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The 6 Enablers of Business Agility

The 6 Enablers of Business Agility

When I first started my journey as a Scrum Master, I devoured books on how Scrum worked. I learnt all about Scrum and its commonly applied processes and practices. I thought I had it nailed. Then it was brought to my attention just how much there was involved in being a great Scrum Master and I realised how much I didn’t know. I was focussing on Scrum, and completely ignoring the many other parts of the role like facilitation, team dynamics, product strategy, technical practices, organisational change and coaching. No wonder my impact was limited. I was not seeing the bigger picture. To this day, I am grateful to those who helped me see how much I was missing. Many years later, I think I had become a decent Scrum Master, but I guess you’d have to ask the people I worked with.

Today, I see the same thing happening with so-called Agile transformation initiatives. There is a growing trend for organisations to try to become ‘Agile’ but to achieve little actual agility. They focus on ‘doing’ Scrum or [insert your chosen framework here]. They may focus on improving engineering practices. They may even support that with some training. There is then an expectation that this will be enough and the improvements will come rolling in. This, of course, does not happen and there is disillusionment. There are murmurings of; “We tried Agile, it doesn’t really work here”. Very soon the transformation runs out of steam as the promised benefits do not materialise. They too are not seeing the bigger picture.

Having been involved with myriad Agile transformations over the past few years, the reason for the failures has become increasingly evident. Like me in my early Scrum Master days, many coaches and consultants are focussing narrowly on one small piece of the puzzle whilst ignoring (often unknowingly) many vital enablers. Without bringing these into focus, the chances of significant improvement are virtually nil. Whilst others may slice and dice things a little differently, I choose to group those enablers as follows:

  • leadership & management – often largely ignored
  • organisational culture – often largely ignored
  • organisational structure – often largely ignored
  • people & engagement – often largely ignored
  • governance & funding – often largely ignored
  • ways of working – often the majority of the focus

I do accept that this is a largely artificial split. One can not address an enabler in isolation. They are all highly interconnected and each enabler will influence each of the other areas. I make the split largely to raise awareness of the things which should be on the radar when leading a transformation. Let’s briefly explore each enabler.

Leadership & Management

I often hear it said that leaders should support or ‘buy-in’ to the change initiative. I disagree. In my experience, a great deal more than support is needed. I believe the change needs to be actively driven by leadership. They themselves need to go through deep learning and growth in their role. It all starts there.

There are many ways that leadership and management of a truly agile organisation are unrecognisable from traditional versions of the roles. Vital shifts include a shift from directive to supportive leadership. A shift from centralised to decentralised authority. A shift from focusing on the work, to focusing on direction and creating the environment for success. Not just with words, but with structural and policy changes to enable the changes to happen. These changes cannot be driven from the bottom up.

Organisational Culture

In the 12th Version One State of Agile Report (2018) ‘Organisational culture at odds with Agile values’ was once again the number one challenge when adopting and scaling Agile; highlighted by 53% of respondents. This continually emerges as the number one inhibitor to increased agility.

The first step is to understand the current and desired culture of an organisation. There are many structured frameworks for this. I tend to favour the Competing Values Framework. Others prefer the Laloux Culture Model or . These will either be well aligned or in conflict with achieving greater levels of agility. If the desired culture is one which is in conflict, then I would question whether the transformation should go ahead. This can prevent a lot of wasted time, money and effort. It tends to be better to help people improve inside the parameters of what they value, whatever that may be. If it is decided that the culture needs to be shifted, this needs to be carefully planned. One does not change a culture by trying to change the culture.

Culture is a product of the behaviours, values and beliefs of the people in an organisation (or department). Cultures can only be shifted by changing behaviours. These new behaviours must be supported with new policies. Only then will the culture shift. Either way, this is another key enabler of agility and it must not be ignored.

Organisational Structure

Few things affect an organisation’s agility like the organisational structure. Picture yourself on an oil tanker. You may be able to travel fast but there is very little you can do to change direction quickly. Try as you may, the ship is designed, from the ground up, for something else. Now imagine yourself as part of a flotilla of speedboats. It is much easier to change direction when you’re on one of those. Much easier to respond to changes. Much easier to be agile. It’s less about what you are doing and more about the system in which you are operating.

