Guerrilla matrix: incumbents and the art of business agility

2001

Agility is being responsive and flexible in order to thrive in an environment of continuous change. It is imperative in today’s fast moving business world – both at a personal level as well as at an organisational level – and it is a trait which both large corporate enterprises or small start-ups should seek to foster.

It may come as a surprise to many who see BT as a lumbering incumbent telco, but this is the message of Nick Bush, Head of the Change Leadership Team at BT Stepchange.gov, set up last July to work alongside the public sector to help transform public services. BT Stepchange seeks to predict future business scenarios and technologies with an aim to promoting BT’s products and services from such strategic forecasting.

Bush has been interested in the notion of the ‘agile corporation’ even before his days with BT Stepchange when he was an independent management consultant. “My experience in trying to transform companies is that it is best to look for pockets of innovation within a company,” says Bush. “In general, it is easier for a small company to be agile. However, agility can be found in certain departments of so-called ‘dinosaur’ companies with a large structure.”

Using the approach of a sniper, Bush seeks to zero in on the pioneers in a given organisation or market sector. To do this, he has developed his own set of criteria for identifying business agility. “The first and most fundamental factor for agility in a business is to have a clear purpose,” says Bush. “But it’s got to be a purpose which goes beyond simply increasing shareholder value or being cost-effective because otherwise you don’t really engage people at the frontline on the shopfloor.”

Bush cites Southwest Airlines as an example of a business with a core strategy – to offer low-cost travel – which includes a ‘higher’ purpose of giving more people the chance to travel and so come together.

Just as guerrillas are spurred by a keen sense of mission, so employees enthused by a meaningful sense of purpose are more likely to feel motivated to take the steps necessary to succeed. Bush adds that a clear “alignment of purpose” within the corporation is important as it means everyone is contributing to the same battle plan, though some will be performing different roles and functions.

Such clarity of purpose has a knock-on effect in terms of a second key factor for an agile corporation, that of personal initiative. “Minimal control is an important element of business agility,” says Bush. “Of course, there must be checks and balances on people, but ultimately you have to give your employees space.”

Bush believes that giving staff the lateral space to create their own solutions ultimately improves the customer experience. With today’s speed of business and glut of information, it is now the case that many operational decisions are expected to be taken at much lower levels in an organisation. An employee aligned to a compelling corporate mission is more likely to react quickly and make the right decisions.

BT Stepchange is seeking to develop this lateral flexibility by enabling staff to work from home with a home ISDN line specially installed by BT as well as a home connection to the company’s intranet.

A third crucial element of an agile corporation is information gathering. “Having access to a wide range of information is essential,” says Bush. “It means casting your net wide, then filtering and being selective about how you use information.” Market intelligence – the ability to gather information, to generate knowledge, and to act effectively based on the knowledge generated – can be the source of an organisation's capacity for survival.

In both business and war, the importance of knowledge superiority in terms of understanding strengths and weakness, knowing the lay of the land, as well as anticipating competitor moves and next-wave scenarios is crucial. Again, working to clear objectives helps to filter information more effectively and so provide a better basis for rapid decisions.

Bush believes that up-to-date knowledge is continually required for predicting or creating new windows of opportunity. Decisions made largely on the basis of previous experience and out-of-date knowledge can be dangerous because what might have worked well last year may no longer be applicable today.

Last but not least, open communication of such knowledge is an important factor for an agile corporation, and in this sense technology has helped. “Open communication within an organisation is an absolute essential to foster agility and innovation,” Bush says. “For example, e-mail has helped flatten out communication. It lowers the barriers to communicating important information to the chief executive from the frontline.”

In the information age, business landscapes are fast-moving. This has meant that large monolithic corporations, often seen as a relic of the industrial age, have been at a disadvantage relative to small, flexible and fast moving new entrants, despite the much larger pools of resources of the former. BT Stepchange, shows however, that the large corporations are starting to adapt to this new landscape. It is now clear that only those companies with the agility to react quickly and adapt to new and often unknown scenarios and competitive landscapes are the ones that will be in a position to survive and prosper in the emerging knowledge-based economy.

BT Stepchange 3 bullet-point tips

  • Ensure you know your core strategy and you’re able to define it in 2-3 simple sentences
  • Get rid of procedures, controls and rules that don’t support or directly relate to your core strategy
  • Put in place an infrastructure – both technical and social - that enables people to communicate and share knowledge easily across your organisation.

    This article was first published on Netimperative, www.netimperative.com

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