In sport we hear about ‘defensive structure’ and ‘offensive agility’: Can you utilise and leverage both at the same time to seize unexpected opportunities in project delivery?

Agile. Dynamic. Innovative. Transformative.

It’s one of the current myths about business that to be successful, an organisation has to ‘go Agile’. And while we appreciate that not everyone drinks the Agile Kool-Aid, we have seen what happens when methodology adoption trumps developing an organisational mindset that should instead focus on ‘agility’ rather than a single methodology.

What does it really take to enable an organisation to become an ‘agile organisation’, not just an adopter of an Agile approach to project delivery?

Structure and Agility

For those that have followed Rugby Union since it became professional in the late 1990s, there have been significant changes in the way the game is played. It’s an effective illustration of the evolution required to embrace agility as a mindset.

The World Cup-winning Australian teams of the nineties played quite a structured style built around each team member knowing their role and the forwards (usually big ugly blokes) and backs (the quicker, smarter better-looking types), working together but having distinct roles.

This worked at the time because it was a new innovation and other teams struggled to defend this style of playing. The roles were clear, props were large and strong, the backs were quick and nimble and their job on the field was well understood.

But that clarity also exposed a new ‘way of doing’ to exploit. The New Zealand All Blacks emerged with a different approach that looked, for all intents and purposes, like a very unstructured game, flinging the ball around at random, running it from just about anywhere on the field, and taking some extraordinary risks previously unacceptable to coaches.

And it worked. The All Blacks and their provincial teams evolved into the most formidable rugby union teams in the world. Forwards morphed into backs and backs into forwards, each able to adapt on the fly to different, interchangeable roles. And until recently, Australian sides couldn’t match them because the Wallabies were still playing the old and now less successful highly structured game, until the NSW Waratahs broke the Kiwi 40 game winning streak by learning how to be agile, not just adopting it.

Being Agile and Having an ‘Agile Organisation’ Aren’t the Same Thing

Whether it is rolling out a new product, improving customer experience and journey, or improving delivery, it’s easy to forget that in a business context, Agile is a methodology, not a verb.

Business ‘agility’ has distinct qualities that enable organisations to respond quickly and easily to changes in their environment and markets without losing either momentum or the vision of their business.  In a rapidly changing world, organisational agility is an aspiration for many teams who want to improve how well and how fast they deliver innovation to clients.

All too often, we see organisations drinking the Kool-Aid when it comes to new forms of project methodology without understanding the structural benefits of more established and proven approaches to successful project delivery. That’s not to say that new approaches don’t have a place – far from it. It’s about being fit for purpose.

With the rate and depth of change brought on by technology and changing dynamics within the market, many organisations are striving to adapt by embracing new approaches to improving the customer journey.

Organisational agility is something that many organisations aspire to, but what does true agility look like?

Structure Is Key, but So Is the Ability to Adapt

When you start to break down the All Black’s game, it’s fairly easy to see that they are, in fact, not unstructured; it’s quite the opposite. The team is highly structured, each player knows his role, but what is very different is that within that structure they are trained to play what is in front of them.

Knowing what the structures look like enables individuals to respond and improvise. In a more ‘traditional game’ one player – think David Campese – would react and because the team hadn’t anticipated the move, that individual player could become isolated and lose the ball. Campese’s brilliance was seen as a weakness.

These days, looking at the New Zealand game, we see that all 15 players not only know their fundamental roles but can respond quickly to many scenarios that play out on the field. This is agility in the truest sense of the word. They’ve trained and honed their skills and fitness to such a level that in any given moment they can execute their own role exceptionally well yet adapt as a forward to pass like a scrum half or a back can clean out a ruck the way a forward would. Or a front rower can charge down the sideline as a winger might – think Jonah Lomu.

Reviewing Performance

The game became exciting again and it was clear that the All Blacks had achieved a level of agility that enabled them to adapt and flex to the conditions of the game. Analysts provided insights and feedback to coaches and players – sometimes on the fly in the midst of the current game and always post-match.

They forensically reviewed each game, using knowledge, experience and technology (GPS, Player stats, player tracking, collision force, effective and non-effective involvements etc.), to understand how the team performed and, importantly, how individuals performed.

The best teams can openly and transparently discuss each player’s performance, review what they did well and not so well and implement plans and actions to improve. There is no blame – just a single focus on the team winning and how each player can contribute more effectively to that success.

So What Can We Learn?

For an organisation to truly unlock agility there is much to be learned from the rugby journey. But just simply implementing an Agile delivery methodology will not be the end of the story. Agile as a methodology is highly structured and in many ways requires more discipline then waterfall. And like New Zealand rugby teams to get the best out of itself, an Agile team must also strive for agility and that means, at times, operating outside of the defined Agile structure.  The team cannot allow itself to be overly rigid and it needs to be able to adapt and react to different scenarios, just like the All Blacks.

Because regardless of the methodology the key to unlocking ‘agility’ is to give the team the room to execute and align the skill and focus of the team to the same outcome.

As project specialists, we develop fit-for-purpose strategy and delivery.  Contact us here to find out more about how we work with your teams or call 02 9098 6300.

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Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...