First Steps to Organisational Agility

CEOs and Boards that need to see faster results can ignite agility by promoting four practices

Digital advances have changed the way customers learn, interact and buy. Yet, despite significant efforts to respond to digital disruption, large legacy companies have watched nimble start-ups better meet evolving customer expectations and capture share.

Large companies have inched into the digital game with efforts that include design thinking, lean start-up and agile projects; and large-scale transformation programs. Designed to drive nimbleness to the core of legacy corporations to make them “21st century responsive”, these programs tackle operations, capabilities, management practices and structures – and drive a digital and IT evolution.

CEOs don’t have to just wait impatiently for the promised outcomes to be realised on these oft-lengthy programs. Instead, they can take the first steps to role-model the change they want to see by mirroring how agile works: get started, try it out, review, learn and adapt.

The following four key practices are proven first steps:

1.    Customer Obsession

More than surveys and focus groups, customer obsession involves deeply understanding customer needs and behaviours i.e. empathising with them. To increase responsiveness – leaders can model the behaviour of personally connecting with customers, rather than relying on having third parties report back on customer needs.

Customer empathy and prototyping commonly feature in contemporary product development practices and CEOs can support this through consistent messaging of how customers and customer value must be at the centre of all activities.


  • Gain First Hand Knowledge: At a telco, senior leadership forums invite customers to directly share how they feel about the services and products. Senior leaders are also encouraged to regularly attend client service calls and to make client phone calls.
  • Prioritise time with your Customers: Several professional services firms have introduced ‘customer-only time” – typically 9am to 4pm. This has liberated teams’ schedules, replacing low priority internal meetings with direct customer time.

2.   Flexible and Responsive Communication

Now is the time to start tackling the default communication channel: e-mail. For all its convenience, email has produced a lazy way of communicating and work practice that can set a poor tone and inhibit collaboration.

Rather than saving time, evidence suggests that writing and reading emails – and the inevitable email ‘ping-pongs’ – soak up more time and prolongs decision-making.

Agile organisations encourage judicious multi-channel communication. They promote crisp clear communication that favours direct conversation (in person or phone) over electronic means and encourage other channels for ‘mass chats’.

Leaders can immediately make a positive shift by setting clear expectations – including expected response times, and offer best practice guidelines such as emails that are smartphone readable and understood quickly e.g. context understood within ~5 seconds and with the ‘asks’ understood within ~10 seconds.


  • Role-model new ways of working: To improve decision-making, one large corporation set ‘standards of behaviour’, including maximum 24 hours response time to emails and voicemails. Because the leadership team led this standard, the improvement was visible overnight.
  • Get Social: Within days of a CEO launching his own Yammer group, he sparked a new dialogue with his people. Soon, his leadership team followed with more timely communication across functions than could be possible via email.
  • Deliver consistent communication and listen to feedback: Within weeks of a leader starting a ‘stand-up’ meeting (a common agile practice), she further attracted teams from other work groups because they wanted to hear the fresh news. Quick collaboration by the leadership team resulted in joint ‘stand-up’ meetings.    NB. This is a great example of agile-at-work. The team would have struggled to start with a joint meeting as they would have been weighed down by setting agendas, agreeing speakers, and so forth. However, because the solution evolved through iteration and employee feedback, the meeting evolved to meet the needs of the functions and the teams. 

3.   Clear Governance and Faster Decision-Making

Governance conjures images of sloth-like bureaucracies where slow changing, vague instructions and indecision create waste. Good governance does not have to mean slow.

Agile organisations have a crystal-clear governance model that drives a common understanding and purpose of the work. Micro-management and perfectionism are anathema to being agile, so leaders must learn to devolve decision-making as far down into the teams as possible and demonstrate that they back the team by upholding team decisions.

Notwithstanding this being the biggest threat to the traditional notions of power and influence, getting started means devolving.


  • Block perfectionism practices: One transformation team put together a ‘good enough’ decision-making guideline. The idea of getting it perfect was dismissed so they could move forward with the work if an outcome was ‘good enough’.
  • Build iterative decision-making: A large miner has adopted a “conditional decision-making” framework, which asks key stakeholders to answer the question: “Under what condition would you agree to this idea?” Stakeholders set their conditions transparently, and provided the conditions are reasonable, teams proceed to do just enough prototyping and analysis to keep the work moving forward.

4.   Cross-Functional Collaboration and Prioritised Focus

Contemporary agile practices show that multi-functional teams that collaborate produce better, faster and more sustainable outcomes.

Collaboration involves people working as a close team to bring their collective expertise to deliver better quality products/services to market faster. Unlike traditional structures of functional silos, being agile can bring a new challenge to people because it requires team members (e.g. sales, delivery, service, finance) to work outside their area of core expertise – hand in glove with other specialists.

Agile teams succeed when leaders insist on and support such teaming.


  • Drive a customer view of the work:  A tech company knows that great collaboration between sales and delivery functions team works. Customers value the collaboration because they can see how the product and services will be delivered as promised.
  • Build Responsive Teams: Ironically, crisis situations result in the best collaboration (e.g. at emergency services, power companies and telcos during natural disasters). Outstanding outcomes are typically produced in short periods because cross-functional teams, with devolved decision-making power, take over. But, companies don’t have to wait for a crisis – leadership can build this capability today.

In Conclusion

Converging traditional know-how with agile ways of working can be disruptive to your people, so it is important to keep engaging with your people around your shared objectives to increase customer value, and employee engagement and productivity.

Evolving a 100 year bank or telco to be Google-like was never going to be simple, but the initial steps are straightforward. CEOs can ignite the agility by taking these first steps.

Mithran Doraisamy and Amy Poynton are strategy, performance improvement and transformation specialists.

As consulting Partners at EY in Australia, they led the Customer & Transformation and People & Organisation practices respectively.

Mithran is a Senior Partner, Consulting, at Korn Ferry and  Amy lead Jaen Corp, a family enterprise, with a focus on governance and executive leadership & coaching.