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Development 26 February 2021

Can dinosaurs be agile?

By Prof. Josef Langerman, Transformation Specialist, Standard Bank Group

The very short answer to this question is not really. Dinosaurs, unless you are speaking about Velociraptors or some of the smaller species, tended not to be very agile. Similarly, large, staid organisations move slowly and are often criticised for not being agile. If these large dinosaurs want to compete with smaller, quick moving businesses they must change. If your business behaves and moves like a Tyrannosaurus Rex, it’s time for it to shed some weight and learn the behaviour of the much more agile animal.  Like big cats, who have adapted to their environment and operate and hunt effectively in all conditions, business must adapt in order to compete.

All businesses want and need to be agile. Simply put agility is the ability to adapt to change quickly.  Naturally, this is easier to do in smaller teams and smaller companies which focus on one specific thing at a time.

But in larger organisations agility is more challenging.  We all know the metaphors about large organisations being like giant oil tankers which find it difficult to turn around and that they face extinction if they do not adapt. These organisations have many layers and hierarchies, and this makes coordination difficult.

Changing the inherent nature of an organisation is not easy. What you have to do with the large dinosaur is you have to change its DNA, so that it becomes something different.

There are four things that you can change in a large organisation to make it more agile.

First an organisation must look at reshaping its IT infrastructure. Most development in a large organisation typically gets done by its own IT division. In large organisations there are often legacy issues because of the systems which have been built up over time. Often these systems are monolithic and cumbersome. Legacy issues typically involve old technology, design patterns that are not appropriate for the modern age and generally a lack of modularity.

What large organisations must do is break up these monoliths and allows for smaller teams that can focus on their deliverables which are all part of the bigger construct. If you have a large team working on a large monolith, things are going to slow down. Oversight and communications processes get in the way when a team is that big and breaking up your architecture into small modular pieces will create agility.

The second aspect is an extension of this principal. Businesses must seek to break down silos. One way to do this is by having feature teams or cross functional teams, where you have different subject matter experts working together, in the same team, towards the same goal.

Something else which needs to be addressed to drive agility is engineering – or more specifically reliability engineering. If you can't build your systems to be reliable nobody's going to use them. We are constantly implementing incremental change in this high velocity, high change world, and if your  systems are not robust or reliable, they will just fall over. You will lose customers and all goodwill towards your company will be eroded. If you can’t make changes fast and reliably you cannot be agile. The dinosaur will go extinct.

Finally, you need to create an agile culture. If your culture is, hierarchical, status and power orientated, and heavily reliable on management structures it cannot be agile, because instead of focussing on their work teams will spend more time feeding the system and working through the layers that exist. An agile culture provides psychological safety. This means having a work environment where employees can make mistakes, where they feel safe, and where they are willing to experiment.

As a result, an agile culture has flatter structures and shortens the communications process to get things done. A third point  of a great culture is that there is trust between employees and management so that people can do what they need to do.

All these things serve to drive productivity an innovation – which are the end goals of having a more agile environment.

It might be difficult for a dinosaur to become agile, but it is by no means impossible. For a dinosaur to do this however it has to change its DNA by breaking down monolithic infrastructure and siloes and building in reliability as a cornerstone of engineering processes. An progressive culture underpins all of this.

If your business is a dinosaur it’s time to start considering how you change it. Start by creating an environment where employees are not afraid to experiment.