The key to increasing agility

Agile - sIt’s rare that I meet with an organisation, whether charity or business, that doesn’t regularly add something new and exciting to the list of things it wants to do. But it’s even more rare that there’s the capacity readily available to deliver those new ideas. Few organisations have people sitting around waiting to leap on the next piece of work – all the people, especially the good ones, are fully occupied with projects or buried under day job.

In that situation, most leaders would consider two options: add in extra capacity so the ideas can be pursued, or pass it to someone who’s already busy but, with luck, might be able to make a start.

A lot of charities, especially those who’ve grown successfully, suffer from a weak management layer. Investment in internal development for managers is notoriously poor in much of the sector which means that bright stars are few and far between, freeing good people up quickly is difficult, and back-filling them with someone who can step into their shoes, even harder.

Combined with ponderous processes for adding headcount and attracting and recruiting new talent, this makes the “adding capacity” a difficult, often tortuous route. And so, the second option: give it to someone who’s already busy, tends to be the most frequent outcome. But there’s a third, far more effective option, for those with the courage to take it on: stop doing something.

Many of the things we do in our lives, and most of the things we do organisationally, we do because of momentum and investment. We don’t like to stop things that are already moving, because it’s not easy: commitments, explicit or implicit, have been made; plans have been developed; people have been engaged. Nor do we like to write off investments, in time, money or emotion: often those things we are most psychologically invested in are the hardest things to walk away from.

The first step is to recognise that we have these biases – that we have a natural preference to push on – so that we can put them to one side and think rationally about the options. The second step is to do exactly that, to think rationally about what’s currently in the plan. Ask your team these questions: “Do we know, right now, which activities aren’t adding value and which projects aren’t working? And, do we know the process for stopping them?”

Most will probably have a subjective view of the first; few will have a clue about the second.

The next question to ask is this: “If we were to stop all those projects and activities and refocus our best people onto just one or two ideas that could make much bigger difference, what could we achieve?”

Having the adaptability, or in modern parlance, the “agility” to rapidly shift focus and resources is invaluable, not just for disaster response and crisis-led charities, but for any organisation that wants to increase its impact, adapt to the changes and opportunities around it, and indeed, in such changeable times as these, sometimes to survive.

Much has been written and spoken about agility, whether as a project methodology or an aspiration for an entire organisation. But all the cross-skilling and rapid-action teams in the world won’t make a charity more agile if its leadership aren’t regularly asking and answering those questions.

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