Business Agility is about so much more than ‘agile’ delivery

15th November 2021

Business Agility is about so much more than ‘agile’ delivery


In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in business agility.  This is completely understanding as organisations increasingly find themselves in fast-moving business environments where the barriers to entry are lower than ever. We have probably all heard stories of organisations that were once dominant dying because they became complacent and unable or unwilling to change.  Whether it is a DVD rental store that didn’t adapt quickly enough to on-demand streaming services, or a cafe that didn’t realise the needs of its customer-base were changing, the underlying root causes are similar: The organisation just couldn’t sense that change was coming or adapt quickly enough.

This ability for those within an organisation to sense what is happening in the business environment, seek insight and data, decide what to do, and then execute the change is a crucial tennant of business agility.  Even when decisions are made to execute a change, ambiguity will remain and it’ll often be necessary to carry out experiments.  These experiments typically validate some kind of hypothesis of value.  A cafe owner might say, for example, “we think at least 20% of our customers would like to have coffee delivered to their offices rather than having to come and collect it”.  The challenge is then to find the cheapest experiment to validate or refute that hypothesis (in this case it might involve asking people to express their interest by ‘pre-registering’ for early access to the service).

A crucial enabler for business agility is the ability to deliver change in an agile way.  Yet too often business agility seems to get conflated with specific agile methodologies.  Approaches such as Scrum, Kanban, DSDM and others will help deliver a product (often a software product) and if they are adopted well will help ensure there’s regular feedback and adaptation. While they are a crucial component of business agility, alone they are not enough.  To fully embrace agility, a broader viewpoint is needed, which considers cultural and human elements as well as processes, procedures and far more besides.


An Example: Coffee Shop Customers – Don’t Just Deploy “An App”!

Imagine a team within the coffee shop which I mentioned earlier carries out an experiment and determines that its customers would really value a wider range of specialist coffees. It turns out that their customers value variety and also like to be able to try new coffees regularly.  Not only this, they determine that if they can order in advance so they don’t have to queue, they’ll derive real competitive advantage.

An agile delivery approach could deliver a product that can help a customer see a menu and place an order in advance (this might be an app, an in-store touch-screen device or any number of other possible solutions).  However, all of that is just ‘vanity tech’ if the staff aren’t actually aware (and willing) to get to grips with the new menu and the different types of coffee, if the purchasing department aren’t able to actually source new types of coffee, and if the marketing team can’t pivot and change their marketing strategy to highlight the new advantages.  Let’s face it you can have the best product in the world and still fail as an organisation if people don’t hear about it. Plus, the organisation needs to be nimble enough to adapt if the experiment doesn’t work out or if customer demand (or something else in the business environment) changes.

This is clearly a hypothetical example, but I’m sure you get the gist. Technological and product change is hard, but getting a whole organisation to adapt is much harder. In our own lives as consumers we’ve probably all interacted with organisations that appear to be digital on the surface, but are actually slow-moving behemoths under the surface.  Yes, the data might be submitted via an app, but we all know that some organisations find ways of rekeying it into 27 different systems behind the scenes. That’s a prime example where the software delivery may have been agile, but the organisation itself isn’t illustrating any ability to change (“let’s do what we’ve always done, just put an app on top of it!”).

Change practitioners, alongside many other roles, play a crucial part of helping organisations enabling business agility. We can work alongside executives and a whole range of stakeholders to facilitate a shared understanding of the current internal and external situation, and work out possible options.  We can work with others to define experiments and help to execute them.  And most of all, we can call out situations where existing practices are inhibiting the organisation’s ability to move fast enough.  Agile delivery approaches are a key part of this, but as illustrated in this article, business agility is a much broader and bigger topic requiring a more systemic viewpoint!

by Adrian Reed, Business Analysis Expert