Barriers to Agility

If you need to kill complexity, here’s where you should train your guns
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The essentials

The complexities of modern management can confound decision makers and cause firms to overlook promising opportunities. In this excerpt from Simple: Killing Complexity for a Lean and Agile Organization, author Barry Cross explores the most common barriers to corporate agility. He says agility “relies on the ability within the firm to establish and communicate priorities and mandates” based on value and customer needs. 

A complicated product mix, slow development process, and lethargic supply chain are just a few of the reasons organizations lack agility. These tend to be structural issues. But, just as often, there are cultural or process issues that cause a firm to bog down: unproductive meetings, ineffective communications, lots of talk but few decisions made. In some cases, leaders may not feel they have the resources or expertise to do what they believe is necessary, where, without realizing it, key resources are not aligned with strategic priorities or customer needs.

Most of us can identify with at least a few of these barriers. Kraft, for example, struggled with a perceived lack of resources until it narrowed its focus to its top five categories, 10 products, and 10 markets. With that clarity and alignment, Kraft suddenly had the resources it needed. Zara and H&M operate their supply chain, design, and merchandising strategies with a sense of urgency, with a clear focus on getting to fashion-forward customers first.

Let’s examine these barriers in more detail and consider how they show up within firms.

Lack of Urgency

Firms with a lack of urgency often struggle with short-term planning or the communication of priorities within that plan. Priorities and plans that have been established and conveyed to the team may not align with today’s customers or their wants and needs. These firms may develop longer-term business plans, agreeing as a leadership team on the future direction of the organization. But the missing link is an operating plan, a clear vision of the activities for the next 12 months that will both satisfy the needs of today and lay the foundation for the longer-term agenda.

People can’t do what they don’t understand. In this case, the doing comes from an effective short-term plan and appropriate communication. This is what we’re doing and, more importantly, this is your role in that plan. We’ve studied it, and this is why it matters to the customer. It is essential to point out that urgent demand cannot trump important priorities. Effective prioritization enables people to react with both appropriateness and urgency in the right balance.

Unclear Time Horizon

An unclear time horizon barrier typically goes hand in hand with a lack of urgency and is a result of insufficient planning and communication. I distinguish between the two to highlight the necessity for an effective prioritization process within organizational planning. Sometimes these events are presented in order of priority or, more often, we get overly specific with the due date of particular projects and events.

Organizations that struggle in this area may have a number of important projects launching, say in the coming year, without a clear sense for which projects are more important than others, the appropriate cadence of projects to optimize resources, or the alignment of initiatives based on customer or market need. As a result, these firms toil with misspent resources and colliding projects and priorities, and seem to be trapped in fire-fighting mode.

Legacy of Failure and a Culture of “No”

These two are distinct barriers in some firms and the same in others. Past failures lower the morale in a firm without a true innovation culture. When failure is seen as part of the process and pursued in the interest of learning, refining an idea and evolving a new service or product go hand in hand. In the absence of an innovation culture, failures breed cautious, risk-averse behaviour, which can lead to additional policies, procedures, or processes to prevent such failures or issues from arising again. While this may be appropriate in some cases, such processes often feel like a stifling bureaucracy, slowing operations and response time.

A “no” culture will also be familiar to many of us, especially when we hear excuses such as, “That won’t work here” or “We don’t do it like that in this organization.” These responses may have a foundation in the history of the organization or sector (for example, healthcare, government, or education). This perspective is a barrier not only to agility but also to innovation and general change within an industry.

Endless Debate

I work with a number of organizations that employ some of the brightest minds in their industries, including academia, banking, government, and companies in the technology sector. Any time you gather intelligent, experienced, and intuitive people in a room, you can count on getting a dose of hubris and a dash of arrogance.

Where this barrier devolves to an almost insurmountable situation is when it’s combined with a lack of planning and alignment. We like it when people contribute to discussions — ultimately that is why we hire and empower smart, capable people and hold meetings in the first place. But without some connection to priorities, strategy, and customer needs, this discussion just goes on and on, often getting tabled “until we can circle back on this again.”

Lack of Resources, Skills, or Tools

I have rarely gone into an organization and not been able to find the resources required to get the job done. In most organizations, resources are not used effectively, resulting in wasted efforts, time, space, and cash. In these organizations, there is an insufficient focus on value creation. That is, we are not asking the tough questions related to the work that is consuming resources: Who is the customer of that process, and what do they really want? Why are we doing that? What is the agenda for the meeting you want me to attend? When was the last time anyone actually read this report or evaluated that data?

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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