The implications of agility and empowerment

Agility 3 - sWhere to invest if you want to move fast without breaking everything…

Back at the start of the year, I painted a picture of successive waves of crises hurtling towards the sector and the people it supports, and as the cost-of-living one starts to bite, most charities are now recognising this will be just one of many big challenges we will have to face over the coming years.

Economic polarisation, political and funding uncertainty, spiralling costs, and ongoing staffing crises, all of these and more now mean that forward planning beyond the next six months looks increasingly futile, and charities are having to become ever more reactive and responsive, which means words like agility and empowerment are now right at the top of virtually every organisational agenda.

But those words are much easier to say than they are to actually deliver, as those who’ve tried have found.

Many of us have whole departments within our organisations crying out, not for agility, but for clarity and certainty so they can plan their work. And we have a fair percentage of people who, if we’re honest, don’t really want to be “empowered” – they just want someone to tell them what to do and to be left to get on with it.

Such diversity exists in every large organisation, and it’s important to recognise, before we head down the three-lane agile empowerment motorway, not merely that this diversity exists, but that it’s essential we value it and keep hold of some of it.

The key is where to invest to ensure that you can.

I’ll explain by example…

In 2009, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg walked on a stage and unveiled a new “mantra” for his organisation that would become something of a slogan for the whole of Silicon Valley: Move Fast and Break Things.

The idea was that the whole organisation should work in an agile, iterative manner, with decisions devolved to software teams across the organisation, each of whom would be fully empowered and would ask for forgiveness, never permission. This was the new cultural template for software businesses. What could possibly go wrong?

Five years later, Zuckerberg walked on to a different stage to unveil its replacement: Move Fast with Stable Infrastructure, conceding that it was a far less catchy slogan, but that it had become necessary as Facebook’s core system was falling apart at the seams, replete with bugs, hidden dependencies, and huge inefficiencies, all of which had built up through five years of empowered developers happily breaking things.

The lesson is clear: while some of our teams absolutely need to become much more agile and iterative, rapidly changing in response to the outside world, testing, learning, and testing some more, others will always need to much more planned and procedural – this is prerequisite for a stable organisation.

We might already recognise aspects of this: most fundraising teams have a culture of pace and agility, while most finance and procurement teams have a one of formality and process, and it’s often this cultural divide that gives rise to tensions between the two.

That tension is just a foretaste of what any organisation wanting to become more agile will face, because the first thing its leaders will realise is that, even though all their teams might share the same values and purpose, they can’t, and indeed shouldn’t, try to adhere to a single organisational culture.

In fact, the more responsive an organisation becomes, the more culturally diverse its teams will need to be.

Thus, the biggest implication for charities wanting to become more agile is the need to learn how to manage an organisation where different parts run at very different speeds, with very different approaches to planning and pace, and within which you have people, not just with different skillsets, but with very different mentalities and preferences.

Hence, the single most important piece of the entire agile jigsaw is your management team, and specifically that team’s ability to work cross-culturally – to work seamlessly and collaboratively across teams with very different cultures and needs, helping them understand and value each other, and helping them get the best from each other.

These are the first capabilities you will need to invest in – that is, assuming you want to move fast without breaking your charity and its people.

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