Skip to main content

Why do organisations fail to achieve business agility?

Recently I was asked to participate in an Interview Series by Noopur Pathak of Innovation Roots, an Agile consultancy based in Bengaluru and several other cities. One of the questions she asked me was why organisations fail to achieve business agility.
Here's an excerpt from my reply.

 Do you want to be agile?

There are many more reasons organisation fail to become agile than there are to succeed, but the first question to ask organisations is what they want to achieve. Is business agility one of those things? Because if you are in a very stable situation and you have very stable business, agility isn’t necessarily on the priority list of what must be achieved.

On the other hand, nearly all organisations – including those in industries we consider most stable, where nothing seems to have changed in decades – face the disruption of new ways of doing business, and innovators entering into their markets. It means everybody must think about the need to change… the need to change fast. Remember: “It’s not the big fish that eat the small ones, it’s the fast that eat the slow!” If your organisation is slow, there is a good chance that your competitors or new entrants into the market will disrupt it and take market share.

So the first question is, “Is agility an aim for the organisation?” If it isn’t, you won’t achieve it. If you realise that you do need to become agile, there are still many reasons why you may fail.

A failure to plan

For example, you need to plan to become more agile (more able to respond rapidly to changing market conditions), and you need to invest in those plans. If you want to encourage innovation, you need to communicate that goal to staff and show how you will reward it. Traditional command and control approaches to managing business, and fixed long-term goals, won’t work, particularly if disruptors are already entering your market and introducing new ways of working more successfully than you are. You have to think about the way the organisation can empowers its staff, and allow them to think differently, to try new things in a safe-to-fail manner. That allows the organisation to discover different ways of working. Agility comes from the chosen strategy of an organisation, and from its leaders’ ability to communicate and encourage staff to implement that strategy.

It's not just IT

When people say the word “Agile”, they are often only thinking about it in the context of software development. That software is important to business agility is not in question. Software has “eaten the world,” it is the driver for business transformation, it is the foundation of digital solutions. The way you create software, and the way you plan, manage and finance software development is crucial if you want to achieve business agility. However, I encourage leadership teams to consider first why they want to achieve business agility, and what it involves in terms of the changes needed in their organisation. Then they can start planning, not only how it will change software development, but also every other area of the business. Each area, just like the software teams, must invest in new ways of doing business, must try multiple things to see what works; must act before knowing if it will work, learning from failures and exploiting successes. Rather than waiting for the fully developed ideas – the big up-front plans with every component costed and all outcomes forecast, the big implementation and the big-bang delivery – smaller steps and more learning on the journey is essential.

These are strategies for moving faster than your competitors and ensuring survival in rapidly moving markets. That’s why business agility is important. It answers the existential question of how we survive in this rapidly changing world, where organisations can quickly discover they are no longer fit for the new competitive landscape.

Back to some of the reasons for failure to achieve business agility:
  • Not wanting it
  • Wanting, but not planning for it
  • Planning, but not investing in it
  • Not seeing through the changes
  • Not dealing with the negative consequences of innovation in the organisation – not ensuring there is safety in both failed experiments, and successful ones that disrupt existing parts of the business. 

There is no formula

One other thing. People think there is some magic method or strategy or formula that makes organisations agile. There are principles to learn, but there is no formula. Applying those principles in the unique context of your business, your market and your people – and helping your people to innovate – is where business agility comes from.

You can read more of this interview at:


Popular posts from this blog

Does your Definition of Done allow known defects?

Is it just me or do you also find it odd that some teams have clauses like this in their definition of done (DoD)?
... the Story will contain defects of level 3 severity or less only ... Of course they don't mean you have to put minor bugs in your code - that really would be mad - but it does mean you can sign the Story off as "Done"if the bugs you discover in it are only minor (like spelling mistakes, graphical misalignment, faults with easy workarounds, etc.). I saw DoDs like this some time ago and was seriously puzzled by the madness of it. I was reminded of it again at a meet-up discussion recently - it's clearly a practice that's not uncommon.

Let's look at the consequences of this policy. 

Potentially for every User Story that is signed off as "Done" there could be several additional Defect Stories (of low priority) that will be created. It's possible that finishing a Story (with no additional user requirements) will result in an increase in…

Understanding Cost of Delay and its Use in Kanban

Cost of Delay (CoD) is a vital concept to understand in product development. It should be a guide to the ordering of work items, even if - as is often the case - estimating it quantitatively may be difficult or even impossible. Analysing Cost of Delay (even if done qualitatively) is important because it focuses on the business value of work items and how that value changes over time. An understanding of Cost of Delay is essential if you want to maximise the flow of value to your customers.

Don Reinertsen in his book Flow [1] has shown that, if you want to deliver the maximum business value with a given size team, you give the highest priority, not to the most valuable work items in your "pool of ideas," not even to the most urgent items (those whose business value decays at the fastest rate), nor to your smallest items. Rather you should prioritise those items with the highest value of urgency (or CoD) divided by the time taken to implement them. Reinertsen called this appro…

"Plan of Intent" and "Plan of Record"

Ron Lichty is well known in the Software Engineering community on the West Coast as a practitioner, as a seasoned project manager of many successful ventures and in a number of SIGs and conferences in which he is active. In spite of knowing Ron by correspondence over a long period of time it was only at JavaOne this year that we finally got together and I'm very glad we did.

Ron wrote to me after our meeting:

I told a number of people later at JavaOne, and even later that evening at the Software Engineering Management SIG, about xProcess. It really looks good. A question came up: It's a common technique in large organizations to keep a "Plan of Intent" and a "Plan of Record" - to have two project plans, one for the business partners and boss, one you actually execute to. Any support for that in xProcess?

Good question! Here's my reply...

There is support in xProcess for an arbitrary number of target levels through what we call (in the process definitions) P…