Agility, in business terms, is the ability to respond quickly and flexibly to change. Agile companies achieve more than their competitors, growing around 30% more quickly on average, with higher profit margins. We have noted before that employee agility is vital, and most CEOs today say that it is crucial.
Changing ways of changing
The way that change happens has changed. You used to start at point A and have a change programme to move to point B. The change curve served people well in understanding the stages of transition. But now, no sooner have you identified point B than it moves, or disappears, or is replaced by something else. Change is constant, with no end in sight. A new approach is needed to manage this constant state of change effectively.
Agile companies have achieved this. They recognise that changes occur frequently during a project’s life cycle, and don’t try to anticipate a complete set of requirements at the start. Instead, they are able to innovate and take advantage of new opportunities that arise during the project. They standardise the processes that won’t change, so that they can then add value through new features in response to change.
But what do agile companies actually do differently? The agile methodology started in software development, when coders were pressed to get to market faster, and started to adopt an iterative process of development, moving forward and testing and reassessing almost simultaneously. It’s also possible to do that in internal communications, and use this to drive competitive advantage.
Companies that are using agile methods in internal communications share certain traits:
- They have seen a shift in stakeholder input. Business owners are only involved in setting the long-term objectives. Recommending and implementing the strategy is the responsibility of empowered teams, including internal communications.
- They have a flatter organisational structure, with cross-functional and self-organising teams. While this may sound fanciful, there is lots of emerging evidence about the benefits of self-organising systems, and how much faster they can react to change because everyone takes responsibility.
- Linked to this, teams have shared accountability for delivering value. Together, they own their business objectives. Interactions with business partners are limited and closely managed to avoid delays.
- The way of working is much more ‘iterative sprints’ than ‘big bang’. Instead of working to a single far-distant outcome, projects are broken down into smaller chunks, each of which delivers value, and each of which informs the next. The benefits include failing quickly and cheaply when necessary, and being able to adapt flexibly to changes in requirements.
But these changing ways of working also require some big changes from most internal communications departments.
Changing internal communications
There are four big changes that internal communications teams need to make to be able to work in an agile way. First, they must abandon the idea that planning can be done extensively and sequentially, and accept that it must be adaptive and iterative. Change can occur at any time, and the planning process must be flexible enough to allow that.
Secondly, the change curve is now outdated. The idea that anyone moves smoothly through periods of change in an orderly way has largely been abandoned. Instead, employees tend to experience ‘moments of truth’ when they have successfully engaged with change. These may be relatively infrequent, but they will show in increased energy and engagement.
Thirdly, they need to focus on the end result: the business priorities of the company, rather than the wants and needs of particular executives. Although the ‘business partner’ model has worked well for some time, it is now too internally-focused. Like the rest of the business, internal communications must focus on its contribution to the success of the company, and its effect on customers.
Finally, internal communications specialists need to become more general communicators. There is far less demarcation between teams nowadays, and people are more useful if they can contribute in more than one way.
A small step towards agility
Nobody ever said that becoming agile was easy. But these ideas offer the potential to improve the agility of the internal communications department. And that’s at least one small step towards helping the rest of the business become more agile, and puts teams on the path to employee advocacy.