From ‘command and control’ to agile working

Paul Lewis
Nov 16, 2018

A masterclass on corporate agility discusses how companies can become more flexible  and transparent.

Faced with dramatic market changes in recent years, companies across all sectors have sought to survive and prosper by becoming more ‘agile.’ They have adapted structures and processes to become more flexible and transparent, flattened hierarchies, and looked for new ways to tap the talents and ideas of staff.

To some firms, agility comes naturally. Silicon Valley start-ups, for example, don’t discuss becoming agile; they just are, says Professor Ricardo Perez, Academic Director of the Master in Digital Business at IE Business School. They are more open, flexible, democratic and communicative. Fresh ideas are pitched, tested and funded, and if they fail they are revised and tried again. WhatsApp messaging replaces long-established communications channels. Rules get broken, mindsets morph, and business models are quickly reinvented.

During a Financial Times | IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance masterclass, Agile Methodology as a Business Transformation Tool, Professor Perez told participating HR and L & D leaders from major international companies  that even traditional ‘command and control’ corporate cultures can become agile. It all comes down to their ’attitudes to experimentation’ and the setting of clear principles, rules, goals and incentives.

Indeed, the Financial Times, a 130-year old company with a global brand, has itself shown how a traditional business model can successfully become agile, says FT columnist Michael Skapinker, who chaired the masterclass. While retaining its core value around being a trusted news source, the FT’s leadership provided clear strategic direction in the face of digital change. It recast its writers’ roles from meeting daily print deadlines to becoming digital-based reporters, broadcasters, speakers and even teachers. And then it mined the resulting mass of reader data to continuously refine strategy.

Becoming agile is not an easy process for larger, established companies, but it helps if they bear in mind seven key points, as discussed at the masterclass.

1) One step at a time: Don’t try to change everything at once. Agile working should be instituted bit by bit, perhaps starting in a single business unit, and progressing in smaller incremental steps. Bite-size changes are not only more manageable, they also act as useful precedent, stimulus and confidence-booster for other departments as they prepare to change.

2) Create champions. Agile working doesn’t just happen even if it has been ordered from the top. This is because many senior staff feel uncomfortable or even resist experimenting in ways that circumvent established reporting structures. When embarking on agile change, find champions to inspire, encourage and cajole the rest, especially during crises when staff typically revert to traditional ways of working.

3) Beware ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ syndrome. Unengaged staff tend not to think about what’s good for the company as a whole. Perhaps they fear for their jobs. More often, it’s because their ideas are ignored or rejected simply because no process exists for considering them properly. Even the most junior staff want to feel they have an input into the company’s future. Companies can prevent disillusion from setting in by communicating clearly ‘why’ they (and their colleagues) are doing the work they do, and then widening and simplifying the innovation process so they can suggest ways to improve things.

4) A simple system to test concepts. Good ideas are seldom launched by one person acting alone. The concept-testing process usually involves some financial backing and support from other departments (such as IT or marketing). It will also need some senior level sponsorship and a post-launch review of what went wrong or right. Without a supporting ecosystem, the tiniest obstacles will derail the efforts of even the most brilliant and energetic staff member.

5) Loosen command and control. The involvement of senior executives shouldn’t mean asserting control over the entire process. Traditional command-and-control corporate cultures often believe that senior managers must lead from the front. Typically, they lack self-restraint and ignore negative feelings bubbling up from below. Agile companies need leaders that guide and support without cramping the style of their team members.

6) Balance trust with rules: Striking the right balance comes down to trust. Agile companies must allow staff to work in their own way, and feel confident enough to test ideas that might not work. But trust must come with rules to prevent an initially good idea getting out of hand. Agile companies must measure and monitor what they produce as much as how they produce it. Professor Perez recalls how staff at the Barcelona’s ground-breaking restaurant El Bulli would spend half the year devising original menus and the other half making and serving them. Leaders set the vision and the rules; but staff determine how best to execute.

7) Define the end goal. Not only must parameters be set, but the end goal must be clear. What exactly is the job that needs to be done? What does successful execution actually look like? Without a clear sense of when a job is done, agility loses its sense of purpose and becomes an open-ended fudge that drains rather than invigorates the creative talent of the organisation.

Paul Lewis

Editorial Director at Headspring