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Born agile or journey to an agile organization

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Agility is catching fire, and there is growing recognition of its transformational benefits. But moving to an agile operating model is tough, especially for established companies. There are several paths to agility and many different starting points, yet successful agile transformations all share the common elements described below.

Agile organizations are different. Traditional organizations are built around a static, siloed, structural hierarchy, whereas agile organizations are characterized as a network of teams operating in rapid learning and decision-making cycles. Traditional organizations place their governance bodies at their apex, and decision rights flow down the hierarchy; conversely, agile organizations instil a common purpose and use new data to give decision rights to the teams closest to the information. An agile organization can ideally combine velocity and adaptability with stability and efficiency.

Transforming to an agile operating model

Any enterprise-wide agile transformation needs to be both comprehensive and iterative. That is, it should be comprehensive in that it touches strategy, structure, people, process, and technology, and iterative in that not everything can be planned up front (Exhibit 1).

There are many different paths to enterprise agility. Some organizations are born agile—they use an agile operating model from the start. As for others, broadly put, we see three types of journeys to agile: All-in, which entails an organization-wide commitment to go agile and a series of waves of agile transformation; Step-wise, which involves a systematic and more discreet approach; and Emergent, which represents essentially a bottom-up approach.

Born-agile organizations are relatively common in the technology sector. Most organizations must undergo a transformation to embrace enterprise agility. Such transformations vary in pace, scope, and approach, but all contain a set of common elements across two broad stages (Exhibit 2).

First, successful transformations start with an effort to aspire, design, and pilot the new agile operating model. These elements can occur in any order and often happen in parallel. Second, the impetus to scale and improve involves increasing the number of agile cells. However, this involves much more than simply rolling out more pilots. Organizations may iterate among these stages as they roll out agility across more and more of their component parts.

Aspire, design, and pilot

Most transformations start with building the top team’s understanding and aspirations, creating a blueprint to identify how agility will add value, and learning through agile pilots. These three elements inform one another and often overlap.

Top-team aspiration

Successful agile transformations need strong and aligned leadership from the top. A compelling, commonly understood and jointly owned aspiration is critical for success.

Adopting an agile operating model can alleviate challenges in the current organization (such as unclear accountabilities, problematic interfaces, or slow decision making). Yet a desire to address pain points is not enough; there is a bigger prize.

To build the top team’s understanding and aspiration, nothing beats site visits to companies that have undergone an agile transformation.

Blueprint

The blueprint for an agile operating model is much more than an organization chart and must provide a clear vision and design of how a new operating model might work (Exhibit 3). An agile transformation fundamentally changes the way work is done and, therefore, blueprinting also needs to identify changes to the people, processes, and technology elements of the operating model. The blueprint should, at first, be a minimum viable product developed in a fast-paced, iterative manner that gives enough direction for the organization to start testing the design.

The first step in blueprinting is to get clear on where the value lies. All operating-model design must be grounded in an understanding of how value is created in the industry and how the individual organization creates value. This fundamentally links to strategy.

Next comes structure. An agile organization doesn’t deliver work according to a classic organization chart; rather, it can be thought of as a series of cells (or “teams,” “squads,” or “pools”) grouped around common missions, often called “tribes.” The blueprinting element should produce a “tribe map” to illustrate how individuals that are grouped get work done, as well as a more recognizable organization chart to show the capability axis along which common skill sets are owned and managed (Exhibit 4).

Individual agile cells are defined by outcomes or missions rather than by input actions or capabilities. Teams performing different types of missions will likely use different agile models. However, three types of agile cells are most common. First, cross-functional teams deliver products, projects, or activities. These have the knowledge and skills within the team and should have a mission representing end-to-end delivery of the associated value stream. Second, self-managing teams deliver baseload activity and are relatively stable over time. These teams define the best way to set goals, prioritize activities, and focus effort. More broadly, lean-management tools and practices are highly complementary with enterprise agility. Third, flow-to-work pools of individuals are staffed full time to different tasks based on the priority of the need. Functional teams like HR or scarce resources like enterprise architects are often seen as “flow” resources.

Working in teams may sound familiar, but at scale this requires change across the whole operating model to provide appropriate governance and coordination. The organizational backbone comprises the stable components of an agile operating model that are essential to enable agile teams. Typically, these backbone elements include core processes (for example, talent management, budgeting, planning, performance management, and risk), people elements (including core values and expected leadership behaviours), and technology components. In trying to scale up, many agile transformations fail by simply launching more agile teams without addressing these backbone elements.

