skip to main content

In Search of Agility

Why does it take so long to get things done around here?

Everybody wants agility. Everybody thinks they understand it. Nobody actually has it. Leaders know this. And employees know it too. Gallup finds that 18% of U.S. employees say their company is agile.

What agility really defines is a desire -- a desire to move faster, change faster, and deliver faster in response to a marketplace that is moving, changing, and demanding more than ever before.

But the concept of agility alone doesn’t help leaders identify the challenges to speed and innovation in the modern organization.

Here are the three biggest challenges to agility:

1. Ambition Colliding With the Matrix

In most workplaces, every person is juggling an ambitious to-do list. They have a lot to get done in a day, a week, a quarter. If people are talented, they are even more ambitious. But the reality is this: Over eight in 10 U.S. employees are matrixed to some extent.

That means that, in nearly all organizations, the people someone needs to get their to-do list done have different priorities than they do. One person’s No. 1 priority is another’s No. 10; that person’s No. 1 is another’s No. 10. Someone needs to meet with a client, while someone else needs them to decide on a plan for a future event. A team can’t proceed on a project until they get signoff from a stakeholder, but that stakeholder is troubleshooting a production line issue.

This mismatch of combining ambitious lists with matrixed collaboration means less gets done.

The solution? Leaders must ensure alignment of priorities across teams, fostering a collective focus on what’s important. When matrixed teams have the same priorities, they are ready, present and able to get much more done.

Only about two in 10 U.S. employees strongly agree that the leaders in their organization have a clear direction for the organization. A leader’s responsibility is to align priorities between disparate teams and identify low priorities to cut.

2. Decision-Making Too Far From the Customer

Agile workplaces focus on and prioritize creative solutions for the customer.

An employee working in an agile workplace understands the customer, knows the customer’s problem and has the authority to solve it. They have permission to get the work done; they don’t have to ask 20 people for approval first. If the answer is, “I’ll have to get approval from my supervisor,” an organization isn’t agile. If the answer is, “Let me fix that for you now,” it’s agile.

For teams to move faster, the decision point needs to be moved closer to the customer. Leaders should identify decision points and decide if they can move them closer to the action.

Why doesn’t this happen? Because moving decision-making down the organization means giving responsibility and ownership -- and therefore risk -- to others. Real power is the power to fail and make mistakes. People often give up their own agency and pass it on to their supervisor if they are afraid of making a mistake.

Shifting responsibility to someone else may avoid mistakes, but it won’t build a creative or courageous workplace culture. Leaders have to create a culture where it is OK to try and fail.

3. Waiting for “Perfect”

Employees might want multiple levels of approval for another reason: They aren’t sure the final product is perfect. Fear of not being perfect can lead to endless cycles of minor improvements or repeated checks for validation from leaders. Both of these habits slow productivity.

Embracing the concept of the “Minimum lovable product” encourages teams to release imperfect but functional products, inviting the customer to help co-create the final version. It means taking the mindset that the customer will help us find “perfect.”

When done well, this strategy can lead to unexpected innovation. Teams aren’t on the hook for thinking of everything; instead, they can focus on listening to and responding to customers -- the very thing an organization needs to become more agile.

Putting It All Together

Modern organizations often approach work like a relay race, with one person running while others watch, eagerly waiting for their turn. However, a more effective approach is comparable to a football play, where every player is in motion at the same time. They are all doing different tasks, but those tasks work together toward a single outcome.

Aligned priorities across roles, teammates empowered to make decisions, and real-time adjustments made in response to changing conditions -- when a team has all three elements, they aren’t talking about “agility,” they’re getting work done.

It’s time to cultivate agility in your organization.



Ed O'Boyle is Global Practice Leader for Gallup's workplace and marketplace consulting.

Ryan Pendell contributed to this article.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030