How to create an agile organization

Here is a brief excerpt from a Global Study by a McKinsey research team for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

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Transforming companies to achieve organizational agility is in its early days but already yielding positive returns. While the paths can vary, survey findings suggest how to start.

Rapid changes in competition, demand, technology, and regulations have made it more important than ever for organizations to be able to respond and adapt quickly. But according to a recent McKinsey Global Survey, organizational agility—the ability to quickly reconfigure strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology toward value-creating and value-protecting opportunities—is elusive for most. Many respondents say their companies have not yet fully implemented agile ways of working, either company-wide or in the performance units where they work, though the advantages are clear. Respondents in agile units report better performance than all others do, and companies in more volatile or uncertain environments are more likely than others to be pursuing agile transformations.

Few companies are yet reaping these benefits, but that may soon change; the results also indicate that organizational agility is catching fire. For many respondents, agility ranks as a high strategic priority in their performance units. Moreover, companies are transforming activities in several parts of the organization—from innovation and customer experience to operations and strategy—to become more agile. Finally, respondents in all sectors believe more of their employees should be working in agile ways. For organizations and their performance units that aren’t yet agile, the path to achieving agility depends on their starting points. But the results indicate some clear guidance on how and where they can improve, whether they are lacking in stability or dynamism.

Organizational agility is on the rise

Across industries and regions, most survey participants agree that the world around them is changing, and quickly. Business environments are increasingly complex and volatile, with two-thirds of respondents saying their sectors are characterized by rapid change. In such environments, the need for companies to demonstrate agility is top of mind: the more unstable that respondents say their environments are, the more likely they are to say their companies have begun agile transformations [Check out Exhibit 1].

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Looking ahead

In response to the challenges that the survey results revealed, here are some principles executives and their units or organizations should act upon, whether or not they have already begun agile transformations:

o Embrace the magnitude of the change. Based on the survey, the biggest challenges during agile transformations are cultural—in particular, the misalignment between agile ways of working and the daily requirements of people’s jobs, a lack of collaboration across levels and units, and employee resistance to changes. In our experience, agile transformations are more likely to succeed when they are supported by comprehensive change-management actions to cocreate an agile-friendly culture and mind-sets. These actions should cover four main aspects.

First, leaders and people across the organization align on the mind-sets and behaviors they need to move toward. Second, they role-model the new mind-sets and behaviors and hold each other accountable for making these changes. Third, employees are supported in developing the new skills they need to succeed in the future organization. And finally, formal mechanisms are put in place to reinforce the changes, rewarding and incentivizing people to demonstrate new behaviors.

o Be clear on the vision. The results show that agile units excel most at creating a shared vision and purpose and aligning on this vision through actionable strategic guidance. In contrast, at companies that have not yet started a transformation, one of the most common limitations is the inability to create a meaningful or clearly communicated vision. An important first step in deciding whether to start an agile transformation is clearly articulating what benefits are expected and how to measure the transformation’s impact. This vision of the new organization must be collectively held and supported by the top leadership.

o Decide where and how to start. Respondents whose organizations have not started agile transformations most often say it’s because they lack a clear implementation plan. While the right plan will vary by company, depending on its vision, companies should first identify the part(s) of the organization that they want to transform and how (for example, by prototyping the changes in smaller parts of the performance unit before scaling them up, or by making changes to more foundational elements that go beyond a single unit). Second, they should assess which of the 18 agile practices the organization most needs to strengthen in order to achieve agility, so that the actions taken across strategy, structure, process, people, and technology are mutually reinforcing. Third, they should determine the resources and time frame that the transformation requires, so the effort maintains its momentum but the scope remains manageable at any point in time.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

The contributors to the development and analysis of this survey include Karin Ahlbäck, a consultant in McKinsey’s London office; Clemens Fahrbach, a consultant in the Munich office; Monica Murarka, a senior expert in the San Francisco office; and Olli Salo, an associate partner in the Helsinki office.

They would like to acknowledge Wouter Aghina, Esmee Bergman, Aaron De Smet, and Michael Lurie for their contributions to this work.

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