Making a splash with business agility

| September 13, 2018

It seems like every other day there’s a press release from a major organisation announcing their business agility transformation. Companies who are seriously trying to change how they operate to thrive in an unpredictable market. But it’s not an easy journey.

To shed some light on the topic, I got a chance to speak up with Lani Beer, Innovator at Kind & Wood Mallesons, and Tim Newbold, a Strategic Agility Coach at Skillfire. I asked them to share their story about co-designed organisational transformation, the role of leaders, and how to ‘fang it’.

Let me start with the direct question. What does Business Agility mean to you?

Lani: To me, it means that you’ve got a healthy organisation that has capacity to respond to change at speed, adaptable and resilient. This translates to being focused on the customer, driven to create value, enabling outcomes through lean governance, and continuous organisation-wide improvement through a network of self-organising teams. Context matters so it will mean different things to every organisation.

That’s a great definition. What’s the endpoint? Improvement is good, but improvement towards what?

Tim: Ultimately, this is all about better delivery of outcomes while making sure we’re doing as much as we can to delight our customers. And it’s for our people as well. How do we create a delightful workplace for them? We’ll achieve important things, like shareholder value, if we have really engaged people who are aiming to deliver a great experience for our customer while making sure that we’re delivering the basics.

Tell me a little bit about the transformation that you’re leading? What triggered that and who’s leading it from your organisation?

Lani: I influenced the executives to consider experimenting with how they we’re leading the organisation to truly enable the outcomes of their strategic goals. I saw an opportunity where the organisation was clear on its purpose and strategy, but the benefits weren’t materialising due to the way we were executing on it.

There was a lot of work happening, but it wasn’t very coordinated with limited alignment across the organisation. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to change things around to create space and capacity to rapidly and wisely respond to the dynamic world we live in and get everybody aligned and focused on achieving value for our customers.

Tim: The life insurance industry has undergone significant disruption, on the back of various changes in government policy, since Lani first kicked off this journey. The organisation has needed to refocus its resources, and our work in developing their agility has really allowed to company to respond quickly. The current focus is to work more efficiently by being clear on what’s most valuable, reducing waste, and continuous organisation wide improvement.

How did the executives take your recommendation about the changes you were going to make?

Lani: The way I approached the executives was to provide some clear evidence. We already had some ways of working across different parts of the organisation that was really making a difference. And not in the traditional parts of the organisation that use agile practices. We had agile working in the actuarial team, customer services, and operations.

I focused on what difference it was making and how, if we had every part of the organisation working in this way, we could create an unstoppable force. I also showed them what would happen if we didn’t do this? That got their attention. So, they said to me, ‘okay, let’s learn a bit more’. Which we did. We showed them exactly what an agile mindset looks like and started to co-design to figure out what would work.

Tim: One thing to call out is the fact that it was a very small team. It started off with just Lani and me trying to change so many people. Lani got the ball rolling, but the real challenge was to get this to be practised across the organisation. That’s when we built the network of agility champions.

Representatives from across the entire business who would come together in the community of practice to share ideas around different agile ways of working. That was a good leverage point to drive change across the organisation.

You touched on co-design. What does that mean in the context of the operating structure and how important is that?

Lani: I think it’s critically important because if you’re going to change the way an organisation’s running, the only way you can get true buy-in is if you co-create something together. The leaders of the business know the business and by bringing them together the change is theirs.

We created an environment which enabled them to work differently and be better aligned so that they could make the right choices. As an organisation, we could also respond to market conditions a lot faster because we could actually see what was happening, visualise the change, talk about it in a more aligned way, and then respond quickly.

You mentioned ‘bottom-up, top-down’ design. Is there a preferred direction? Which direction is the change catalysed from?

Tim: The nature of change is that it’s never a sequential process. It is genuinely organic. What’s critical is that alignment at the top occurs. If you don’t have alignment you’re going to get conflict and resistance with teams pulling against each other. You need to create that alignment and commitment at the executive level. This gives people permission to act.

One of the teams I worked with used the term ‘fang it’. As in, ‘go and fang it to drive change’ which shows quite a bit of passion. So, the goal is to create that aligned vision, get that executive buy-in and alignment on the outcome, and engage the teams to drive that change themselves. In the end, you can’t really say it’s just the top or just the bottom.

What do you think the role of a leader in an agile organisation is?

Lani: I think there are several words to describe a leader in an agile organisation. They’re a facilitator of change, an innovator, an Intrapreneur / entrepreneur, a coach, a mentor, and a knowledge sharer. Most importantly they need to listen, empower and trust their teams to test and learn.

Tim: Leaders need to set the tone for the transformation. Far too often we rely on our coaches to come into the organisations and start driving change. That being said, I do believe that it’s everyone’s responsibility to start and drive change.

It doesn’t matter what your role is, you can have a huge amount of influence. You’ve just got to have the guts to go make it happen. I hope people come from the Business Agility Conference, walk back to their office and go, ‘right, let’s create some great change’ and use some of the methods that we share.

A good segue. What can people expect to learn at your presentation, ‘Nailing executive alignment and organisational health at MLC Life’?

Lani: In a world where the future is unknown, you’ll learn some ideas that might help you create organisational alignment quickly and wisely as well as tips on how to build and create influence along the way. We’ll be sharing insights on what we would personally do when faced with this challenge again.

Tim: To understand what approaches to take to help provide some of the best outcomes for your organisation. How do you set a clear vision, align the teams, know what’s right for your organisation? And what does it mean for people; both within your organisation and your customers? This is our talk; drawing all those threads together around the approach that you might take.

With over 20 years of change leadership expertise, Lani is an established coach and innovator who has successfully engineered and delivered business change and transformation to achieve immense business and customer value. Her accomplishments have directly led to improved culture, advocacy and profitability for many organisations.

Tim is a curious wrangler of work systems and can’t bear the thought of clever people being held captive in a ship drifting towards irrelevance. As a Strategic Agility, Lean Start-up and Innovation specialist, his passion lies in helping organisations and people thrive through deep cultural change during these volatile and uncertain times. Tim is also the co-founder of Skill fire, a Melbourne based Agile and Innovation consultancy.

They are speaking at the Business Agility Conference in Sydney on September 24-25 on ‘Nailing executive alignment and organisational health at MLC Life’. Get your ticket to hear Lani and Tim speak here.