VUCA – it sounds like a foot infection, but it’s actually a stark summary of the reality facing businesses today. The world we operate in is indeed Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Business models can flourish then die in just a few short years. Consumer behaviour flits capriciously almost as fast as you can say ‘there’s an app for that’.
From the perspective of a business leader trying to generate sustainable returns, that may sound like a nightmare. How can you plan if you don’t know what’s coming? How can you pivot if you don’t know which direction change is coming from?
However, some organisations embrace uncertainty and in so doing gain a comparative advantage. They are Agile, and when they look out at the VUCA world, they see only opportunity. Here’s how.
1. A bias for action
A truly Agile firm adapts at pace, which allows it to operate under conditions of long-term uncertainty. It doesn’t blow the budget on new products and then hope for success, it builds them on a smaller scale and tests them in the real world, and it does so now, not in two years’ time. Agile organisations are willing to fail fast and often, so they can learn and improve quickly.
2. Rapid decision making
It’s one thing wanting to leave the endless debates behind and get on with things, but it’s quite another to actually do it, especially in larger organisations. The key to agility is being able to make quick decisions, and that requires front-line teams to be empowered. If every decision has to pass all the way up an organisational chart that looks like it was designed by Franz Kafka, you’ll never be nimble.
3. People come first
Sound, swift decision-making also requires effective communication and collaboration. In Agile organisations, teams interact regularly and, where possible, on a face-to-face basis to ensure vital information doesn’t get lost in the corporate mire. Relationships matter, and problems are more likely to be solved by proper conversations than playing email pinball with a proliferating CC line.
4. Simplicity is golden
It’s hard to do anything quickly when it’s overly complicated, and even harder to learn anything meaningful from it. Agile organisations break things down, making sure their teams have relatively simple objectives with measurable outcomes. It’s better to do one thing well than a hundred things badly, after all.
5. An open mindset
It might sound from all this like agility is to be found in processes, but at its core agility is a mindset, not a series of step-by-step instructions. That’s why it can be applied to all sorts of business sectors. It looks different in different circumstances, but the mindset underpinning it is essentially the same.
Be under no illusions, mindsets don’t change overnight, even with the best of intentions. It will require work. Expectations will need to be managed – being Agile may allow your teams to achieve goals much more quickly than before, but you’ve still got to keep those goals realistic.
The easiest way to adopt the Agile mindset is to listen to, work with, and spend time around those who already have it, to see firsthand how problems can really be solved differently. It’s also a smart idea to seek out new employees who’ve already worked in an Agile way.
The Agile Business Conference (London, 4-5 October) is a great opportunity to encounter organisations at various stages on their Agile journey. By networking with people who already know how to thrive in uncertainty, you might be able to take your own next step – or first step – in making your business 21st century ready.
Image credit: Carsten Tolkmit/Flickr