5 Steps for Agility in a Volatile Economy

By Charlie Moss  |  Posted 01-12-2010

5 Steps for Agility in a Volatile Economy

"Agile" is one of the most overused phrases in the IT world today. In fact, it's impossible to go to a conference or read an industry publication without tripping over a veritable parade of agile methodologies for everything from software development to product deployment to sales force optimization.

We define "agility" as adapting to market and industry challenges quickly and with ease. Talking agile and actually being agile, however, are very different things.

True organizational agility can't be conjured up with a few all-hands meetings and regular e-mail affirmations; it must flow throughout a company and extend beyond the walls of IT. True agility must come from within, from a sense of purpose and autonomy, and a need to build something greater than the bottom line.

It functions not only in the best of times but also during crises and catastrophes. In short, true agility comes from shared internal values translated into shared external actions. Here are five key steps you need to take to foster a values-based culture--and, by extension, an agile IT culture.

1. Identify a meaningful business purpose for the IT organization. You might have heard that one before, but you'd be shocked at how many businesses don't have a real purpose other than to print money. Without a unifying purpose, it's very hard to rally the troops and bring disparate individuals into alignment with laser focus on a collective task.

Google aims to capture and make accessible all the world's information. Merck seeks to preserve and improve human lives. UnderArmour endeavors to make all athletes better. What does your IT organization want to do within the confines of the overall business? Put it in a crystal clear sentence and make sure every employee understands that this is the underlying goal, the reason they come to work every day, and a reflection on their lives. Think big and broad to get buy in.

Now comes the hard part: You have to walk the talk.

2. Articulate the values that have made the company successful and will make the IT organization successful. Walking the talk starts by laying out in a clear format what values have made the company successful. At Google, the company value statement was simple: "Don't be evil." This is important to remember when you're charged with building an incredibly powerful IT infrastructure that categorizes much of the world's information. Other values evident in Google's work environment are "Be curious" and "Work hard, but love your job." Like the business purpose, it's important to articulate these values in a manner that is unwavering in conviction but broad in application.

To determine the values of the IT organization, think about three to five things your IT organization needs to believe in to be successful both today and in the future. If you already have a set of values and purpose, then begin by recommunicating them to clients, employees and key IT stakeholders. Repeating them as a mantra is not sufficient. Find a way to weave in value checkpoints to the daily workings of your organization.

At Google, for example, it's entirely normal for employees to blurt out in the middle of a planning meeting "That's evil!" if they think something being proposed is wrong. It's akin to tossing a penalty flag on the playing field. Regardless of the mechanism, make sure the entire IT organization understands this is not just about drinking the Kool-Aid; it's about committing to demonstrate consistent, successful behavior at all levels of the IT department.

3. Develop an inspiring mission with supporting goals for the IT organization. Apple and its iconic CEO Steve Jobs are known for setting new standards for usability and innovation in consumer electronics. In the year before the iPhone launched in 2007, Jobs set for his design team an exciting and difficult task: build a phone that acted like a computer--and that your grandmother could operate. Prior to the iPhone, the smart phone market had failed to attain popular critical mass. Jobs and his team changed that. They did it in a tight time-frame and with a relatively limited budget.

Underpinning that goal was a clear set of supporting goals for Jobs' IT organization. The mission painted a picture of where the organization wanted to go and the supporting goals provided additional specifics on how to get there. As a result of this successful melding of high-minded mission and nuts-and-bolts execution, Apple is well positioned to compete with Google's Android and other smart phone rivals rapidly encroaching on Apple's turf.

Focus on Performance

4. Implement an integrated performance management system that supports a culture of coaching accountability and development. At Zappos.com, CEO Tony Hsieh regularly takes employees from all levels out for a night on the town. In fact, managers at the online shoe and clothing retailer are encouraged to interact socially with direct reports.

But beneath the socializing lies a host of metrics and performance measurement targets. Everyone in the company knows what is expected of them and knows the company's overall performance goals. These goals are discussed regularly at weekly or semi-daily meetings, which are both casual in format but clear in purpose. And, guess what? None of the goals are numbers based! The most important metric for Zappos employees, from the warehouse folks to the IT managers, is how well they are living up to the company's 10 core values in their daily job performance and decision making.

Zappos reinforces this process with regular meetings and honest, transparent feedback to employees. We all know that it's bad to have too many meetings, but setting goals without setting aside time for face-to-face interaction is a sure way to derail an organization. This can be particularly tempting in IT organizations, where everyone is used to electronic communication.

5. Sponsor regular performance-focused meetings that allow the opportunity to re-assess strategy, goals and objectives and quickly change course. While regular meetings are needed to keep everyone on track, equally important are "big-think" meetings to reassess strategic issues. In any organization, changing a plan or a way of doing business is difficult and disruptive. But creating mechanisms to facilitate these types of changes are essential, either to communicate and get feedback on major course shifts by management or to harvest very useful ideas bubbling up from the ranks.

Marissa Mayer, the top VP in charge of Google's user interface, has regular office hours when employees can come to her with ideas and concerns. And engineers on Google's Gmail team can spontaneously call major strategy meetings that can quickly result in seismic shifts. Usually, these meetings are precipitated either by what an engineer sees as a missed opportunity or a major failure requiring some sort of course correction. A continued ability to change direction, marshal the appropriate resources and meet a specific challenge strongly represents organizational agility.

Building a framework for a values-based agile IT organization or department is no easy thing. But when IT leaders turn to a values-based performance management strategy, they can better position themselves as catalysts of agility throughout the enterprise.

Organizations that can agree on values and goals and can also stick to the program or, if necessary, change the program to keep the lofty mission in their sights, can maintain agility required to achieve the highest levels of performance.

Charlie Moss is founder of The Moss Group, a strategic consulting firm.