How organisations transform to agility

04 Jan 2023

Much has been researched and written about organisational agility but what if you’re an organisation just starting out on your agile journey — how do you go about it?  

Organisational agility includes many interrelated factors including: the capacity of the organisation for learning and continuous improvement; the strategic, operational, and structural alignment of the organisation; and organisational culture and leadership. 

So with so many elements to consider, what should you focus on?  

Well, the first thing to remember is that every organisation is unique, so there is no one-size-fits-all model to follow.  

Transforming to organisational agility is complex, involving changes to strategy, structure, culture, operations and technology – changes which require time, effort and perseverance. 

In this blog, based on the latest research paper from the Agile Research Network (ARN), we will look at three case studies of diverse, well-established and publicly recognised organisations transforming to agility. These studies aim to provide insights into the complex and variable nature of organisation-wide transformations.  

Each organisation employed 500 staff or more at the time. They were all distinct from one another because each had different goals, different types of customer, different governance and management structures and different types of operational units. 

Each organisation chose a different focus for their transformation: culture change, strategic change, or operational change. 

The first organisation, a local council, wanted to achieve financial stability and focused on culture. The second, a university, whose goal was to improve student experience, focused on operational change, and the third, a charity that wanted to support its customers more effectively, chose to focus on strategy

All three cases had something in common — they were facing an existential threat and needed to be able to react more flexibly to major changes in the external environment.  

Each of the organisations had already undergone structural changes, formally reviewed their culture and their strategy, and considered several forms of organisational agility. None used a specific framework to transform but instead developed their own path to agility using inspiration from different sources. 

Case Study 1: Council – focused on culture change 

Employees: 500 

A large district council in the UK providing services to a growing population.  

Faced with the threat of reduced central government grants but needing to maintain and improve services for customers, the council began a transformation process carried out in stages. Senior leaders organised a range of initiatives: commercially minded, community focused, customer innovation, and financially fit. 

In 2008, a change programme was introduced and in 2010, they adopted Cloud IT. From 2011, the need for change increased with the threat of the total removal of the government grant by 2020. 

In 2012, a new business model was deployed to explore opportunities in the marketplace; an ideas hub for the change process was created in 2013; and in 2014, the vision for moving into an income-generating entrepreneurial culture took shape.  

In 2015, a new website was developed to meet customers’ desires and needs, along with various projects to digitalise services.  

In 2016, the council began a further 22-month period of transformation entailing an organisational restructure and a change to the organisation’s culture.  

It was decided that all council staff would need to exhibit five commercially-minded behaviours: customer focus and insight, delivering results, maximising personal potential, building effective relationships and innovating and adapting to change.  

To achieve this goal, most existing staff (excluding the CEO and two directors) went through a behavioural assessment exercise which involved re-applying for jobs at the council – either their own or other roles, at whatever level they chose. Most employees then either returned to their original roles or entered new roles, with some being promoted. 

During this restructuring, about 70 people left the organisation and there were 100 new recruits.  

As part of the organisational transformation, the council also imposed savings targets — they reviewed all services, introducing new chargeable ones and beginning to charge for some non-essential services. 

Case Study 2: University – operational change 

Employees: 9000 

A large university in the UK. The organisation offers undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes. Courses are delivered using interactive online and physical materials. Course production involves the coordination of multiple organisational units and stakeholders.  

Decreasing student numbers, less funding for higher education and increasing competition prompted an organisational transformation at this university in 2016. 

A better quality product was needed, along with better services for prospective and current students (customers) in a faster timeframe, while reducing costs.  

The transformation involved both a new strategy and various change programmes. 

The goal of the transformation was to enhance the responsiveness of the organisation by improving interactions with, and support for, students and to improve the agility of the organisational workforce by rationalising corporate procedures, governance and organisational processes. 

The curriculum needed to be more market-driven and more streamlined to meet student requirements.  

Cost reduction was necessary and it was decided this could be done by reducing non-student support operations and infrastructure.  

Digital innovation was also required, in order to make information technology and information systems more student-friendly. 

An organisation culture analysis was carried out in 2016 by an independent body. The analysis showed strengths and weaknesses in the culture and proposed 11 transformations needed to make the organisation more adaptive. This led to the development of a culture change plan. One significant change that could simultaneously satisfy a number of the new strategic goals was to move to a more agile way of producing courses. 

In 2017-2018, the organisation decided to investigate agile method practices common in software engineering to find out which of these would be most appropriate to support course development, so they set up discovery teams involving volunteers: curriculum production managers and teams of academic and non-academic staff. During ‘agile discovery sprints’, the volunteers were encouraged to explore and critique a variety of agile practices and decide which would be appropriate for increasing agility in production.  

Two agile change agents organised, facilitated, and coordinated the agile discovery sprints. The change agents were experts in curriculum design and production and had a good understanding of existing processes as well as organisational structures and constraints.  

Other initiatives to improve understanding of agility included senior project managers participating in discussion groups to develop their understanding of alternative project management frameworks, and joint teams, drawn from different faculties and production units, investigating new processes, learning technologies, and methods for collaborative authoring. 

Case Study 3: Charity – strategy change 

Employees: 2000 

A long-established charity supporting people in the UK with a particular disability (the customers). Offers services to support customers in factories, care homes and specialist homes. Provides counselling, develops new technology, provides resource centres and sells products.  

A small group of change managers wanted to transform the organisation, so drafted a strategy to achieve agility and then embedded this new strategy within the organisation. Its overarching aim was to support customers to participate in the world as equals with everyone else. The organisation wanted to transform individuals, communities, and society.  

The new strategy, business plan, and budget included a vision statement, values and priorities with goals. The four priorities were to empower customers, mobilise the community, change society, and create an organisation that was fit for purpose, with ‘the infrastructure to support a customer-centred, knowledge-based and agile organisation and foster a culture of accountability and empowerment’.  

Goals were large-scale, long-term and, most importantly, tangible. Prioritisation was a key feature, to ensure the most important problems were addressed rather than all problems. The new agile strategy consisted of a 150-year vision with significant goals and a 3-year rolling business plan, with a 3-month rolling cycle of refinements to the plans. 

Workshops and courses were organised to help staff achieve the strategic priorities. This training was part of performance management and included leadership and management training in how to achieve great customer service.  

New recruitment processes and a performance management system were changed to embed the new ‘agile strategy framework’. A change in recruitment was another initiative used to influence a culture change. 

In our next blog, we will look at how these organisations dealt with the challenges and tensions posed during their transformations to agility. 

In the meantime, why not find out more about your organisation's agile culture by taking our free Pulse survey.