In a dynamic consumer environment, food companies often talk about the need to be more agile. But how can they get there? Luciana Nuñez of executive coaching firm The Preston Associates explores.

By now you have probably heard or read a lot about agile organisations: from management consultants’ white papers to your bank’s newsletter, everyone seems to be jumping on the bandwagon.

There are often two camps when it comes to walking the talk: those that embrace agility fully and embark on a deep redesign of their organisation and those that are sit on the sidelines to see where it goes, assuming it will be one of those business trends that will fade away. 

There is a third model emerging – and especially in food companies within their innovation projects – where organisations are experimenting with agile principles at a small scale, perhaps concerned it will disrupt their larger ecosystem.

However, leaders across industries including food and the broader CPG sector are in the process of trying to embed organisational agility into their business. 

Through their learnings on the journey to become more agile, we have captured ten fundamental characteristics of all agile organisations:

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– A compelling ‘north star’ for the purpose of your business that guides key decisions
– A true customer-centric approach that includes business model design around their needs
– Company leaders that are role models of listening; asking inquisitive, insightful questions
– A high acceptance level of failure and a more aggressive risk-taking approach
– Building a lean organisation with empowered, autonomous teams
– A fast and simple decision-making process and criteria
– A high level of comfort with uncertainty and change
– Daily workflows enabled by technology geared for collaboration (e.g. Slack, Asana)
– Collaboration and co-creation as second nature

– A culture of constructive dissent, where different opinions are encouraged and listened to

What does it take to get there?

A lot of guidance and research exists already from consulting firms like McKinsey, Deloitte and Accenture, on how to design organisations and ways of working to live by these ten agile principles.

They all agree coaching is the cornerstone to equip an organisation to be truly agile. Think of it as organisation design being the hardware and coaching for leaders to be agile being the software. There is no point in upgrading the hardware unless you install the right software.

But how can leaders be coached to think and act in a more agile fashion? There are five ways this can be encouraged among your leadership team.

1. Have courageous conversations: an agile organization is one with a culture that goes beyond open and honest feedback. Courageous conversations are those where people go beyond actions and tasks. They are equipped to talk about what they are thinking, the values that shape their beliefs, how this makes them feel – and therefore why they have or will act in a certain way. This allows for connections at a deeper level, operating with high trust which ultimately drives the speed and agility required.

2. Really listen: from a place that we call C.A.L.M. –  a curious, active, listening mode. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. By incorporating specific coaching tools such as questioning to allow the other to clarify true meaning, a good coach can help leaders build better habits to become natural active listeners. 

3. Create a shared definition of victory: agile leaders can engage the hearts and minds of their teams by applying an ’emotional leadership framework’ to their discussions. The framework enables them to clearly define and articulate what success looks like for a project and how it will be measured. It helps them set expectations for the behaviors and mindset needed to achieve the ambition, provide context and clarity for priorities, and ultimately gain consensus and commitment to the shared benefits for the team and each member. Once these elements are established, true autonomy and empowerment are possible.

4. Set out a manifesto for a high-performing team: a very clear set of principles (almost like a DIY contract) on how a team defines and achieves collective success; agrees shared values / attitudes / behaviours; enables diversity of thinking and opinion; gives and gets trust & accountability; and how it operates from positive intent.

5. Form partnerships: agile leaders understand that asking the right questions is more powerful than giving the answer. And that asking for help to think things through together is more intelligent than trying to crack the code on your own. Consider this: when was the last time someone asked for your help to solve a challenge? What came out of it? And how did that make you feel? The more you do it, the better you’ll get at this. Furthermore, the more diverse your network of ‘thinking partners’, the faster you will elevate the quality of the solutions you create together.

In a nutshell

Agility might sound like a buzzword but the value of – and need for it – are clear, even if different organisations have a different approach to embracing its core principles. Since data shows that Agile businesses can develop products five times faster and make decisions three times faster, the imperative for change is here.

Initiatives focusing on how your organisation is designed, which you can think of as “hardware upgrades”, are important to embed agility at all levels of your business. But we know they are complex endeavours; not every company is prepared to undergo such profound change in the way their leaders manage.

If your organisation is not yet ready for a “hardware upgrade”, a lean, pragmatic way to start an Agile transformation journey from the ground up is to focus first on upgrading your “software”, by developing your leaders’ own agility through the use of coaching.

Using coaching as the first pillar of a broader transformation process can yield additional benefits. It will also have a positive impact on the culture and performance of your existing business and create stronger foundations for future agile growth.