Increasing Your Business Agility Isn’t Hard, If You Focus on These Principles

Traditional project planning won't work if you want to innovate. Use these six strategies to become a more agile business instead.

The world of business is moving faster with each day. Technology is continuously changing, cultural norms are constantly shifting, and the competitive landscapes are evolving at a rapid pace. Being a successful business in today's world requires you to move fast and adapt quickly.

As a business coach, I get approached by many CEOs who are looking to grow their businesses faster and easily. One thing I get them to focus on is increasing their business agility so we can evolve their business model and create new value for key target segments.

If you're looking to increase your ability to pivot your business and find new opportunities in your market, focus on developing these Lean/Agile business principles within your organization.

1. Define your customer well.

One of the tenets of Lean/Agile is that everything is focused on delivering value to the customer. Everything else is considered waste and needs to be removed from the process. The key here is that value needs to be defined by the customer, not by you.

The problem comes when you don't know your customer very well or you have a very broad definition. This leads to a situation where you are guessing about what is really valuable or you're trying to please too many types of people. As a result, it's very hard to create focus and make good tradeoffs.

2. Increase your understanding of what drives value.

Many companies have defined a core customer, but they fail to truly understand what drives value for them. Many times, I see companies making wild guesses in the hope of creating value. Worse is when they think they know what the customer wants but haven't validated their assumption, so they get it wrong.

Talking to customers is good for insights and data gathering but it's not as good for validation. Customers will often tell you they want something they end up not liking or that they would never use something they end up loving. Instead, give customers prototypes and samples and watch what they do. This is why A/B testing is so powerful and used so often. Far better to have customers choose between two options and then talk abstractly about a product or service they haven't experienced.

3. Take an iterative approach to delivery.

If you're building bridges and skyscrapers, you need an extensive plan that lays out all of the workflows and dependencies. These types of tasks can be managed on a budget and schedule since we can detail the work and quantify the risks quite well.

However, in most businesses, innovation is a bleeding-edge endeavor. This means that the final product is fundamentally not well-defined and the work to be done will almost certainly shift as customer needs and desires are uncovered. This requires a more flexible approach to planning. Lean/Agile embraces changing requirements by focusing on short iterations in which the primary focus is learning and evolving the value you are creating for your customers.

4. Focus on integrated, self-managed teams.

In traditional project planning, you can lay out the work to be done and divide it among specialists who work independently. However, because innovation work shifts and evolves as you learn, it's impossible to fully anticipate the resources you will need and how they will be deployed.

For Lean/Agile projects, create small self-managed teams who have all of the capabilities and expertise the project will likely need. Cross-train so members can flex according to the needs of any one iteration, and let them figure out the best way to organize themselves to do the work efficiently.

5. Develop a culture of continuous improvement.

One of the hardest, but also the most impactful, shifts companies need to make is in their thinking around failure. Most companies strive to avoid failure and often create cultures in which failure is severely punished. They focus on blame and consequences to drive behavior and performance. In a Lean/Agile culture, failure is a tool for learning and not something to be avoided.

That's not to say that all failure is good. You want your failure to come with a healthy dose of learning and validation. But if your culture sees failure as something to be avoided at all costs, rather than as a process for learning and experimenting, then you will have a difficult time adopting a Lean/Agile mindset.

The good news is that it's not hard to start any of these practices and see early gains quickly. The bad news is that mastery is an elusive target. The companies that do the best job with these realize that they can always do better and constantly strive to achieve higher levels of proficiency. For them, agility is a way of being, not a goal.

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