In the first two parts of this essay, we talked about the undeniable impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the immediate future of business. There’s already an air about business conversations that betray an urgency towards change. Together, we seem to be feeling our way along the walls in the dark.
We’re shaking off a disturbing dream, just hoping to find the bedroom door. And then hoping there’s going to be light on the other side of that door. There’s a mild panic just beneath every conversation. As we lean into our laptops, straining to hear the AM transmissions of our clients and colleagues over video chat, we seem to be collectively wondering, “Is it too late?”
Is it too late to save the economy? Is it too late to find new customers? Is it too late to make good on our promise to change our businesses?
The answer is, for some, it might be. The calls to change corporate culture and to deliver digital goods and services have been graffitied across the lobby of every corporate headquarters for the past half decade. We knew the stakes and we knew the cost. And instead of doubling down, many companies took an incremental approach. For some companies, that approach may prove fatal. For many others, it will not.
For every company, though, it’s a moment of reckoning. It’s a time to reassess the process and the speed at which we are delivering new capabilities. The way teams are built inside the enterprise varies widely. Some teams with strong leaders are eminently capable, only held back by the bureaucratic edifice that hangs over every big company. These internal teams work well with their external partners because they know their value, their role, and above all, their business. They have their own brand inside their company that speaks to quality and productivity. They’re doers. They deliver. They make things that people use and find valuable.
Other teams have no such identity. They’re made up of repurposed skills. They’re not doers, they’re meet-ers. They spend time in conference rooms with sticky notes and flip charts, advising doers on how to make things. The cash value of their work product is the commentary they deliver on the things that other people make. They work inefficiently with external partners because they haven’t developed a craft. They attempt to overlap, get in the way, then hide in the brush. Participation without the expectant delivery.
And every type of team unites under the agile hegemony. Agile inside the enterprise is the great equalizer of all types of teams and individual contributors. It pairs high performers with low performers and normalizes their value. That’s the agile product. Mediocrity. Agile removes the concept of “done” and in doing so lowers the expectation for what needs to get done. While there’s wisdom in continual evolution, there’s nothing but folly in delivering sub-par products with the perception of speed. Agile only benefits the enterprise if the agile team is quickly delivering world class products and services. It’s just that simple. And this is almost never the case.
As flawed as agile delivery models are in practice, they’re nearly universal. Almost all technology is currently delivered in some form of agile system. Agile is softly regarded as a miracle cure for corporate inertia. So rather than focus on getting rid of it, we need to figure out how to execute within it. How do we create urgency and maintain quality within a system that’s hyper-focused on mere participation?
Build better teams, of course. And do it urgently. The internal doers need to be paired with external doers who will hold each other accountable. Send everyone else for retraining. External teams provide cost flexibility and risk protection that’s badly needed. They provide specialized skills that may not make sense to build even if there were time to build them. Which there’s not. We need to deliver tangible value right now. We need to make things that customers will use and find valuable. High-performing hybrid teams are the foundation of a working agile model.
These teams need to promise big things and then deliver them. Not incrementally over the course of years, but starting today. In the pre-pandemic euphoria of record-breaking markets and overseas cash-stashing, businesses could ease into their transformation. They could blend into an environment where almost everyone was winning even if they were winning less. Today, they can’t wait. As I said in Part 1, it’s a change-now-or-get-left-behind environment. High-performing agile teams who promise big things and are held accountable for delivering them will drive that change.
The reckoning amidst this chaos is a second chance. It’s an opportunity to slim down and streamline business. It’s an opportunity to run lean. And in running lean, build new capabilities into the core of your business. We now know that it’s not enough to launch a website or retire print collateral. We need digital to drive the operation, the products, and the entire customer relationship. Quickly delivering world class digital capabilities will require new teams with less waste. Dedicated doers that prioritize both speed and quality. Teams that practice agile except with accountability.
These are the new realities. They’re unavoidable. It’s time to embrace the opportunity. It’s not too late.