We are in a period when human history is undergoing perhaps the fastest transformation. Almost every day we come across a new product, service, technology, or innovation. This rapidly changing environment is accompanied by complexity and uncertainty. In such an environment, organizations use traditional approaches and ways of business conduct, making it difficult for them to succeed and even survive. Therefore, it is necessary to create new approaches and have the companies adapt to these approaches.
Definition of Agility
Although the concept of agility was intellectually much older, it emerged with its first practices in the 1990s, especially in the software development and information technologies industry. In 2001, 17 software gurus came together and signed the Agile Manifesto 1, and the concept of agility became widespread from this date on.
We have many definitions for agility in the literature. In fact, especially because of the widespread use in the software world, many of these definitions contain technical terms. Therefore, it would be useful to purify the definition of agility, which has started to gain acceptance by different sectors in today’s business world, from these technical terms. The concept of agility is about being a good team, fast and continuous release of products/services to the market, listening to customers and incorporating them in the product/service development process, adapting to change, and even creating change. Agility is a philosophy and offers practical principles in every aspect of life.
Transforming organizations into Agile
Today, many organizations in the world as well as in Turkey are performing Agile transformation projects. The examples I can give based on my experience include banks, telecommunications companies, e-commerce and technology companies, and even enterprises. When we consider the dimensions, there are organizations, which perform agile transformation with more than 100 teams, transforming the entire IT infrastructure as well as organizations adopting more experimental approaches with 1-2 team trials. Almost all of these examples are carried out or being carried out in information technology departments in parallel with past trends in the world. We should not ignore the fact that the agility maturity of an organization is defined by the agility of the slowest department. Therefore, it was a natural conclusion that performing agile transformation only in a particular department would not be enough. Now we are turning the organizations’ agility initiatives into different frameworks that are formed by different business departments. We had observed this trend much earlier based on our experience in the departments of Human Resources, Operations, Sales and Marketing etc2. However, these approaches, which would not get any support until about 5 years ago in Turkey, recently began to gain acceptance in the industry.
We can define this concept of business agility as different business units coming together forming cross-functional teams and involving customers in the process to produce values more quickly and create innovation. In one example, it is the bank’s use of agile approach not only in a software development team but also for the purpose of designing a new service/product and delivering to the customers.
Such teams are also required to have qualifications from different functions (cross-functionality) as in software development teams. Moreover, the first feature to be found in the leaders of these teams will be approaches and behaviors in line with agile philosophy. I can clearly say that the biggest obstacle that we have encountered in all the transformation studies we have carried out so far is leaders’ inability to transform their behaviors and ways of thinking. The situation is not much different in the world. In the last version of the “State of Agile” survey3, performed with the answers of participants from all over the world each year, and where 27 percent of participants were from Europe, “leaders’ lack of sufficient support”, was the third in the list of difficulties experienced in this type of transformation studies.
The most important factor in the success of the transformation studies is the support of the leaders within the organization for this transformation by transforming themselves first. All leaders must first be open to themselves. Having an agile thought system starts with you being completely honest with yourself, even if the facts hurt you.
Who is an Agile Leader?
In these days of knowledge and digital age, it is not wrong to say that the concept of ”scientific management” 4 created by Frederick Taylor can no longer meet the needs of organizations. According to Frederick Taylor’s approach, workers are defined only as people who do things that are told to them and they are treated as “resources”. However, today we, who are called “intellectual workers”, no longer do just what we are told. We earn money by thinking more. Therefore, we can say that the leadership approaches required by the previous age are no longer valid today. Instead, we need new leaders who have embraced the concept of agility, are aware of the uncertainty and complexity of market conditions, and who value creativity and innovation.
We call the people who have this new model leadership approach as an agile leader. In order for agile leaders to be able to provide agility at team and organization levels, as mentioned above, they need to display some forms of behavior:
- An Agile leader is a role model: Any behaviors agile leaders expect from their colleagues, they should display them first themselves. If he/she wants honesty from others, then he/she has to be honest. If he/she criticizes his/her team for a mistake, he/she should not avoid being criticized by others when he/she makes a similar mistake, but rather ask specifically for the criticizing.
- An Agile leader should provide psychological security: Science is based on experiments and after the experiments are carried out, elimination of the wrong results leads us to the truth. The only way to overcome the uncertainty and complexity of the market conditions is to experiment. Therefore, agile leaders must have a high tolerance for mistakes. The environments where teams do not try anything new due to the fear of making mistakes should completely be reversed, and they should encourage the members of the team to demonstrate their creativity by providing them with an environment of psychological security5. In fact, when the occasion arises, those who make mistakes could even be rewarded.
- Agile leaders should empower the teams:Agile leaders should emphasize teamwork. The best way to achieve this is to empower team members, to help them establish the right goals and objectives and to remove obstacles on the path of teamwork; not just to tell the teams how to do their job. This way teams can naturally gain motivation and accomplish good work.
In order to survive and succeed in the highly competitive environment of the digital age, creativity and innovation should be at the forefront. For this reason, we need new ways of doing business, new thought systems. This demand is met by the concept of agility. For organizations to be agile, the entire organization must be agile. The basic point of creating and sustaining this environment is the agile leadership approach.
- Agile Manifesto [Internet] Available at: http://agilemanifesto.org/iso/tr/manifesto.html
- Avea Sales Team Case of ACM [Internet] Available at:https://scrumorg-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/drupal/2016-06/Agile-Processes-in-Telecom-Sales-Teams.pdf
- VersionOne 12. State of the Agile Survey [Internet] Available at:https://explore.versionone.com/state-of-agile/versionone-12th-annual-state-of-agile-report
- Scientific Management [Internet] Available at: http://www.wiki-zero.net/index.php?q=aHR0cHM6Ly9lbi53aWtpcGVkaWEub3JnL3dpa2kvU2NpZW50aWZpY19tYW5hZ2VtZW50
- Psychological Safety [Internet] Available at: https://blog.intercom.com/psychological-safety/