How to create a culture of agility

Carine Ghandour

Agility is not a new concept in business, nor is it a buzzword. In fact, many companies claim to be agile, yet very few are. Like innovation, the term agile is thrown around with little understanding of what being agile really means. Agility is a set of critical mindsets, and associated behaviours, that done properly can revolutionise and future-proof your business. But for most, agile doesn’t extend beyond performative agile activities, for example scrum meetings.  

Having a culture of agility has never been more important. With the BANI (Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear and Incomprehensible) world we live in, being adaptive at your core is not a nice to have – it is essential for business survival.  

In this article, we explore what we mean by a culture of agility, why it’s important, and how to create one. We’ll also look at why so many companies struggle with agility, or only go to surface level, and the risks that poses. And finally, we’ll look at what agility means in the new world of work, and its role in the future.   

Workplace agility as a group of mindsets

As our research showed, agility is a group of mindsets, not a methodology. When I first started working with companies on innovation and new product development many years ago, the old waterfall style of project management was dominant. This linear, sequential approach is not customer-centric, doesn’t allow for iteration and experimentation, and can lead to overspend and delays in getting to market. As a result, by the time products and services are launched, they often have faults that were not picked up, issues that could have been foreseen, and worst of all, they may have simply missed the boat completely.     

What do we mean by a culture of agility? 

Agility comes down to four key, interconnected mindsets:  

1. Customer-centricity

Everything you do revolves around the customer, and you co-create with them. 

2. Experimentation

Test ideas and concepts, launch before it’s perfect, and constantly iterate based on data and insights.  

3. Empowerment 

Trust those closet to your customer to make decisions that are best for your business. 

4. Collaboration 

There are no silos, everyone in your organisation shares information openly.  

If any of these mindsets are missing, you don’t have an agile culture. You may have agile activities going on – daily standups in certain parts of the business, for example – but unless the mindsets are ingrained and all the behaviours are exhibited, the culture won’t take root and grow.  

What is the importance of workplace agility – is it just another buzzword? 

Change is faster, and more dramatic 

The world is changing, and the pace of change is only getting faster. Critically, the unexpected is constantly happening, far more frequently than before and with greater impact. Organisations who can pivot and adapt are able to survive, and even thrive, while those unable to are going under. 

The pandemic is a classic example of this. Agile companies emerged in better positions, including many who were born in response to the global turmoil. Those without agile cultures are still struggling to adapt to a post-pandemic world, while many did not survive.  

Importance is growing

So, no, agility is not a buzzword. In fact, as every day passes, its importance only grows. The longer your organisation leaves it to become agile, the more at risk your business is. Even companies with agile cultures need to keep the muscle active because, as we see in the news, anything can happen at any time. In an increasingly interconnected world, leaving your organisation constantly exposed in this way poses incalculable risks.  

Why do companies struggle with agility?

Doing vs. being agile 

One of the main reasons that companies have a hard time being agile is that they focus on ‘doing’ agile (which is relatively easy to do) rather than ‘being’ agile (which is way harder). At the root of this is misunderstanding. Organisations often want the benefits of being agile – quicker to market etc – but they believe the way to do this is to simply deploy agile (often in a singular part of the business, or port it from one to another).  

Not plug and play

Agile is not a methodology that you simply plug in, and it works. You can't just implement agile processes in, for example, your Finance department and expect everybody to go ‘OK, we'll just start working this way’ because it involves experimenting and taking risks. If you type ‘agile’ into Google, you’ll get thousands of case studies of corporate failures following a similar approach.  

Don’t know how to collaborate 

This is a common theme among our clients who work with us on agility. They have a culture in place that does not enable, support, or reward cross-functional working. They know how to collaborate within teams, but not across the enterprise. As a result, knowledge isn’t shared, learnings aren’t spread, and there are sub-cultures that thwart attempts at experimentation.   

Need for speed

A real challenge when it comes to being agile is that it requires your organisation to move quickly, often in sprints. Many companies tell us that they can’t operate at that pace. There is a mindset that while agile may be ok for the IT team, it can’t possibly work in X function, or even across the organisation, because we’re not a start up so we can’t move at their speed. There is a real fear of moving fast.  

Lack of psychological safety

As Amy Gallo wrote, psychological safety means people feel comfortable taking risks, speaking up, and iterating – all without fear of retribution. If this isn’t a hallmark of your culture, it’s going to hold people back from experimenting, which is a cornerstone of being agile. To accept agile, you’re accepting failure as part of the process, and too many companies still can’t stomach this.  

Flawed thinking

This continues to be why so many companies are struggling with agility. They look at leaders in this space (for example, Amazon) and wonder why they can’t simply replicate their business models, with similar success. But Amazon was agile from birth. Agility is in its DNA, and its culture is customer obsessed. By contrast, other companies who were not raised on agile need to make a conscious effort over time to change (or revert) their cultures to become agile. Without making this intentional shift in mindsets and behaviours, organisations are going to keep doing sprints and squads and other agile activities, but nothing is really going to change.   

So, the key question is, how do you get a group of people that are not thinking and behaving agile to do so?  

How can you get started with agility?  

Small steps 

When talking to clients about agility, we tell them to see their world in much smaller steps, as opposed to the bigger ones that can lead to consistently overcommitting and underperforming.  

