Fear of Failure is Holding Back Successful Agile Adoption in the UK
Leaders must encourage experimentation for true progress
By Tina Behers, VP Enterprise Agility at Aligned Agility
It’s safe to say, the past few years have ushered in rapid and drastic changes for UK businesses. New work models – advanced by the pandemic – coupled with Brexit, economic downturns, and labour challenges have forced organisations to become more nimble in response to this prolonged state of flux. In fact, in today’s landscape, a company’s ability to swiftly adapt and execute has become a major competitive advantage.
A study by global law firm Howard Kennedy reinforces this fact, revealing that 82 percent of businesses now deem agility to be crucial to their future, up from 66 percent prior to the pandemic. And, according to Linkedin’s 2023 Workplace Learning Report nearly half (43 percent) of UK C-level leaders are prioritising skills development to remain agile and retain talent amidst economic uncertainty, and a third (33 percent) are strategically redeploying employees into areas of growth to weather the current climate.
This translates into a need for more businesses to embrace agile – something I’m sure the authors of the Agile Manifesto for Agile Software Development hoped for when they introduced agile methodology in 2001. Their goal was to unlock the rigid “waterfall” software development then being used. The agile process has since grown beyond software development and is now being applied both across business departments and in enterprise-wide portfolio management. To achieve enterprise or business agility across all aspects of the business, companies are emphasising collaboration, self-organisation, and the ability to manage constant change rather than being locked into rigid constraints.
So what is an agile enterprise? Essentially, agile methodology compels organisations to favour individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working products over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a project plan. An agile enterprise thus becomes a company that can adapt to and overcome changing market conditions quickly. They can do this because they have changed the culture and mindset to operate in new, more adaptive ways.
And we’re not just talking about software or product development – the journey to becoming an agile enterprise is a lot more holistic than that. To thrive, agile requires a cultural transformation, not from the typical “top-down” or “bottom-up” but also horizontally, across the entire business, including its people, processes, and technology.
As agile ways of working move beyond the realm of software teams, they can drastically improve not only a company’s resilience but also its productivity. In fact, Microsoft’s “Future of Business Resilience” report found that agile businesses are not only close to 50 percent faster to market, they also see 20 to 30 percent higher productivity, and financial lifts of 20 to 30 percent.
For most businesses, this agility at scale is a considerable shift away from traditional work models, and organisations ready to embrace change must understand it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s okay to experiment as we learn what works best for our culture, our employees, and our customers. And the learning is, in itself, a huge part of agile success.
Embrace the mistakes
There’s still an outdated belief in the business world that employees should be punished when they make mistakes. It’s a leadership style born during the reign of the empirically structured office, when workers were expected to deliver error-free work every day and prove their value by the number of hours they worked.
This philosophy was designed to “motivate” workers. But the reality is that it often achieves the exact opposite, sapping workers’ confidence and creating a fearful, inflexible work environment in which they can no longer thrive.
So why does it still exist? Because outdated notions of productivity still permeate organisations. At The Adaptavist Group, we conducted a work study that found close to 60 percent of employees believe the definition of productivity needs to focus on the quality of work vs. the number of hours logged – a clear indicator that the workplace and management must continue to evolve. Yet many executives still dig in their heels – likely out of fear of failure.
This is a real paradox, because most successful business leaders embrace mistakes as crucial learning opportunities. As Bill Gates says, “It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” When embracing new ways of working, these words carry a critical lesson: To help an organisation grow, people need time to learn and experiment, and to be able to do so without the risk of repercussions.
Learn to experiment with alternate ways of working
In other words, you need to be agile to succeed. One way to do this is by piloting this cultural shift before implementing it across your entire organisation. For example, there’s one company I worked with that embraced this concept by first asking everyone in their business, “Who wants to be part of a pilot?” Then, they conducted interviews and assessments to pick their pilot team or, as they became known, their agile ambassadors.
They gradually extended the program to other teams and projects, and as they did, they continued to learn and share knowledge and best practices. The pilot became like a community where employees could share their problems and collaborate on solutions before communicating their learning to the rest of their company as “one voice.”
This type of agile culture experiment allows you to learn more about the dynamics of the people within your organisation and any cultural issues or mindset challenges that might otherwise be barriers to a successful implementation. Moreover, it’s a great way to gradually bring people along by sharing your successes across your company and getting people on board with the shift.
Get comfortable with being a bit uncomfortable
Of course, this strategy will only work when organisations’ leaders overcome their own fear of failure. Although becoming an agile enterprise requires buy-in from every department and team member, your plans won’t see the light of day if there’s resistance to change at the top. In fact, from what I’ve seen, when a business’s agile efforts fail, it’s usually because of fear of change and a lack of understanding.
Executives must be okay with treating their transition to agile as an educational journey, even though this undeniably complex and fast-changing landscape might tell them to do the opposite. Moreover, they must be willing to embrace greater autonomy within their organisations, even if it means relinquishing control and welcoming mistakes as learning opportunities.
After all, the result is an organisation capable of making critical decisions more swiftly and confidently. This agility is becoming the most significant differentiator among businesses in today’s ever-changing environment.