The final step of blueprinting is to outline the implementation road map. This road map should contain, at minimum, a view on the overall scope and pace of the transformation, and the list (or “backlog”) of tasks. The five steps of the blueprint form a coherent approach.

Agile pilots

The purpose of a pilot is to demonstrate the value of agile ways of working through tangible business outcomes. Early experiments may be limited to individual teams, but most pilots involve multiple teams to test the broader elements of enterprise agility. Nothing convinces sceptical executives like teams of their own employees having verifiable impact through agile working.

Initially, the scope of the agile pilot must be defined and the team set up with a practical end in view; this might include deciding on team staffing, structure, workspace, facilities, and resources. Next, the way the agile pilot will run must be outlined with respect to structure, process, and people; this is typically collated in a playbook that forms the basis for communications with those in the pilot.

Scale and improve

Scaling beyond a few pilots is no small feat; this is where most agile transformations fail. It requires recognition from leadership that scale-up will require an iterative mind-set: learning is rapidly incorporated in the scale-up plan. In this, enough time is required—a significant portion of key leaders’ time—as well as willingness to role model new mind-sets and behaviours. Agile transformations acknowledge that not everything can be known and planned for, and that the best way to implement is to adjust as you go.

Agile cell deployment and support

Agile scale-up first and foremost requires standing up more agile cells. However, an organization can’t pilot its way to enterprise agility. The transformation should match the organizational cadence, context, and aspiration. But at some point, it is necessary to leap toward the new agile operating model, ways of working, and culture. For large organizations, this need not be a day one for the entirety but will likely progress through a series of waves.

Many chose to start by transforming their headquarters and product-development organizations before touching frontline, customer-facing units (call centres, stores, or manufacturing facilities). It is possible to transform one factory or one end-to-end customer journey at a time, but highly interconnected functions in the headquarters may need an All-in transition approach.

The size and scope of waves depend on the context and aspiration.

Resources to support new agile cells—for example, availability of agile coaches or appropriate workspace—can often limit the speed of scale-up. Failure to address the support of new agile cells can cause friction and delay in the transformation.

Backbone transformation

The backbone governs how decisions get made; how people, budgets, and capital get deployed; and how risk gets managed. Taking an organization to an agile operating model requires that this backbone be transformed (Exhibit 5).

Capability accelerator

Successfully scaling an agile operating model requires new skills, behaviours, and mind-sets across the organization. This is vitally important and constitutes an intensive phase of an agile transformation. Most organizations require existing staff to take on these new roles or responsibilities, and as such, need a way to build new skills and capabilities. Specifically, any successful agile transformation will invariably create a capability accelerator to retrain and reorganize staff, make the agile idea common to all, and develop the right skills across the organization.

A typical capability journey may well have distinct phases. First, organizations need to identify the number of trainers (agile coaches) required, and then hire and develop them; a failure to do so can cause delay and blockage when the agile transformation extends across the whole organization. Second, as part of building capabilities, the organization must define the new agile roles (agile coaches, product owners, tribe leads, chapter leads, and product owners, for example), along with a clear idea of what success looks like in each role. Third, learning and career paths should be set for all staff, making clear the opportunities that the agile transformation opens up. Fourth, the organization needs to enable continuous learning and improvement across the organization (this will entail a large-scale digital and communications program). Finally, it’s necessary to design and run a whole-organization effort to raise agile skills (often by means of intensive boot camps) and ensure that new staff are on-boarded appropriately. Larger organizations often set up an academy to consolidate and formalize these functions.

Focusing on culture and the change team

A culture and change team is an essential coordinating element of an agile transformation. But it is not a traditional project-management office; rather, the emphasis should be on enabling the other transformation elements, helping to remove impediments and catalysing culture change.

The importance of investing in culture and change on the journey to agility cannot be overstated. Agile is, above all, a mind-set. Without the right mind-set, all other parts of the agile operating system can be in place, and yet companies will see few benefits. In contrast, when leaders and teams have a strong agile mind-set, then a clear aspiration alone is often enough for a successful agile operating model to emerge.

Understanding transformation archetypes

All successful enterprise-wide agile transformations include the elements described above, but there are several different ways in which the elements can be combined and sequenced. As mentioned earlier, there are three major transformation archetypes:

Step-wise. Transforming to an agile organization often feels like a step into the dark for senior leaders. Perhaps understandably, then, the most common transformation archetype shows a clear distinction between aspire, design, and pilot phase and the scale and improve phase. Many companies will run multiple rounds of pilots and iterate their blueprint several times before fully committing to scaling up across a large part of the organization. It is not uncommon for this process to take one to two years, as leaders and the organization build familiarity with agility and prove to themselves that agile ways of working can bring value in their organization. Organizations may well go through several subsequent rounds of aspire, design, and pilot before scaling up elsewhere.

