Many marketing teams are looking toward ‘agile’ internal structures to navigate the fast-moving business landscape wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s how to avoid common mistakes.

The pandemic has placed more focus than ever on the concept of agility – the ability of a business to rapidly adapt to new circumstances, avoid new threats and seize new opportunities. Businesses which were content in their niches are realising that no industry is ever truly safe, and that a radical, unforeseen shake-up could always be just around the corner. As a result, many businesses are retooling with a focus on agility – and many are falling prey to easily avoidable mistakes.

Simply moving a team to work from home doesn’t make it agile, and reorganising your business to meet the immediate needs of the COVID-19 era doesn’t either. Instead, becoming agile requires full-business transformation, centred upon a “test, fail, learn, repeat” methodology which employees at every level truly buy into. With many businesses setting out on the path to agility, this article seeks to signpost some of the most frequent pitfalls so that they have the best chance of success.

Failure to adopt a customer-centric mindset

Becoming agile is an internal process, but it’s easy to become overly fixated on making improvements for improvement’s sake. At the end of the day, businesses exist to serve customers, and this relationship must drive changes. Deloitte reports that customer-centric companies are 60% more profitable than competitors, and Dimension Data finds that 81% of organisations use their CX as a competitive differentiator.

When becoming agile, too many businesses become caught up in arbitrarily improving their internal capabilities. For instance, many businesses on the path toward agility by reorganising their teams around channel or capability. As new teams and channels have come online, teams may have become muddled and this seems like a neater way to operate. However, it is not customer-centric.

Source: Dimension Data.

Customers span multiple channels on their journeys, and neatly segmenting teams doesn’t reflect this. Instead, businesses should create multi-disciplined teams which work in a matrix-oriented model with dotted-line management into team heads rather than siloed departments. This ensures that the business is best equipped to respond to changing customer needs and that data on customers and their journeys move naturally through the organisation. Agile businesses require frequent adjustment to operate efficiently, so be sure to use 360 feedback and regular reviews to ensure that the structure is right for the circumstances.

For an example, look to UK energy company EDF Energy, which set a lean team of six on the path to developing an online product to reduce complaints about smart meters. The team created iterative prototypes, engaging directly with customers for real-time feedback and testing with a pilot audience. In just six weeks, the fully committed team had produced a finished solution ready to pilot – a task which would have been impossible without involving the customer at every stage. 

Taking baby steps and fearing failure

Becoming agile is a daunting process, but hesitation can’t be a factor when it comes to making the leap.

Agility is all about experimentation, innovation and learning by doing, and this means accepting that not every idea will be a winner. Of every ten ideas for a new product or service, only one or two might succeed, and adopting an agile mindset means moving on from failures rather than taking all ten to market. While a traditional business might look at this and see unacceptable waste, the reality is that every failed prototype represents learning and money saved in the long run.

NatWest, a UK bank, formed agile teams to develop new digital solutions for the nationwide Prince’s Trust charity. In teams of 10, the 60 participants rapidly collaborated to “hack” two challenges and produce working prototypes. Judges worked from set criteria to identify the most suitable solutions. Of the 10 solutions, only 2 were chosen, but the teams understood that this wasn’t “waste” – after all, the process only took six hours – but rather the most efficient way forward. 

Failure is an inherent part of this process, and for old-fashioned, failure-averse businesses, this can be tough to accept. However, this is how businesses work in the modern age – there’s a reason FAANG corporations have higher share value than traditional businesses with physical assets.

While investing fully in agility is non-negotiable, that doesn’t mean that every experiment has to involve betting the house. Multiple small efforts can often be worth more than the sum of their parts, and they’re a great way to identify and resolve any issues with your methodology or new internal processes.

Choosing the wrong tools for the job

Understandably, businesses are often reluctant to invest in new tools – especially in a pandemic when it is even tougher to justify new expenditures. However, a business which is using the same old tools, programmes and systems after a “transformation” hasn’t really transformed, it has reorganised. To truly experience the benefits of an agile business, companies must adopt the right tools for their new needs.

Tools and technology are an integral part of an agile organisation, as they enable rapid communication, data processing and implementation. During the pandemic, the first businesses to adapt were cloud-native organisations with a core infrastructure that allowed them to work from anywhere and scale to meet demand. These are the businesses that others should seek to emulate, as they have illustrated the benefits of modern technology.

We’ve all come to rely on Teams, Slack, Google Chat and Zoom far more over the past year, but agile businesses must make similar digital migrations for all other daily processes. What this means will be different for every industry, but across all businesses, software as a service has made it easier than ever to find the right solution.

Overcoming unanticipated issues

Becoming agile is an exciting opportunity for businesses, but it’s important to look before you leap. Understanding common issues is an ideal start, and businesses should continue by mapping out their transformation, setting expectations internally, and communicating the change to clients. Even with all of this preparation, however, businesses must be prepared to face adversity. There will inevitably be obstacles along the path, and it is how the business addresses them that will determine the success of the project.