Agility Explained by our guest blogger Denise Heller

by Gill Arnott | Nov 22, 2018

time icon 9 mins

The term agility has been on everyone’s lips for several years and is linked to various possible aspects of the work. “Agile Leadership,” “Agile Organization,” and “Agile Methods” are just a few of many examples. However, taking a second look at the conversations and discussions surrounding agility, one quickly realizes that most have only a very vague understanding of agility and the importance of the work involved. Workpath’s recent New Work survey (the evaluation will be published in Workpath magazine shortly) revealed that “agility” in 2018 is the buzzword par excellence. However, to benefit from agility and agile ways of working, it is precisely this understanding and, beyond that, the implementation of agile methods and processes that is extremely important.

“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday’s logic”  Peter F. Drucker

Agility explained

Agility is defined as a company’s ability to successfully adapt and grow with its rapidly changing environment. This adaptability to today’s volatile, complex and confusing market can lead to great competitive advantages if one manages to react appropriately to changes.

Successful implementation requires a dynamic capability as well as a stable component in the company – a haven of peace or something to hold on to as the company changes. Often this stable component is the vision, the culture and the corporate values ​​derived from it. Especially large, established companies find it hard to be dynamic because they often rely on rigid leadership hierarchies, processes, and structures.

Core elements of an agile network organization are:
value-added centering, focus on individuals and interactions, continuous learning

Where does the term come from?

It has its origin in agile working in software development. In 2001, a group called itself collectively the “Agile Alliance” to collectively set out the key principles of agility. These included representatives of Extreme Programming, SCRUM and DSDM. Their goal was for companies to think about new, more flexible ways of working. This resulted in the “Agile Manifesto of Software Development”, which sees man as the most important resource. Above all, it focuses on values ​​and culture and turns away from rigid process thinking.

But not only software companies can work agile. The elaborated twelve principles for agile work can also be interpreted more generally and can be adapted to almost any company.

By and large, people and interactions are about processes and tools, and the product itself is more in focus, without spending much time on in-depth documentation. Value creation is the focus for the customer. The ultimate goal is to satisfy him and to work with him – much more important than negotiating contracts with the customer for a long time first. So, this approach and mindset is important to focus more on responding to the ever-changing environment rather than following rigid plans.

What are examples of agile methods?

An example of an agile method is Scrum, It is a framework for project and product management and comes from software engineering, but is now also used in non-tech companies. Scrum helps to plan iteratively and incrementally, which helps to quickly resolve initial ambiguities using intermediate results and to continually adapt and develop the plan. Detailed plans are only created for the next sprint (short interval). A Scrum Team consists of six +/- three people and three roles: the Product Owner, the Scrum Master and the rest of the team developing the product. The Product Owner prioritizes technical requirements and the Scrum Master is responsible for managing processes and removing obstacles.

Another method for more agile work is Fridays where employees from all departments of the company meet voluntarily at a certain pace, for example every other Friday. Employees can then suggest topics that they consider important and would like to work on. Each participant writes his topic on a post-it, presents it to his colleagues, so that then teams spontaneously to selected topics can form. They then work on their subjects for a set period of time to introduce them to the rest of the team at the end of Open Friday. Know-how is shared between people who normally do not necessarily work together and solve problems that often receive no attention elsewhere. In addition to many new ideas that are being created, cooperation within the company will also be strengthened and silos broken up.

The introduction and implementation of an agile target system, such as objectives and key results (OKRs) , also support the company’s incremental planning and control and targeted employee management. In addition, transparency and communication are enhanced and the meaning of the work is clarified, as each employee has insight into the goals of each company level and sees what his or her work pays off and was involved in the objective itself. How OKRs work can be read here.

But why do you all want to work agile?

  1. Higher product vivacity due to more focused work
  2. Resource allocation through more transparency and communication
  3. Culture of cooperation through cross-functional cooperation and more communication
  4. More innovation through continuous adaptation to customer needs the market
  5. Motivated employees due to more responsibility

One of the many benefits of agile work is first of all higher productivity due to more focused work. This heightened focus stems from the fact that iteratively performs one improvement after another, allowing one to focus on one task after another. resource allocations Increased transparency, cross-functional teams, and more communication across departments make them easier to understand and more responsive to employees. In doing so, a culture is developed with more morality and cooperation, which makes it easier to retain both workers and to convince new or potential employees for their own company. In addition, continuous adaptation to the market rather than rigid adherence to a direction of innovation in the company is being used. In addition, employees are given more responsibility for agile work. As a result, employees are more motivated in their daily work.

Agile work has many advantages – Now, the only question is, why not every company does it? The reason for this is above all that many companies quickly find seemingly insurmountable hurdles on the way there.

Why do companies fail to work agile and what needs to be done to prevent this from happening?

At the corporate level, an agile target image is often missing. This includes a clear, long-term vision that is not interchangeable with most visions – i.e. generic focusing on market leadership or sales figures – but one that is specific to the company and, for example, puts its own products or services at the centre. The whole company should work towards this vision and have the same understanding of it. Only in this way can a mission, a strategy and an operative roadmap be deduced, which point the employees in the right direction. This promotes self-organised teams who ⎼ oriented towards the vision ⎼ can make their own decisions quickly and customer-oriented. For this it is necessary for each individual to scrutinise processes and tasks critically and to contribute their own ideas, instead of just assuming an executive function. This is also called “intrapreneurial thinking”.

The most important value-adding activities and decisions in agile companies are always geared towards the customer and are not simply determined top-down according to the wishes of the management. The key to team-based, decentralised network structures with individual responsibility is customer proximity. Because in an agile working environment, teams form the added value for the customer. Therefore, it is also ensured that all tasks create a value contribution for the customer and thus each employee acts directly on the goals and key figures.