All-in. Although less common, an increasing number of organizations gain strong conviction early on and fully commit up front to move the whole organization to an agile model. Leaders from these organizations define a plan to execute all steps of the transformation approach as quickly as possible. Even in these types of transformation it is rare for the whole organization to transform to an agile model in a single “big bang”; rather, it is more common for the transformation to proceed through a number of planned waves.

Emergent. It is impossible—and not very agile—to plan out an agile transformation in detail from the start. Instead, most agile transformations have emergent elements. Some organizations have chosen to progress their entire agile transformation through an emergent, bottom-up approach. In this archetype, an aspiration from top leaders sets a clear direction, and significant effort is spent building agile mind-sets and capabilities among leaders.

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Are we long—or short—on talent?

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  • By looking at their supply of skills and talent in a new light today, organizations can take actions that better prepare their companies for tomorrow’s challenges.

 

CEOs and HR leaders worried about the viability of their talent strategy may be excused an occasional sleepless night. After all, there’s a closetful of bogeymen to pick from as disruptive technologies such as digitization, automation, and artificial intelligence combine with demographic forces to continue transforming the nature of work, how it gets done, and by whom. The resulting job displacement could be massive—think Industrial Revolution massive—affecting as many as 800 million people globally by 2030 and requiring up to 375 million of them to switch occupational categories and learn new skills.

Companies are already feeling the heat. Fully 60 percent of global executives in a recent survey expect that up to half of their organization’s workforce will need retraining or replacing within five years. An additional 28 percent of executives expect that more than half of their workforce will need retraining or replacing. More than one-third of the survey respondents said their organizations are unprepared to address the skill gaps they anticipate.

The competitive implications are profound. Organizations that expect to benefit from a digital transformation or a promising new strategy won’t get very far if they lack the people to bring the plans to life. What might seem like an irritating talent gap today could prove a fatal competitive liability in the not-too-distant future.

 

How can organizations better prepare for what’s coming?

For starters, they should embrace a more expansive and dynamic view of their talent supply—one that tosses out the usual preoccupation with titles and traditional roles and looks instead at the underlying skills people have. Indeed, we find that when companies start with skills—the ones they need, the ones they have, and how the mix may change over time—they can free up their thinking and find more creative ways to meet the inevitable mismatches.

In this narrative, we’ll show how forward-looking organizations are grappling with these challenges and highlight ways that CEOs and senior leaders can spark progress that is tangible, practical, and quite often beneficial for both employer and employee alike. Oftentimes, taking the first step can be as simple as asking: For our five most important skills, are we long—or short—on talent?

 

Shift happens

Consider the European bank whose market position was threatened by new, more digitally savvy rivals. The shifting competitive landscape required action, but when the bank’s leaders compared their proposed strategic response with a three-year projection of the bank’s talent pool, they saw a mismatch. The plan made sense, but executives feared that their people couldn’t execute it.

For example, the bank would soon have serious skill gaps in its retail-banking unit, particularly among branch managers whose roles needed to change to encompass areas such as sales expertise, customer orientation, and digital capabilities, given the new strategy. Meanwhile, the bank’s IT group faced both undersupply and oversupply: programming skills would be too scarce, while IT infrastructure skills would be too plentiful. To complicate matters, the bank faced strict regulatory and labor restrictions that prevented most layoffs. Any solutions would require flexibility and creative thinking.

To respond to the imbalances, the bank developed a range of interventions. For example, the bank is rolling out upskilling programs to help prepare its retail bankers for the aspects of their jobs that are changing; elsewhere, reskilling and retraining programs (including new digital and analytical skills) are helping employees’ secure new roles in the company. Still other employees have been offered part-time positions, an option intended to appeal to those nearing retirement.

Finally, for some employees, the bank is exploring secondment opportunities with selected not-for-profit organizations. Under the arrangement, both organizations pay a portion of the employee’s salary. In principle, this benefits everyone: the not for profit (which gets a talented employee for less money), the employees (who are doing meaningful work using skills that are in high demand), and even the bank (which pays less for skills it already has in surplus, while potentially enhancing its visibility in the community).

While the bank’s overall approach is still a work in progress, its example is instructive not only for its breadth but also for the outlook of its leaders. Instead of just looking at its talent supply through the lens of its traditional jobs or roles, which after all are changing, the bank’s executives pushed themselves to take a more objective, skills-based look. Similarly, the bank’s experience underscores the importance of setting aside long-held assumptions about which roles are most important, as prevailing opinion may be outdated or biased.

