Few business owners want to think of their business as a rigid, stodgy creation that can't handle surprises or keep up with changing times. But just because you like to think of your company as nimble, that doesn't mean your business actually has an agile business strategy. It could be that your company really hasn't been tested yet.
How can you be sure that you actually have an agile business strategy? Or, if you don't have one, how can you create a strategy that keeps your business humming no matter what unpleasant shocks are ahead?
You'd probably do well to keep the following things in mind.
1. Outsourcing could foil your agile business strategy.
You could make a lot of arguments that a company that outsources is able to be more limber and light-footed. For instance, if you have a third party doing your payroll and human resources, that may free up time for you and your team to do far more to generate more revenue.
But you can take things too far—or you may end up outsourcing the wrong things. That's what happened to Peter Yang, co-founder of ResumeGo, a CV and resume writing service headquartered in New York City.
—Jason Treu, executive coach
“A couple years ago, a customer requested a custom order that did not fit any of the options available on our website's checkout page," he says. "At the time, our website was being managed externally by a tech firm outside our own company, and because of this, we were unable to create a custom order that met the demands of the customer. As a result, the customer went with somebody else."
Not wanting to lose a customer the same way twice, Yang decided to create a new website that's managed by his business.
“This allowed for more flexibility and gave us full control over any changes we'd like to make," he says.
And while outsourcing may be helpful for some businesses, Yang says that for him the lesson was clear—outsourcing can hurt an agile business strategy.
“This experience taught us the importance of being able to control every aspect of our business and to keep things in-house whenever possible," he says.
2. Plan for indispensable people to leave.
Many employees actively try to become indispensable, and that's mostly a good thing. It isn't as if you want a bunch of slackers working for you.
Yet if you do have staff members who you truly consider irreplaceable, that may be a problem for you someday.
“Six months ago, I got knocked out of complacency and had to make big changes quickly when one of my team members [who knew the company as well as I did] suddenly left," says Monika Jansen, CEO of Jansen Communications, a copywriting and social media marketing firm in Washington, D.C.
“Once I got over the shock, I had to figure out a way to seamlessly transition all of her clients and projects to other people on my team," Jansen says.
"That doesn't sound too bad," she continues, "until I tell you that I didn't have a project management system in place. Login credentials, timelines, deadlines, process and workflow were all in [the employee's] head and in random emails scattered all over the place."
Similar to Yang, Jansen pledged that a similar occurrence wouldn't happen to her company again. In her case, she ended up using software that has helped keep all of the company's relevant information in “one central depository that anyone can access."
And it paid off.
“When one of my team members went on maternity leave earlier this year, boom—transition. Another copywriter is getting ready to leave and start ghostwriting books," says Jansen.
But she no longer fears those inevitable days when important employees leave her company.
Speaking of which. If you really want an agile business strategy, consider making sure you…
3. Stay on top of the latest technology.
If you don't, your competitors will. And who knows how much faster or efficient it may make them?
Often, “companies refuse to adapt and become flexible by utilizing new technology because they often view it as a fad that will come to pass and believe that since the previous methods were successful, they would continue to be," says Jesse Harrison, CEO of California Employee Rights Legal Group, a labor law and employment law firm in Los Angeles.
Harrison says that he learned how important it is to stay current with technology early in his career. He worked at a law firm “that was as traditional and old-school as could be."
"Every case they had ever handled was kept on site in filing cabinets, and finding cases that had been handled was nightmarish," Harrison continues. "They did not upgrade when the technological boom hit, and instead of moving everything to digital form, they stayed on paper and on landlines."
Harrison left to start his own law firm, and the old firm he worked at has since dissolved.
“When I founded my law firm, I made it a point to commit to staying on top of technological developments that could help me and make my firm more efficient," he says.
4. Allow your employees to think for themselves.
An agile company is run by agile thinking, according to Jason Treu, an executive coach in Dallas.
Do you make all of the decisions? Do your employees check with you before doing, well, anything?
That doesn't fly in agile companies.
“Companies are nimble if they empower their employees to thrive," Treu says. “They make it safe for them to suggest ideas, allow them to step up and to raise controversial ideas."
If you don't do that, well, according to Treu, it may be harder for your company to develop an agile business strategy. An agile company that reacts quickly and decisively needs employees who aren't afraid that they'll be eviscerated for taking swift action.
Treu has numerous anecdotes of clients he has worked with in companies that foster a culture of fear. When that happens, he says, "People are afraid to speak up. They know one bad idea could hurt their career aspirations, label them 'not smart' and get them publicly ridiculed.
"They also know if they have three good ideas and one that doesn't work out, the one idea will hurt them more than three good ones," he continues. "So they are incentivized to say nothing and also to agree with their [higher-ups]. The risk is too high to be creative or innovative."
He offers up another example.
"I had another client that was always walking on egg shells with their C-level boss," Treu says. "Her boss was very emotional, and his moods would swing daily. She would have to plan on how to approach him with requests like vacation time, going to a conference and small purchase orders. If he wasn't in a good mood, she would have to delay having the discussion."
This meant the business was frequently moving slower than it needed to be—hardly a blueprint for making a company run efficiently.
Having an agile business strategy written down and mapped out goes beyond following what you've written. It means empowering your team to make agile choices, too. An agile business strategy isn't much use if the people running the company aren't agile themselves.
Really, an agile strategy isn't so much a strategy as it is a series of good, empowering and smart behaviors and habits that allow a company—and its people—to react decisively and swiftly.
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