Disruption Is Coming: How to Build an Agile Business


No matter your industry, chances are that your business will need to adapt to survive.

As the pace of business increases, the ability to adapt quickly to change is becoming increasingly important for companies. In one McKinsey & Company survey, two-thirds of respondents said that their sector was characterised by rapid change. To stay ahead of new innovations, customer demands, and the competition, businesses must learn how to operate with more flexibility and speed.

Organisation design principals at McKinsey define business agility as an organisation’s ability to “renew itself, adapt, change quickly, and succeed in a rapidly changing, ambiguous, turbulent environment.” Having the ability to “thrive on change and get stronger” can be a serious competitive advantage.

But few companies have thoroughly incorporated business agility into their operations. The same McKinsey survey found that only 4% of businesses have fully implemented what they call “agile transformations,” with another 37% saying that such a transformation was in progress.

Most start-ups tend to adapt frequently, taking advantage of flat hierarchies and quick pivots to win customers and earn revenue. But this type of agility is usually not supported by strong processes and procedures and, as a result, can generate a sense of chaos.

A business that has reached any size of scale, argues McKinsey principal Aaron de Smet, needs stability in order to allow for agility. “Agility requires stability for most companies,” he explains. Besides the ability to move quickly and nimbly, agility also requires “a stable foundation—a platform, if you will—of things that don’t change. It’s this stable backbone that becomes a springboard for the company, an anchor point that doesn’t change while a whole bunch of other things are changing constantly.”

Business Daily columnist Njoki Karungu-Karuga describes this further: “Contrary to common belief, defined processes also spur innovation given that there is a framework of how things should be done. One is able to think of ways to speed up execution and make it even more efficient.”

If an organisation has clearly established processes, managers and employees don’t need to expend as much effort figuring out how things work. Strong processes also facilitate better communication, faster decision-making, and deeper collaboration, all of which support experimentation and innovation.

To ensure that these processes don’t become too complex or cumbersome, CIO Digital Magazine encourages leaders to think intentionally about keeping organisational structures simple. “One common approach to improving organisational agility: remove layers of complexity that slow down the business, and empower employees—at all levels—to make informed decisions,” explains a recent article. When managers focus more on key metrics and outcomes, and give others the authority to figure out how to achieve those goals, then team members will have more opportunity to problem-solve and make informed decisions.

Of course, maintaining a culture of agility in your business requires hiring people who thrive in a dynamic environment. Jeff Gothelf, co-founder of Neo Innovation, recommends looking for candidates who exhibit “creativity, collaboration and curiosity” and who “don’t easily fit into a box.” “These are the generalists with an entrepreneurial spirit,” he writes in Harvard Business Review. “They’re the multi-faceted tinkerers… They’re the sceptical members of the team. The ones always pushing back on the status quo and forcing the business to rethink the way it presents itself.”

As the world around us changes at an increasingly rapid pace, agility is becoming critical for any business. Regardless of your sector or industry, it may be wise to consider how your organisation can undergo its own agile transformation in the near future. “In a world defined by technology, reimagining change as an essential component of growth is key to staying relevant,” explains Biase de Gregorio, partner at South African firm IQbusiness, in an IT News Africa article. “Predicting, inspecting, and being able to adapt should be the primary focus of all modern organisations, regardless of their size.”