What a learning mindset has to do with Business agility

by Gert van der Walt

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Do companies realise what it means to make agility part of their strategy? Easy to decide to “be agile” but harder to implement. One has to recognise what it means and what is involved to create a culture of agility. One fundamental requirement is to adopt a learning mindset, which will be a challenge for most companies.

“Agility” is a concept that is increasingly being adopted by businesses and is being included as part of their strategy. Mike Norris, CEO of Computacenter, recently shared in the company's annual group kickoff event that the purpose of the company is to be the trusted, agile and innovative provider of technology. Definitely a good purpose statement but the challenge is in how to achieve this purpose. This is what Business Agility is all about.

According to Forbes, Business Agility is about how business leaders respond and adapt to changes in the market. Not responding appropriately to the changing market can be catastrophic to the future of the company. We read in Simon Sinek’s book, The Infinite Game, of a company that was challenged with a major change in the market. Victorinox, the well known Swiss army knife manufacturer, had to suddenly adapt after 9/11 to be able to survive and tell the tale.

The story starts in 2001, when airline security restrictions increased after the 9/11 World trade center disaster. Travelers could no longer carry knives as souvenirs on the planes. Victorinox was in trouble. Their best-selling product, the Swiss Army Knife, accounted for 80% of their sales. Sales dropped by 30%.

Overnight their product became virtually irrelevant. How they responded to this disruption has been documented as a case study by the Financial Times. What would your company leaders do in this situation? Would they consider mass staff lay-offs as a way to reduce the cost of operations? That is not what Karl Elsener, the founder of Victorinox, did. His purpose was to provide jobs for the local community and he had to stay true to that.

They firstly stopped new hires, stopped overtime and reduced shift times of employees. They encouraged staff to take leave and assisted certain employees to find work elsewhere. These actions made Victorinox stay true to their core values and purpose, and to retain staff loyalty and trust. Together as a team the company explored new products in the market which included travel gear, watches and fragrances. This turned out to be a huge success.

It sounds simple and logical to adapt to changing situations, but in reality many companies are not nimble and flexible enough to respond quickly. To be agile, companies need to be able to face and embrace change. To achieve this, leaders and employees need to change their mindset and behaviors. In a nutshell - a change in culture is required.

How does one create an agile culture and what is it really? Simon Hayward in the "The Agile Leader" writes about how one of the critical aspects is to create a culture that is eager to learn. It implies that training is required, however learning starts with being open to feedback. Feedback will provide you with accurate data to understand, accept and act to improve the matter.

It is not theoretical.

It is not generic.

It is relevant information to use for continuous improvement.  

As leaders, start by embracing change. Adopt a learning mindset and don’t fear to experiment. Don’t fear failure. Don’t panic, have courage and experiment further. Identify opportunities for feedback from employees on where the company can improve. Be cognisant of the importance of trust. In an unsafe distrusting environment you may not obtain the honest feedback you require. Allow employees to give negative feedback without consequences. Allow a safe space for honest feedback.

Victorinox survived because they were firstly true to their cultural values and behaviours. Secondly, their leaders were open to feedback. As a team they collaborated and responded quickly to the disruptions in the market.