Ever wonder why it's important to have an agile company?
Just peruse a few chapters of business history. There are many examples of companies—especially in the airline industry and in the early days of online retail—that were extremely successful until something went wrong. The company couldn't adjust and had to either declare bankruptcy or allow itself to be sold.
When worst comes to worst, having an agile company can help businesses going through a tough time get to the other side relatively unscathed.
With that in mind, you may want to consider taking these three steps towards building a more agile company. (I could have given you 421 steps to an agile company, but that wouldn't be very agile, would it?)
1. Listen to your customers.
This is smart to do, whether you want an agile company or not.
—Wayne Strickland, consultant
But how does listening to your customers fit in with having a business that's more flexible? Well, if you rarely listen—or don't have an efficient system for receiving customer feedback—you may miss helpful information. You could even end up not realizing that your company needed to be evolving more until it's too late, and you're wondering how much you can get for your business.
In other words, your customers may be telling you that your business needs to be doing something else, says David Mercer, a Cape Town, South Africa-based serial entrepreneur and founder of SME Pals, a blog aimed at entrepreneurs who want to turn ideas into startups.
“It's quite likely that the market will want to take you in strange new directions," Mercer says. "There's absolutely no point in being sentimental about the direction your business takes. Being flexible is vital to the survival of most modern businesses."
Robert Barrows, owner of R.M. Barrows Advertising, in San Mateo, Calfornia, agrees.
“If you want to keep the business," he advises, "do what the client wants."
Within reason, of course—you have profits and maybe a little dignity you'd like to retain. But Barrows shares an old joke from the advertising business that illustrates the type of flexible mindset it helps to have to keep your customers happy:
“A client asks the adman, 'What time is it?' The advertising guy replies, 'What time do you want it to be?"
2. Encourage failure as part of your agile company culture.
Obviously, you don't want to actively promote failure. ("Holiday bonuses for anyone who loses the most money for the company this year!")
Still, there is a strong argument among many business consultants that you shouldn't punish failure, either—that you should, in a sense, celebrate and reward it.
Wayne Strickland, a keynote speaker and consultant in Kansas City, Missouri, says that agile companies are constantly experimenting with how to make their companies more successful. But in order to do that, you have to be okay with failing.
“The companies that are nimble test fast, fail quickly, agree on why they failed and move on to the next idea," Strickland says.
“These companies have multiple ideas being tested at one time and are not emotionally attached to any of them," he adds. “They are objective and use quantifiable metrics for success. And they do not get bogged down with internal politics."
But many companies don't have that type of culture, according to Strickland. Some ways you can get that type of culture is by not punishing or shaming risk takers, he says. It's also important to use failures as teaching moments.
The best companies, he says, “explain what they were trying to do, what happened, why it failed and what they are going to do next."
Strickland also thinks it's a good idea to share profits with the employees when they come up with brilliant ideas that make the company more money.
“That encourages more risk taking," he says.
3. Be willing to change directions, even radically.
Being an agile company is all about being able to change quickly. That sounds great and logical—until you actually have to do it.
Tim Brown is the owner of the Hook Agency, a digital agency that specializes in web design and SEO based in Minneapolis. Brown feels that most companies have trouble being more flexible because business owners have an “addiction to existing streams of revenue" even when “those streams are drying up."
We all like money, which is why the thought of stopping a proven way of earning revenue to try something new can be very unsettling. (Even if you believe it'll bring in far more steady income!)
“The memory of that stream, and the discomfort of moving and risking pivoting to an area they've never received income before, is terrifying," Brown says. “Pivoting requires guts."
And some flexibility on your company's part.
What might help your business be a more agile company is to view your financial situation with cold, pragmatic realism. Brown says business owners need to ask themselves questions like:
- “Where is the customers' need now?"
- “How can we cannibalize on existing revenue streams that are slowing, but not totally dried up yet?" and
- “What competition is coming, and how could we add value to our offering to make it unappealing to even consider the alternative?"
If this means throwing out an entire playbook on how you've been running your business, well, as Brown says, that takes nerve. But that may be what your business needs to do, not just to remain agile, but to stay alive.
An agile company tends to stick around. And that's what you want: People talking about your future, instead of wistfully looking back at your company's place in history.
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