Creating an Agile Organization
by Sharon Flemings

The fact that we live in a time of change is not news to anyone – we see change all around us in our personal and professional lives. Every once in a while, however, we are exposed to radical change – something that comes from “out of left field”, something that leaves us trying to catch our breath. The source of these radical events might be an unanticipated regulatory change, an unexpected competitor maneuver, the loss of a key employee, or other equally significant event. How can we develop agility in our organizations so we can be resilient in the face of these dramatic events?

Many organizations operate on a day-to-day basis assuming that time (and life) are linear. In other words, one day follow another, and what happened yesterday is a pretty good indication of what will happen today and tomorrow. Our employees do the same job day in and day out, and our senior leadership is often lulled into a false sense of security about potential risks and threats to the organization.

Then one day – BLAM! Out of nowhere comes an event which was completely unexpected; a situation which throws us for a loop and disrupts our sense of balance, security and understanding of our organization, marketplace or direction. Of course, we need to deal with these “emergency” situations, but wouldn’t it be better to create an organization which is resilient and can adapt quickly to unexpected events so these occurrences are not so traumatic?

There are a number of steps which can be taken to create this type of organization, although most will require an investment in time and resources over the long term. Here are a few suggestions to get you started: 

Create a culture which supports knowledge sharing and communication
Assess your organizational culture to determine the extent to which leadership and staff feel comfortable sharing information, insights, and even fears and/or concerns. If there are challenges in this area, begin immediately to improve communications from the top down, sharing as much information as possible about the current conditions, plans and vision of the future. Open additional channels of communication – whether suggestion boxes, “town hall” meetings, and/or open door policies. Do whatever you can to increase the level of communication throughout the organization. 

The leadership team must model the new communication behaviors, and guard against those willing to speak up. Before most employees will be comfortable sharing outside existing communication channels, they need to see that they will not be penalized for doing so. Reward innovation and ideas, and take seriously any concerns raised. Remember, you are all supposed to be part of the same team!

Periodically review risk management and mitigation plans
Each level of organizational leadership should be practicing risk management and mitigation – identifying those potential risks which would impact the leader/managers’ part of the organization, and planning the appropriate mitigation strategies to be executed should the risk occur.

Having a risk analysis process and written risk analyses helps identify risks and mitigation strategies; however, if the assessment is a “once and done” exercise, it won’t benefit anyone. Periodically, review and update the identified risks and mitigation strategies as necessary based on current conditions. Be sure to include factors such as regulatory changes, personnel actions, competitor actions, and other events which would have a significant impact on the organization if they materialize. (By the way, this is a great opportunity to get staff involved and start opening the communications!)

Document overall business process architecture
Understanding how your entire organization is put together through your business processes can serve as a significant strategic advantage. However, having all business processes documented in an overall business “architecture” is critical when significant events occur. Not only can the leadership team quickly identify the areas of the organization which are impacted, they can also see the impacts to related processes (e.g. upstream processes, downstream processes) which also might require consideration.

Having this “map” of the organization allows leaders to make better and quicker decisions about the impacts of dramatic events, and the changes necessary to adapt or overcome. Immediately, leaders know who is involved, what processes, which departments, and which outside stakeholders.

Document current processes
Document current business processes so they are available in the event of personnel shifts. While the old Desktop Procedure is a good way to document a process, they quickly become out of date. Consider using technology such as a Wiki to document processes. These can be updated quickly and easily, and linked to other processes (unlike a paper manual). 

Cross train employees
There is probably not much doubt that employees are a key resource in any organization – particularly those who have been around for a while. Long-term employees accumulate a vast store of organizational knowledge; however, if that knowledge is not shared with others, or otherwise documented, it will walk out the door with the employee. Employees with key organizational knowledge place the entire organization at risk if this knowledge is not captured or shared with others in the organization. Further, it does not allow the organization the flexibility or resilience in the event of a dramatic event. 

Cross training employees supports knowledge sharing, as well as innovation through the different perspectives of various staff members. Additionally, cross training into other positions can present a nice change for staff – particularly for those interested in practicing new skills or accepting new opportunities and responsibilities. Regular rotation of assignments is another method of cross training and infusing new ideas and skills into a given area of the organization. While this practice does require some level of investment of time, the benefits can pay off handsomely in the event of a sudden loss of personnel.

While there are any number of techniques to creating additional agility and flexibility into your organization, the most important is to recognize the importance of agility in responding to (or anticipating) a significant change. We have seen a lot of upheaval over the past couple of years, and it is very likely this trend will not subside. How ready are you for the continuing upheaval? 

Related articles:
Identifying the Strategic Processes
Using Risk Management to Overcome the Fear of Failure
Making the Right Decisions
Change or Die