Agile methodology: spreading from the IT department into the boardroom

“Agile”, one of the latest ideas in management, has its roots in IT, where it’s used as a method for developing software. In recent years it has spread beyond IT departments to became an operational mode for an increasing number of forward-looking companies that want to respond to market volatility in ways that create competitive advantage. As the idea of agility spreads throughout the organisation, and more and more companies seek to employ it, they will need managers with agile mindsets and skills: people who think outside the box, who can work in flat and fluid structures, and who can take advantage of unpredictable windows that might open and close quickly.

Still, the first impediment to transforming companies into agile ones is a lack of sound knowledge of what the approach entails, and how to use it in management. Agile management recognises that the goals and requirements of our work are constantly evolving, and in response encourages values such as adaptation, teamwork and accountability, while keeping a constant focus on customer needs. An agile style of management offers an alternative way of solving some of the problems that each enterprise struggles with in today’s world: constant turbulence, uncertainty and speed. Until recently, business leaders seeking to tackle these challenges relied on old managerial tools, such as detailed planning and hierarchical structures of command and control.

But with the business environment becoming more complex and customer preferences changing ever faster, companies need to adapt rapidly and cost efficiently to changing conditions. They need to accelerate the implementation of new initiatives, eliminate delays and learn continuously. Pioneers of agile management have rediscovered U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower’s observation that “plans are useless, but planning is everything.” What works on the battlefield can also work in the organisation. Today, multiannual plans are of little value, because they are obsolete as soon as they’re announced. But what brings value is the processes that planning entails: gathering information, asking questions, raising doubts, critically analysing data, stating and testing hypotheses. In practice, this translates into a management approach based on flexibility, collaboration, a team-based culture, customer-centricity and continuous improvement.

Compared with traditional approaches, agile management offers benefits such as increased team productivity, enhanced customer and employee satisfaction and reduction of the waste inherent in repetitive planning, excessive documentation and micromanagement. Not surprisingly, it is gaining recognition among large-scale companies, including members of the Fortune 500, who believe it will help them thrive. Giants like IBM are shifting toward agile to stimulate innovation; Dutch bank ING is using the methodology to better serve its clients; General Electric, to transform itself into a “digital industrial company”.

What makes an agile leader?

Since the growing popularity of agile management is boosting demand for a new type of managers, there has been significant research into what qualities make an agile leader. Management experts agree that this leadership style requires flexibility rather than rigid rules and processes. Agile leaders learn from experience and empower their teams to solve problems through collaboration. In doing so, they rely on a combination of emotional intelligence, analytical capabilities and strategic risk taking.

According to recent research, key attributes of agile leaders are humility, adaptability, engagement and vision. Being humble might sound inconsistent with attributes that are usually associated with effective leadership, such as confidence and authority. But humility is no longer considered a negative feature; it is simply the acknowledgment that the current speed and complexity of the business environment exceeds any leader’s personal store of knowledge and experience. Therefore, agile leaders are not afraid to admit they don’t know something, and they’re open to the influence and ideas of others. Adaptability is another skill that might seem counterintuitive when thinking about leadership. But it is essential to navigate unpredictable environments. It makes leaders alert, prevents them from ignoring new data and allows them to avoid confirmation bias. In this sense, they put into practice John Maynard Keynes’s maxim: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you?”

Agile leaders are also engaged. They are curious, open to debate and willing to listen to others. They promote these features within their teams, creating a culture that encourages dialogue to get to the core of problems and to find solutions. While doing so, they observe group members’ communication styles and ensure that debates are conducted constructively. They also recognise that people work best when they are enabled, engaged and energised.

Finally, agile leaders are visionaries, not planners. Rather than precise plans, they have a clear sense of where their organization needs to be in the future. They might not necessarily know how exactly to get there; instead, they rely on humility, adaptability and engagement to achieve their goals.

Managers who can combine these competences with constant scanning of the internal and external environments, use of data and fast execution are able to practice agile leadership. Although some are naturally predisposed to this style, it can be learned and practised by anyone – as long as they’re agile enough to step outside their comfort zones.