 

Are we long—or short—on talent?

Adjusting the skills of a workforce requires a blend of rigor and creativity; it also requires dedicated commitment and attention from senior management. One way to spark a fruitful C-suite conversation about talent supply is to borrow a page from the dismal science and look at skills in the context of surplus and shortage.

Starting with a thought exercise such as this can help break down an otherwise intractable problem into smaller chunks that can be approached with discipline. At the same time, testing potential interventions using the logic of microeconomics can help managers see a wider portfolio of options beyond reskilling at one extreme, and layoffs at the other (exhibit).

 

The following snapshots highlight ways that organizations have addressed both talent gaps and overages.

 

 

We’re short on talent: Build, acquire, or rent?

While talent shortfalls arise for many reasons, the supply-side remedies can be summarized in just three watchwords: Should we build on our existing skills? Should we acquire them? Or should we “rent” them?

A global manufacturer investigated these options as it looked for ways to fill several looming skill gaps. One of the most acute shortfalls was in data science, a problem complicated by the company’s suspicion that it was losing ground to high-tech firms as an employer of choice.

On closer look, their fears were justified: a talent-supply forecast that used machine learning to predict the likelihood of employee attrition found the company’s data scientists would be eight times more likely to leave than other colleagues. Clearly, the company couldn’t simply hire its way out of the problem; filling the skill gap would also require better employee retention.

Subsequent analysis helped the manufacturer spot opportunities in both areas, starting with a plan for more meritocratic career paths and redesigned leadership tracks to keep employees engaged and happy. The company is now working on simple changes to its recruiting and interviewing processes, to be more responsive and to help make candidates feel more valued throughout the process.

Of course, another way that companies can acquire skills en masse is through M&A, an approach pioneered in the tech industry, where it was given the portmanteau “acquihiring.” It has since become more common in other industries. Walmart used it in 2011 when the company bought Kosmix, a social-media company, to form the nucleus of what would become Walmart Labs, the retailer’s digital-technology unit.

Companies can also start nurturing skills today that they may benefit from later. Programs such as this are intriguing to employers, because it lets them tap a new pool of talent and then create and shape the specific skills they need. The approach also holds considerable social promise, as it can be designed to support underemployed groups, such as young people or military veterans.

Finally, companies can obtain skills by “renting” talent; for example, through outsourcing partnerships that bring specialized skills or by tapping the gig economy, where the rise of digital platforms has rightly captured executives’ attention.

 

We’re long on talent: Redeploy—or release?

Invariably, the changing nature of work will create skill overages that even the most inspired corporate upskilling or reskilling programs can’t manage. In these cases, companies must choose whether to redeploy workers or to find thoughtful ways to let them go.

As the case of the European bank demonstrated, there may be regulatory reasons to consider the redeployment of workers by offering their skills to a third-party organization for a fee. There might also be cultural, financial, strategic, or even social reasons for redeploying skills.

In the private sector, meanwhile, the video-game industry has long “loaned out” the specialized skills of software engineers to other video-game companies, including competitors, when their own projects hit unforeseen snags. While the approach may seem counterintuitive, the arrangement helps the sponsoring company maintain ready access to skills that are particularly rare and hard to recover once lost. The engineers, meanwhile, appreciate the change of pace and the chance to work on high-visibility projects with talented counterparts.

To be sure, redeployment programs such as these tend to be the exception rather than the rule. And no program can forestall all the job separations that come with technological change.

 

Work, Adapt, Repeat

The nature of the evolving workplace confronts leaders with the need to think quite differently about people’s relationship to work. In this vein, we are particularly intrigued by concepts such as “lifelong employability” that prioritize helping people successfully adapt—again and again, if necessary—as the economy evolves.

Yet if companies are to bring ideas such as these to fruition, and truly reorient their organizations around skills and not just roles, they will need more than just a mind-set shift. Many, if not most, companies will find their people-operations infrastructure and talent-management system creaking under the strain of new challenges. Designing a winning employee value proposition, for instance, is much harder when career paths are themselves in flux.

Indeed, HR will need to sharpen its own skills, not only in traditional areas, like employee retention and performance management, but also in new ones, such as managing the risks associated with gig work. In this respect, HR leaders are no different from those in any other function—all of whom must be prepared to evolve if they are to be effective in helping the larger enterprise adapt to the changing nature of work.

 

  • By Megan McConnell and Bill Schaninger

 

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