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Getting Started

How to stay agile

As your business grows how can you stay nimble – and why do you need to?

How to stay agile

With growth it can be hard to stay as agile as you were as a start-up, yet in today’s fast-paced business world it is often only those companies with the flexibility to rapidly react to changing customer needs that succeed in the long run.

If you want to be one of those companies, you’ll need to create a structure that allows for rapid and continuous innovation. This means that rather than rigidly designing projects and setting a ‘way forward’, you should takle things much more iteratively. Your teams should meet regularly to share problems and successes, and to make improvements as needed.

If you insist on traditional processes and procedures, your business can easily become bogged down as your brightest people find they have to negotiate a long chain of command and multiple approvals or, worse, they have to wait for sign-off at a quarterly board meeting. In today’s fast-paced world, such delays can be terminal for a growing company.

Systems and processes

Dr Simon Hayward, author of The Agile Leader and CEO of leadership consultancy Cirrus, says SMEs and start-ups are agile because they are usually unencumbered by bureaucracy. But retaining that agile culture can be very challenging as organisations expand, and there is a tendency to introduce more systems and processes to keep control.

“This slows down the organisation, restricting pace, innovation and entrepreneurial flair,” he says. “The need for simplification is clear, but the challenge is immense because the system is difficult to change. This can stifle agility. So, as you get bigger and/or more established, it is well worth maintaining a focus on simplicity and avoiding complexity where possible."

And Dr Hayward believes it is possible to continue being agile as you evolve and grow: "Amazon is a good example of this – it began by disrupting traditional book retailing and is now the world’s biggest online retailer, challenging market after market."

Agile leadership

"Something else to bear in mind as your business evolves is the need to manage the ‘paradox of agile leadership’.” He explains that this means business leaders need to be both enablers and disruptors. They should be enablers by connecting the organisation and people within it, encouraging agile collaboration and cohesion. But, at the same time, they should retain a disrupting mindset that is about challenging the status quo so that the organisation can reinvent itself to respond to commercial challenges.

"Getting this balance right is critical if your business is to compete on a sustainable basis with competitors. The principles of agile working need to be adopted across the entire business: greater emphasis on simplicity, shorter planning cycles, ruthless prioritisation focused on what customers want, and embracing digital opportunities."

Lawrence Jones is founder and CEO of internet hosting business UKFast and admits there is “little more exciting in the business arena than that start-up phase”. Your business is never more agile, he says. “At that early stage you have to respond quickly to changes in the market to survive.”

But when the company expands: “It takes so much more energy and time to change, to respond. It’s not as simple to be an agile business any more. It’s like comparing a spider monkey to an elephant!"

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. "With ever-changing technologies to keep firms connected and innovative, there’s little excuse for not keeping up with customer and market expectations.

"But I would say that staying agile is about instilling innovation within a company’s culture and empowering people at the coal face in the business to make decisions. It’s about having small teams, with no manager looking after more than six people. It’s all too easy to become stale when a business reaches a certain size. UKFast has been split into different divisions as it has grown, to keep the small business feel within teams, while contributing to a larger overall project."

Where the opinions of third parties are offered, these may not necessarily reflect those of St. James’s Place.