In today’s fast-changing markets, it seems that every day brings new technologies; new business models; and new customer preferences, needs, and behaviors. No matter what your industry, you probably would like your employees to be more versatile and creative. You need them to be able to respond quickly and intelligently to market change.
Can agility be taught? The answer is yes, provided you follow some guidelines to ensure your success.
Let’s look at the example of Karen, who is president of a consumer packaged goods company that is in the midst of a great deal of market change. Though there were many changes affecting Karen’s company, there were two drivers of change that eclipsed the others. First, consumer beliefs and preferences about food were constantly evolving, so Karen’s company had to constantly adapt to keep up with sometimes capricious trends in public perception regarding ingredient choices. Second, the ways that Karen’s company reached consumers through advertising, social media and merchandising were subject to constant changes in technologies, viewing habits and even consumer beliefs about social responsibility issues.
Karen needed her employees to be alert to changes in the market and capable of developing smart strategies for capitalizing on those changes. She needed them to have the confidence to experiment and occasionally fail. And she needed them to build bridges across the organization to tackle tough issues using a fast, cross-functional approach.
There are four keys to success in situations like Karen’s:
1. Choose a real problem to focus on during training.
If you want to attain true agility, employees need to develop skills in critical thinking and strategic decision-making. Your team must also adopt a new style of leadership that empowers employees, is tolerant of failure and constantly challenges the status quo. The best way to impart these skills and mindsets is to focus training on a real problem that the company is facing.
Karen knew that in order for the new agility skills to really stick, she needed to focus training on a problem that was urgent and important to the company’s future success. She chose the consumer criticism that was boiling up on social media regarding the company’s role in worsening the childhood obesity epidemic. The goal was to dispel the criticism and to develop with a concrete plan for developing a new product line that was healthy and appealing to kids. By focusing the entire training curriculum around one problem, the team members were able to practice their new agility skills in a real-life case study.
2. Start with a select group that can demonstrate early wins.
Karen knew that the first round of training in business agility needed to be a success and that the program would be tainted if the trainees found the material too theoretical or insufficiently applicable to their jobs. Therefore, she chose a select group of people for the initial training sessions – people who had voiced a desire for the company to move with greater speed and agility and who had the intelligence and creativity to tackle tough problems.
In order to instill team spirit and friendly competition, Karen chose three cross-functional teams to go through training together. The teams worked in parallel to address the problem posed by the case study, so at the end of the training, Karen was presented with three independent solutions to the childhood obesity issue. She was then able to implement an amalgamation of the best ideas presented by the three teams.
Each team was comprised of two people from finance, three from marketing, two from product development, three from sales and two from operations, so the solutions to the case study were bound to be practical from a variety of functional perspectives. Because three teams were working in parallel, Karen was assured of diverse thinking and winning ideas.
3. Provide the team with the resources, freedom and management backing they need to be successful.
To solve a problem as thorny as the childhood obesity issue, team members needed time. During the course of the 16-week program, each team member spent one and a half days each week working on the case study, in addition to the four hours a week he or she spent in formal training.
This time commitment meant that the team members’ managers had to completely buy in to the program. They had to provide extra resources to help with the team members’ normal responsibilities, and they had to allow the team members to skip routine meetings. They also had to provide team members with the freedom and travel budget to talk with retailer customers, outside experts, university professors, startups and trade associations. The teams also needed access to data that weren’t often shared with them, such as customer insights and operational and financial data. They even needed permission to test new social media approaches for communicating with consumers about children’s exercise and eating habits.
With this freedom, time, resources and management support, team members had the chance to practice the agility skills they learned in the classroom. The 16-week timeframe forced the teams to practice efficiency, speed and quick decision-making, and the team members built relationships across organizational silos that would be indispensable in tackling future problems.
4. Make sure performance incentives don’t get in the way.
Performance metrics and incentives are often focused on goals such as revenue and expenses, which are short term in nature and may be at odds with your company’s need to be more agile. Therefore, when implementing a skill-building program focused on agility, be sure to take a look at how your incentives may be helping or hurting trainees’ ability to practice their new skills.
Through this process, which combined training with real-life problem-solving, Karen’s organization built the skills, cross-functional relationships and mindsets needed to attack their challenges with agility, intelligence and speed. By following these guidelines, your team, too, can gain the skills to tackle new challenges. Agility is the key to helping both large and small companies, across any industry, adapt and thrive in a fast-changing world.