The learning process is greater and a better product can be delivered to the customer if the teams have direct contact with it, for example, without the sales department acting as an intermediary. In addition, long discussions about hierarchies are eliminated. This way, silos within the company can be broken up and Taylorism, that is, detailed processes with precise work processes, can be avoided.

Spotify, for example, has few to no centrally specified processes and standards. They work in groups of no more than eight people, the so-called “squads”, who decide and act in a completely autonomous, cross-functional and self-organized manner. D ies means that teams can work quickly and flexibly with Spotify and react.

“Agile organisational cultures are based on frequent planning and feedback loops, cross-functional transparency and autonomy for decentralised decisions.”  Johannes Müller, Workpath

How must the working culture change?

A stable culture is important to employees as it serves as a guide; but often underestimated. It takes a long time to change and consolidate it. Culture must be used consciously. It is the key competence of a company and can create significant competitive advantages.

An important aspect here is that agile working does not aim to file on a product until it can be put on the market as a perfect product. Instead, products are introduced to the market and then aligned steadily and iteratively to customer needs. In such an environment, however, it is natural for mistakes to occur and for situations to fail. Therefore, having team members dare to come up with new ideas, make suggestions for improvement, and make decisions requires a culture of failure be established. A “safe place” where you can develop freely and promote new ways of thinking. The culture of failure implies that it is a mistake to make mistakes, because it is from them that the whole company can learn very well. It is important that the mistakes and the conclusions that you draw from them are shared and discussed. Once employees feel that failure is part of the process and accepted, it causes them to step out of their comfort zone and look outside the box. “What is important for the company?” Is about “What is important to me?” Asked.

culture of trust is also very important. It is the basis for more freedom of choice in difficult and problematic situations and promotes rapid response to external and internal influences. Thus, it forms the basis for self-organized teams. Thus, micro-management, where the leader constantly observes and controls his teams, can be avoided.  Generally this is nothing new. However, a culture of trust must be actively communicated and lived by those at all levels of the company.

How must the role of the leader change in order to successfully introduce agile work?

“Servant-Leadership” is the buzzword here. According to a study by Kienbaum and StepStone , most employees want a transformational leader instead of a manager who only controls and delegates. So a coach with a role model who acts value-oriented and transparent and promotes self-reliance. Managers should act as a mentor, giving responsibilities to self-employed workers, supporting, promoting, helping them to develop, and showing them the purpose of the work.

Iterative processes instead of long-term plans

In order to react quickly to external influences, the processes within the company must be made iterative. Long-term plans no longer work today. In addition, it is no longer possible to perfect a product to perfection, until it is finally brought to market. This is due to the dynamics and complexity of the markets and the ever-changing customer requirements. In addition, competition is no longer limited to well-known and established players, but also to young companies and those that until recently had not expected competition. So Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer was still convinced in June 2007 that the iPhone will not sell well. How wrong he was, at least today everyone is aware. Nevertheless, any company could have made this mistake. To avoid this, the management, and all other employees, should always keep an eye on the competition and maintain its adaptability, instead of stubbornly sticking in one direction.

In the objective is best used as follows: Strategic objectives are usually set by the management levels, as they are often the big picture have a better view. Operationally, though, workers can best say with the bottom-up approach how these goals are achievable. All levels in the company should work together.

How can I self-organise, train employees and create networks between employees?

To help employees innovate, it is helpful to train agile coaches or invite external coaches to help them deal with complex tasks. Also workshops , e-learning and training with teams formats to enable continuous learning are important. Another method is to involve the team members in the recruiting process of the HR department if a new employee is to be hired for the team. It is more likely that the team will work together faster and better and achieve the desired productivity. In employee development, a strong feedback culture is the alpha and omega. The first step is to help employees get better feedback to give and accept. You can find a quick guide for successful feedback here . Useful here are tools that serve as a reminder and as a guide to successful feedback. Workpath is currently offering a beta version , which will be further developed in collaboration with selected customers and will ensure continuous development with 360 ° feedback.

At the process and operational level, companies often pay too little attention to team communication and communication across departments and teams. This can be remedied with simple methods and processes. For example, the introduction of regular help check-in ,around and to increase communication frequency and quality targets with better connect with role and to exchange knowledge within the team open. Even retrospectives , which  should take place at least once a quarter, promote internal processes and help the company adapt to the changing environment.

Ultimately, it is also important to provide teams with common spaces where people from different teams can communicate. Even common events promote the togetherness and have greater effects than you can imagine.

What do I have to summarise?

Agility Explained

Denise Heller – Guest Writer

In summary, therefore, the following points should be implemented in order to enable and establish agile work in the company:

  1. Defining an agile target image
  2. Establishment of self-organised teams
  3. Creation of a cult of failure and a culture of trust
  4. Executives as coaches and mentors rather than pure managers
  5. Iterative processes instead of rigid / long-term plans
  6. Combination of top-down and bottom-up in goal setting
  7. Form team-based, customer-oriented network structures
  8. Ensuring a sufficient communication frequency and quality with methods such as check ins


Agility requires action and discipline ⎼ as well as the company’s success, it does not come by itself. There are many approaches to implementing agile work. For example, internal coaches can be trained, external support can be fetched, or new tools can be deployed to make structuring and organising easier. Workpath’s goal is to shape tomorrow’s workforce and help companies transform into an agile network organisation, offering a SaaS solution of the same name. It includes performance tools for OKRs, check-ins and feedback to establish and support shared goals, continuous feedback, self-organisation and focus.