Overcoming the Enemies of Business Agility

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

Everywhere we turn CEOs and senior executives are talking about how important it is for their company to maintain and increase its agility just to keep up with changes in the business environment, let alone increase their competitive stance. However, we see some of the same companies struggling to stay agile in the changing business landscape. What fuels this paradox? Here are some of the most common enemies of company agility, along with some guidelines on how to overcome them.

Enemy #1: Addiction to success. Developing a “winning strategy” and replicating it has been a time-honored approach to increasing growth and profitability. However, as unprecedented opportunities and challenges continuously emerge, this strategy leaves organizations vulnerable.

For instance, changing tastes and health concerns eroded Hostess Brands’ product sales over the years to the point that the company is now in the process of liquidating. Some may say that this decline is inevitable as a company ages, but the Campbell’s Soup Company, another food icon, proves otherwise. In stark contrast to the relatively fossilized roster of products from Hostess Brands, Campbell’s has been paying attention to changing tastes, evolving demographics, and trends in health consciousness, especially over the past year. In fact, Campbell’s recently introduced a series of new products and packaging changes to stay relevant and to be responsive to consumers.

Even the most successful strategies, products, and services must evolve as business and market conditions change. Shifting focus to the reasons behind success rather than on what has been successful in the past is a foundational step for developing an agile response to change.  

Enemy #2: Overlooking small changes that can have a big impact. Seemingly minor changes inside and outside your company can accumulate to the point where they may have unanticipated, yet game-changing effects, that equal or exceed more apparent “big” changes.

For example, in the breathtakingly short time frame between 2007and 2012, the strategy of bricks and mortar big-box retailing has greatly decreased in dominance as customers increasingly shop on the Internet. A number of small, seemingly unrelated changes have cumulatively contributed to this downfall, include the growth of emerging technologies making it easier to do business online, an increase in consumer comfort with the Internet, the high cost of gasoline, consumers’ increasing sense of time pressures, the difficulty of recruiting and retaining high quality sales staff for big box stores, and many other “minor” issues.

To stay attuned to these changes, every leader needs to create an organization that can identify relevant information about what is and is not changing inside and outside their company, recognize subtle yet significant patterns in seemingly unconnected events, and decide what shifts in strategy or operations are needed to effectively adapt.

Enemy #3: Dialing too far back on oversight. Adopting an excessively hands-off leadership stance to encourage agility puts a company at risk of chaos, as each area innovates in ways that seem right from their perspective, but can lead to negative, unintended results.

Finding a balance between stifling, over-centralized control of how an organization recognizes and adapts to changing business conditions and a haphazard ad hoc approach can be challenging—and as much art as science. One company that is managing to walk this fine line is Amazon. The company is known for expanding into a series of seemingly unrelated businesses over the years, from simply its beginnings as solely a bookseller to developing devices such as Kindle and website services. Throughout, however, CEO Jeff Bezos continues to adhere to the company’s key values, focusing on current and emerging customer needs.

Leaders who want to strengthen their organization’s agility, innovation, and competitiveness must continually find ways to encourage every employee to seek out and develop new opportunities.

Fostering Agility for Competitiveness
Overcoming all three of these common enemies of agility depends upon boards, CEOs, senior executives, and the entire organization adopting a long-term framework for success that’s grounded in consistent principles and values while open to alternative paths to adapt to change and achieve higher levels of prosperity. 

When your organizational mindset and culture are open to challenging even the most sacred products, services, and business models, the reward will be exciting new options for success.

Regularly encouraging and rewarding expansive thinking to address large and small changes will allow leaders to capitalize on previous successes without either remaining shackled to the past or falling victim to chaos.

You can further explore the ideas discussed in this article in the following AMA seminars:

Successful Product Management

Creativity and Innovation: Unleashing Your Potential for Greater Success