How an effective process culture promotes business agility

Implementing continuous improvement and a decentralized process decision-making structure can provide flexibility to organizations

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Agility is one of the leading trends in business today, from product development to management practices. Borne out of the demands of software development, business agility takes the lessons learnt from changing requirements and complex frameworks and applies them to management, organizational structure, strategic planning and reporting.

The result is a business that is more responsive to a fluctuating environment and better placed to respond appropriately when conditions around it change.

That capacity to thrive during change is the key to agility which values the blend of resilience and creativity that allows a company to adapt quickly and effectively when faced with uncertainty.

The capability to adapt is, at its core, a process attribute. According to McKinsey & Company, process is one of the five key elements of an agile organization. A healthy process culture is an essential foundation for the kind of freedom and flexibility that an agile business needs.

Change by the moment

Continuous improvement is a key tenet of process excellence and it is no surprise that it contributes significantly to an agile approach. Processes are not static documents. They are constantly in flux as users are pushing the boundaries of what procedures require, finding shortcuts or exploring new approaches that save time, eliminate boring tasks and add value.

Not every change is beneficial, but in an environment of continuous improvement potential changes are evaluated and implemented if they meet the needs of the organization. That happens in a constant cycle as users are encouraged to look for opportunities to do things faster, cheaper or better.

When circumstances change, the processes can be shaped to suit, including incorporating new systems or technologies, addressing new competitors or markets, or adapting to new requirements or constraints. By investing in a culture of continuous improvement, these shifts in practice become a smooth gear change rather than bringing everything to a jarring halt.

Change on the ground floor

The freedom to implement change comes from a flattened hierarchy and a decentralized decision-making structure. In a fast-changing environment, expecting every procedural change to move up and down the chain of management is a recipe for delays.

That is not to say staff are given carte blanche to make changes to processes at will, but instead calls for a different approach to authorizing and implementing them. Agile businesses deploy process champions within teams at the front line, putting process ownership as close to the point of execution as is practicable.

By employing subject-matter experts as process champions, informed decisions can be made quickly and effectively on process changes, leveraging their expertise and empowering teams to innovate. Developing clear and cooperative communication with management ensures that those decisions are made in line with company strategies and not delayed by tiers of authorizations.

Change that can fail safely

They say it is only a failure if you do not learn something from the experience and that is never truer than in an agile business environment. In a culture of continuous improvement, rapid iteration, review and revision is at the heart of process evolution. While failure seems like a terrible business approach, embracing it in fact liberates teams to try something new.

Because changes are incremental, any one improvement is unlikely to derail a project. Process improvements are regularly evaluated against previous iterations and where the desired outcomes do not meet expectations, the changes can be rolled back easily. With such checks providing a ‘safe’ environment for innovation, staff are more likely to look for creative opportunities to reduce waste and increase value for themselves and customers. When the inevitable failures do occur, having a culture that looks for learnings rather than scapegoats will encourage others to try new things without fear.

Embracing change

At the heart of business agility is the desire to face change and grow with it. That requires an internal flexibility that retains effective practices but eschews the status quo as any kind of rigid rule of law. Agile organizations embrace change both externally and internally in order to move with the changing tides of the business market. By investing in a culture of process excellence businesses can celebrate innovation at every level, free from the fear of failure that stands in the way of truly effective business agility.

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