There’s nothing like a crisis to ignite innovation. A small group of people spot an urgent need, drop lower-priority activities, break typical bureaucratic procedures and transform from everyday workers to corporate miracle workers.
That’s great, except that spur-of-the-moment agility is fragile. When the emergency fades, people typically return to traditional command-and-control innovation until the next crisis arises. At which time, they must reinvent Agile approaches all over again. So how can companies maintain their agility once the crisis is over? There are three key steps.
- Build an Agile system in Agile ways. Business systems have a greater impact on long-term performance than individuals do. That’s one reason athletes and business executives perform so differently in different organizations. So why not capitalize on times when Agile innovations are highly successful to make the business system itself more Agile? Engage people in changing the system through testing, learning and adaptation. Then, give them time to get accustomed to a new operating model.
- Raise the cultural speed limits, and remove speed bumps. During crises, executives often marvel at their company’s innovation speed. Agile enterprises always focus on speed. The time it takes an Agile team to release an innovation is determined by two factors: the time required to work on the innovation as well as the time spent waiting on others for decisions, funding and the like. Most teams spend only 15% to 20% of their time working and the rest waiting. Reduce wait times by breaking big, lengthy programs into smaller batches that are reviewed and adapted on a regular basis. Cutting annual planning and funding activities into quarterly sprints also minimizes wait times.
- Reset the balance between operations and innovation. To sustain success in dynamic environments, companies must both run the business reliably and efficiently as well as change the business rapidly and effectively. Most large companies today have tilted too far toward bureaucracy, starving innovation. Crises make this deficiency painfully obvious, but the trick is to maintain the urgency, anticipate the next crisis and create a system that emphasizes innovation as much as operations.
The past two decades have witnessed a startling series of crises and black swan events—from the Covid-19 pandemic to terrorist attacks, hurricanes and wildfires—all on top of ordinary business disasters such as data breaches, trade wars and digital disruptions. There will be more, and an Agile business system can help companies create the innovations needed to survive them.