For example, as I write this, we’re in budget and planning season for 2024. My question to my clients right now is, ‘What plan do you have, or are you making, for when that plan blows up?’ That’s agile thinking. It’s about proactively and ahead of time already knowing that this plan is not once and done, you’re not wedded to this for the whole of next year. It’s iterative, and you will pivot and adapt as you need. 

That way, as you move forward through the year, and start allocating resources, as soon as a surprise hits (which it always does), you will be able to respond effectively. 

Future thinking 

Agile is about using what you’ve experienced and learned to be better prepared for the future. Instead of events disproportionately disrupting your business and preventing you from pivoting, a future thinking mindset considers: 

  • What’s our Plan B and C? 
  • What could impact us that we haven’t so far considered? 
  • What’s worked and what hasn’t before? 

By doing this, you’re minimising the impact of surprises, and are positioning your organisation to not just respond to unexpected (and expected) events, but to be ready to capitalise on opportunities they may present.  

The 80/20 rule 

Recently, I was working with a Finance team to embed an agile culture. Like many working in Finance, this team has always done a month-end close. In large organisations such as this one, this takes a huge amount of time and effort, and therefore money. So, we decided to do an agile ‘soft close’, which meant reducing the number of elements that needed to be in it, and going with the 80/20 rule on accuracy. 

During the trial, the team were also encouraged to collaborate more closely, experiment, fail forward and share learnings. And they learnt a lot.  

For example, the 80/20 expectation significantly decreased the pressure, and increased the wellbeing, of the team. Also, the rest of the company started to take notice of the benefits of this iterative, feedback-driven approach, and thought, ‘They’re in Finance, not technology, and they’re not even customer-facing, so why can’t we do this?’ As a result, an agile culture started to grow, and is now becoming embedded throughout the organisation, with positive results for the company’s financial performance, among other metrics.  

How can you promote agility in a workplace?

1. Leadership role modelling 

It’s important that agility is spoken about from the very top. Leaders need to talk about what being agile means, why it’s important, and what they need people to do differently. Crucially, those leaders need to behave in an agile manner – focus on customers, empower their people, cut out silos, and remove fear of failure.  

For example, leaders can start meetings by saying ‘I’m bringing you this plan because I want to pick holes in it’. You must be intentional and explicit that you are looking for critique, improvements, and iterations.  

That isn’t how a lot of leaders operate, but building agile into the mindsets and behaviours of your executives is the foundational step to getting to your tipping point for culture change.  

2. Experiment, experiment, experiment 

In my example earlier of the Finance team, find teams or departments who put their hand up and volunteer to try being agile. Even better if those teams, such as Finance, may not have normally thought of themselves as able, or willing, to be agile.  

Such experiments are easy to set up, and visible to others. They are designed to be iterative, scalable, and repeatable. Share the results regularly, because when you have success with these experiments and those teams, it sends a clear message to others that agile is not function-specific, but applies to everyone. And as more and more parts of the organisation become agile, it becomes harder for others to resist.  

3. Language matters

In her book ‘The Fearless Organisation,’ Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson described three types of failure: 

1. Simple failures (= mistakes). 

These failures are the ones where we know how to do it right, but for some reason, the process didn’t go right. 

2. Complex failures (= accidents). 

In these failures, a set of factors come together in a novel way despite the reasonably familiar contexts. 

3. Intelligent failures (= discoveries). 

These are the undesired results of thoughtful forays into new territory. 

If you use language like this, it allows your organisation and teams who may have a fear of failure to start thinking less about mistakes and accidents, which they will naturally want to minimise, and more about intelligent failures made with the clear of intention of learning.  

What does agility look like in the future of work? 

As companies mature, they typically become more bureaucratic and slower, often without noticing it. A key ingredient of their initial success – their agility – gets lost. And while some companies mistakenly think they don’t need to be agile anymore because they have reached a certain market position, the truth is that, as I said in my blog on innovation (LINK), someone, somewhere is trying to put you out of business.  

In this BANI world, agility is going to become table stakes because if you’re not, you’re going to struggle to survive unless you have market dominance (Google, Apple). And with the influence of AI now spreading, the uniquely human ability to be able to respond and adapt – to be agile – is going to be a key skill and differentiator in the future of work. 

For companies who have got out of the habit, becoming agile again will take time, and the older you are, the harder it will be – a bit like trying to lose weight. But building a culture of agility is the only way you can work with unrelenting and unprecedented change, and still have a shot at coming out on top.  

Want to build a culture of agility in your organisation? Our Walking with Agility program can help.   

Download Agile Culture Report

Subscribe for blog updates

How to Create a Culture of Innovation

How to Create a Culture of Innovation

Innovation is a much overused and misused term in business. Fundamentally, the end game of innovation is to provide new products, services,
Agile Mindset: It’s all just an experiment

Agile Mindset: It’s all just an experiment

In a previous blog on agility we promised to delve deeper into the four critical mindsets you need to be truly agile. Here we take a look
Culture Labs Masterclass Events

Culture Labs Masterclass Events

We’re excited to announce a series of exclusive Culture Labs Masterclass events that Walking the Talk is hosting in November. The labs are