How you can stay agile as you get bigger

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By Simon Hayward

Many SMEs and startups are quite agile businesses. They are usually unencumbered by the bureaucracy that tends to creep in as organisations get bigger.  This means that smaller businesses often find it easier to adapt and change to changing market conditions, evolving customer needs, and the ever-increasing pace of working life.

Leadership Connections research from Cirrus and Ipsos MORI revealed agility as the number one priority for business leaders. There is widespread agreement that being agile helps you to achieve goals and to react to new opportunities more swiftly and decisively. Agility enables you to embrace opportunities you may never have imagined in the past.

Customer demands in the digital age

No matter what business you’re in, technology is fuelling the pace of change in our unpredictable and complex world. The increasingly digital nature of customer interactions accelerates their expectations. Technology also enables many organisations to respond to these expectations more effectively and to create more innovative solutions. You will be better able to embrace the opportunities offered by digital if you work in an agile way.

How can you stay agile?

It’s possible to continue being agile as you evolve and grow. Amazon is a good example of this – it began by disrupting traditional book retailing and is now the world’s biggest online retailer, challenging market after market.

Retaining an agile culture can however be very challenging. There is a widespread tendency for organisations to introduce more systems and processes as they grow. As time goes by, rules and procedures tend to become more complex, with more control adding extra layers to the maze of bureaucracy. This slows down the organisation, restricting pace, innovation, and entrepreneurial flair. The need for simplification is clear, but the challenge is immense because the system is difficult to change. This can stifle agility. So as you get bigger and/or more established, it is well worth maintaining a focus on simplicity and avoiding complexity where possible.

I have seen some striking results when business leaders have encouraged colleagues to challenge every rule and process to see how it can be stripped back and pruned to within an inch of its life. This has helped to reduce the burden of bureaucracy across their businesses, ensuring that things stay as simple as possible during periods of growth or change.

Often, organisations find it hard to stop doing the things that they’ve been doing for a long time. The larger and longer-established the organisation, the more difficult this can become. Many activities continue because that’s what has always been done. To remain agile, you need to challenge why you’re doing things in the same old ways. Not only can this help reduce bureaucracy, it can help to spark innovative new ideas.

The agile leadership paradox

Something else to bear in mind as your business evolves is the need to manage the paradox of agile leadership. The agile leadership paradox involves building a more connected business while at the same time disrupting that business sufficiently to reinvent it.  Getting this balance right is critical if the your business is to compete on a sustainable basis with competitors. The principles of agile working need to be adopted across the entire business: greater emphasis on simplicity, shorter planning cycles, ruthless prioritisation focused on what customers want, and embracing digital opportunities.

No matter what industry you work in, chances are it is becoming more complex and competitive. Whatever your business does, a focus on agility will help ensure that you can innovate adapt with speed – whatever lies ahead.

Dr Simon Hayward is CEO of Cirrus and author of new book, The Agile Leader, published by Kogan Page priced £14.99