Organisations are the same. They need to shift from functional silos (e.g. Analysis, Development, Testing) to collaborative, cross-functional teams with vastly reduced hand-offs. They need to shift from traditional hierarchies, which are often slow to respond, to networks of interconnected teams responding to constantly changing events on the ground. They need to bring the value creators closer to the customers and business stakeholders for greater collaboration. Leaders must decide what properties they want to see from the organisation, and design it with that in mind. These changes can be disruptive, but hugely impactful to achieving desired outcomes.

People & Engagement

In modern business the rules of the game have changed. There is no longer any doubt about the link between employee engagement and business results. Whichever data you look at, the results are the same, companies with engaged employees significantly outperform their competition. Instead of managing for obedience and diligence as was effective during the Industrial Revolution, we now need to manage for creativity, initiative and passion. This will help to attract and retain the most effective employees, and will give a huge competitive advantage in today’s complex knowledge economy.

Is it any wonder that the in the State of the Global Workplace Report by Gallup (2017), only 15% of people polled were ‘engaged’ in their job? Organisations are wasting human potential and are not getting the best out of their people. This is bad for people and bad for business. To create high-performing, adaptive organisations, actively managing for engagement is a must. This involves reinventing many outdated HR policies for the 21st-century knowledge worker.

Governance & Funding

A question I hear all the time is this; “How can we be agile when we need to sign off the scope, cost and timelines up-front and they cannot be changed without revisiting the business case?” Guess what? You can’t. I’m sorry. I don’t like giving that message, but to give a different one would be disingenuous.  A waterfall-based governance model which insists on big up-front analysis and design, the creation of detailed business cases, strict change control and funding large batches is not a model designed for agility. Quite the opposite. It is designed for rigidity and makes a whole load of assumptions which do not hold in complex developments. Assumptions like ‘we can know what to build in advance’,‘things won’t change much as we progress’and ‘it’s safe to place big bets and validate our assumptions when the money is spent’. This is fundamentally incompatible with many Agile approaches, such as Scrum or Kanban.

Changing how money is invested from plan-and-predict to experiment-and-adapt is a huge mindset shift. Placing many small bets and course-correcting based on feedback is the least risky way to proceed but organisations need to be set up for that. Moving from funding large projects to funding products and taking a venture capitalist approach to allocating funds. Movements like Beyond Budgeting can also be a huge help. Bringing in Finance, Risk, Compliance, PMO and other Governance functions to shift to an approach which enables greater agility is a long, and difficult process. Many have ignored it and have failed. Many have done it and are reaping the benefits.

Ways of Working

This is the enabler in which most organisations dedicate the majority of their focus. Whether it is implementing Agile frameworks such as Scrum, Kanban, LeSS, SAFe or the (non-existent) Spotify Model, or improving engineering practices, this tends to be the starting point for most who are seeking increased levels of agility.  The problem is that focusing on Ways of Working without addressing the other 5 agility enablers, will all but guarantee that “Agile doesn’t work here”. The reason it won’t work will be that the organisational and leadership changes needed to created an environment for success did not happen. It’s like trying to grow a beautiful rose in an arid desert. It just will not, and cannot, thrive.

The frameworks mentioned above can be very valuable when applied in the right context. The organisational culture will lend itself to a certain approach. Any Agile ‘coach’ or ‘consultant’ who advises starting with a particular framework without understanding the context, culture, desired outcome and attitude to change is someone who probably does not have the experience to be advising you on your transformation. I see this all too often and it is a failure of our industry. Processes, practices and frameworks are important, but they will not achieve results in isolation.

The 6 Enablers of Business Agility


Helping to cultivate high-performing, agile organisations which are also engaging places for people to work as a means of delighting customers, is what gets me up each morning. It’s only fair that we help leadership understand the business benefit of increased agility and employee engagement whilst making clear the scale of the challenge to achieve it. It is not merely a case of teams changing their ways of working like a car switching out one engine for another. That is a small piece of the puzzle. There is big organisational change involved to create the environment for teams to be successful in the VUCA world of the 21st century.

The journey will be long, hard and disruptive, but the rewards for taking the journey are substantial. I’d go as far as saying that for many organisations, their long-term survival depends on it. To increase your chance of success, broaden your focus from frameworks and practices to include the whole picture. Create a holistic approach to growing your organisational capability and see how much more effective you could be.

If you are interested in learning more about creating high-performing, engaging, agile organisations, please take a look at our Certified Agile Leadership® (CAL) training or get in touch.

For in-house classes or leadership coaching, please contact us for details. 

If you want to learn more, you can read more in Karim Harbott’s book: The 6 Enablers of Business Agility.

The 6 Enablers of Business Agility