Why Agility is the Key to Success Today

In today’s business climate, agility continues to grow in importance for companies to achieve success. Amanda Fajak, president North America of Walking the Talk, shares her thoughts on agility and why it’s the key to success in an unstable market.

May 22, 2023 – We’d just about got used to being in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world when a new acronym popped up – BANI (brittle, anxious, nonlinear and incomprehensible) to describe the current macro environment. A global pandemic, new ways of working, war, and recessionary pressures have combined to challenge how businesses not just survive, but thrive, according to Amanda Fajak, president of North America and global head of product at Walking the Talk, a culture transformation advisory firm acquired last year by ZRG Partners. Agility is the answer but what is agility?

“Agility, or being agile, is often misunderstood. It is not about speed,” Ms. Fajak said. “Operating faster can simply be a recipe for doing the wrong activities quicker. Agility is about being able to adapt, pivot, and respond to your customers and market trends, both at an organizational and individual level. This means you’re focusing your time, money, and energy on what will add the most value to your customers and make the biggest difference to your company’s success. When you focus your effort like that, pace picks up on the activities that will have the largest impact.”

Mindset vs. Meetings

Ms. Fajak explains that agile is commonly associated with practices such as scrum meetings, Kanbans etc. “However, true agility is a mindset – or a set of four interconnected, critical ones, customer centricity,” she said. “This is the mindset that your company is driven by customer needs, not your own corporate agenda. It’s about the customer being the beating heart of every element of your organization, from your purpose to your production.”

In practice, Ms. Fajak notes that this means letting go of the ‘we know best’ mindset, and belief that you have, or indeed need to have, all the answers. “It also means removing old waterfall styles of program and project management, which often involve simply doing activities to customers, without ongoing engagement and feedback,” she said. “Instead, being agile means believing the customer knows best, and in the power of co-creating with them, in a nonlinear, iterative way. By bringing this mindset you better understand customers, challenge assumptions, define problems, and create innovative solutions. Through this ongoing process of listening to customers, incorporating their feedback, and co-developing solutions with them, you create a constant feedback loop of ideating, testing, and learning that endlessly refines and improves your products and services.”

“By being so closely connected to your customers you open yourself up to new ways of thinking, which can lead to more rapid innovation, faster product and solution launches, and increased market relevance,” Ms. Fajak said. “And when you are always on to listening to customers you get immediate insights on what they need, and when their needs change, so you can be both responsive and proactive, enabling you to anticipate the market and get ahead of the competition.”

Ms. Fajak also points to empowerment. “So, if truly agile companies need to pivot and respond quickly to changing customer needs, you do not have time for hierarchies – for decisions to go up the chain and come back down,” she said. “This slows your progress, dilutes innovation, and repels talent. By the time a way forward has been agreed, you may have missed any advantage you had in the market, or lost out on the chance to make a move completely. An empowerment mindset enables people at all levels to make decisions on the spot, day-to-day, and be proactive, so they can respond rapidly to new information. You cannot be agile if the people throughout your organization are not able to react quickly to changing customer and market conditions without a myriad of stakeholder approvals.”

Ms. Fajak explains that you also cannot be agile if everyone is looking upwards for orders. “This doesn’t mean people have absolute freedom without any guardrails,” she said. “We often talk about the most effective empowerment being where there is freedom in a framework. This means your people are aware of the parameters they need to operate by, and within that they have the freedom to do what they feel is best for the customer, at pace. Therefore, there are two mindset shifts that need to happen for empowerment to flourish. For leaders, it involves relinquishing their need for perfectionism, control, or the belief that they need to have all the answers. This requires putting their trust in their people to do the right thing. For employees, they need to stop thinking they must wait for permission and take personal responsibility. Being truly agile, then, depends on the empowerment mindset being cultivated by both leaders and their people, which is why it’s so critical.”

Ms. Fajak next points to collaboration. “The world is getting ever more complex, ever more quickly,” she says. “Customer problems are too big to be solved by a single team or department. No one person or group has all the answers, and information and intelligence come from a multitude of places. If you’re not collaborating on collating, reviewing, and acting effectively on the data and insights you’re receiving then you’re missing out on opportunities in the market. That’s how nimble start-ups are often able to move quicker and get ahead of mid-large size companies. To be truly agile, you need to have all the various parts of your business communicating and collaborating as one to tackle these problems.”

Amanda Fajak president of North America and global head of product. An expert in culture transformation, she has over 25 years’ experience in culture transformation and creating the workplace of the future. Ms. Fajak has advised leaders from over 100 organizations across Asia, Europe, and the Americas, including start-ups through to some of the largest companies in the world, supporting them to build their culture as a strategic asset.

And to be clear, Ms. Fajak explains that we’re talking here about true enterprise-wide collaboration, not simply teams working within themselves. “We mean whole departments coming together seamlessly across your organization, focused on the ever-evolving needs of the customer,” she said. “It’s about facilitating this sharing of knowledge and ideas efficiently and effectively, and valuing the contribution that everyone in the business makes to solving customer problems. In many organizations, silo’d thinking and working is hampering your ability to be agile. If every department in your business thinks they know best, or is trying to protect their own area rather than make customers’ lives easier and better, then that creates competition and barriers to collaboration. Or if your company thinks it knows best and doesn’t partner with customers, this can damage your brand, reputation, and market share. Having a mindset of collaboration and working together to solve customer problems opens up new sources of innovation, revenue, and growth.”

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Ms. Fajak also points to experimentation. “Business cycles are shortening, and companies no longer have time to perfect their products and solutions,” she said. “They need to move quickly, test, learn, and iterate. This pressing need is in contrast with dominant patterns of behavior we see in many companies, specifically perfectionism, and a fear of failure. People in organizations don’t want to make mistakes, or think they can’t make them, which can cause them to wait for everything to be aligned and signed off before they do anything. It’s understandable, but it’s not helpful if you want to be agile. With the experimentation mindset there is no such thing as right or wrong. Everything is an experiment to learn from.”

Ms. Fajak explains that rather than seeing experimentation as a risk, for agile organizations it’s embraced as an essential ingredient in success. “Failing fast and letting go of ideas or projects that aren’t delivering value means you can pivot to those that have more possibility of success, you’ll remain in step with your customers and the market, and won’t be wasting precious time, money, and energy in the wrong areas,” she says. “By getting comfortable with experimenting, iterating, and letting go, you generate more ideas, increase your chances of success, and free the organization up to spend its time obsessing on customer outcomes that will drive greater returns for your business.”

Start Small and Build Momentum

“We’ve talked a lot about mindsets, and we’re fully aware that changing them isn’t easy,” Ms. Fajak said. “There is no big bang, or magic wand. The key thing is to start small, with practical behavioral experiments that build habits that then start to shift patterns of thinking. For example, could you start each meeting by talking about a customer/s, or their problems? That way you can use an activity you are already doing (having the meeting), and by behaving differently you are signaling a shift in mindset towards putting the customer at the center.”

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“Over time, and with enough behavioral experiments across the four critical mindsets you need to have, you will start to see your company change,” she said. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you really put the customer at the heart of everything you do, commit to what that entails, role model from the top, and practice it every day, your organization can become agile quicker and easier than you think.”

Despite our human craving for stability, the world is only becoming more uncertain, according to Ms. Fajak. “In this environment, companies who are truly agile and put the customer at the center of their strategy and operations will maintain and grow market share, reduce costs, attract and retain the best talent, and futureproof themselves to continue competing in an increasingly challenging world,” she said.

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Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media


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