful outcomes: improved customer satisfaction, more employee engagement, better operational performance, and stronger financial performance.

The benefits of agility are clear, but developing a playbook for agility brings us back to that one foundational challenge: A business needs to embrace change at all levels while staying on track to grow revenue without getting mired in an endless string of tangents. Balancing those two imperatives starts at the highest level of the business, with an agile mindset that informs the company’s overall culture. There are three key elements to that mindset, and these elements need to come into play on a day-to-day basis throughout the business: a clear company mission and vision, creativity, and a willingness to experiment

3 key elements of agility in business

Clear mission and vision

A clear mission and vision empowers and inspires teams to recognize how their individual lives connect to the company’s work, and how their own future is linked to that of the company, through common goals and values. That empowerment and buy-in is essential in the face of constant change: innovation must not be purely the domain of the uppermost tiers of management.

Businesses need bottom-up insights — from employees who have in-the-weeds perspectives of the work and who cumulatively have valuable perspectives about the state of the marketplace and consumers’ needs. But first, employees need to recognize when and how they’re able to contribute to the future path of the business. Leadership needs to set that mission – a North Star reference point – so employees’ innovation and imagination remain focused and teams avoid wasting time and resources on those inessential tangents we mentioned.

Today, in an environment where remote or hybrid work models are not only de rigueur for many industries, but frequently expected by talented job candidates, there is a particular imperative to focus and communicate that mission, and to facilitate innovative feedback from empowered employees. The business’ mission cannot be vague or ephemeral. Leadership must codify it, explain it, and create resources for employees to access it and learn more about what it means. The business needs to create channels for employees to share insights freely, wherever they’re doing their work. 

Creativity

Once again, we need to avoid slipping into ephemeral territory when we talk about goals like focusing employees’ imagination around the company’s mission, or encouraging feedback. The process of creativity feels concrete when we break it into smaller pieces that can actually be applied day by day.

Agile businesses don’t usually make huge leaps, one at a time. Incremental change, in the form of hundreds or thousands of small steps, is at the heart of business agility. Leadership needs to encourage all employees to embrace problem-solving in the course of doing their work. This may seem obvious, but it’s not.

Employees commonly recognize problems, but not every business helps employees understand they can play a role in solving a problem, and that they will be heard and appreciated for it. Customers commonly recognize problems with products or services, but not every business seizes on the value of frontline employees’ direct interactions with customers.

Those frontline insights and observations ultimately help the overall business understand how their products or services are actually being used, and where consumers’ points of confusion or frustration tend to occur. And the frontline is positioned to make subtle changes that improve the customer experience and positively impact the business — making sure in-store signage is accurate and clear or keeping inventory scanners and software accurate and efficient, for example.

Employees need to see that their concerns and issues are heard and acted upon in order to feel personally empowered to act for the good of the business and customers. It’s satisfying and encouraging for an employee to see the positive effects of a problem they’ve helped solve. And if people don’t feel empowered, taking action can feel like a burden instead. 

Willingness to experiment

The final key element to an agile business model is the willingness to experiment. And that includes willingness to try, even if it means missing the mark. If failure — whatever it looks like in any scenario — is always going to be one potential outcome, ego can’t get in the way of experimentation. Leadership needs to acknowledge that in the course of experimentation, there will be multiple points of potential failure. Solutions that seem sound on paper also need to go through the trial of being put to use in the real world.

Not every potential solution passes the real-world test. And leadership needs to communicate that reality to employees: If a person suggests an experiment that doesn’t work out, that’s not a black mark on their job performance. They’ve made an effort to solve a problem, and an employee brings value to the organization simply by flagging and trying to solve the problem. 

When an experiment doesn’t bear fruit, leadership needs to be able to adapt or simply move on. After all, most business problems don’t fit into a clean “solved/unsolved” binary. Most have multiple potential solutions. Leadership needs to understand the business’s goals, challenges, and resources to know whether to keep experimenting, trying out various solutions for a single problem, or to start solving for a different problems that impact the business critically. 

An agile business model requires buy-in and participation from all levels and sides of the business — vision and goal setting coming from the top down, innovation and problem-solving from the bottom up. To encourage an environment of participation and sharing of insights and experiences, businesses need to create not only channels for feedback, but also opportunities for employees to feel connected to each other and eager to collaborate.

Team building is a central part of fostering those connections, and it needs to be done intentionally. Provide experiences for people to gamify problem-solving with their teammates, and to get to know each other while they’re not focused purely on their day-to-day jobs. Imagination happens throughout the day, and business leadership can harness that imagination through team-building experiences where people recognize where their own values and goals are interweaved with those of the team. 

Leaders must always remember business agility is a daily practice, not just an abstract value. There is power in day-to-day problem solving, and incremental change helps the entire business evolve responsively. Responsiveness and active, continual evolution are keys to driving the business forward into the unexpected. 

Jonathan Murrell is Co-Founder & CMO at The Escape Game.

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