Harvard Business Review
This article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review.
“Brian Johnson” is the chief executive of a major consumer-goods company that has been remarkably successful over the past decade. Like his predecessors, Johnson runs a tight ship in all aspects of operations, boasting excellence in product and service quality and a finely tuned supply chain. The company capitalizes on economies of scale and enjoys the lowest costs in its industry.
But when we first spoke with him a year and a half ago, he was worried that those managerial assets were turning into liabilities. “We’re seeing focused competitors in nearly every segment of our business,” said Johnson. (We’ve changed his name and other details to protect the confidentiality of our conversations.) “They’re small, but they attack like piranhas.” The new entrants were bringing out products and services that distributors loved. Their lenient return policies encouraged customers to try their offerings. Their faster deliveries within tight time frames reduced distributors’ warehousing costs and inventory levels. Johnson’s company was having trouble responding to the pressure, particularly when doing so required the denizens of its well-guarded organizational silos to collaborate with one another on innovations.
As consultants, we hear similar concerns from many executives like Johnson interested in creating agile leadership teams. One of us (Darrell) has written about the opportunities and challenges of ramping up agile by adding more and more teams (see “Agile at Scale,” HBR, May–June 2018 ). But after studying hundreds of companies for our new book, we believe that if a company wants to be fast on its feet, transform customer experiences, and continuously outpace competitors, it needs more than lots of agile teams. To create a truly agile enterprise, the top officers—most, if not all, of the C-suite—must embrace agile principles too. This article explores how agile leadership teams function, how they differ from conventional executive committees and from other agile teams, and what agile means for senior executives’ day-to-day work lives.
Darrell K. Rigby is a partner in the Boston office of Bain & Company. He heads the firm’s global innovation practice. He is the author of Winning in Turbulence and is a co-author of Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos (Harvard Business Review Press, 2020).
Sarah Elk is a partner in Bain & Company’s Chicago office and heads its global operating model practice. She is also a co-author of Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos (Harvard Business Review Press, 2020).
Steve Berez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner in Bain & Company’s Boston office and a founder of its enterprise technology practice. He is also a co-author of Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos (Harvard Business Review Press, 2020).