Agile culture

By Stephan Rammelt

Agility is one of the manage­ment buzz­words of our time. Established companies are trying to keep up with the speed, dynamism and customer focus of new, digital players. Digitalisation is putting pressure on previously successful business models, disrupting entire sectors. To stay on top, organisations have to be innovative – and fast. In this environment, agility is more than just a competitive factor, it’s an essential survival skill. And agile ways of thinking and working are also a pre­requisite for the rapid integration and implementation of new digital business approaches.

For many companies, this shift means a fundamental cultural change. Agility needs flat hierarchies, trial and error, quick decision-making and cross-functional and interdisciplinary collaboration. It’s not so much a methodology but an attitude that helps to create room for pragmatic solutions, builds on the knowledge of the crowd, and recognises that mistakes are an integral part of progress. This also requires new thinking at management level, away from isolated functions, strict hierarchies and control mechanisms. In addition, the entire focus of the organisation must be redirected – from internal requirements towards customers and the competition.

Supporting this change is a core task of communications teams. We’ve outlined four steps we think are essential if communicators want to drive and enable transformation in their business.

First: Determine the need for change

Agility as an overarching concept is quite hard to grasp. Therefore, the first step must be to define what agility means for the organisation. What principles are associated with it? What do these general principles mean in the specific context of the business? How do requirements vary in different areas and functions of the business and what are the fundamentals that everyone needs to adopt? And finally, where does the company currently stand with regard to these agile fundamentals – what is the cultural need for change? Developing this narrative as a framework for communications has to be done at the beginning of the process. The goal is not to set agile requirements in stone by adding to the existing corporate value canon, but rather to determine which specific change requirements must be the subject of a dialogue between top management, leaders and employees.

Second: Bring new ways of thinking and working to life

Culture change can’t be ordered from on high. But communications can facilitate the change by encouraging agile ways of thinking. Collaborative communications and participation formats can demonstrate the added value of agile methods for the organisation, whilst opening people’s minds to new ideas. For instance, company-wide innovation days can raise awareness of the challenges, but also the opportunities of digital transformation – the innovation power it requires and how agile working can support this. At a functional level, highly condensed and result-oriented design thinking workshops allow leaders and employees to develop new formats for collaboration or concrete measures for the implementation of strategic goals, while employing the core principles of agility: radical customer-centricity, trial and error, and creativity.

Third: Enable leaders to change

The role of leaders changes funda­mentally in an agile working environment. It’s no longer about assigning specific tasks to individual employees, but rather about empowering the team to work more independently, in the role of a facilitator and curator. Communications can facilitate the understanding of this new role. It’s important to support managers in creating space for new, cross-functional thinking. They must be enabled to inspire their employees to question and rethink existing structures and processes, to initiate open discussions and address resistance. Leadership events provide a setting for the visible commitment of top management to the internal cultural change. Here, the leadership team can initiate an open dialogue on the goals and impact of agility. Together with HR, communicators can develop formats and tools that enable leaders to determine appropriate agile methods for their teams, reflect on implications for their own leadership style and identify potential resistance from their people.

Fourth (but not least): Start with the communications department

Not every part of the business needs to embrace agility to the same degree. However, one area where agile ways of thinking and working must be introduced is the communications department itself. Communicators must be pioneers of the movement – they must have tried and internalised these new formats. They can only convincingly champion and support the internal change once they have understood and experienced the added value of the ‘new world’. To do so, they not only have to review the current mindset and working methods, but also challenge existing structures. This requires a set-up that enables employees to act flexibly and quickly, one that fosters network-building within and outside of the company. Only then can the many decentralised stories of the digital transformation be collated and framed in an overarching, meaningful narrative.

You will find more information on the topic of agility in our new book “Kommunikation in der digitalen Transformation” (available only in German), published by Verlag Springer Gabler.