When it comes to being agile, is there ever a place for function-specific agility or is business agility all we need?

16 Nov 2022

This blog is based on an event for the Agile Business Consortium Professionals community led by Agile Sherpas’ Andrea Fryrear and Ross Libby. 

For an organisation to be truly agile, every department and every individual needs to buy in to the agile way of working, so there is surely little point in agility specific to a particular function. 

In fact it could even prove harmful to the overall agility of a business. 

As Ross Libby notes: “I’ve seen the detriment when something becomes too siloed. For example, you can’t have only the IT department doing agile. People don’t understand the value chain. You’re only as agile as your least agile part.” 

The value chain of course can only be understood if individual functions know how their work fits into the whole, how it is contributing to the overall need of the customer. 

So what are the reasons for some functions adopting an agile way of working and others not? 

“Some parts of an organisation— related to how they are and how they need to protect the business, don’t necessarily seem to blend well with an agile way of working”, says Ross.  

For instance, legal and procurement departments may not naturally fit well into an agile cadence.   

There is also a belief prevalent within certain functions that agile is not for them. Where this happens, they may still make a token effort to ‘do’, or be seen to be doing agile things, but they will not be agile, as they haven’t bought into the philosophy. 

As Andrea Fryrear notes: “Even if the top level says agile is the way, if not everybody is going beyond lip service, you will get an empire-building mentality – creative teams for example may say: ‘Agile is not helpful to me’. 

“That’s why you need that really solid consistency. We have to go way high up on the organisational chart in terms of buy-in and modelling behaviours. A leader who can put something in place and start to see results but then it doesn’t go further up the chain – this can contribute to early fragmentation.” 

Fragmentation certainly sounds unhelpful but is it always? 

Not necessarily, according to Andrea. “I think now there’s a lot of value in getting down to the specifics, fragmenting a little. Some areas need more specific functional language and then we can all come back together later.” 

Ross agrees. He would, he says, pick overall business agility over functional agility if forced to choose but admits: “The caveat for me is the shared services forum – there is great value in having focus on distinct services. 

“It’s usually about meeting organisations where they’re at. You need to start with a particular function, for example marketing, or even a piece of the marketing department. So let’s start there. To increase value, you need to start small.” 

Indeed, because if people are able to see the relevance of agile to them and see that it helps their function produce better results, in return you will get some buy-in and those people will start making connections throughout the organisation.  

Value-chain maps can also help with this by illustrating the flow of work across the organisation—showing where it gets going and where it gets blocked. 

For this to be successful however, it is vital that the leaders at the top help make this function-specificity work and make sure it doesn’t interrupt the reward set-up within the organisation, by praising individuals instead of teams. 

We can conclude then that business agility is always the end goal, but in order to have purpose and relevance for everyone, it needs to touch the functions too. An either/or approach is most likely not the answer, hardly surprising when the fundamentals of agility are connectivity and collaboration. 

Andrea agrees: “Agile is often delegated to a functional area so people can make it happen within their part of the business. You need an overarching goal but functions are important too.” 

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